A spontaneous show of sportsmanship and courage at the back of the field managed to rival the momentous achievement of a fourth gold medal for Switzerland’s Dario Cologna in the men’s 15km free cross country race at the Olympic Winter Games.
In a field of 116 competitors to finish one of the toughest races in cross-country skiing, the first 80 astonishingly finished within five minutes of Cologna’s time, amid scenes of spent athletes at the finishing line writhing in the discomfort of their lung-busting exertion.
Yet as the shadows grew longer, another group approached the line. None of these competitors harboured realistic hopes of winning the men’s 15km free. All hailed from countries where cross-country skiing has no tradition or infrastructure. Here, the race was to simply finish.
There was Pita Taufatofua, the Tongan who stole the show in the Opening Ceremony with his shirtless flag-waving. At almost 23 minutes behind Cologna, he was utterly exhausted and happy not to have finished last.
"The 15-kilometre [race] never works out so well for me, I always gas out by about the second kilometre," the affable 34-year-old said with a smile.
Preceding him across the line was 40-year-old Samir Azzimani of Morocco, plus a pair of 38-year-olds – Ecuadorian Klaus Jungbluth Rodriguez and Kequyen Lam of Portugal. After Taufatofua came Sebastian Uprimny, 42, of Colombia.
In a memorable act of solidarity, four of the men – Taufatofua, Uprimny, Azzimani and Lam – waited at the finishing line for the final competitor on the course to cross. Bringing up the rear of the 116-man field, Mexican 43-year-old German Madrazo was clearly spent as he stumbled across the line holding a Mexican flag, and into a group embrace.
His fellow competitors – themselves barely recovered from their own exertions - then hoisted the Mexican onto their shoulders, where he summoned his last reserves to bask in the applause of the crowd.
Completing the salute, gold medallist Cologna broke away from his own celebration – which had begun 26 minutes prior – to salute Madrazo’s arrival. He shook the hands of each of the Mexican’s fellow tail-enders, nobly sharing the spotlight that rightfully was his.
Asked later about the hero’s welcome he received, Madrazo said his “mind was blurry” and that the group hug contained no words – none were needed. Each man understood the magnitude of the others’ battles just to be here, and to finish this race.
It was a moving moment, and one that captured the Olympic values of sportsmanship, courage and friendship of nations.