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The story of the slowest athletes at the Rio Olympics, and why they compete

Athletics - Olympics: Day 9 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO — In March, Richson Simeon ran the first race of his track career. He had to learn pretty quickly -- in five months, he'd be racing in the same event as Usain Bolt.

The 18-year-old from Sacramento had been tapped to be the lone male track athlete representing the Marshall Islands, his parents’ homeland, a tiny group of islands in the Pacific Ocean. In Rio, he would compete in the 100-meter dash. But before facing Bolt, he tried racing some junior college students from Northern California.

He came in dead last.

Simeon was frustrated. He didn’t know a thing about sprinting, just that everybody who competitively sprinted was much faster than him.

"For two weeks, I had my head down," said Simeon. "How can I keep up with the guys at the Olympics if I can’t keep up with the guys here?"

But the Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee sent him a message. They wanted Simeon to keep his head up, keep training, and get as fast as he could in five months.

He might not have been able to beat a single person in a low-level race in California, but if he kept trying, he would race in the world’s biggest track meet against the fastest man of all time.

Simeon is one of hundreds of athletes at the Olympics whose athletic credentials aren’t quite up to the level of those competing for golds and silvers. They come to Rio with little hope of winning, but filled with hope that their mere participation in these events can cause something to change.

* * *

Most athletes at the Olympics qualify for the Olympics -- but not all do.

In athletics and swimming, the process for qualifying is pretty simple to understand. The federations that run those sports, the IAAF for athletics and FINA for swimming, set qualifying standards for every event. In theory, if you hit that qualifying standard, you’re in the Olympics. In the men’s 100, that standard is 10.16 seconds.

But if the Olympics went just by that standard, they’d look weird. 18 Jamaican athletes — Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake, Nickel Ashmeade, Senoj-Jay Givens, Omar McLeod, Kemar Bailey-Cole, Jevaughn Minzie, Jason Livermore, Michael Frater, Julian Forte, Warren Weir, Everton Clarke, Rasheed Dwyer, Chadic Hines, Oshane Bailey, Dexter Lee, and Nigel Ellis — hit that time in competitions this year. Meanwhile, the 48 nations comprising Asia had just 16 runners total who hit that time. And none of the Pacific island nations, like the Marshall Islands, had any runners who hit that threshold.

So there are some caveats to the qualifying standard. One limits nations from having too many athletes. In track, you can only have three competitors per event. In swimming, the number is two. That way, we don’t have a heat of eight Jamaican runners fighting for first in every sprint event.

And if your nation doesn’t have an athlete who hits those standards, you're still allowed to enter athletes in the Olympics. FINA and IAAF allow each nation two "universality places" — one for a male athlete, one for a female athlete — in case none of that country's athletes are actually good enough to compete on merit. So no matter what, every country can enter two athletes and two swimmers, should they so choose.

* * *

Simeon says his favorite thing about the Marshall Islands is the tight-knit community — a necessity on an archipelago whose islands rarely have more than a few square miles of landmass.

"Everybody knows everybody," he says, "And even if you’re at the house of somebody you don’t know, they’ll still feed you."

In a strange way, that sense of community is how he ended up here. In 2014, Simeon posted a video of himself playing high school football to Hudl, a site many high school recruits use to get their highlight tapes noticed by colleges. No schools bit, but he did get a bite from an unexpected source: The Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee.

The Marshall Islands are not capable of producing a home-grown sprinter. The islands are atolls, strips of land rarely thicker than a few hundred meters. It is tough to logistically imagine where a regulation 400 meter track would even fit. It is even tougher to imagine the country, whose economy is almost entirely dependent on aid from the United States, spending its limited resources on such a facility.

So to find sprinters to fill their two Olympic berths, the committee had to improvise. They could find somebody willing to practice on the islands’ limited real estate, without any semblance of proper facilities or training. This is what Tuvalu, an even smaller island nation, had to do. They converted Etimoni Timuani, a defender on the country’s national soccer team, into a sprinter. He spent most of his time training on the nation's airfield.

The committee chose the second option: They sought out an athlete with Marshallese citizenship living abroad in a place where he could use resources unavailable in the islands.

Simeon’s family and friends watched the video of him playing football. They showed it to their friends, they showed it to their friends, and, well, there are only 52,000 people on the Marshall Islands. It didn’t take long before somebody at the NOC saw it. So they reached out and asked him if he’d like to go to the Olympics.

