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James O'Brien's Blog

Heroes, Just for One Day

Saturday, August 11th

Sometimes the wind is at your back; sometimes it’s a headwind every step of the way. Jake Herbert may have felt a touch of the latter today. The 2009 World Wrestling Championships silver medalist started his day OK here in London, with a bye in the first round of the 84kg freestyle division. That meant that he could conserve his energy, bide his time and focus on the round of 16, in which his opponent would be Arencibia Martinez from Cuba. 

When you’re a world class wrestler like Herbert, your days in the office can be downright long. If you fight every round, from prelims to final, you’re going to have at least five battles, none of which is going to be a push-over. At this level, everybody’s a contender. To be able to skip the opening round and a face to face with some mean-eyed bruiser can only count in your favor. The energy saved could be crucial later on.

So, with the bye into the round of 16, things were so-far-so-good - in principle. The bout itself, against Arencibia, made things a little more complicated. The NYAC man appeared to have the Cuban pinned on two separate occasions in the second period, but the officials didn’t see it that way, or just plain didn’t see it, twice. So it goes. Herbert, nonetheless prevailed, taking the bout 1-4, 8-0, 1-1 following a rapid fire attack in the final 20 seconds that gave him a take-down and the deciding point. The right result, just a bit more problematic that he would have liked.

This brought the quarter-finals and a clash with world champion Sharif Sharifov from Azerbaijan. Uh-oh. But Herbert is an enormously experienced competitor and not one to be intimidated by reputations. He’s got one of his own, and he had beaten Sharifov in 2009 en route to his world champs silver. A bruising encounter was inevitable, and the outcome unpredictable. The US Olympic Committee later called the clash “extremely contestable,” meaning that it was characterized by adjudicating that provoked the ire of almost everybody in red, white and blue. 

The Mat.com, which knows a lot about such things, reported thus: “Sharifov won the first period 4-1 before shooting in on a double-leg attack in the second. Herbert countered and flipped Sharifov onto his back. The referee signaled three points to Herbert. The action continued and another flurry followed where Sharifov appeared to have exposed Herbert’s back to the mat. After that exchange, no points were put on the scoreboard and the US challenged the call. After a pair of reviews, Sharifov was given six points and Herbert none in the two exchanges, although the jury initially gave Herbert three. The jury is supposed to have the final say in those situations. Those rulings gave Sharifov the win by technical fall 6-0, with just 43 seconds elapsed in the two-minute period.”

US assistant coach Sean Bormet commented, “It all happened so fast. We were trying to get clarification on the score at first. It seemed like the officials went back and forth on what the points would be. We thought it should have been 3-2 in favor of us.”

Herbert maintained his composure, though, but had to concede the bout, 4-1, 6-0. It was a bitterly disappointing outcome. If there was any consolation, it was that Sharifov was the world champ and capable of making the final here, which he did, thereby pulling Herbert into the repechage and a chance to fight for the bronze medal.

Before the round with the hardware, though, Turkey's Ibrahim Bolukbasi stood in the way in the second repechage round. This was where it all ended. Bolukbasi came out on top by a score of 1-0, 1-4, 5-4, and that was that. It wasn’t perfunctory, but it was final. It was a disappointing way for Herbert’s campaign to end, and it was frustrating. More importantly, it was noble, which, of them all, is the more important.

Rachel Seaman was the NYAC track and field athlete in action today. Competing for Canada, she contested the women’s 20K race walk. Rachel is part of an NYAC race walking cadre. Her husband is Tim Seaman, a multi-national champion for the club, who is also her coach. Tim also coaches emergent star and London Olympian, Trevor Barron, while still competing at a national class level himself. 

This was always going to be a tough competition for Rachel, though. With a battalion of super swift stars from Eastern Europe, Asia and South America, plus a fast course and superb conditions, you could foresee that a world record might be on the cards. It was. The winner, Elena Lashmanova from Russia, covered the distance in 1:25:02, trimming six seconds from the fastest time ever previously recorded. Second placed Olga Kaniskina, also of Russia, missed the old record by just one second. If you need an idea of how fast that is, Lashmanova went through the 10K mark in 43:16. That’s round about seven minutes per mile. Most people can’t run one mile at that pace. Lashmanova walked 12.4. 

Against that kind of competition, Seamen didn’t have the guns; but, she did perform well in this, her first, Olympic Games, placing 52nd in a time of 1:37:36. For the record, her half way split was 46:33. Try beating that in your next 10K.

This is the last day of competition in the Olympic Stadium. Everything’s a final. It’s hard to beat an evening like that: an Olympic Games, where every event counts for everything. For most competitors, of course, that’s how it is throughout. The vast majority arrive at the Games with little prospect of claiming medals or even making finals. So, their bout, their match, their race, their performance in whatever sport in whatever round is their personal final. They have one shot to go for it all and - maybe, hopefully - exceed what even they thought they could accomplish. The Olympic Games are a cauldron in which self belief is forged into accomplishment, if that’s not too labored a metaphor. Even if it is, I like it.

You can’t underestimate the power of music in the Olympic Stadium in creating atmosphere. On many nights in London, it’s been kind of half hearted; but, tonight, in this final stadium showcase of these magnificent Games, with the competition just beginning, we’ve already had Michael Jackson, the Kinks, Elvis (Presley, not Costello), Led Zeppelin and, right now, the Clash - “London Calling.” That one was inevitable, and everybody loves it. The place is broiling. It's the perfect alchemy of spectators, stadium, athletes and anticipation. And when the crowd is roaring beyond belief and the noise is vibrating your brain inside your skull and one more Olympian scales a height even he or she can’t quite believe and the strains of David Bowie’s “Heroes” resound, it’s all a man can do to keep the lump from his throat.

“We can be heroes, just for one day....”

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