This was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.
She was born in cash-strapped Russia just before the fall of the Soviet Union with spina bifida, a situation that in Tatyana McFadden’s case left her paralyzed from the waist down in a broken-down institution in Leningrad known as “Orphanage 9.” Without funds for a wheelchair, Tatyana got around walking on her hands.
As fate would have it, her eyes locked with a visitor from America, Deborah McFadden, who in 1995 was visiting in her capacity as Commissioner of Disabilities for the US Health Department. Deborah and her partner decided to adopt Tatyana and brought her to Baltimore, Maryland, where Tatyana got the medical care and the family support she was not fated to receive in her home country.
And thanks to the opportunities and clearly her indomitable drive, Tatyana would go on to become one of the most successful athletes in the world. Over a span of four Paralympics since 2004 in Athens, Tatyana has garnered 16 medals for TeamUSA, including 7 golds, in wheelchair racing. Not only that, she has shown incredible range, winning over the entire spectrum of track distance. At the Rio Paralympics, she took silver in the 100 meter sprint and silver in the 42.2 kilometer marathon, as well as gold medals in between in the 400 meters, 800 meters, 1500 meters and 5000 meters.
Tatyana has enormous capacity not only to train and triumph, but to forgive. She set her sites on returning to her homeland and competing at the Winter Paralympics in Sochi in a completely different sport – Nordic skiing. Part of her motivation to learn a new sport was to see her biological mother, Nina Pilevikova. In front of her adopted and biological mothers, Tatyana incredibly took silver in 1K sprint for those who skied while sitting. Her capacity for triumph was matched by her capacity to empathize, as she related to the BBC in Sochi.
“It is of course hard as a mother. You carry a child for nine months, but if you think about it, knowing you can’t take care of your child, what do you do? Do you selfishly keep it, knowing you can’t have the medical….I needed a lot of medical treatment. And I needed attention quickly. That’s the toughest decision she has to make.”
Said her biological mother, “I am very proud of Tatyana. I am very happy to be here with all our family. I think people look at Tatyana and they have hope.”
Tatyana, like many Paralympians, do not aim to be inspirations. In fact, some often feel patronized by the label. Tatyana had to fend for herself in the orphanage and was brought up by parents who value perseverance in the face of difficulty and self-sufficiency. Her adopted mother, Deborah, understands that as she herself was also confined to a wheelchair for years due to a condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Here’s Tatyana in her own words, highlighted in “The Mighty“, a site devoted to telling the stories of people with disabilities, diseases and mental illness.
People have commented that they are “inspired” by my story. But these compliments, made with the best intentions, can sometimes miss the point. “Inspired” often means they feel sorry for my condition and what I went through in my early life, and feel they should count their own blessings for what they have. But what they are missing is that I am who I am today not in spite of my disabilities, but because of them.
All of us competing in the Olympics and Paralympics have had our own unique challenges, our own strengths and talents that we have nurtured, and our own weaknesses and disabilities that we have overcome. The games in Rio are a test of our ability to push physical and mental limitations, and a testament to humanity’s indomitable spirit to adapt and excel.
The 10,000 meter race is grueling race that grinds for close to 30 minutes, and yet short enough to still feature fantastic sprints to the finish line. The finals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics was no different…but this one has a bit of a stench.
Khalid Skah of Morocco was locked in a two-person duel with Richard Chelimo of Kenya with only three laps to go. Skah and Chelimo were quite familiar with each other. The year previously, Chelimo helped set the pace for fellow Kenyan, Moses Tanui, at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, which allowed Tanui to lengthen his lead against Skah, and eventually win gold. In a race for individuals, that is considered fairplay teamwork.
Back in Barcelona, at the 24-minute mark of the 10,000-meter finals, Chelimo was in the lead with Skah close behind. That’s when they came upon Hammou Boutayeb, the 10,000-meter gold medalist from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Boutayeb was unceremoniously lapped, as Chelimo continued his lead over Skah. “This is one of the most exciting races I ever witnessed,” said one of the broadcasters. “The crowd has stayed behind. It’s 25 to 11 (pm) in the Barcelona, Spain and 60,000 people in the stadium still cheering on these two athletes.”
