The best who never won
WRECKORDER - Ferdinand G.S. Guilde (The Freeman) - May 28, 2020 - 12:00am

Sometimes the best is not good enough, especially for some athletes who won in all tournaments except the one that matters or completes. The great Pete Sampras attests. Concededly the best of his generation with 14 grand slam titles, the highest back then before the three kings came, he never got a clay title to complete a career slam. He wasn’t even close, his booming serve and volley game was just not right for the slower surface in Roland Garros where he easily lost in the semifinals, his best appearance.

But the strangest story belongs to Jamaican Merlene Ottey, the greatest female sprinter in history in terms of longevity. She ran in seven straight Olympics spanning 24 years and won nine medals, but none of them is gold.

Her speed and consistency equally account for her greatness. She ran the 100m under 11 seconds at least 65 times with a personal best of 10.74s, the sixth fastest by any woman in history, faster than all Filipino men except the Philippine track team. Ottey won 57 consecutive 100m races, only to be snapped at the 1991 worlds. She dashed back in 1993 but lost by a hairline to American rival Gail Devers. Both crossed the line in a dead heat that took eternity to separate. When the visual deadlock finally unlocked, Ottey lost the gold by a thousandth of a second, equivalent to the blink of an eye, literally.

But teasing fate reprised the freak photo finish in the 1996 Olympics century dash final. Again, the rivals crossed the finish line at the same time but by 4cm Devers edged Ottey who, at 36, lost her last clear chance at gold.

Four years later in Sydney, she sprinted to another bronze in the 100 meters and anchored the Jamaican relay team to silver at age 40. Time to hang up her spikes? She came back aged 44 for her final Games appearance in Athens where she reached the semifinals to cap a remarkable Olympic career.   

But none of her triumphs and upsets punctuated more than the 1993 worlds she lost by a flap of a wing. It sparked debate on whether Devers’ head or Ottey’s chest crossed the line first. In athletics, the runner whose torso or chest or any part of the shoulders crosses the line first wins. The hands, legs or head don’t stop the clock. What about the neck? Did it win for Devers who dipped her head in trademark finish while Ottey leaned her body trunk? Too close to call it was reported the virtual co-equals were mulled awarded with identical gold, but lacked one more vote.

Even in sprints where winners are gauged electronically, human discretion may factor, all things being equal. More so in gymnastics, boxing or wrestling where a presumably impartial panel decides according to what they see, or not see. If voting is the process of selection, it becomes election where politics muddles decision. Snub the best, crown the mediocre.

If that brand of choice rules elections for public office, the best will never be good enough especially for voters who trade the best qualified for the most entertaining. No wonder we see some clowns who are not funny, what irony. In sports, you lose if you absent your mind at the most crucial time. In politics, we lose freedom if we lack wisdom. Immaturity bastardizes democracy. 

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