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Olympic Heroes Who Never Stood on the Podium

A celebration of runners who didn't win but inspired us and won our admiration by living the Olympic ideal: “to have fought well.” 

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“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not so much to win as to take part.”

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, quoting a sermon by Episcopal Bishop Talbot of Pennsylvania, in a guest sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, July 19, 1908.

The ultimate Olympic ideal dates from that sermon. With many athletes and officials in the congregation, it was delivered during the first London Olympic Games, and became the creed for the whole Olympic movement: “The essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”

De Coubertin, founder of the  modern Olympics, always gets the credit, but it was the American bishop who said it first, backing it up in his sermon with texts from St Paul (“Though only one may wear the laurel wreath, all may share the equal joy of the contest.”) More than a century later, we all know it as an ideal. But ideals can get rusty and the world loves a winner, leaving many non-medalists who deserve more admiration than they receive.

Who is on your personal Bishop Talbot list?

Dorando Pietri: Fall down five times, keep running six

Let’s start in the context in which the good bishop spoke. His words were a peace offering, in hopes of soothing tempers after a turbulent week. Throughout those 1908 Games in London, from the moment when the American team was required to march in just ahead of “British colonies,” the hosts and their most successful guests had traded insults and protests, disqualifications and boycotts.

It all came to a head when the exhausted little Italian, Dorando Pietri, reached the finish of the Olympic marathon only because he was supported and steered around the last 385 yards, and lifted five times back on to his tottering feet, by British officials determined to prevent the American in second place, Johnny Hayes, from winning.

Dorando Pietri struggles to the finish of the first Olympic marathon
Dorando Pietri struggles to the finish of the first Olympic marathon Photo: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Inevitably, Pietri was disqualified and became the first runner to be world famous for not winning. The Brits never did quite accept that he lost. For the next two weeks, he made celebrity appearances at a music hall theater, promoted on the posters as “Signior Dorando, first across the line in the Olympic marathon.” He deserves his admired and legendary place in Olympic history. To get back on your feet once after collapsing near the end of a marathon takes will-power. To do it five times, as Pietri did, even with a lot of help, was a miracle of courage.

Will-power, courage, persistence under disappointment, grace in defeat, these are the qualities we think of when we subscribe to the ideal that the important thing is “not to have won, but to have fought well.” Not every Olympian will agree. Young elite athletes who aimed to conquer the world do not always accept failure cheerfully. There’s a story of one runner (nameless, as he was young) who flung his bronze medal at the wall in disgust when he got back to his room. He’s not on my Bishop Talbot “joy of contest” list.

The 800m Four: Record breakers remembered for un-ladylike effort

After Dorando Pietri, next come four women 800m runners whose names are almost unknown, but who are notorious as a group for what happened after the finish line. Jenny Thomson (Canada), Bobbie Rosenfeld (Canada), Florence McDonald (USA) and Marie Dollinger (Germany) placed fourth to seventh in the 1928 800m in Amsterdam, and all ran faster than the existing world record. (Two better times were awaiting ratification, and the first three in the Olympics of course went even faster.)

The world’s all-male media, in one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of sports journalism, ignored how fast and how determinedly all seven women had run, and instead wrote lurid and invented accounts of how they “collapsed” at the finish (or dropped out before the finish, some reports fictitiously claimed). “Sobbing,” “distressed,” “terrible exhaustion,” “a pitiful spectacle,” “a massacre” — that’s how the press saw it, not as seven athletes running their hearts out and lifting their event to a new level.

All had run in hard qualifying heats the previous day. Both days were hot and humid. That was the first Olympics when any track events were available for women, so all the runners were inexperienced at 800m. Thomson and McDonald were only seventeen. Rosenfeld was a sprinter who was trying middle distance for the first time. Yes, several fell on to the grass infield after the finish, but they were not the first or last runners, male or female, to do that after a big PR on a hot day.

To put the record straight, Thomson, Rosenfeld, McDonald and Dollinger won no medals, but they fought well, in the words of the Olympic creed. Along with the top three, they proved that women can indeed race middle distances. For that, and for their commitment to the contest, they deserve to be on this list of non-podium Olympic heroes.

Marathon Foot Soldiers: Giving their all far from the podium

The Olympic marathon has given us some heart-breaking non-medalists. Watch Bud Greenspan’s great film footage of the last man in the 1968 Olympic marathon, John Stephen Akhwari (Tanzania), cramped, bandaged, and limping agonizingly to the line, as the voice-over calls him “a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit.” We all admire that spirit, and the resolve of other exhausted marathoners, like Gabriela Anderson-Schiess (Switzerland) in 1984, who on the very edge of collapse enacted Akhwari’s dictum, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

That philosophy has been enacted many times with equal courage although not always with such wrenching visible drama. High on my Bishop Talbot list are those in the Olympic marathon who didn’t collapse or finish last or make us cry, who gave their all but were simply one year past their peak, and beset now by injury or merely the passing of time. Buddy Edelen (1964), Derek Clayton (1972), Ron Hill (1972), Alberto Salazar (1984), Rob de Castella (1984), and Steve Moneghetti (1996) competed with as much courage and resolve as if they were winning, but it was simply the wrong day, the wrong year.

A special place for Joyce Smith (Great Britain), who had been a world leader for twenty years but was 46 when the Olympic marathon first became available for women, in 1984. She ran 2:32:48 for eleventh place. Checking the World Masters age-graded tables, that converts to 2:16:04, good enough to take the gold medal by six minutes. Sorry, Joanie, but today we’re honoring those who didn’t win.