Suddenly at the 25;10 mark, Boutayeb swung out wide and passed Chelimo, sliding into the innermost lane, placing Chelimo in a Moroccon sandwich. Chelimo at that point is very likely peeved that Boutayeb, a man he lapped, is playing tactics, but the Kenyan decides to push ahead of Boutayeb. Skah followed closely behind. After the announcer said “that was the dirtiest trick we’ve seen all night,” Boutayeb again sprinted out front, playing the pacemaker.
And remarkably, as Chelimo and Skah pass Boutayeb, a Swedish official named Carl-Gustav Tollemar, came out onto the track in an attempt to grab and stop Boutayeb for nought. With one lap to go, Chelimo and Skah finally separated from Boutayeb and the two drove to an incredible back-and-forth sprint in the final 100 meters, ending with the Moroccan taking gold in a dramatic finish. Here’s how the announcers responded:
- A: Listen to the crowd. They don’t like it.
- B: I don’t like it. You don’t like it. The crowd of 60,000 people don’t like it.
- A: They’re booing and whistling and throwing things here at Skah. It’s a bit unfortunate for him but he used Boutayeb for two or three laps and there will probably be a protest from the Kenyan group.
As it turns out, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) quickly disqualified Skah, making Chelimo the gold medal champion. Skah was informed that he was disqualified because he was seen talking with Boutayeb during the race, and was thus colluding with Skah to beat Chelimo. When Skah heard that, he exploded. According to The Complete Book of the Olympics 2012 Edition, Skah “had harsh words for Boutayeb, whom he accused of being an ‘animal, an imbecile’ who didn’t even know how to read or write.” Skah explained that he was actually telling Boutayeb to “go away and stop interfering”.
The next day, the IAAF Jury of Appeal ruled in favor of Skah, stating in the end that they could not prove any illegal assistance provided by Boutayeb to Skah, and that “Chelimo’s progress had not been physically impaired.” While the rulebook was eventually amended to penalize actions like the one Boutayeb took, Chelimo remained the silver medalist.
Boutayeb had nothing to say to the media.
Empty stands are a common photo-op at all Olympic Games, but they were particularly obvious at the Rio Olympics. A debilitating economy and high ticket prices made sure of that.
But the Rio Paralympics, following only a little over two weeks after the Rio Olympics, was under even greater threat due to the economic hardship of Brazil: funds to support the travel of athletes to Brazil from developing economies were delayed, and only 12% of tickets to all Paralympic events were sold. The organizers feared empty venues and death by embarrassment.
According to the Economist, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, borrowed funds from state-run companies to ensure all Paralympians were at the Games as planned, while cutting funds in other areas. He also took down big screens around Rio to encourage Brazilians to attend. To make it easier, organizers slashed the price of tickets, making entry as low as USD3, and made strong appeals to the public to pack the venues and cheer.
It worked. As the Guardian wrote, ticket sales for the Rio Paralympics had topped 2 million at the time of the article on September 10. in fact, that day welcomed attendance of 167,675, which was better than the best day at the Rio Olympics, by about 10,000. At the time of that writing, total attendance was approaching 2.4 million, which would make it the second-most attended Paralympics after the London Paralympics in 2012.
In those jam-packed venues, filled with the enthusiastic and raucous locals cheering on Team Brazil, emerged a star among stars. The day before the end of the Paralympics, a 28-year-old swimmer from Sao Paulo won his fourth gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. Over the span of a 10-year career, Daniel Dias, who was born with malformed arms and legs, has won 24 medals in the Paralympics, including 14 gold medals.
Here’s how the Rio2016.com site put it.
Dias is a national hero, Brazil’s very own Michael Phelps and by the noise generated by the crowd inside the venue you could feel the weight of the nation’s hope on his shoulders. This would be pressure for some, but not Dias. “I try to enjoy everything. I feel it’s positive pressure and a great honour to represent this country with everybody watching on TV. I’m trying to do my best in the pool,” he said.
And how loud were the cheers for hometown hero, Daniel Dias, in his 100-meter freestyle final? Watch the clip below and listen to the roar of the crowd.
Yao Ming was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame on September 9, 2016. Only 8 years in the league, the 7 foot 6 inch center from the People’s Republic of China was one of the most influential players in international basketball, cementing China’s popular hold on basketball. When the 8-time NBA All Star played in his third Olympics at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was one of the tallest athletes in the Olympic Village, and most certainly one of the most popular people in the world.
