Tickets were extremely inexpensive, so we purchased quite a few, four of which were a five dollar ticket to fencing, a five dollar ticket to archery, a twenty dollar ticket to men’s volleyball, and a twenty dollar ticket to platform diving. But our biggest expenditure was a sixty dollar all day pass to track and field.
Like most people, I had certain expectations of what my Olympic experience would be like. I was going to see a lot of famous athletes and watch some incredible performances. What I didn’t realize was that it would be an obscure athlete in a relatively uncelebrated sport who would have the greatest impact on me and leave an impression which would last more than thirty years.
We arrived at the stadium at eight in the morning for what proved to be a beautiful day for track and field. The sun was shining, the high was to be about eighty degrees, and our seats were twelve rows up from the track and right off the final turn. We saw Carl Lewis win the long jump, the first of four gold medals on his way to tying the great Jesse Owens. Then we saw Edmond Moses win the 400m high hurdles. But not until that afternoon did my Olympic experience truly begin.
Around three o’clock, officials cleared the track for the start of the 10,000 meter race walk. Now if you are unfamiliar with this particular event, the rules stipulate that one foot must always be in contact with the ground, and for the advancing leg to come to vertical. These requirements cause the walkers to waddle, like a duck.
Like most long distance athletes, they were kind of scrawny, not very impressive, and they just jumbled themselves up at the starting line. But when that gun sounded I had never seen such hip action in my life. Those guys could flat out move.
They were to make two laps of the track before exiting the stadium for a course through city streets before returning for their final lap. By the end of the first lap, one athlete had fallen way behind the other athletes–the little race walker from El Salvador. By the time he was half way through his final lap, all the other athletes had left. A hush went over the stadium. No one was breathing. When he finally exited the stadium, 70,000 people let out a collective sigh. My friend Val leaned over and said, “If that were me, I would just walk right back to the Olympic Village and call it a day.”
While the racers were out walking, other events were taking place in the stadium, but I couldn’t tell you what they were. I, like everyone else, was wondering what was happening to the little guy from El Salvador.
Finally, the announcement was made that the walkers were returning. All eyes were riveted on the tunnel, waiting and watching. When the first walker came through everyone cheered. He was from Mexico. When he was half way through his final lap, the second place walker entered the stadium, and the applause grew louder. But all eyes kept going back to the tunnel, waiting for that one athlete–the little race walker from El Salvador.
Walker after walker after walker entered the stadium, but not him. Finally, there was a lull. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes went by, but no one entered, yet we knew the race wasn’t over because the announcement declaring the race over hadn’t been made.
Finally, through the tunnel, the light blue shirt of the El Salvadorian race walker could be seen. When he entered the stadium, the place went wild, cheering two, three times louder than they had for the winners. So thankful was everyone that he had finished the race, that he hadn’t died of embarrassment out on the course–that he hadn’t died period.
But when he was half way through his final lap, something unexpected happened that caused the entire place to go silent again …. Another race walker entered.
When the mental fog finally dissipated and the reality of what had happened became clear, the place went absolutely crazy, for not only did the El Salvadorian walker finish the race, but somewhere out on the course he had caught up with and passed a fellow competitor.
Until that day, I thought I knew what courage and the Olympic spirit were, but I didn’t. I now know that courage is knowing that the task you face is insurmountable, but you face it anyway. And the Olympic Spirit? The Olympic Spirit is a little race walker from El Salvador who left the Olympic stadium in last place but came back a winner.