US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson swaggered into the mixed zone in Budapest’s National Athletics Stadium after winning her 100m heat at the World Championships on Sunday. As Richardson, who is the fastest in the world this year, made her way to an adoring throng of American reporters, she stopped and gave a quick side hug to Sydney Francisco, one of her competitors from her heat.
Francisco played it cool . “Good job,” she told Richardson. Then, once the American passed by, she turned around and mouthed, “Oh my God!”
Francisco finished in last place in the race, more than two seconds behind Richardson, but that fleeting interaction with an athlete she considers an icon, it seemed, more than made up for it for the 18-year-old from the island of Palau in the Pacific Ocean.
Richardson is one of the favourites to win gold in the 100m sprint at Budapest. Before the World Championships, she made it clear that nothing less than first place would count. That’s certainly the point of view of top athletes. Who after all would come to lose?
But the fact is there are only 49 gold medals in Budapest and nearly 2,000 athletes have showed up. Many have to come in last. They run the risk of being treated as an object of mirth. A few days ago, Somalia’s Nasra Abukar Ali became the subject of much mockery at the World University Games. A video of her race, in which she finished well behind the winners of her heat, went viral.
So, why suspend logic and compete when you have no chance of winning?
It’s because, as Northern Mariana Islands competitor Zarinae Sapong who finished last in the first heat of the women’s 100m, says – everyone isn’t competing for the same thing.
“At the end of the day, I’m here to compete in my own race. I have to block out my competitors. I’m here not to think about them. I’m here thinking about my own goals. That’s the mentality you need to have when you are coming here. Because it’s very overwhelming to be here otherwise. You could be running next to the previous world champion, the current world lead,” says Sapong.
She ran alongside two-time world and Olympic medallist Daryll Neita .
Sapong’s goals were simple – do a personal best. She came in with a personal best of 12.98s and a season’s best of 13.20s – nearly two-and-a-half seconds slower than Neita. Sapong, who is from Saipan in the Pacific island nation, clocked 13.04s, a season’s best.
“Before this, we had the Oceania Championships in June. My target from then on was to just run my hardest and hopefully get a personal best. But a season’s best? I can’t be too mad at that,” says Sapong.
A lot of the competitors who bring up the tail of these races are indeed overcoming challenges and a lack of resources that other athletes would take for granted.
Tauro Tion, who came in last in his preliminary round of the men’s 100m a day ago, was competing on a Mondo synthetic racetrack for the first time. There’s no synthetic racetrack back home and he mostly runs on grass. “It’s a very different feeling to running on a track. With grass, you always feel like you have to balance because it’s an uneven surface. On a synthetic track you can run straight and fast but that takes getting used to,” says Tion who clocked 12s, a bit shy of his personal best, which he says is 11.7s.
It can be even harder for women athletes. “We don’t have enough coaches in Palau, not enough equipment. Just coming here is an opportunity. We don’t have officials or even athletes to conduct tournaments. I’m the only girl training in Palau. I train with my track brothers. It’s hard because I’m only training with guys. It’s not the ideal training,” says Fransisco.
For many of these athletes, sports are a passion. They have to hold down regular jobs to pay the bills as well as training expenses. Sapong shares, “In the Marianas, I’m a programme coordinator for an organisation that fights against domestic violence and sexual assault. I train at 5am because that’s when I can before I go to work.” Her coworkers, she adds, are helpful. “They support me a lot. They keep asking me, ‘What’s the link for your race? When is it happening?’”
Then, of course, there is simply the challenge of making it to the world championships. “Too long,” Sapong laughs when asked how long it took to travel from Mariana Islands to Budapest. “The flight time alone would be a day. Add the layover and it’s another few.”
Even if an athlete manages to find the time to train, makes the journey to a far-off land, and then still manages to accomplish a goal, there’s often the reality that it might be a lonely affair.
Ty’rii Langidrik from the USA Marshall Islands attests to this. “My personal best before I came to Budapest was 11.92s,” says Langidrik. He ran a 11.78s in Budapest. “I am super happy with my time. I just told myself I need to beat my PB, which I did. That was my goal. There are some 30,000 people in the stadium and nobody here, except me, knows that was my goal. It’s still pretty nice.”
Langidrik benefited from running alongside runners much faster than him. Francisco, who broke her personal best with a time of 13.48s certainly believes so. “When you are with the world’s best athletes, it’s good because it helps you break your records. I set my previous personal best last year when I got the chance to compete in Australia. Ever since then, I’ve not been able to beat my PB until just now because I’ve not been able to go out. I can only do my best when I go out into the world,” she says.
Francisco admits she was perhaps just happy to run alongside Richardson. “ I’ve always followed her on Instagram and YouTube. When I found out I was going to be running with her, I almost panicked because it was so surreal,” she says.
Despite running alongside her icon, Francisco says she did tunnel out eventually. “It’s not every day that you get to run with Sha’Carri. She’s like my favourite athlete. I’m here for my own race. I’m not here to compete with Sha’Carri. I am here to break my own record,” she says.
Now that she has, she can make the multiple day journey back to Palau and resume her life as a student, having accomplished the mission she set herself. “People in Palau just wanted me to come here and do my best. That’s what I did. I can go back with pride knowing I did all I could do. Now, I’ll go back to training. Next time, I’ll be even faster,” she says.
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