We’re also honoring those who labored to the limit and ran an Olympic race among the best of their life. What more can be asked? Theirs was no failure, yet still they came a little short. Among Americans in the marathon, that would include Kenny Moore (fourth, 1972), Don Kardong (fourth, 1976), Meb Keflezighi (fourth, 2012), Shalane Flanagan (sixth, 2016), Des Linden (seventh, 2016) and Dathan Ritzenhein (ninth, 2008). All fulfilled the creed by fighting well.

Mebrahtom Keflezighi battled to fourth in the men's marathon during the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 12, 2012
Mebrahtom Keflezighi battled to fourth in the men’s marathon during the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 12, 2012 Photo: OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/GettyImages

None has ever fought better than Keflezighi that day in London, undauntedly pushing up through the field in the last miles, determined to make the best of an opportunity that all the way had been a half-fit struggle. I was with coach Bob Larsen as we watched the coverage, so knew about the problems and the qualified expectations. Of all Meb’s many admirable races, that for me is the one when his result — fourth! — most outstripped what should have been possible. We are giving credit here to true competing, not winning, and that run was one of the finest examples of pure competitive spirit in my lifetime.

Pre and Paula: A reach that (just) exceeded their grasp

Did anyone in Olympic history try harder without getting a medal than Steve Prefontaine? On the Olympic track, places on the list go to those who did everything to grasp the moment, but encountered others equally resolute and a fraction faster. In the 1972 5000m, Pre blazed into the lead with four laps to run, and, fired as ever by competitive desire, he raced the last mile in 4:04, maybe the longest kick in history. In any previous Olympics, that would have won it. But this was a new, more highly trained generation, the early pace had been too slow, and Pre misjudged his resilient strength by a few yards. He ended fourth. Failure? That race still makes emotional viewing, as we watch such a fervent man discover that his reach for once exceeded his grasp.

Another on the Olympic track who did all that could be asked but was left outside the medals was Paula Radcliffe (GBR) in the 10,000m in 2000. With a ton of endurance and fervor but little sprint, Radcliffe led at a searing pace and finished almost forty seconds faster than the Olympic record (with 30:26.97). Like Prefontaine, she ran her best tactic, executed it almost to perfection, and took the event into new territory. Yet, like Pre, it wasn’t enough for a medal. Three sat on her for twenty-four laps and outkicked her on the twenty-fifth.

Radcliffe moved to the marathon, but her Olympic luck was never right. She is one of a handful of unquestionably great athletes who won much, but never an Olympic medal (Roger Bannister, Dave Bedford, Steve Scott, Toshihiko Seko, Ingrid Kristiansen…) All the more reason to include her (and them) among those who enhanced Olympic sport by their endeavor.

Dr. Brian Corrigan weeps as he administers oxygen to Ron Clarke, Australian, who finished 6th in 10,000-meters in Mexico City on October 13, 1968, then collapsed.
Dr. Brian Corrigan weeps as he administers oxygen to Ron Clarke, Australian, who finished 6th in 10,000-meters in Mexico City on October 13, 1968, then collapsed. Photo: Getty Images

Many have given that endeavor while knowing that circumstances at the Olympics left them with little chance of a medal. My subject is not hard-luck stories, but the images of world record holder Ron Clarke (Australia) being given emergency oxygen after pushing himself to the edge for sixth place in the high altitude Mexico City 10,000m are as haunting as those of poor dazed dehydrated Dorando Pietri in 1908.

Flanagan, Linden, Rowbury: Determined despite the dopers

Heat, altitude, injury — many have persisted when they knew they could not win. Add the sadly increasing numbers who have been deprived of their medals by dopers. To imagine their frustration, I look back to a cross-country race once that I lost to a rival who sliced twenty yards off every curve and corner. I keep a private podium of honest Olympians.

For instance, with the 2016 women’s marathon, leave out those who have since been suspended or banned for doping and you get Shalane Flanagan and Des Linden (officially sixth and seventh) in fourth and fifth. A special podium place in those terms also to Shannon Rowbury, who finished a brilliant sixth in the 2012 women’s 1500m in London, a race when we could almost smell the dope from the stands. Disqualifications have since moved Rowbury to fourth (so far).

“It’s a bit mind-blowing to know that half the field shouldn’t have been there,” Rowbury said.

Her restraint is to be admired. Yet she ran her heart out for sixth, or fourth, or third, or whatever it was (and we’ll never truly know). She, not they, observed the Olympic creed.

Shannon Rowbury trails Asli Cakir and Ekaterina Kostetskaya, who both have since been disqualified for doping, in the women's 1500m semi-finals at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 8, 2012 in London.
Shannon Rowbury trails Asli Cakir and Ekaterina Kostetskaya, who both have since been disqualified for doping, in the women’s 1500m semi-finals at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 8, 2012 in London. Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/GettyImages

The faith in the sport shown by runners like Rowbury might enable the Olympics to survive this dire existential crisis. It’s not only doping. Money for winners surely subverts the Olympics’ own creed. Shoe contracts often pay by results. Television is at fault, too, as only too often (as in the 2021 U.S. Trials) it obsesses with winners and shows us only the first across the line.

The Field: Deep courage, commitment and love

As we watch the races from Tokyo, let’s remember what Bishop Talbot told us, that the Olympics are not only about winners. Deeper in the field, we will find stories of courage, commitment, and sheer love of the contest.

After the Olympic 5000m in Munich in 1972, Dave Bedford (GBR, twelfth) met Steve Prefontaine (USA, fourth).

“Steve, you are the toughest little prick I ever saw,” said Bedford.

“How about us losers have a beer in the Hofbrau House later? Isn’t that what this is supposed to be about?” said Pre.

It is. And they did.

Roger Robinson tells great stories in his highly praised When Running Made History and forthcoming (2022) Running’s Greatest Stories.