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James O'Brien's Blog

Olympic Champion Loses His Shirt

Friday, August 10th

Warn your children: they must be careful of the company they keep, especially if they plan on becoming world famous Olympic athletes. The evidence is all around us.

Take, for example, the case of Ivan Ukhov from Russia. You know him. He won the men’s high jump on Tuesday. If you were paying close attention, you will have noticed that, after each jump, Ukhov shed his competition vest, replacing it with a t-shirt until his next jump. That is, he did so until his final jump. When Ukhov went to put on his vest, he found that someone - one if his fellow competitors - had stolen it. “One of my ‘friends” has got it,” he said while eyeing those to his left and right at the post-event press conference. 

Ukhov, is too stolid of a competitor to let some petty larceny rattle him; his final jump was a clearance at 2.38m/7’ 9 3/4”, giving him the gold medal by a huge two inches. But, it was a salient warning. Robert Harting should have taken note.

Harting is a man you don’t want to mess with. He won the discus here, also on Tuesday. His post-competition party piece is to rip his shirt from his body in front of a rapturous bank of spectators. He invariably does that as if the shirt is made tissue paper. At the Berlin World Championships in 2009, Harting made the championships’ mascot, Berlino by name, a global celebrity, by flinging him around like a child’s toy. (Berlino seemed to like it. You should google. It’s a classic). 

Here in London, Harting went out to celebrate following his gold medal competition. In the midst of it all, somebody stole his athletes’ credential, meaning that he couldn’t get back into the athletes’ village. “If I find him, I will throw him in the river,” Harting said. Or, maybe he said across the river.

It doesn’t end there. Whoever is masterminding this plot had better be fast as well as fearsome. While Usain Bolt was cavorting around his victory lap last night, hugging everybody in sight, as he does, somebody stole the gold chain from around his neck. Police are studying the victory lap footage. Bolt didn’t say too much about it; he focussed more on emphasizing that he is now an Olympic legend. At the conclusion of last night’s press conference, as the microphones were turned off, he instructed that they should be turned back on, so that he could emphasize his legendary status still further. When you’re an Olympic legend, it’s OK for you to do that.

Today was a bitter-sweet day for the USA men’s water polo team and its nine NYAC members. In Beijing four years ago, the team claimed silver medals. This time around, the stars and stripes (and winged foots) came up against a Croatian road block in the quarter finals that firmly dashed their medal hopes. Today, the US played Spain in the classification game for 5th through 8th positions. Although Spain jumped to a three goal lead in the first quarter, the match was a nail-biter to the end. Even so, Spain was never headed. The US pulled to within a goal with five minutes left to play, courtesy of Layne Beaubien, but Spain kept its grip and the final score was 8-7. 

It’s not easy to keep going once your Olympic dreams have gone south. But, the US team must do just that. With this defeat by Spain, the Americans will play Australia on Sunday to determine the tournament’s seventh and eighth positions.

Tonight in the Olympic Stadium, the NYAC’s Julie Culley contested the final of the women’s 5000m. To get this far, Culley had to set a huge personal best time in the heats. Previously, her best had stood at 15:13.77, a time she had recorded in winning the US Olympic Trials in June. Here in London, Culley trimmed that mark to 15:05.38 in placing fifth in the qualifiers. If you want get an idea of the size of that improvement, I’d liken it to having once been able to do 50 push-ups and all of a sudden you do 100. Or to having bought Facebook and, all of a sudden, it’s making money. No, wait; that last one isn’t a good example. That’s just silly. But you get my drift.

 Anyway, in lining up against the finest 5000m runners in the world this evening, Culley faced a challenge as daunting as Zuckerberg’s. A dawdling early pace gave no indication about what might ensue. All eyes were on Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba. She had won the 5000m and 10,000m in Beijing, and already claimed the 10,000m crown here. That’s a big rep. Through half way, the pace just strolled along with none of the favorites taking control. That meant that this would be a race for the sprinters.

With four laps to go, Dibaba took the lead, something she rarely does, she being one of said sprinters. The inevitable increase in pace saw Culley drift to the rear of the pack. The jets were igniting, and that was the defining moment of the NYAC woman’s race.

The last couple of laps were barnstormers. Meseret Defar, the 2004 winner, pulled a major upset in unseating her compatriot, while for Culley, that kind of blistering late race pace was too much. She maintained around the final couple of laps; but, with the the contenders increasing, and majorly, maintaining doesn’t work. Culley ran a powerful race, 14th in 15:28.22, and she must take great satisfaction from these Games; but, she won’t like her placing. Which is a good thing. Competitors respond to that kind of stimulus, and Culley is a competitor.

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