Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 8, 2021

A Final Olympic Moment, Thanks By Golly, To Molly

The Olympic flame has gone out, bringing to and end the Tokyo Games of 2020 in 2021, an Olympiad that will surely be remembered as the strangest of the modern era.  There was predictable praise from various officials during the closing ceremony, with IOC president Tomas Bach leading the cheerleading.  Noting that no organizing committee had ever before dealt with a year-long postponement, and clearly also referring to the challenge of putting on the Games during an ongoing pandemic, Bach declared “We did it – together!”   

But the reaction to Bach’s exhortation was tepid, at best, with praise for the thousands of volunteers who helped stage the events of the past two weeks receiving much more sustained and heartfelt applause.  The bubble environment for the athletes coupled with the absence of fans at events, including the opening and closing ceremonies, turned the Tokyo Games into a surreal made-for-television spectacle.  That was most obvious at the end, when one of the closing ceremony’s most dramatic moments, thousands of tiny points of light coming together above the stadium floor to form the Olympic rings, was entirely special effects for the TV broadcast.  The athletes and officials in the stadium saw nothing.

Beyond the unique circumstances that led to the year-long delay and surreal staging of these Games, there are ample reasons to argue that while the torch in Tokyo may have just been extinguished, in its original symbolic meaning the Olympic flame died many quadrennial gatherings ago, snuffed out by multi-billion-dollar budgets, rampant corruption within the IOC, and the slavish pursuit of corporate sponsorships to support both the spending and the graft.  Even fans most inclined to romanticize the Games must concede such contentions are not without merit.

Still we watched.  Because there were moments.  Even Games grossly over budget, staged a year late and in isolation, produced moments worthy of that still special and unique descriptor, “Olympic.”  There was the first ever gold medal in skateboarding, won not by an American, the country that originated the sport, but fittingly enough, by Yuto Horigome of the host nation.  There was the joint decision of Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar to share the high jump gold rather than pursue personal glory in a jump-off after the two tied.  There was the javelin throw of India’s Neeraj Chapra that gave the second most populous country in the world its first ever gold medal in track and field.

And there was Saturday morning in Sapporo.  For most of us, the idea of walking 26.2 miles all at once is daunting enough.  There are plenty of fitness gurus who tell us we can do it, assuming we plan for the trek and, for lack of a better word, train for it by gradually building up the distance we walk each day.  One’s starting point depends on an individual’s lifestyle and which study he or she wants to quote, but a daily range of two to four miles probably covers most folks.  At that casual strolling rate, one walks a marathon’s distance every week or two.  Even in the assuredly hypothetical instance of intentionally doing it all at once at a typical walking pace, one had best pack both lunch and dinner and make no other plans for the day.  Yet there are millions of recreational runners for whom running a marathon is a serious goal, and a far tinier number of elite athletes for whom the Olympic Marathon is the ultimate prize.    

For most of her life, that last number had not included Molly Seidel.  As On Sports and Life first detailed here sixteen months ago, shortly after she shocked the running world by finishing second at the U.S. Olympic Trials and thus qualifying for Tokyo, Seidel was a middle-distance prodigy as a teenager, and dominated ACC competition as a collegiate runner at Notre Dame.  But a series of physical injuries and related emotional wounds derailed her career.  Seidel eventually wound up in Boston, working as a coffee shop barista and part-time babysitter, seemingly forgotten in the running world.  But an impressive performance at a 5-mile race in the fall of 2019 was followed by a half-marathon time a month later that put her in the Trials race.  Even though Seidel had never run a marathon, why not?

That first ever transit of the marathon distance was done in cold and windy conditions in Atlanta.  Seidel said after the race that she chose to stay with the leaders when they broke away, figuring she would either make the U.S. team or “spectacularly go down in flames.”  The result, to the amazement of perhaps everyone except Seidel, was a ticket to Tokyo.  Almost a year and a half later, conditions in Sapporo could not have been more different.  The marathon was moved north from Tokyo in hopes of escaping the oppressive heat and humidity that plagued the Games.  But Saturday morning the air was like soup, a brutal atmosphere for a walk, much less a 26.2-mile run.

Little was expected of the three American runners in the women’s marathon, and least of all from the unlikeliest member of the team, Molly Seidel.  Since the legendary Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural event in 1984, only one other American had medaled in the women’s race.  But from the very start, there was Seidel running with the leaders.  It was not that significant in the early going, when the lead pack was large.  But as the miles accumulated the pack thinned.  A third of the way through the race, it numbered eighteen.  At the halfway point, there were eleven.  Five miles later, as Seidel took her turn in front, she was the leader of nine.  There were seven at the twenty-mile mark, then five, and finally, four women running for three medals. 

With a mile-and-a-half to go, Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya, the world record holder in the half-marathon, began to pull away.  Her countrywoman Brigid Kosgei, who holds the marathon world record, gave chase.  Seidel ran on, now in third place in just her third ever marathon, now in sight of Olympic glory.  In the final yards, needing only to not fall down in order to claim the bronze, Seidel pointed at her USA singlet and began screaming. 

After the medal ceremony and before this most unlikely Olympian and now author of a quintessential Olympic moment flew south with her fellow medalists to be honored at the Games’ closing ceremony, Seidel said that as they were leaving for the race that morning her coach told her to bring her track suit, the prescribed medal ceremony uniform for U.S. athletes.  “Why would I need that?” she asked.  Turns out there was one person who believed in Molly Seidel even more than she believed in herself.


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