Andrey Drygin represents the best of the Olympic spirit. For the past three Winter Olympics, Drygin has been Tajikistan’s sole competitor, its lone shot at Olympic glory. It would be tempting to say that the hopes of an entire nation have rested on his shoulders for the past eight years. Tempting, but not very accurate, because Tajiks don't seem to expect Drygin to excel at the Olympics. And in each competition, he has lived down to those expectations. That’s what makes him special, at least in my estimation.
An alpine skier, Drygin began his Olympic quest in Salt Lake City in 2002. In each of the Giant Slalom and Super G events, he failed to finish the race. Four years later in Turin, he didn’t finish the Giant Slalom and finished 51st in both the Downhill and Super G. He came to Vancouver this year for what is likely his swan song in Olympic competition. Now well into his thirties, Drygin is past the prime age for competitors in his disciplines, making it unlikely that he will return for a fourth Olympics in 2014 (though the lure of competing in Russia may prove irresistible to someone from that part of the former Soviet empire). Realistically, then, Vancouver represents his last chance at bringing home a medal to his home country. At the end of this past week, half of the alpine events completed their runs and Drygin finished 44th in the Super-G and 59th in the Downhill, second from the bottom in his first race and dead last in his second. His only solace may come from actually completing his races, a feat that eluded some of his competitors.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what drives an Olympic athlete like Drygin. Certainly, it’s not the overwhelming support of his home country. Surveying the city of Dushanbe this past week, it’s next to impossible to find evidence that the Olympics are on the radar of any Tajiks. Whether that’s the result of the (extremely) low number of competitors representing the country in the Games or a disinterest in sport in general is hard to say. It is true that other things tend to take priority for citizens of a country like Tajikistan. In the middle of a cold February, most people are focused on such needs as ensuring the basics are provided for their families. Games staged on the other side of the planet don’t take precedence over these interests, especially when there is little chance for Tajikistan to distinguish itself in the competition. As is usually the case, I met a number of people for the first time this week. Most asked which country I called home and when I said “Canada”, there was no reaction, no big smiles and declarations of “Olympics Number One!” or the like. I opened the weekly Tajik Times with the expectation of a feature story or two on Drygin and his participation in the Games. Instead, I found his name buried in an article on the Sports page that discussed all of the Central Asian countries taking part in the competition. Top spot on the page went to a Tajik chess player who had won a round of the Aeroflot Open in Moscow, an accomplishment, to be sure, but not exactly on par with the Olympics in terms of global recognition.
Of course, everyone loves a winner, so there is no doubt that a medal would ensure that Drygin would be welcomed home as a hero, his name enshrined forever more in the pantheon of Tajik legends. A tickertape parade down Rudaki Avenue would be assured, as would a stamp in his honour. Endorsements would follow, and while not as lucrative as those enjoyed by the sports celebrities in North America, he would surely receive enough to live comfortably for many years. But there are no parades or sponsorships for fourth place, let alone for fifty-ninth. And displaying one’s medal for participation is as unlikely to impress as a fifth grader’s certificate for perfect attendance. Drygin must know that securing his place in history would require a place on the podium. But at some point, his history of bottom finishes in international competitions must have voiced a serious concern in the back of his mind that the trend might never reverse itself. The most successful athletes are masters of the psychological as well as the physical, but those suffering more defeats than victories must often find themselves victimized by a nagging self-doubt that threatens their performance. So, it is unlikely that Drygin entered the Vancouver Games convinced that the third time would be the charm.
Nor was it ever a probability that Drygin would be fortunate to fall into the category of “lovable losers” and achieve a kind of notoriety by his ineptitude. To find this kind of fame requires a degree of incompetence on the level of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, the ski jumper who soared only in people’s hearts, or a uniqueness born of an unlikely marriage of country and sport, as memorably achieved by the Jamaican bobsled team. Drygin can claim neither. His last-place and nearly last-place finishes weren’t so far behind the rest of the pack to be endearing, just worthy of the faint praise that goes to those who manage to complete the course without falling down. And as a citizen of a country dominated by towering mountains, he can scarcely be said to be out of his element on the downhill slopes. It is doubtful, then, that Drygin will ever be commemorated in film or song in the years to come for his failure to demonstrate anything other than his willingness to compete.
But it is exactly this willingness to compete without hope of substantial success or gain that should be celebrated as a pure example of the Olympic spirit. For every Michael Phelps who dazzles in repeated gold-medal performances, there are dozens of athletes who come to the Games as unknowns and leave the same way. Their only rewards are the thrill of the competition and the pride that goes with representing their countries to the best of their abilities. This is likely the motivation that has compelled Drygin to return to three successive Olympics and endure finishes well off the podium each time. The Olympics would do better to promote competitors such as Drygin, rather than simply lauding those who best the others in their fields, and countries should embrace all of their athletes, not just those who bring home medals. Andrey Drygin will never be known as a great Olympic champion, but he is still an Olympian, and he gave Tajikistan a place on the world stage. If only for that, he deserves a measure of appreciation and congratulations.
Two events remain for Drygin in these Olympics – the Slalom and Giant Slalom. Though by birth I’m required to cheer for the Canadians in these races, there will still be a part of me that hopes that Drygin will be able to complete a miraculous run in one of the races to achieve a personal best. That would be enough to make this Olympics a success for both him and Tajikistan.