2012 Summer Olympics
The big names at the summer games are pros or well-marketed brands. These international athletes deserve support
Track and field, United States
The more 100-meter hurdles races Harper wins, the more famous her teammate Lolo Jones becomes. In Beijing, Harper took the gold medal, while Jones clipped a hurdle and stumbled to seventh place.
Coming into these Olympics, Jones appeared in BP Team USA ads and posed in a bikini on the cover of Outside magazine. After Harper won the trials, Jones was invited to “The Tonight Show,” where she discussed her virginity with Jay Leno. Jones is blond, biracial and lissome, while Harper is short, black, muscular and from East St. Louis, like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the gold medal-winning heptathlete who was once taunted that she looked like “a gorilla.”
In women’s sports, unfortunately, beauty is more marketable than achievement. During an interview with KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, Harper was asked whether it bothers her that Jones gets more attention. “I would be a liar if I [said] it didn’t,” Harper said. “I just feel as if, for my country, I still did a pretty good job of bringing home the gold. You have your chosen people that you would like to win. I understand that. I would just like to say, just respect it when I go to the line. I am one of the best if not the best out there. Since the Olympics, she hasn’t really beaten me outdoors.”
Salon prediction: Harper will win silver, behind Australian world champion Sally Pearson. After the race, trackside reporter Lewis Johnson will rush to a panting, also-ran Jones and ask, “How does it feel to work so hard and come up short again?” But not even a second gold will close the endorsement gap with Jones.
Water polo, Serbia
In the former Yugoslavia, water polo is almost as popular as basketball. Udovicic, considered the best water polo player in the world, is captain of the Serbian team that won silver in Athens and bronze in Beijing. In 2010, he was given an ultimatum by his club team, Italy’s Pro Recco. We got you an Italian passport, his coach told him, so unless you play for Italy in the Olympics, you’re off the roster. Udovicic might have been justified in turning his back on Serbia. He is an ethnic Croat who changed his first name from Franjo during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, to avoid harassment by schoolmates. But he told Pro Recco to take their Italian passport and shove it. Then he signed with a Croatian pro team.
“When they proposed that to me, I just told them what I was telling them before – I don’t consider playing for any other national team other than Serbia!” Udovicic told Inside European Water Polo. “I am the captain of the  World Champions and I could never play for an another national team. I know how we feel when we are together, playing for the country.”
By choosing his country over his contract, Udovicic went from sporting hero to national hero. The Serbs lost to Italy by one goal at last year’s World Aquatics Championships, but won this year’s European Championships. They’re favorites to win the gold in London.
Track and field, United States
The East African countries produce distance runners the way France and Italy produce wine — as a source of national identity, and a leading export. Half the American distance squad was born in Africa. Lomong is a Sudanese Lost Boy whose first long run was a three-day flight to Kenya, to escape rebels who had kidnapped him from a church service with the intent of impressing him as a soldier. He was 6 years old. “That’s when my race began,” Lomong said in this biographical video on his website.
After 10 years in a refugee camp, Lomong was adopted by a family in central New York, then won NCAA championships in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters for Northern Arizona. He was the flag bearer for the U.S. team at the Opening Ceremony in Beijing, but failed to advance out of his heat in the 1,500.
This year, Lomong is running the 5,000 meters. (In his first race at the distance, in January, Lomong miscounted the laps, stopped with 400 meters to go, then outsprinted his pursuers again.) Lomong’s 5,000-meter teammates are Bernard Lagat, who emigrated to the U.S. from Kenya, and Galen Rupp, a University of Oregon graduate who has a chance to become the first American-born man to win a distance running gold since Frank Shorter won the marathon in 1972.
As a new nation, South Sudan is not yet eligible to participate in the Olympics. Lomong has raised $100,000 for his homeland through 4 South Sudan, a foundation that provides clean water, healthcare and education. If he wins a medal, it will be credited to the United States. But it will belong just as much to Africa.
Track and field, Libya
Khawaja is the athlete of the Arab Spring. The only Olympian for a country that has never won a medal, Khawaja trains alone at a run-down track in Tripoli. Nonetheless, he won the 400 meters at the 2010 African Championships, in 44.98 seconds, a time that would have been good enough for fifth in the final at Beijing.
Libya’s deposed dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, did not encourage athletic excellence, writing in his Green Book that “Sport, as a social activity, must be for the masses. It is mere stupidity to leave its benefits to certain individuals and teams who monopolize them while the masses provide the facilities and pay the expenses for the establishment of public sports.”
Gadhafi’s son pressured Khawaja to support his father’s regime by carrying its green flag on television. Khawaja refused, but neither did he fight with the rebels, even though Gadhafi loyalists tortured and massacred black Africans.
During the turmoil, Khawaja was barely able to run, and missed last year’s World Track and Field Championships in South Korea. After Gadhafi was overthrown, though, he signed a contract with Adidas. “There was nothing called sports in the days of Gaddafi,” Khawaja told his hometown newspaper, the Tripoli Post. “They had a committee to fight stars, not to let them shine.”
In the Opening Ceremony, Khawaja will carry the red, green and black flag, which represents post-Gadhafi Libya. He’ll not only be running to rehabilitate his country before the world, he’ll be uniting Libya behind a black African.
Weighlifting, United States
The Olympic ideal of amateurism no longer applies to basketball players or record-breaking sprinters such as Usain Bolt, who earned $10 million in endorsements last year. The word “amateur” is derived from “lover.” Most Olympians have no other motivation. Even in the glamour sport of track, almost all the financial rewards go to the fastest few: Of the top 10 runners in each event, only half earned more than $15,000 a year from sport.
