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The true spirit of the Games

August 27, 2004

Twelve years ago, on a warm Barcelona night, Pyambuu Tuul staggered towards the Olympic stadium determined to finish what he had started.

The last athlete competing at the 1992 Games, the Mongolian marathon runner was long overdue and he ended up being cheated of his moment of glory after four hours of agony.

The King and Queen of Spain gave up waiting, the closing ceremony was set in motion and, surrounded by six police motorcycles and with an ambulance in attendance, Tuul was shunted on to a warm-up track to complete his race.

Twelve months earlier, Tuul had vowed to run in the Olympic marathon when he regained his sight in one eye after 13 years of blindness. His race ended without a spectator in view.

Tuul's tale of athletic courage has been repeated many times since the first Olympic marathon was run in 1896 from Marathon to Athens, a course to be repeated on Sunday in the final act of the 2004 Olympics.

In the 1968 race, John Akhwari of Tanzania hobbled into the Mexico City stadium, bloodied, unbowed and very much last. He had injured his knee in a fall but ground through the pain to finish one hour behind the winner, Ethiopian Mamo Wolde.

Asked why he had carried on, Akhwari replied: "My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race, they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race."

The idea of competing and completing, rather than trying to win medals, has a special allure for marathon runners.


In 1996, Afghanistan's Abdul Baser Wasigi appeared in the Atlanta stadium nearly 4-1/2 hours after starting the race. He had injured his leg shortly after arriving in the U.S. and was forced to walk much of the marathon.

Crews were preparing for the closing ceremony but volunteers removed tarpaulins covering the track and persuaded the band to stop their rehearsal and pipe Wasigi across the finishing line.

"This is what the Olympics is all about - the spirit of competition," said the official in charge of the venue.

A strong favourite to finish last on Sunday is Gil da Cruz Trinidade of East Timor, a new entry to the Games. His personal best is about 45 minutes over the world record and he is in the race thanks to a wild card granted by Olympic officials.

"The most important thing for me in Athens is to finish," said Cruz Trinidade this week.

He will hopefully enjoy a better reception than Tuul did in 1992.

His day had begun badly when he dropped and broke his glasses. The 33-year-old patched them up with sticky tape and set off hoping nothing else would go wrong.

His finishing time of four hours four minutes was 56 minutes slower than the second to last athlete, Hussein Haleen of the Maldives, who had collapsed at the makeshift finish and was rushed to a nearby clinic.

After finishing, Tuul gave the thumbs-up to a couple of journalists. "I am just a runner. As the last runner in the Olympics I am very much satisfied," he said with a smile.

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