Simeon told me he was a running back in high school, but watching his highlight reel, he was really more of an inside linebacker and fullback. While most Olympic sprinters are tall and built for speed, Simeon is about 5’10, and when asked what he liked about football, replies, "I like to hit" -- not exactly a useful trait in sprinting. The video reveals that he has decent straight line speed, but he probably wasn’t the fastest player on a team that finished below .500 in both his junior and senior years.

Next, the committee gave a call to Rob Dewer, the head track coach at Sacramento City College. He ignored the first few emails and calls from the Marshall Islands, assuming he was being pranked. But eventually, he realized this opportunity was for real, and agreed to coach the novice sprinter -- the first time he'd ever trained an active Olympic athlete.

Is Simeon the fastest athlete from the Marshall Islands? There’s no real way of knowing. But he’s a pretty good athlete who lives in a city with facilities and coaching most Marshallese would have to uproot their lives to access. And so he was the country’s best Olympic hope.

* * *

They’re on the track for less than 12 seconds, and in the pool for roughly a minute. And honestly, that's still way too long. These athletes are finishing seconds behind their opponents in sports decided by instants. But they hope their short-yet-still-too-long performances have effects that can last a lifetime.

For some, it’s about strengthening a sport.

"I want the kids to know there’s something besides football," says Thibaut Danho, a swimmer who lives in France but is representing Côte D'Ivoire. The country does have Olympic-length pools, but Danho says they're "not very good," and he hopes that will change.

For others, it’s about gender equality. Nada Al-Bedwawi got to carry the flag of the United Arab Emirates in the opening ceremony, an experience she called "a great honor."

"I want to encourage women’s swimming, I want to encourage women’s sports," Al-Bedwawi said. "It takes changing the mentality of the people. As a country, we have been very progressive, except maybe in sports. We are trying to do that one step at a time."

Nada Al-Bedwawi carries UAE's flag in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics
Nada Al-Bedwawi carries UAE's flag in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Naomi Ruele is not the first Olympic female swimmer from Botswana, but she is the first black Olympic female swimmer from Botswana, a country that is only 3 percent white.

"It shows how far we’ve come along. It shows you don’t have to be scared," says Ruele. "Even if swimming’s not your best sport, you can do it if you put your mind to it."

For Simeon, it’s about climate change. No part of the Marshall Islands is more than a few meters above the water, and as the ocean creeps higher and higher, there’s worry that the whole country will disappear. He hasn’t seen the effects of the water’s rise first-hand, but he’s seen videos posted by friends of water going places the water definitely shouldn’t be.

"Everybody from the islands, they know what that is," Simeon says. "People from the four corners of the world, they don’t know. Just saying something about it, that raises a lot of awareness."

Pacific Islanders at the Olympics have carried this mantle. Kiribati weightlifter David Katoatau built a house for his parents with his weightlifting winnings, only to have the structure wash away due to abnormally high waters. He finished last in his weight class, but his dancing went viral and drew attention to the nation’s plight.

For his part, Simeon has taken pictures wearing the phrase "1.5°C -- The Record We Must Not Break," signifying the drastic effects his country might feel if the global temperature raises by 1.5 degrees Celsius.

These are just a few of the stories of these athletes. Each one is from a different place, with different problems, and different reasons to race. They won’t win medals, and they know it. They’re here to be seen, with the hope that their mere performance can change their worlds.

* * *

In his high school highlight tape, Simeon has long, flowing hair, like so many football players from the islands before him. When he takes to the track, his head is shaved. So much about Simeon has had to change so quickly for him to get to these Olympics.

When Simeon first started working with Dewer, he essentially had no idea what he was doing.

"He was a newbie," Dewer said. "He didn’t even know how to get in the starting blocks."

But he learned quickly. Dewer noticed an immediate improvement as Simeon picked up all the elementary techniques of sprinting.

And then he forgot them all. In that first race -- the one he finished last in — he ran a 12.3.

"The look on his face was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’" Dewer said. "I told him, ‘Everything we worked on, you just threw out the door. You’re better than that.’"

Simeon committed fully to training, working every day but Sunday to get better. There was marked improvement. In June, he traveled across the Pacific for the Micronesian games, and ran an 11.87.

He was ready to participate at the Olympic games. It would be the fifth race of his life.

* * *

OK, so, you don’t technically get to race with Usain Bolt if you qualify via universality place. You get to compete in the same event as him, but you probably won’t end up on the track at the same time.

Because the majority of universality-place athletes are not particularly advanced at their sports, they’re often entered into the simplest possible events: Either the 50-meter freestyle in swimming, or the 100-meter dash in athletics.