Then there’s women’s weightlifting, which has only been an Olympic sport since 2000, and does not produce Nike tank top models. Last year, Sarah Robles, a 5-foot-10, 275-pound heavyweight lifter, was living on a $400 a month stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee. It wasn’t even enough money for the 4,000-calorie-a-day diet she needed to train for the Pan-American Games. As a result, Robles failed to lift all three of her clean-and-jerk attempts.
On her blog, Pretty Strong, Robles not only argues for better athlete pay, she’s a body-image activist. Under Armour, the body-hugging sportswear, held a “What’s Beautiful” contest “to redefine the female athlete.” Robles entered, with the slogan “I will … Prove that beauty is strength. My size, my story, my Olympics, my glory.” She didn’t make the Top 10. Unlike many world-class athletes, Robles does not have a corporate sponsor. “You can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini,” Robles said.
Not even a gold medal is likely to make Robles marketable. Weightlifting is a national pastime in China, Turkey, Iran and the Slavic countries, but not in the United States, a body image-conflicted nation of big people who idealize small people. America’s only female winner was Tara Nott, a petite ex-gymnast who competed in the 105-pound category. She never did a Nike ad, either.
Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Olympics because the Taliban refused to allow women to compete in sports. Sadaf Rahimi grew up idolizing the most famous Muslim woman athlete on the planet: Laila Ali, daughter of boxer Muhammad Ali. Once the Taliban’s five-year rule was overthrown, Rahimi was able to pursue a boxing career herself.
In 2007, a human rights organization called the Cooperation for Peace and Unity founded Fight for Peace, a women’s boxing project, and Rahimi began training at Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium, where the Taliban had carried out public executions on the soccer pitch. The gym has a few weight bags, broken mirrors — and no ring. Sadaf and her sister, Shabnam, fought on gym mats. The sisters became subjects of a Canadian documentary, “The Boxing Girls of Kabul.” But their family has also received death threats from fundamentalists unreconciled to female athletes, and they’re not allowed to box in public, since watching women fight is still an unseemly spectacle in a conservative Muslim country. Sadaf also trains in long pants, long sleeves and a hijab. “It is obvious that in Afghanistan, boxing is a very difficult career for a woman,” Rahimi told ITN World. “It is also difficult for men, but it does show the people here than an ordinary girl can follow a boxing career.”
Rahimi won a silver medal in the 119-pound weight class at the Dushanble International Tournament in Tajikistan, but didn’t fare as well at the Women’s World Championships in China, where she was pummeled so badly by a Polish boxer a referee stopped the fight. She is preparing at Cardiff University in Wales for a fight whose outcome could contribute to the liberation of women back home. “I am proud to be in the Olympics and represent Afghanistan,” Rahimi told the Guardian, “and especially women.”
Sometime around your VIIth or VIIIth Olympiad, you begin to realize, “All these athletes are younger than I am.” This is followed by the concomitant realization that you will never earn the right to tattoo the Olympic rings on your sagging skin.
That’s why Japanese dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu is known as “the hope for old men.” It’s not just that Hoketsu, who was born eight-and-half months before his country bombed Pearl Harbor, is older than most Olympic fans. His Olympic career is older than most Olympic fans. Hoketsu first competed at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Then he went through a 44-year slump before qualifying again for Beijing. “I have continued to compete at my age through persistent effort and by working closely with my horse, who is my teammate. I hope to demonstrate that regardless of age, goals can be reached through dedication and diligence,” Hoketsu told Tokyo Weekender.
It is appropriate that the oldest athlete of these games comes from the oldest nation. Nearly a quarter of Japanese are over 65 years old, far higher than the worldwide average of 5.9 percent.
It’s fair to say that Hoketsu’s horse, Whisper, is the real athlete. However, it’s also fair to say that since the first modern games, the Olympics have expanded the definition of competitor beyond the college-age European and American men who participated in Athens. Athletes past middle age have medaled in shooting, archery, sailing and equestrian. In fact, the oldest Olympic medalist was 72-year-old Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn, who won silver in the double shot running deer contest at the 1920 Antwerp Games. If Hoketsu wants to surpass that record, he will have to return in Rio de Janeiro, at age 75.
Maria Princesa Oliveros
Track and field, Colombia
San Jose de Apartado is a violent place, even by Latin American standards. In 1997, village leaders became so weary of fighting between leftist guerrillas, right-wing death squads, drug lords and Colombian soldiers that they declared Apartado a “peace community,” off limits to armed forces of all stripes. (Apartado is in Antioquia, the same province as Medellin, the world’s cocaine capital.) That made the people of Apartado no better than guerrillas to the Colombian military, which massacred seven peace activists in 2005. The names of the victims were painted on stones and added to a pile than now numbers 160.
Apartado is the hometown of Oliveros, a late-blooming track star who won a gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles at last year’s Pan American Games in Gudalajara, Mexico, becoming “la reina de los 400 metros vallas.” This year, she qualified for the Olympics on her third try, at age 36. “In the Pan-American Games, the people of Colombia could not believe I had won a gold medal,” Oliveros said. (The Pan Am Games are open to all Western Hemisphere nations, but they took place a month after the World Track and Field Championships, and attracted few world-class athletes. Oliveros’ winning time of 56.26 would not have qualified for the World Championship finals.)
In her spare time, Oliveros teaches sport to children from violent and impoverished communities. After she retires from athletics, Oliveros says, “I want a job that gives me security.” For a woman from the killing fields of Apartado, that will be more valuable than a medal.