In a recent article penned by Yao Ming in The Players’ Tribune, he wrote about how the Olympics is so much bigger than one person, even bigger than the biggest person in the Olympics. He wrote about his first Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Games, and how he saw a wide-shot picture of the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies, when all of the nations’ athletes were standing in their national colors. He said he stared at the picture in frustration.
I was somewhere in that photo, way down there, but as hard as I looked I couldn’t find myself. I tried to locate our team. I knew we were somewhere on the track, walking around the stadium. But I couldn’t figure out where we were. I stared and stared at the picture. The more I looked, the more blurry the photo became. I was the tallest person in the stadium but it was like I was lost.
But what he later realized about the Olympics is that no one person, not even the great Yao Ming, is what makes the Olympics great. What makes the Olympics great is an entire country coming together to show the world how welcome, appreciated and respected they are. After his team played hard and well against the vaunted US team in basketball, Yao Ming remembers one of the US players coming up to him to thank him for making them all feel so welcome.
In the moment, I remember feeling that when he said “you” he meant more than just me as an individual. I felt like he was talking — through me — to the entire nation. We’d lost the game, but I felt that we’d earned the respect of our opponent.
Yao Ming finally understood that athletic competition in its greatest form, particularly at the level of the Olympic Games, is about respect, about respecting your opponent enough to do your very best against them and emerge victorious, or to push the other to their limits.
I believe an athlete’s value comes from his opponent. What I mean is, our value will only be its highest when our opponents play their best. That is where respect comes in. It comes not when you fear or dislike your opponent, but when you find the best in yourself.
There is a commercial from that wonderful series called “Celebrate Humanity”, created when the IOC realized it needed to take control of the Olympic brand after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and re-frame the Five Rings in terms of the Olympic values. This film is a reflection of Yao Ming’s values. It is called “Adversary”.
You are my adversary, but you are not my enemy.
For your resistance gives me strength,
Your will gives me courage,
Your spirit ennobles me.
And though I aim to defeat you, should I succeed, I will not humiliate you.
Instead, I will honor you.
For without you, I am a lesser man.
Imagine wearing a pair of your friend’s eyeglasses, you know, the ones that look as thick as the bottom of a coca cola bottle. When you put them on, you can make out shapes and sizes, but you quickly remove them because your new view of the world is just too big a shock to handle.
Now imagine wearing those glasses and racing around a track in one of the most important events in your life.
Paralympians are amazing. And in the 1500 meter track finals at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, an amazing fact blew up the internet. Four runners whose visual acuity allows them to see the world in fuzzy shapes and colors, completed the race in 3 minutes and 49.59 seconds or faster. Yes, that is a faster time than the gold medal time in the 1500 meter track finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In other words, the fourth placed finisher, Paralympian Fouad Baka of Algeria, had a faster time than Olympian Matthew Centrowitz of the US, who completed his run in 3 minutes and 50 seconds. Fouad’s brother, Abdellatif Baka took gold in the 1500 meter Paralympic finals in 3 minutes and 48.29 seconds.
So the world asked, how could the very best, fully sighted Olympians in the 1500 meters get out-timed by runners who have the equivalent of Vaseline smeared over their eyes? This is where the comments section of this Huffington Post article proved interesting and insightful.
Apparently, world-class runners in the 1500 can easily run faster times. In fact, if you look at the heats and semifinals, the winners finished in times of 3 minutes 38 or 39 seconds. Centrowitz finished 5th in his first heat with a time of 3:39:31 seconds, significantly faster than his gold-medal winning performance.
Additionally, according to those who have experience in the 1500 race, we very rarely see a world-class runner run full-blast throughout a competition, particularly in the finals. The 1500 is considered a highly tactical race, where the objective is not to run the fastest time, but to be first at the finish.
OK, that sounds fairly common sensical. But there appears to be a strong perception that running in the trail of one’s rivals, or drafting, reduces the air resistance significantly enough to make a difference, either physically or psychologically for a runner. Thus, tactically, the best runners avoid being the front runner for most of the race, which would slow down the pace relative to the heats. And when they see their opportunity, they sprint to the finish and hope they have more gas in the tank than the others.
Perhaps another way to think about it…. Imagine the Paralympians and Olympians competing in the same race. The Paralympians would set a very fast pace, and the Olympians would draft behind the front runners, who are likely running at full capacity. The Olympians, who can easily keep up, would have far more in the tank to kick into a higher gear, and likely leave the Paralympians behind.
