It was Shakespeare who said, “All the world’s a stage.” I honestly don’t understand much of what Shakespeare wrote, but after watching the opening ceremonies of the 19th Winter Olympiad, I’m beginning to understand at least one of his passages a little better.
Almost two weeks ago, thousands of athletes representing more than 70 countries descended on Salt Lake City, the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics. They represented the best the world had to offer. Each athlete spent countless hours training in preparation for this moment. Indeed, they each traveled thousands of miles to compete on the world’s stage.
And they rarely disappoint.
Some of the most memorable events in sports history have taken place on the Olympic stage. One’s mind instantly conjures up images of the “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid or Dan Jansen winning gold in the final race of his career in Lillehammer.
We have been introduced to unlikely heroes as well. A bobsled team from the tropical nation of Jamaica captured our imaginations and reminded us that anything is possible.
On the first day of competition this year, the world was again introduced to one of these unlikely heroes.
The Olympic sport of cross-country skiing is hardly what I considered “viewer friendly.” Trekking 30 kilometers over snow may be a great cardiovascular workout, but it hardly grabs attention like the blur of a bobsled zigging and zagging down an icy chute or watching in utter shock as some crazed Olympian flings himself off a giant ski jump.
A week ago I would’ve laughed if you told me I would be glued to the TV during the men’s 30K event. But then again, a week ago I had never heard of Prawat Nagvajara.
Nagvajara is hardly what one visualizes when thinking of an Olympic athlete. He just celebrated his 43rd birthday, stands a mere 5’7″ and weighs a little over 130 lbs. His build probably reminds you more of a high school sophomore than of a well-tuned Olympic athlete. He hadn’t even seen snow until 1976, when he came to Boston from Thailand to begin school at Northeastern University.
Four years ago, he wasn’t training for the Salt Lake games; he watched them at home like you and me. It was during the 1998 games in Nagano that Nagvajara’s Olympic dreams were born. He was inspired after watching a Kenyan (that’s not a typo) cross-country skier named Philip Boit. Boit finished in 61st place, a full hour out of 60th and probably a full day or two out of medal contention.
Back in Pennsylvania, where he is an associate professor at Drexel University, Nagvajara thought, “Hey, maybe I can do that.”
After four years of training, Nagvajara became Thailand’s first and only Winter Olympian. He proudly bore the flag of his native country during the opening ceremonies as its lone delegate. He is an Olympian.
When a reporter asked him what he was feeling, he smiled and said, “I live in the United States so I’ll be cheering for Team U.S.A. But I’ll be cheering for Team Thailand as well.”
Unlike Boit, however, Nagvajara faced the possibility of not finishing the race.
This year a competitor was immediately disqualified if he was lapped at any point during the competition.
As the gun sounded, Nagvajara immediately fell behind. After the first half-kilometer, he trailed the pack by nearly 125 yards.
His first Olympic race ended a few kilometers later as the eventual winner, Johan Muehlegg of Spain, passed him. He hadn’t even completed one of the four 7.5 kilometer circuits.
It wasn’t the fairytale ending Walt Disney would’ve come up with. It wasn’t a performance that would get him on a Wheaties box. He certainly wouldn’t inspire a Nike commercial with little cross-country skiers proclaiming, “I am Prawat Nagvajara.”
It was, however, one of the greatest moments of these Olympic Games. In a time of multi-million dollar contracts and huge endorsement deals, he reminded us of what athletics should be all about: a simple and pure love of sport.
“I live in the United States, so I’ll be cheering for Team U.S.A. But I’ll be cheering for team Thailand as well.”
That makes two of us.
Zach Fehrenbach (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a UW alumnus who has begun training for the men’s 4 X 1 keg-race team in the hopes that it becomes a medal sport soon.