Perhaps the most moving parcel of time that these Games will see happened at Olympic Stadium on Tuesday morning, in the heats of the women’s 5,000 meters.
It was a moment that forged a friendship between two athletes who had never previously met, an accident that preceded an extraordinary gesture to warm the hearts of a global audience and spoke to everything that is good and righteous about international sports’ grandest competition.
Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand and Abbey D’Agostino of the USA didn’t know each other and had never spoken before they stepped onto the track, both seeking a place in the final amid stiff competition.
With 4½ of the 12½ laps remaining, confusion struck. D’Agostino fell while running amid a pack of athletes, causing her to clip Hamblin, just ahead of her. The pair tumbled spectacularly. It was an ugly, disappointing mess.
Until something beautiful and uplifting, literally, happened.
“When I went down I was like ‘Why am I on the ground’ and suddenly there was this hand on my shoulder,” Hamblin said.
It was D’Agostino, who had stopped, and was lifting her rival to her feet. “Come on, get up,” the American was saying. “We have to finish this race.”
The problem was, that D’Agostino’s knee had been battered in the fall. It was badly damaged and looked out of place. As she helped Hamblin it buckled beneath her. The New Zealander then returned the favor, lending physical support, and waiting until D’Agostino was able to move under her own speed that she carried on. The pair continued.
Hamblin finished in 16:43:61, D’Agostino 17:10:02. Both times, understandably, were way outside their personal bests. They didn’t matter. It could have taken an hour for them to finish and they would still have triumphed as emphatically as any gold medal winner.
This is how sports should be. Competition is important and entertaining but humanity is more so. Abbey D’Agostino knows. So too does Nikki Hamblin.
“I am so grateful to Abbey for doing that for me,” Hamblin said. “That girl is the Olympic spirit right there. I am so impressed and inspired.
“I had never met her, isn’t that so amazing? It is a moment that I will never ever forget for the rest of my life.”
As they were not at fault for the fall, both Hamblin and D’Agostino were advanced through the final. D’Agostino immediately received medical treatment after the race and it is not clear if she will even be able to run. Hamblin will be a huge long shot for a medal. Again, it doesn’t matter.
This will resonate more than anything else they could have done, or could do now, more so than if they pulled off a miraculous upset by breaking the tape tied for first in a new world record time.
Friday’s morning moment prompted an outpouring of support and attention around the world. Journalists from eight nations were in the pack who interviewed Hamblin after the race. D’Agostino was in the medical tent, receiving treatment, when she got the message she had been put into the final.
Maybe D’Agostino got swept up in the Olympic spirit. Maybe she was just so happy to be here that she did a remarkable deed – she only placed fifth at trials but got a spot when two other athletes pulled out of the event. Or maybe, as Hamblin said, she is just “such a good person.”
“Everyone wants to win and get a medal, but as disappointing as it is, there is so much more to this,” Hamblin said. “It is just a mutual understanding of how much everyone puts into it. For sure (we have) a friendship now. When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years time, that is my story. She is my story.”