Nigga, why did you lose?

“Nigga, why did you lose?”

The athlete stared in disbelief.

His hulking, dark-skinned frame slumped on the barriers separating the journalists from the media. Muscles bulged from every limb under his USA team kit and sweat dripped from his face, down his neck and over the sinews and protruding veins of his finely-tuned physique.

Did he just say that, read the expression on his face. The sprinter glanced from right to left to scan the reaction on the faces of other media in attendance and confirm what he had just heard.

Maybe he’d misheard. Maybe the physical and emotional exhaustion of an Olympic semi-final had caught up with him. Maybe the disappointment of failing to qualify for a final that he was good enough to win, and the realisation that years and years of training and sacrifice had amounted to nothing, caused him to misinterpret the question from the Chinese journalist.

But no. He had not misunderstood the question. The American (whose name I don’t remember) would leave the Beijing Olympic Games with bad memories, and this would be one of them.

The local reporter hadn’t meant to use the N word. He hadn’t intended to question a black athlete by using the word which has accompanied years of racism, oppression and discrimination throughout the world, especially in the country whose flag sat emblazoned on the athlete’s singlet.

The N word he had used was “NaGe” or “nage”. This Chinese word translates as ‘that one’ into English, and is used to connect sentences or phrases, or to fill a pause in conversation in everyday Chinese communication. It serves the same function as ‘um’ or ‘like’ in English. It is used a million times a day by Chinese speakers and has absolutely no racial or offensive meaning in English, because it has no meaning in English.

Unfortunately, when it is pronounced in connected speech, it sounds exactly like the N word, and that is what the athlete heard from the reporter. It was simply a very unfortunate example of a word being lost in translation.

It's hard to be subtle in a second language.

The second mistake the reporter made was asking a blunt and direct question to a visibly upset Olympian.

The meaning of the question was appropriate, the wording was not. The journalist was tasked with gauging the athlete’s response to his poor performance. The reporter was supposed to find out how and why the athlete performed below his usual standard and thus failed to qualify for the final.

The reporter could have asked:

“Tell us what happened out there”

“You would have expected a better result, can you explain what happened?”

“Obviously that’s not what you hoped for, is there a reason for your performance?”

Maybe the athlete was ill or carrying an undisclosed injury into the race. Maybe he was excessively nervous or had over trained in the days leading up to the event. We might have found out why, but not by using the words the local reporter used.

To be fair to the local journalist, he was not actually a journalist. By his own admission, he also didn’t know much about sport, let alone Athletics, which is the most prominent sport at multi-sport events such as the Olympic Games. The local reporter was a university lecturer, in a subject far removed from sport (Engineering from memory) and had somehow landed the role of mixed zone reporter in the Bird’s Nest.

After the incident, I tried to explain to my colleague how that word is problematic, but a lifelong habit is hard to break in a day, and he was not the most receptive of the local staff.

I couldn’t help thinking, how can a country of more than one billion people not find a handful of reporters who understand sport, understand the media and have a firm grasp of English or other languages?

Other reporters eventually leapt in and steered the interview towards an explanation for the unexpected performance, then the athlete slumped off to the changerooms to commiserate.

What did the athlete say in response to the unfortunate question?

Nothing

Image: Chau Cedric

Sammy Wanjiru and the marathon mystery.

Sammy Wanjiru achieved one of the most remarkable feats in Olympic marathon history, but what followed is a story of mystery and tragedy.

The Kenyan set a new Olympic games record of 2:06.32 when he won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games ahead of Jaouad Gharib of Morocco and Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia.

An Olympic record is a remarkable achievement in any circumstances, but Wanjiru’s is all the more impressive. Beijing was extremely hot and humid on the morning of the race and even the spectators in the main stadium and on the roadside were drenched in sweat. The heat and humidity combined with Beijing’s famous air pollution to make conditions some of the least favourable for a marathon runner. Despite this, Wanjiru attacked from the gun, and ran the first five kilometres in 14:52.

Legend has it that when the newly-crowned champion was asked about how the conditions affected his tactics and performance, he said that because of the heat he wanted to finish the race sooner so he just ran faster.

The comment illustrates something of the Kenyan mentality towards distance running. Ultimately, they believe that the key to success is hard work. The key to success is working harder in training than you do in a race. The key to success is working harder than any of your training partners, or anyone else on the track or the trails around Iten in the Rift Valley. This philosophy works because most of the other athletes running around Iten have enough raw talent to be the best in the world.

