Olympic Fever  

His was a small village in a small country so his hope of participating in the next summer Olympics was not far-fetched. He was an old-fashioned mailman, which is to say he did his route on foot. He used his work as an opportunity to train. You could barely see him as he dashed from house to house, dogs in hot pursuit, never catching him. He warmed up in the village but really hit his stride in the outlying areas. It was mountainous there and sparsely populated. He did his rounds even when there was nothing to deliver. He offered to run errands for the people, since he covered the town and outlying area.

People who at first derided his efforts at racewalking had to review their position as he grew stronger and quicker from his relentless training. They still thought he walked funny, but he was so well-conditioned that he never broke into a sweat. And there was this time when he was asked to fetch the doctor and, as he had cut through the woods at his tremendous pace, he made it before the car that had been commandeered to summon the doctor. No priest was needed for little Sally, and his folly became their salvation. After that event, the wind changed, and people started cheering him on. Pressed by Sally’s mother, the townspeople raised some money and got him proper sneakers for competitions and extra to pay for transportation.

He made it to the Olympics, after three years of dedicated effort. He was interviewed and properly named their little town of 300 inhabitants. The pride was palpable, no emotion too strong for this forgotten people. The sneakers were supple, well broken in.  He consistently placed high in the successive waves, earning a spot in the semi-finals. They had not been fazed when the power went out. Everyone was huddled in the café to watch the Olympics. The generator kicked in and they kicked back in their chairs, waiting for the semi-finals to come on. By then, Sami was a celebrity, having outraced better known athletes.

The announcers had started rooting for him, an underdog always being appreciated as his presence added a touch of drama and intensity to the proceedings.  The top athletes had never competed against the mailman. He was an unknown quantity and they had been quick – too quick! – to judge him unworthy. What he lacked in style and refinement, he more than made up in grit and resilience. He had never trained indoors. He was used to lugging around a heavy bag. On the day of the semi-finals, Sami had ingested a large breakfast, as was his custom. He had walked quickly from the athlete’s village to the stadium and back, having forgotten his lucky medal. He was all warmed up and mentally rested. He kept waving and smiling good-naturedly at the camera, blowing kisses and winking at his assembled fans.

He had become well-known in the athletes’ village for his kindness. He delivered sweet notes from the men’s dorm to the women’s and back, a role he naturally took on like a second skin. As he was always ready to do a favour, other athletes came in droves to see him in compete. He had a loyal following, with hangers-on always ready for a party. He was older than most athletes, which inspired them. They could see themselves competing in a second and maybe a third Olympics. He was the stuff dreams are made of. There were two false starts in his wave and he was slow starting the third time. He led the race from the back in the first lap. They were all bunched together, which made it tricky to pass. He could not see his way in this dense undergrowth of legs. Once this thought came to him, everything fell into place.

He imagined his competitors as trees and natural obstacles and his legs did the rest. His lungs expanded, his breathing deepened, his stride lengthened and became relaxed. He nimbly passed the athletes in the rear, steadily making his way through the jostling elbows, hitting like branches, poking him indiscriminately. He did not lose his focus though he emerged black and blue from the fray. As far as he could tell, these were young trees, easy to bend and pass. As focused as he was, he did not notice that he cut a competitor off which caused him to fall. The competing country was a large sponsor, and he was penalized for poor sportsmanship. The fallen competitor moved on to the finals where he did not win, but he stayed behind, disconsolate. That move was played and replayed, analyzed from every angle. The decision to penalize the underdog polarized the press to the extent that it overshadowed the win in the final race.

As a consolation prize, he was given to walk with his country’s flag at the closing ceremonies. He was stone-faced, not the happy-go-lucky man everybody had learned to know and love. He was not a broken man, would not allow this to be, but he was downcast and cut a poor figure. He was given a hero’s welcome at home which he accepted graciously and quietly for the sake of his friends and family. However, he would not be a mouthpiece for any association affiliated to the Games. He agreed to coach the youth of the village. He trained them like Gretzky’s dad had. At all times, they had to be aware of their surroundings, and plan and strategize. He was vindicated when Sally won silver eight years later in the Women’s. Under his stewardship, the little town became famous for churning out winners.

Would-be Olympians trained under his direction. He became a full-time coach. The next mailman never attained his fame. By then, the roads had been paved and he rode it, with an eye on qualifying in cycling events. He did not have the required strength of mind and lived on the fumes of his dream. That was the way of the village.