The Olympics are a truly unique event. With each Games that rolls around the best athletes in the world thrill us with their hard-earned talent, paid for in the 4 years preceding the games with blood, sweat and tears. It is not simply the athletic prowess on display that makes the Olympics so amazing; but the fascinating backstories we hear that capture our hearts.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are set to be no different. We’ve already had North and South Korea enter the games under the same flag; and coming up we’ve got Pita Taufatofua, who represented Tonga in the Taekwondo in Rio 2016, enter the cross country skiing event in Pyeongchang.
One notable entrant to the Pyeongchang Games in Brazil’s Victor Santos. He is also a cross country skier, but unlike Taufatofua, he has been skiing for many years. Santos learnt to roller-ski in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro, under the tuition of Leandro Ribela, a two time Olympian. This was a social program organised in the slums of Rio - that's the Olympic spirit at its finest!
Victor Santos is an amazing modern day example of an athlete who have overcome real adversity to be where he is today. But, on a lighter note, personal favorite Olympic story of mine is that of Don Thompson, the 1960 Olympic 50km race walking gold medalist. As a young man he competed in endurance running events, but when injury struck him aged 18 he switched to race walking and found great success in his new sport. He quickly became the dominant force on the British race walking scene and was selected to represent Great Britain in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
The Melbourne Games went very badly for Thompson though. He was forced to retire from the race after collapsing at 45km with heat exhaustion. Thankfully, he was selected for the 1960 Games in Rome. Knowing that the 1960 Games were his last realistic shot at a medal he wanted to do everything he could to maximize his chances and wanted to be sure not to have a repeat of the disaster that was Melbourne 1956.
But, being a true amateur athlete Don could not afford to take time off his day job as an insurance clerk and travel to Rome to acclimate to the heat before the race. In his unique brand of low-key style Don decided to acclimate in his parents bathroom in their Middlesex home. By turning the wall-mounted heater up to max, alongside putting a Valor stove and kettles of steaming water in the room he was able to push the temperature to above what would be expected in Rome. Thompson found that after half an hour he began to feel dizzy and concluded that this must mean he was acclimating to the heat. It wasn’t until after the Olympics that Thompson realised that he wasn’t feeling dizzy because of the heat or humidity, but rather the carbon monoxide produced by the Valor stove!
The heat acclimation paid off for Thompson when he won the 50km race walk by roughly 100 yards. Which, when you’re racing over 50km, is practically a photo finish. The race was, by all accounts, a thrilling spectacle.
(In addition, possibly the best Don Thompson anecdote is that at the age of 50, still a keen runner, he fell during the Thanet Marathon and broke his collarbone. He wanted to do his usual early morning run, but couldn’t tie his shoelaces. When his wife refused to be woken up in the morning to tie his laces for him he asked for her to tie them the night before, and he simply slept in his shoes.)
With each Olympic Games new champions appear, records get set and tears are shed. For certain the next two weeks in Pyeongchang will have its fair share of moments that go down in Olympic history.