Wanjiru’s compatriots and training partners are also motivated by something other than patriotism, the Olympic ideals and the quest for personal excellence. They are motivated by money.

Most rural Kenyans, especially those from the running heartland of the Rift Valley, have very few opportunities to make enough money to live a comfortable life, free of the endless, monotonous physical labour which defines the life of most Iten locals. Running is their chance to make serious money.

It may surprise many people, even keen fans of Athletics, to know that Wanjiru won the first ever Olympic marathon gold medal for his country. Kenyans are famed for their long-distance victories, but have actually had more success in middle-distance events, or on the lucrative international road-running circuit.

Wanjiru and his neighbours grew up seeing successful distance runners making money. Champions bought nice houses for themselves and their families, wore good clothes and drove modern cars. They looked after their families and sent their children to good schools. Wanjiru and his peers grew up desiring this success.

Unfortunately, Wanjiru was one of the successful Kenyan runners who suffered from sudden fame and wealth and died in mysterious circumstances.

Wanjiru died after falling from the balcony of his home in Nyahuru 2011. The great champion, who still holds the world junior record for 10,000m, who won the London and Chicago marathons and set three world records for the half marathon, was dead before his 26th birthday.

The tragedy of a rare talent lost for ever is matched only by the mystery of his death. It was never established if Wanjiru was pushed, fell or jumped from the balcony.

The official police investigation and court proceedings failed to prove conclusively how Wanjiru died.

One theory suggests that his first of three wives, Triza Njeri, found him in bed with another woman and locked the couple in the bedroom. When she apparently ran outside Wanjiru jumped from the balcony, causing his death.

Another theory suggests that Wanjiru was murdered by a group of men working alongside Njeri. Wanjiru’s mother, Hannah told a court that she believes her son was murdered. During this investigation, a former pathologist claimed that the champion jumped from the balcony or was pushed, that he landed on his legs but was then struck by a blunt object.

What is known is that Wanjiru had been drinking at the time of his death. He had battled alcohol addiction throughout most of his short adult life, even while he was winning major international races and breaking records. This surely is testament to his talent and the amazing toughness of a fierce competitor whose finishing time in the stifling heat of Beijing is still the Olympic record.

A look back at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

The world’s best athletes should be competing for the ultimate prize in world sport right now, but will instead have to wait another twelve months to test themselves against sport’s elite at Tokyo2020 (2021).

For fans whose sporting body clocks tell us that we should be glued to the screen, or shouting ourselves hoarse at a stadium, we can attempt to fill that void ever so slightly with a look back at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

National pride

Sport evokes a depth of patriotism matched only by war, and this is on clear display at an Olympiad. For Chinese citizens, their pride overflowed as they hosted their first ever truly international sporting event. Everyday Chinese citizens went out of their way to be helpful to foreigners, regardless of the language barrier. The roar of the crowd, in perfect unison inside the stadiums, was deafening and at times frightening. The hosts wore their patriotism on their sleeves, their faces…

International visitors also proudly displayed their national colours, at the stadiums, on public transport, in the streets, restaurants, bars, hotels…everywhere.

National pride consumes the athletes in ways that only a national representative can understand. Unrivalled emotions are experienced when athletes enter the stadium for the opening ceremony, in national uniform, alongside teammates united behind their national flag. For flag bearers, the honour compares only to the victories which earned them this right.

In Beijing, a funny thing happened during the opening ceremony. Something that caught many international spectators by surprise. Nations entered the stadium in the order of the spelling of their name in Chinese, not in English or French.

One thing didn’t change, though. When the host nation entered the stadium, the crowd erupted.

World class stadia

China delivered some of the world’s most impressive sporting facilities. The Bird’s Nest, which hosted the Athletics and the opening and closing ceremonies, and the Water Cube which hosted the swimming and aquatic events, are some of the best-known sporting facilities in the world.

An army of volunteers

China has one advantage over the rest of the world: An enormous population. They used this population to good effect at the games. The opening and closing ceremony performers were apparently armed forces members, accustomed to following directions and repeating actions again and again until performed with military precision. Day after day they filled the bowels of the Bird’s Nest waiting to rehearse their section of the elaborate ceremony.