There are 38 athletes in the Olympics who actually qualified for the men’s 50 freestyle, the shortest swim race at the Olympics. But there are 42 athletes participating who have been granted universality places. In the women’s event, there are seven heats of athletes before a single swimmer who actually hit a qualifying standard takes the pool.

The parade of unqualified athletes is a strange thing to witness. The crowd isn’t quite there yet—they know the people they want to see will swim later. Nobody has come here from Palau or Guinea-Bissau to cheer these athletes on. But as the races occur, whatever audience is in the building begins to realize it’s their job to support these athletes.

Robel Habte prepares to dive off the blocks into the pool at the 100-meter freestyle
Robel Habte, right, took more than a minute to finish the 100-meter freestyle.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Robel Habte of Ethiopia takes more than a minute to finish the 100 freestyle, placing him 17.05 seconds behind the athlete with the fastest time — and 7.19 seconds behind the swimmer with the second-slowest time. He’s in the pool for what seems like an eternity, several body lengths behind swimmers who weren’t doing so great in their own right.

It’s probably the least athletically impressive performance of any athlete in these games. But as he struggles towards the end of the pool, the crowd rises. They don’t know who Habte is, or what country he’s from, or any reason why they should support him. But they feel its their job to help ease him towards the finish line.

People outside of the arena aren’t necessarily cheering. Habte, who isn’t as skinny as most swimmers, is mocked and criticized online for his slow performance and physique. After gaining internet infamy, he claims his weight gain was due to a car crash suffered shortly before the games.

Many of the racers don’t quite seem up to the task at hand. I talk to Kiribati’s John Ruuka about 15 minutes after his 11.65 second 100 meter dash. He’s still wheezing, taking several beats before attempting to answer any questions.

We admire the athletes who pull off spectacular athletic achievements and make it look easy. We should also take a moment to admire these athletes who make it look incredibly, incredibly hard. They’ve worked and fought for their painful moments on the Olympic stage in ways runners and swimmers from more competitive countries might not have. And they did it without the allure of potentially winning: They did it just to say they did it.

A popular sentiment on social media during the Olympics has been that it would be intriguing to watch a normal person attempt to complete the same events as elite Olympians. It’s already happening, if you know where to watch — and it inspires exactly the feelings you expect. Both awe for the superheroes who go for gold, and fascination with the men and women who try even though they’ll never come close.

* * *

Simeon finishes with a time of 11.81. It is tied for the slowest time from any competitor at the Olympics. It’s exactly two seconds slower than Usain Bolt’s gold-medal winning run. In life, two seconds is how roughly long it took me to decide to type the phrase "two seconds" and properly execute it. In the 100-meter dash, it may as well be 100 years.

Back home in America, Dewer can’t watch the race. It was at about 6 a.m. in California, and it’s not exactly easy to find on TV. But afterwards, he and his children see pictures of the race.

"One of my sons pointed at the picture and said, ‘Look, his foot’s all twisted sideways!’ And it’s true, his left foot is facing in the wrong direction," Dewer says. "Looking at the pictures I can see what he did wrong. He did what I like to call "window shopping." And then he saw where he was and he let things get away from him."

Dewer does see potential in Simeon. He invited Simeon to join the Sacramento City College track team, where he’ll be "the fifth or sixth" best sprinter. But in a year, the coach believes the track newcomer can get his time down below 11.5, and given several years of practice, perhaps even graze below 11 seconds.

If grazing below 11 seconds is Simeon’s peak, it’s still not medal-worthy It’s .84 seconds below the qualifying time, and the winners do not run the qualifying time. And that would take him years and years of effort.

But after finishing the race, Simeon is not disappointed. His 11.81 might have been the slowest at the Olympics, but it was the fastest performance of his short career.

You could argue that Simeon’s improvement was irrelevant. The Marshall Islands needed a sprinter and he was that sprinter. They told him all he needed to do was try. Whether he performed well or poorly, he still fulfilled his job of ensuring the country had somebody, anybody, on the track in Rio. You could even argue that his slowness was a boon: Because he finished last, more journalists like me talked to him, learned his story, and helped tell the world about the Marshall Islands, their problems, and the imminent climate change crisis they face. If he finished fifth-from-last, maybe he walks through the media zone unnoticed.

If Simeon didn’t improve his time at all, this would still be the story of a converted football player with no track experience representing a tiny nation in the Olympics and coming in last. This story started with a runner who finished in last place in a meet in Sacramento, and ended with a sprinter who finished in last place in Rio. The only differences are the time it took him to finish, and the stage he did it on.

And to Simeon, those two things mean everything.

"I just ran my personal best at the Olympics," Simeon says. "I don’t even have words."