As the London 1908 Olympics began, Bishop Ethelbert Talbot of Pennsylvania gave a sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral. He suggested that the struggle was more important than the prize. In the congregation that day was International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Very impressed by what he heard, Coubertin adapted the words to form the Olympic creed.
“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not so much to win, but to take part, just as the important thing in life is not to have conquered but to have fought well".
What would the Baron have made of Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards? He was a one-time plasterer from Cheltenham in south-west England who burst on an unsuspecting world at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. His first name was not even Eddie but Michael.
As Britain had no ski jump, he travelled the world to pursue his dream. His fame preceded him when he literally arrived helter-skelter at the Olympics. His kit bag burst open in the airport arrivals hall. Wherever he went, huge crowds followed and cheered. In comparison, champion Matti Nykanen of Finland passed almost unnoticed. Edwards finished last in both the 70 metre and 90 metre competitions but the British Olympic Association’s own report even conceded: “His personality will have done just as much, if not more, for the promotion of ski jumping than Nykanen’s perfection.”
To this day, clause 57 of the Olympic charter insists: "The IOC and the Olympic Organising Committee shall not draw up any global ranking per country."
For the majority of those who compete at an Olympic Games, a place on the podium is beyond their wildest dreams. Yet among these competitors is a distinguished roll call of those who never won gold but embodied the Olympic spirit.
Kenyan runner Philip Boit came from a successful sporting family. Cousin Mike was an Olympic 800 metres bronze medal winner at the 1972 Munich Games. In his early years, Philip showed every indication of taking the same trail but it was at the Winter Games that he eventually found fame.
The Olympic movement were keen to expand the Winter Games and Boit was recruited by sports goods manufacturers Nike. They wanted to see whether a nation that had given so much to distance running might do the same in long distance skiing. Boit first trained on roller skis in Kenya, but nothing could prepare him for a complete culture shock when he went to Finland to train on snow. He compared it to being “locked in the fridge”. At the 1998 Games in Nagano, he raced in the 10km cross-country. His time was 20 minutes behind the leader. When he crossed the line in 47 mins 25.5 sec he was greeted by none other than the champion himself, Norway’s legendary Bjorn Daehlie.
Boit returned to the Games in 2002 and 2006 and earlier this year he led the Kenyan team at the Youth Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer. "You cannot imagine what it is like coming from Africa to this," he said as the thermometer touched minus 10 degrees, proving that you never really acclimatise to extreme cold.
Stephen Akhwari faced a different climatic challenge as part of a four-man Tanzanian team at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. He had been trained by Bruce Ronaldson, a British colonial administrator who later became a key figure in Oxfam.
Akhwari was his country’s only representative in the marathon. The 26 miles and 385 yards is a supreme test at the best of times, but at 7,350 feet above sea level it was an even greater challenge. He was one of 75 runners who started out but fell during the race and needed medical treatment on his leg.
Some hours later he hobbled into the stadium, his leg now heavily bandaged. The crowd sensed that something special was unfolding. The gold medallist Mamo Wolde had passed through over an hour earlier. Akhwari crossed the line with the clock reading 3 hours, 25 minutes and 17 seconds. He was 19 minutes behind the next finisher.
When asked why he had not simply retired he said: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race, they sent me 5,000 miles to finish it.”
He returned home to Tanzania where he continued his work as a farmer. In 2000 he was invited to attend the Sydney Olympic Games. In the new millennium he discovered that his 1968 performance gained a new audience when it was highlighted as part of the IOC’s “Celebrate Humanity” campaign. Akhwari was also an honoured guest at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, almost 40 years on from his own Olympic race. He had also carried the Olympic torch when it visited Dar es Salaam for the first time.
He lent his name to the John Stephen Akhwari Foundation, a charitable organisation set up by Australian benefactors charged with assisting young Tanzanian athletes.
Twenty-eight years after Akhwari’s efforts, the Games were held in Atlanta. By this time the men’s marathon was held on the final day of competition. The problem here was humidity rather than altitude. The race was won by Josia Thugwane of South Africa. This time it was an Afghan runner, Abdul Baser Wasiqi, who finished long after the other runners. He had torn a muscle weeks before the competition but was determined to take part. His final time was 4 hours 24 minutes and 17 seconds which gave him 111th place. He finished the course whilst 13 other runners dropped out. He explained why he too had continued long after the rest of the field had finished.
“I represent my country to the world...to see that Afghanistan is living, has not died after 16 years of war," he said.
Although he had swum in the sea and the rivers in Equatorial Guinea as a 12-year-old child, Eric Moussambani’s first experience of a formal pool came when he participated in makeshift Olympic trials for the 2000 Games. Held at a hotel swimming pool in the capital city Malabo, they had been organised after a public radio appeal. Although Moussambani won the trial, it is said that he could not afford the fees to swim more than once a week.
Even his journey to Sydney called for an amazing effort. It took three days to fly from Malabo via Libreville in Gabon, then from Paris to Hong Kong before finally touching down in Sydney.