The practice paid off. The opening and closing ceremonies were some of the most impressive in history, and a triumph of theatre and spectacle.

But is it sport?

No. And there are many sports purists who believe the theatrics of the opening and closing ceremonies are out of control as each host city tries to outdo its predecessor. They argue that the budget for the ceremonies alone plunge taxpayers into debt and the performances become so grand they threaten to overshadow the true stars of an Olympics, the athletes. The ceremonies in Beijing certainly supported this theory.

What about Tokyo?

What will the ceremonies look like in Tokyo? Assuming the games go ahead at some point in the future, can the government of Japan justify elaborate and expensive ceremonies after Japan has suffered the economic crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Mystery and secrecy

The Chinese government and the organising committee went to great lengths to guard a state secret during the 2008 Olympics. Not its actions in Dafur, not its actions in Taiwan or Tibet. A secret more guarded than its policies in Xinjiang and the South China Sea. The secret it would not reveal is the most precious secret at any Olympiad: Who would light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony.

In the days preceeding the ceremony, rumours spread throughout the media village and the entire city as to who would light the flame, and how. Pundits suggested all manner of techniques, drawing on the oldest and strongest stereotypes of the host country. The slightest movement on the roof of the Bird’s Nest sparked yet more speculation and theories.

Eventually, the world watched gymnast Li Ning suspended on a wire like a hero in a martial arts movie run a slow motion lap around the rim of the stadium before lighting the cauldron.

The party’s over.

Once the opening ceremony is finished, the work begins. The serious business of sport takes place and athletes do what what they have trained to do every day for years and years. Of course, the stadium had to be returned to a sporting arena after the ceremonial extravaganza.

Sporting superstars

Every fan has their favourite moment, favourite athlete or favourite team from every Olympics. Australian fans lucky enough to be in Sydney in 2000 will recall Cathy Freeman’s victory in the 400m on the Athletics track. Fijians still beam with pride at the memory of their first ever Olympic medal, gold in the men’s Rugby 7s in Rio.

Chinese fans were robbed of a Cathy Freeman moment when their national hero and pre-race favourite, Liu Xiang, withdrew from the 110m hurdle event with a knee injury in 2008. I was in the stadium when it happened and the grief and disappointment among the Chinese people was palpable. Liu reached down to touch his knee before setting himself on the starting blocks, something he wouldn’t normally do. He then raised his hand and walked off the track. He was out. He couldn’t compete. He couldn’t win gold in front of his adoring home fans. Some locals screamed, all stared in disbelief at the big screen. Men and women cried, and every second journalist in the stadium rushed to find him and get that quote. Alas, for Liu it wasn’t meant to be.

International superstars grace every Olympics, in many different sports. In Beijing, one of the most famous faces on the planet, Lionel Messi, took gold in the men’s football with his Argentinian teammates, including fellow star Juan Riquelme.

One World, One Dream

One World One Dream, One Country Two Systems, China talks a lot about unity. It is interesting to note that since the 2008 Olympic Games, China has sought to create one world – under its control. Its policies and actions in Tibet, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong indicate China’s desire to exert control over its region and the rest of the world. Just as interesting is that despite this, Beijing is scheduled to host another of the IOCs major events, the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

Until the world’s best athletes meet again in Tokyo, or elsewhere, at some point in the future, we leave you with these memories of the 2008 games. What was your favourite moment in Beijing?

How do you stop Lionel Messi?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

How do you stop Lionel Messi?

Many footballers, fans and coaches throughout the world would love to know that. The Argentinian superstar is still scoring goals and winning games for Barcelona and Argentina and he remains one of the best footballers on the planet.

Thus, how do you curtail his whippet-like speed?

How do you halt those magical feet?

How do you stall the champion and detain him, hold him stationary for more than a split second?

You might try the following method.

Herd him into a narrow space.

In this case, the broadcast area of the mixed zone at the Beijing Olympics, where Messi had helped Argentina to beat Nigeria and take the gold medal.

Smile.

Thrust a microphone at him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ask, politely, in Spanish, if he has time to answer a few questions.

Steps two to four will prove more successful if said microphone is held by Mexican television presenter, and former Miss Universe contestant, Marisol Gonzalez.

Messi is sure to stop, smile, and linger a while.

That is how you stop the great Lionel Messi.