It's rare for an Olympics crowd to fall in love with a last-place finisher, but that's exactly what happened on Friday. Mexican cross-country skier German Madrazo came in dead last in the 15km men’s individual race, but he nevertheless received a warm welcome when he crossed the finish line. Madrazo had a Mexican flag in his hand and a grin on his face as he finished the race, and his fellow competitors promptly hoisted him in the air in celebration.
Madrazo, competing in his first-ever Olympics, finished in 116th place on Friday with a time of 59 minutes and 35.4 seconds. That was a full 25 minutes after the gold medal winner, Switzerland's Dario Cologna, finished the race. To some Olympians, coming in last place — and by such a huge margin — would be a source of embarrassment, not pride.
But Madrazo isn't like most Olympians. A 43-year-old shopkeeper, he'd never even skied until a year before the games. But he is a former triathlete, and in an emotional Facebook post in January, he wrote that becoming an Olympic competitor was a lifelong dream of his:
"A young kid once dreamed of becoming an Olympian, and his best friend in the whole world told him he would if he wanted it bad enough. But then she died. And the kid promised her he would one day become an Olympian. The kid grew up but he never forgot."
The fact that he'd never skied a day in his life was of no matter to Madrazo, who's described his life philosophy as "Never stop dreaming, never stop believing, never stop fighting. So, he three other skiers — Chile's Yonathan Fernandez and Tonga's Pita Taufatofua, the latter of whom literally became a meme as the shirtless flag-bearer for the Tongan team — formed an independent training group. They rented a cabin in Austria and practiced for 10 hours a day in hopes of qualifying for the PyeongChang games.
"At the beginning of December 2017 we realised that to achieve success in an individual sport you need to have a team," Madrazo told the Wall Street Journal. "We trained together, we travelled together, we cooked for each other. It was an amazing experience." It paid off: The three athletes all qualified for the Winter Games.
Everybody loves an underdog, and the inspiring path Madrazo took to become an Olympic athlete delighted fans of the games. Just as endearing was the joyous support he received from his fellow competitors — ostensibly his rivals. As Madrazo crossed the finish line, the four skiers who'd finished just before him (a group that included Taufatofua), waited with arms outstretched to celebrate his finish. After he completed the race, they greeted him with applause and hugs, and lifted them onto his shoulders triumphantly. Even Cologna, the first place finisher, clapped for Madrazo as his friends carried him off of the course.
The cross-country ski event wasn't the first time Madrazo's relentlessly positive attitude reared its head during the PyeongChang games. He was also Mexico's flag bearer during the opening ceremony, and charmed viewers with the unabashedly joyful attitude he displayed while waving the flag.
Madrazo's story is a wonderful example the fact that, although competition is the central component of the Olympics, the games are about much more than that. Perhaps most importantly, the Olympics are an opportunity for athletes from different countries to put politics aside compete alongside each other for pure love of sport. Coverage of the games often focuses on bitter rivalries, horrific injuries and occasionally, last-minute drama involving coaches. But the warm welcome that Madrazo received from his fellow athletes was a moment of solidarity and camaraderie, and a reminder that even at the Olympics, winning isn't everything.