Is that actually the case? Would anyone be willing to test that theory?
Who cares. Let’s go back to the original thought. These Paralympians are amazing!
On September 7, 2016, at the age of 92, Norbert Schemansky died. While Vera Caslavska, the great Czech gymnast, passed away to considerable international press recently, Schemansky left the world with relatively less fanfare.
Schemansky won a gold, a silver and two bronze medals over four Olympiads from 1952 to 1964, an American hero by any standard. But he was a weight lifter, a sport not perceived as popular as gymnastics, as sexy as swimming, or as compelling as the sprints.
In fact, one of America’s greatest weight lifters, along with the likes of Tommy Kono, has lived not only in obscurity, but in relative poverty.
Here’s how Sports Illustrated described the native of Dearborn, Michigan in 1966. “Watched moodily by the one friend who believes in him, Norbert Schemansky works out faithfully in a sleazy underground gym and ponders his years as the world’s greatest weight lifter, an achievement that wins him neither glory nor a job to help support his family.”
According to the same article, Schemansky would commute into Detroit to look for any work: pool lifeguard ($1 an hour), cleaning toilets ($1 an hour), or going on beer sales calls to bars by lifting heavy kegs over his head. In 1948 and 1952, when Schemansky actually had steady work, he was given no favor. In fact, instead of being the pride and joy of his company, he was unceremoniously shown the door. Again, here’s Sports Illustrated:
In 1948, while working in a factory owned by a celebrated sportsman, he needed time off to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics in London. He got the time off—without pay—and won a silver medal. In 1952, while working at the same factory, he requested time to compete in the Olympics at Helsinki. The word went upstairs, and the word came down: “Sure, he can have all the time he wants. Fire him.” Schemansky went anyway, and beat the undefeated Russian world champion, Gregori Novak. He came home with a gold medal, caught a bus from the airport to downtown Dearborn and took a streetcar home. Only a porter at the airport greeted him. “Nice going, Mr. Schemansky,” the porter said.
Schemansky, who was more revered internationally, became a barb in the geopolitical spat across the Iron Curtain. Here’s an example from TASS, the Soviet press organ of the period. “The story of Schemansky, who just recently established a new world record in the snatch with 362 pounds, a full kilogram over the Soviet bogatyr, Yuri Vlasov, reflects the attitude toward man in a capitalistic world.”
When Schemansky turned 91 last year, his friends got together and threw him a party in Michigan. As Arthur Chidlovski explained in his blog post of this celebration, “…on the record, the name of Norbert Schemansky appears more often in the history books of the Olympics than the names of such brand name athletes as Gordy Howe or Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, Tom Brady or Tiger Woods. Sports experts and fans definitely appreciate all the dedication and fantastic performance in sports by Norbert Schemansky.”
Here is a compilation of other remembrances of Norbert “Norb” Schemansky.
The Paralympics are a revelation, an everyday reminder that our perceptions about what we can all physically accomplish is likely way below reality. Sometimes these reminders are so brash, they exceed our limited levels of experience and amaze us.
A case in point is Ibrahim Hamadtou of Egypt. When he was 10, he lost his arms in a train accident. Today, the 43-year-old table tennis player has astounded spectators at the Rio Paralympics, as well as new fans on the internet. In table tennis, the general classifications are for those who need to play in a sitting position, and those who can play in a standing position. Hamadtou can stand, but different from a majority of this opponents, he has no hands with which to hold the racquet.
Instead, he holds the ping pong paddle in his mouth, and adjusts his body, neck and head so quickly and gracefully that he can return a majority of the shots that come his way. He qualified for these Paralympics by finishing second in the 2016 African Championships. In his first Paralympics, he played two games, lost them both, and did not medal. But his skill in performing at the level he does without both arms is astounding.
His serve requires the use of his shoeless foot, where he grabs the ball from the floor, flips it up in the air, and sends the ball across the net with the table tennis
raquet gripped tightly between his teeth. There are no coaches that teach this style. There are no YouTube videos he could consult. Although now there are, and they are videos of Hamadtou.
“I want to tell everybody that nothing is impossible, and everybody should work hard for what you love and what you think is good for yourself,” Hamadtou told the Paralympics website before the games began. “The disability is not in arms or legs, the disability is to not persevere in whatever you would like to do.”