2012-08-07 / Columns
By losing all of his races, he became a world role model
My youngest son was a good little wrestler, but there came a time when his coach asked him to wrestle up a couple of weight classes in a bout with another school because the team had two wrestlers in my son’s class, and none in the heavier class. That meant that my son, about 78 pounds of rompin’ stompin’ dy-no-mite, had to get on the mat with an older, much more experienced boy who outweighed him by almost 20 pounds.
“Dad, I think he shaves,” he told me under his breath before the match.
“Then don’t do it,” I said.
“I have to for the team,” he said, girding his loins for battle.
And what a short-lived battle it was. That kid put my boy on his belly and ground his face into the mat with so much force that his head protector slipped down over my son’s eyes and pinned him face down, the most humiliating defeat for a wrestler, in about 10 seconds. Of course, the photographer for the local daily newspaper snapped that shot — my son, grimacing in pain, blinded by his headgear — and it was the one that ran in the newspaper’s sports section, along with a caption noting that it was one of the shortest matches of the meet.
I did what almost any father would do. I went ballistic. I got the editor of the newspaper on the phone and gave him a piece of my mind. He wasn’t particularly apologetic, however.
“Come on, Greg,” he said. “It was a great picture. What would you have done?”
And because I was the executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers at the time, and every one of our papers had a sports section, I knew he was right — we would have run the photo. But darn it, I wasn’t calling as one newspaperman to another — I was calling as a father. When I told him about it, however, my son said I should’ve minded my own business.
“We wrestle as a team,” he told me. “And my team needed me to go out there and do my best, even though I didn’t have a chance. That’s what teams are all about.”
I remembered that conversation last week when I watched Hamadou Djibo Issaka, a 35-year-old gardener from Niger, race, and lose spectacularly, in the Single Sculling competition at the 2012 Olympic Games. It’s important to note that Niger is a landlocked country and that before last May, Issaka — a swimmer — had never seen a scull, and may not have even known what one was. But his country, and his team, needed a rower, so they sent him to Egypt (he practiced in an old fishing boat) to learn how to do it — and then he traveled to the Olympics in London to represent his homeland in the event. In every Olympics, there are some contestants who are clearly outmatched for their event — think the Jamaican bobsled team in the 1988 Winter Games, whose plucky experience got turned into a movie in 1993 called “Cool Runnings” — but none in my memory handled their crushing defeats with the aplomb and good humor of Issaka.
This athlete, dubbed the “Sculling Sloth” because he’s so slow, finished his first two races dead last, so far behind that the winners, who had gotten to the finish line more than a minute ahead of him, were already out of the water and enjoying a cold drink. But they, the crowds and even the announcer were clearly in Issaka’s corner, the announcer yelling “You can do it!” over the loudspeaker as the Sculling Sloth paddled doggedly toward the finish line.
His last race, Aug. 3, was a replay of the first two. Pitted against two other Africans in a race to determine the lesser placings, Issaka finished the haul in 8 minutes, 53.88 seconds. That was 14 seconds faster than his last race, but still 1:20 behind the winner — and again, the crowd cheered him on as he finished his race and slumped over, completely out of gas.
What did he have to say when it was over? “It went well,” he said. “I passed the finish line; it was great.” He enjoyed the fireworks, which he said he’d never seen before, and promised to go home and work on his technique so that he’ll do even better when he returns for the next Summer Olympics in 2016.
I don’t know about you, but Hamadou Djibo Issaka is my kind of athlete, and his races were my favorite parts of what has been a wonderful Olympic Games (with the exception of the badminton competition, where four women’s doubles pairs were disqualified and sent home for losing their group matches on purpose in the hope of getting better quarterfinal matchups). Not only is he a great inspiration for folks of any age, he’s a fantastic role model for kids. I hope they put him on a Wheaties box.
This has already been an incredible summer, but between the demands of putting a new addition on our home and getting ready to move in (believe me, there’ll be a column about that, and maybe more than one), a new granddaughter, and the upcoming weddings of the children of families we’ve been close to for years, I’ve got to admit that I can’t do everything I want and do it well. That’s why I’m going to take a short vacation from this column. Vaya con Dios, my friends and readers. I’ll see you again in September, a little farther down the trail.
Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at email@example.com.