|Ruben Sanca winning the 2011 New Bedford Half-Marathon|
I've made no secret of the fact that I have -- shall we say -- a strained relationship with media coverage of the Olympics. As the vast machine kicks into full gear, and as the official sponsors begin their relentless assault on my weak and impressionable mind, I adopt a defense of mocking cynicism. Mindful of past Olympiads and remembering how I was manipulated into watching hours and hours of commercials to see a few seconds of over-promoted action at the end of an otherwise forgettable broadcast, I adopt an attitude of casual apathy. Sure, I'll follow the Olympics -- if I have nothing better to do.
But I also know that deep down, hidden away where the advertising executives can't get at it, there's some small part of me that wants to believe that the Olympics is more than a media mega-event and money-making machine. That part of me says, "If the Olympics are to stand for something, let them stand for the ideal of human aspiration -- the idea that striving with others against one's own limitations is more important than conquering." It's a principle always in danger of being lost in the inevitable sea of money and hype as well-known, well-supported athletes representing their shoe companies as well as their countries "go for the gold."
Ruben Sanca, who will be representing Cape Verde in the 5000 meters at the London Olympics. Even for those of us who have admired Ruben since his high school days at John D. O'Bryant school in Boston, and followed him as he became an All-American distance runner at UMass Lowell and, after graduation, one of the top road runners in New England, hearing his story is an antidote to any cynicism about the value of the Olympics.
As reported in Littlefield's story,
"Sanca, now 25, moved from Cape Verde to Massachusetts when he was 12. He has dual citizenship, but when returned to Cape Verde to compete in the 5000 meters at the national championships, his welcome was muted. "Several of my friends from home had forgotten about me, because they never thought of [me] as a runner," Sanca said. "I was born with asthma, and the first few years of my life was a hardship for my family because I was in and out of the hospital at all times, and I was sort of known as the weak child of the family, so after I came to the U.S. and went back home and won a national championship there, people were very surprised."
Now Sanca is an Olympian. He has a 5000m PR of 13:56.46 (indoors). He holds eight Cape Verde national records at various distances. He says he is running to inspire the next generation of Cape Verdeans to dream bigger, and to follow where he has led. Does he stand a chance against the best in the world? It's not the right question. The right question is does he belong in the Olympic stadium on the starting line with The Kenyans, Ethiopians, Rupp, Farah, and all the rest? Without a doubt.
There's nothing wrong with celebrating the winners at the Olympics, some of them heavy favorites who earn their gold medal with a demonstration of their athletic superiority and some long shots, who give the performance of their lives at exactly the right time. Watching the best athletes in the world is almost always thrilling. But for me, one of the best things about the games is cheering for the athletes who have little to no chance of a medal, or indeed, of making it to the finals. They are often the ones with the more interesting and inspirational journeys, the ones who represent -- and engender -- a hope that shines with or without a medal.