PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Now the Olympics distilled again to maybe their most gasping, writhing finish line, and a Swede crossed, careened rightward and sprawled onto his gut for a good 10 seconds. A Czech crossed, stopped abruptly and toppled. A Norwegian contender churned in under undulating Norwegian flags in Norwegian hands in the stands, spilled and began squirming gently on his belly.
A Swiss arrived in a time torrid for 15 kilometers of cross-country skiing — 33 minutes 43.9 seconds — then realized it would mean a gold medal and began to sob. A South Korean made it to the end of this admirable torture, plopped facedown and rear up, rolled over and kicked his skis a bit with his poles sticking straight up. A Canadian crossed and almost seemed to croak, staying prone while an Australian veered to the right, then a Greek skier came by, an Iranian, a Bosnian, before finally, haltingly, the Canadian managed to sit, legs splayed.
The clock showed 4:21 p.m. Friday. The public-address announcers continued their near-screaming. The sun had started to go. The cold had started to get mean. The medals had been clinched.
Yet somehow, after this graphic theater of steep human effort, after the stands had gone from full to half-full to one-third-full and the national flags on the flagpoles started to look lonely, this march of more than 100 contestants still had resilient men out there in the pretty woods and the wretched upslopes. It still had something else lurking just before its curtain. It still had announcers, blaring through the venue, trying to manufacture noise and achieve encouragement.
It still had another show.
Fast-forward past 4:30 p.m., then past 4:40 p.m., and here came the second emotional prong of the Olympics, the one that juts out differently from the fourth gold medal and the fresh tears of Switzerland’s Dario Cologna or the silver medal and the spill and the crawl of Norwegian Simen Hegstad Krueger. Here came a 40-year-old Moroccan at 4:44, a 38-year-old Ecuadoran at 4:47, a 38-year-old Portuguese at 4:50, a world-famous 34-year-old Tongan at 4:51.
Four minutes along behind that, just after the Tongan got out his Tongan flag and the Portuguese and the Moroccan and the Tongan posed for photos arm in arm, here came a 42-year-old Colombian. These are the men who represent “the exotic countries,” as the Tongan’s German coach, Thomas Jacob, phrases it, and they’re from countries without ample snow, and they’re here to struggle and to finish and maybe even to inform and to inspire.
They’re also friends, and some of them have trained together on their uphill mission, and so soon after the Colombian crossed, four of them did something outstanding: They stood shoulder to shoulder at the finish line, the Colombian, Sebastian Uprimny; the Tongan, Pita Taufatofua; the Moroccan, Samir Azzimani; and the Portuguese, Kequyen Lam, as one last man made his way toward 116th place.
The Mexican, German Madrazo, 43, looked halting through his last stretch. He looked as if his body might fold in on itself. For a second, it seemed he might not make it and that after all that fight against all that backup ski and ice that all the other skiers had made, he and his Mexican flag might tumble into the snow. The remaining crowd cheered him on, with a few Swiss flags here, Norwegian flags there, South Korean flags here, all waving in support, for this moment, of Mexico.
Slowly, painstakingly, Madrazo edged toward the great and vivid line and made his way across, and his four friends put up their hands, right there as 4:56 turned into 4:57 p.m. and the day finally concluded. They all formed a beautiful blob of a group hug, and then they all — all stragglers and all Olympians — put Madrazo on their shoulders as he waved his flag.
Uprimny called it “very moving.” Madrazo said his “mind was blurry” and the remaining crowd was “unreal” and “The most emotional part was when I saw Pita.” Uprimny said the group hug included no words because, “We didn’t need to talk.” Madrazo said his body hurt worse than usual. Taufatofua did a barrage of interviews and said of the course: “You see that hill over there? It doesn’t end. It looks like it ends, but it keeps on going.” He said he felt pain “in my stomach, my breathing.” He said, “This has been the toughest year of my life.” Jacob, his coach, said, “It’s a great part of the Olympics, just to see these guys and the exotics.”
They had had their finishes and their hug, but as they unfastened themselves from that hug, they still had another Olympic moment to go.
Here came Cologna, the Swiss gold medalist, going all Federer and all sportsman and congratulating them, shaking their hands, a competitor from one prong of the Olympics finding his way to the competitors from the other.
“It was kind of like an out-of-body experience when I finished the race,” Madrazo said, “and then Dario’s coming toward me. And I’m like, ‘He won!’ ” — even as they all did.
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