By 10 p.m. the race wasn't a race at all, just a solitary Mongolian inching along the track. Otgonbayar, the 22-year-old daughter of camel and sheep herders, didn't so much run into the historic stadium as microshuffle in, with a gait so unhurried that the thousands of cheering spectators could be forgiven for thinking the world had paused or, at the very least, shifted into super slo-mo. "The sound of all the clapping from the fans pushed me forward, and I felt like I was running very fast," says Otgonbayar, who ended her race with a time of 3:48:42, half an hour behind the second-slowest competitor. "Even if I finished last, it was all right, because I still finished and many people, even famous people, didn't do that."
As the pageantry of the Olympics wound down last week, the clack of taxi drivers' worry beads and the endless renditions of the theme from Zorba the Greek already fading from memory, about 10,000 athletes faced the reality of leaving Athens as losers. But the jubilant performances of many of these athletes reminded us that the Olympics draw their greatest glory from the dignity of competing and finishing—even if it's in last place. Naturally, the Games' most exceptional winners will remain etched in our minds. Take Hicham El Guerrouj, Morocco's rendition of a Giacometti stick figure, who stayed ahead of Kenya's Bernard Lagat seemingly by dint of facial contortion alone to capture a long-elusive Olympic win in the 1,500-m race. Or Birgit Fischer, Germany's 42-year-old kayaker who won her eighth gold in a 24-year Olympic career. Or Liu Xiang, the first Chinese to strike gold in a short-distance track event, when he ran an Olympic-record 12.91 seconds in the 110-m hurdles. Or, of course, the most high wattage of them all, American golden boy Michael Phelps, whose devotion to PlayStation didn't keep him from winning eight medals in the pool.
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Last week's track-and-field events introduced some of the Games' most compelling losers. The women's 100 m included several much-photographed Muslims, three of whom finished last in their heats. The Somali and Bahraini ran in head scarves and didn't qualify for the next round of races, but they nevertheless set personal and national records, respectively. The Kuwaiti and Afghan sprinters crossed the line three seconds off the fastest qualifying time, yet they still made history as their countries' first female Olympians. Iraq's Alaa Jassim, whose 100-m training regimen was occasionally foiled by sniper fire and bombings, may have ended up eighth out of eight in her heat, but she left Athens feeling remarkably relaxed. "Before, if an Iraqi finished last in the Olympics, they could be thrown in jail and tortured," says Iraq's Olympic chief of mission Tiras Anwaya. "We don't have to worry about such things now."
Finishing last, of course, wasn't just the province of tiny island nations or war-ravaged countries. Even athletic giants could crash. American diver Justin Wilcock was still recovering from a stress fracture in his back, but he insisted on competing, against his coaches' advice, reasoning that you don't dedicate 13 years of your life to a sport only to pull out. During one of his dives, the Utah native's foot scraped the board. Another awkward plunge resulted in a score of zero, and Wilcock ended the night at the bottom of the 3-m springboard preliminary competition. "Just competing is what's important," he says. "I knew I had to live my Olympic dream."
Sporting superpowers China, Australia and France each had at least five athletes finish in the lowest spot. And Greece, which ended the Games with the smallest medal tally of any host country since Canada won only 11 medals at the 1976 Montréal Olympics, appeared at the bottom of the list at least eight times. One of the most poignant final-place finishes, though, came from Brunei's Jimmy Anak Ahar, the Southeast Asian nation's sole Olympic athlete, who straggled far behind the pack in the 1,500 m, erasing his country's dreams of Olympic respectability. Still sucking wind after his 4:14.11 time, 40 seconds slower than gold medalist El Guerrouj, Ahar swept past reporters, his head downcast. Yet the Bruneian's performance was surely more honorable than that of Uzbekistan's Olga Shchukina, who not only finished last in her qualifying group in the shot put but later tested positive for an anabolic steroid, or Iranian flag bearer Arash Miresmaeili, who deliberately missed his qualifying weight in the 66-kg judo event after discovering the draw pitted him against an Israeli.
Such political antics made little sense to Wania Monteiro, an 18-year-old from Cape Verde, one of the few residents of her African island nation to devote her life to tossing ribbons, hoops, clubs and rubber balls. It's hard for many Olympic fans to get overly excited about rhythmic gymnastics, a so-called sport that involves sequin-attired women contorting their bodies as if in a Cirque du Soleil performance. But Monteiro took her Olympic responsibility seriously, often training in a dilapidated gym with ceilings too low to accommodate a proper hoop or ball toss. In last week's preliminaries, she finished last, but Monteiro didn't seem overly distressed. "It was a very nice experience," she said. "I'm not here to win first place. I'm here to show that in Cape Verde, we don't have good conditions to train, but maybe if we had better conditions, we would have better gymnastics." Mongolia's Otgonbayar, too, hoped her last-place finish might spur on more marathoners in her native land. "Our country is very big," she says. "We have lots of space to train for the marathon." Motion doesn't get any more triumphal than the descendants of Genghis Khan racing through the grasslands, in pursuit of the true Olympic spirit.