FAST Blast: Revisiting Derek Redmond’s extraordinary Olympic story

PREGAME TALK — Welcome to A Slow Life in the FAST Lane. The stars of this blog, faith and sports, need no introduction. And for those who think, “I’m not a person of faith and I’m definitely not religious” — that’s an understandable sentiment, but think again!

Consider these dictionary definitions: Religion is “something of overwhelming importance to a person: football is his religion.” Further: Religion is “something a person believes in devotedly” — and aren’t we all devoted to someone and/or something? I think so.

This blog has five categories: the FAST Blast (column-like musings), the All-Name Teams, FAST Sonnets in Cyberspace, Non Sequiturs + Other Quasi-Funny Stuff, and FAST Fiction.

My goal is to post new content weekly, in one category, by Saturday — and depending on the time crunch, that post might be something short, such as an All-Name Team.

Once more, welcome — read, vote, comment as you wish … and
play ball!

Bruce Deckert

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TWO DECADES LATER, a riveting Olympic story still resonates.

This story echoes like a starter’s gun across the tracks and fields of time, signaling dreams deferred and shattered — and then, after the heartbreak, dreams somehow restored and reborn.

This story pulsates with an afflicted runner’s energy, reverberates with raw emotion, celebrates the never-give-up Olympic ethos.

This is the true-life tale of Derek Redmond.

The setting: the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The event: the 400-meter dash (semifinal).
The backstory: Redmond’s career was beset by Achilles tendon injuries and surgeries, and at the Beijing Games in ’88 a tendon injury forced him to withdraw moments before his first race. Four long years later, some considered the 26-year-old British sprinter a medal favorite…

The TV coverage leading up to Redmond’s semifinal reminds viewers how he missed the ’88 Games and documents how hard he trained to return to Olympic glory.

Redmond starts strong — but after about 150 meters injury strikes again, this time a torn right hamstring. Devastated, he kneels on the track. When medical staff come to him, he decides to keep going. Rising to his feet, he begins to hobble along — and I mean hobble.

“The thought that went through my mind — as crazy as it sounds now — was, ‘I can still catch them,'” Redmond says. “I just remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m not going to stop. I’m going to finish this race.'”

What happens next is an indelible Olympic moment.

A man descends from the stands to the track and, getting past security, chases Redmond from behind. A crazed spectator, perhaps?

The man catches up with the limping sprinter … and puts his arm around Redmond’s shoulder.

The man is Derek’s Dad.

“The old man went to put his arms around me,” Derek says, “and I was just about to try and push him off because I thought it was someone else — I didn’t see him, he sort of jogged from behind. And he said, ‘Look, you don’t need to do this. You can stop now, you haven’t got nothing to prove.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I have — now get me back into Lane 5. I want to finish.’”

Jim Redmond wants his son to stop in case he’s able to recover and compete in the 4×400-meter relay for the British team that won gold at the ’91 World Championships.

But Derek is determined to complete the course, so his Dad says, “Well then, we’re going to finish this together.”

Derek continues his strange and moving race, with his Dad’s arm draped around him (and vice versa). As they walk around the track together, Derek is overcome by the emotion of the moment and his tears flow freely. He sobs at intervals, leaning on his Dad’s shoulder.

“You just knew how destroyed he was and just how much that race meant to him,” says Sally Gunnell, the British women’s team captain in ’92 who won gold in the 400-meter hurdles. “It’s … a picture that just stays in your mind forever.”

Meanwhile, 65,000 fans stand and applaud — and some weep along with Derek. When father and son reach the cusp of the finish line, Dad releases his hold and Derek crosses the line solo.

In a postrace interview, Jim Redmond says, “He had to finish, and I was there to help him finish. … We started his career together, and I think we should finish it together.”

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A standing ovation.

Why such rousing applause for an injured athlete who won neither a race nor a medal? The answer, I believe, is simple: This story reflects the deep yearning of the human heart.

Twenty years ago, I was awestruck at the glimpse Derek Redmond’s story gives into the message of the Christian faith.

Yes, I grew up in the Church, and I’m persevering in the Church. As someone who subscribes to the historic Christian faith, while aiming to avoid its caricatures and counterfeits, I believe there are solid reasons why a genuine biblical worldview makes all the sense in the world. Yet I also continue to wrestle with questions — by the way, I reckon I’d have questions whatever worldview I embraced — and one of them is the timeless query that’s older than Mount Olympus: What is the meaning of life?

Naturally, the world’s various faiths, worldviews and philosophies all give an answer, and so do people who consider themselves nonreligious — and while everyone is at it, could someone also answer the mystifying question of how on earth the Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS? No MLB team had ever surrendered a 3-0 series lead before. It still seems surreal — are we sure it actually happened?

But I digress … back to the standing O for Derek and his Dad: Do the messages of other worldviews elicit such a deep human response?

Let’s imagine a couple of parallel-universe versions of Derek Redmond’s story.

After his hamstring snapped, what if Derek had sat on the track and penned a poem about the meaninglessness of life, or cursed his fate, or smiled in the face of his misfortune — and then hobbled into the tunnel under the stadium, never to be seen again?

Spectators might have considered him stoic, perhaps quasi-heroic — but would they have been moved to stand and applaud with abandon? If each human being departs into nothingness, as atheism proclaims, is the human heart moved to high praise?

What if Derek had sat on the track, accepted his suffering bravely, and disappeared into the stadium tunnel … and then another sprinter emerged from the tunnel? But an announcement was made that this new sprinter was Derek in another form. And this occurred over and over again.

Spectators might have been heartened about Derek’s ever-new opportunity to run the race. Still, do pantheistic religions such as Hinduism — with their claim of reincarnation and apparent loss of individuality — provide a personal narrative that moves people to weep openly at a father’s intervention?

What of the Christian worldview — does it furnish a framework for a resounding ovation as a father’s heart responds to his child’s pain?

The parable of the Prodigal Son gives us more than an inkling.

In the incarnation, God enters the arena of human history, coming alongside hurting human beings and offering to guide us home. In the crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth shares the suffering of humans with all their wounds and heartache — enduring hamstring (and heart) replacement surgery, sans anesthesia. In the resurrection, Jesus achieves brand-new life — athletically, physically and otherwise — on the other side of the finish line called death.

British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once declared: “Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.”

That statement resonates with me. True, Derek Redmond’s Olympic moment doesn’t answer all my questions about the meaning of life and life’s many messages, but it does offer a clue — some athletic forensic evidence in the case of a lifetime … a case about which we all will make a decision.

Do you think God speaks through Derek Redmond’s Olympic heartbreak and parental redemption? Or do you believe such occurrences are unlikely or impossible? Does a Creator exist, and if so, does He speak to people through the world of sports?

This blog aims to investigate such questions.

You are invited to join me on this journey to discover the answers that can be found at the intersection of sports and faith…

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P.S. A few observers have dismissed Derek Redmond’s actions in Barcelona as melodramatic and attention-seeking. I’ve watched the video, and I don’t see an act. For my money, his story is the signature moment in the history of the Olympics.

The signature accomplishment in Olympic history, in my view, is the remarkable four-gold triumph of U.S. star Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.

• Related post: Derek Redmond’s Olympic heartbreak and the problem of suffering

Information and quotes from various media outlets and YouTube were used in this article.

© Bruce William Deckert 2012

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