Eric found himself entered for the 100m freestyle, a distance he had never previously attempted. Equally he had never swum in an Olympic regulation 50m pool. He is said to have received some guidance from the American camp during practice and a South African coach presented him with some goggles.
In his heat, the two other competitors, Karim Bare of Niger and Farhod Oripov of Tajikistan, were both disqualified for false starts. Eric swam on his own to carve a niche in Olympic lore. Although he tired badly towards the end of his race, he touched in 1:52.72.
Eric persevered with the sport and competed at the 2001 World Swimming Championships, lowering his own 100m freestyle time to 57 secs.
By day an IT engineer, he now coaches the national team during the evenings. As a result of his exploits, his country now has an Olympic size swimming pool and he is expected to be in Rio as coach to the national team.
With a population of only 11,000, Tuvalu is one of the newest and smallest countries in the Olympic family and has only taken part at the Olympics since 2008. Asenate Manoa started taking part in athletics at the age of ten. Tuvalu does not have a purpose built athletics track so she trained on the Funafuti airstrip, an airport runway built during the Second World War. Later she had to travel to Fiji to continue training but had still not run on a synthetic track by the time she arrived in Beijing to take part in the 2008 Olympics.
Aged 16 she was the only female of a three member Tuvalu team. She competed in the 100m at the Bird's Nest in Beijing. Although she finished eighth in her heat, her time was nonetheless still a new Tuvalu national record at 14.05 sec.
For all the obsession with champions and winning, in 2004 Canadian writer Jonathan Crowe set up a website to honour those who finished last at the Athens Olympic Games.
“They just happened to come in last,” he said. “They aren’t the worst, either, because there are millions, if not billions, of people who are even worse than they are - they’re just not at the Games.”
Luger George Tucker lived in New York but had been born in Puerto Rico. His family had moved to the USA when he was four and he studied astronomy and later physics at university. In 1980 he went to watch the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid and saw the luge competition. By 1983 he had signed up for the sport as an alternative to skiing trips.
Half joking, he wrote to the Puerto Rican Olympic committee asking to compete at the Winter Olympics in 1984. They replied accepting his entry. With time on his hands as he completed his doctorate at Wesleyan University, he trained at Lake Placid and sustained so many injuries he became known as “the luger who dripped blood.”
Then, after a conversation with an official, some practice was arranged with the Yugoslavian team at the Olympic track shortly before the 1984 Games were to begin in Sarajevo. Tucker proved the slowest of the 30 lugers who completed the course, though two others were disqualified. His performance represented a personal best, the more remarkable because he had only achieved a completed run on the track three days before the Olympics began. His combined times over four runs averaged over 51 miles an hour but were almost half a minute behind the gold medallist, Paul Hildgartner of Italy.
Tucker’s exploits proved an inspiration to others including compatriot Raul Muniz. In 1988 at Calgary, Tucker and Muniz both competed. Muniz finished 31st and Tucker placed 34th.
His actions also inspired athletes in other events throughout the Caribbean. The late George Fitch was an attaché to the US Ambassador in Kingston, Jamaica and was said to have been impressed by Tucker’s efforts. Fitch was friends with Ken Barnes, father of Liverpool and England footballer John and together they encouraged the entry of a Jamaican team at the 1988 Winter Games.
In the two-man bobsleigh Dudley Stokes and Michael White placed 30th out of 38 finishers, but it was the four-man crew which made the biggest impact. Dudley’s brother Chris and Devon Harris made up the quartet. On their third run the Jamaicans were too fast out of the Kreissel curve. They crashed at a speed of 120 kilometres per hour but although their overturned bob slid along the track, the four team members were unhurt. When their sled was pushed over the finish line, the moment was seen all over the world.
When they returned home they discovered that they were famous. It wasn’t long before their story sparked the interest of Disney, and the 1994 film Cool Runnings was the result. Fitch was later to say that one per cent of the film is true to life, though the true legacy was seen when Jamaicans contributed at the next four Olympics in succession. The Jamaican bob was also in Sochi.
Iginia Boccalandro was a Venezuelan who came late to the Olympic Games. She laughingly described herself as "too old and too fat". She lived in Salt Lake City and had tried to qualify for the 1994 Games as a Nordic skier but failed to achieve the necessary times and to console herself, it is said she watched Cool Runnings at the cinema three times in a row. When she returned home, her mother told her that she had seen luge on television and that perhaps...
When the luge track built for the 2002 Olympics opened in Salt Lake, Boccalandro was one of its regular customers, claiming to learn the sport "like children do, without fear".
With support from friends in the US she made it to the 1998 Nagano Olympics as Venezuela’s first Winter Olympian. As their only representative, she carried her country’s flag at the Opening Ceremony. She completed all four runs and finished in 28th, last but one, 16 seconds behind gold medallist Silke Kraushaar.
She had hoped to encourage other Venezuelans to take part in the Olympics and four years later in Salt Lake City the team numbered four and included a father and son combination, Werner and Chris Hoeger.
Boccalandra’s own performance made the headlines for the wrong reasons. She careered off the sled, was nearly thrown into the crowd and was lucky to suffer only bruising and ice burns. Two days away from her 41st birthday she had earned an unfortunate place in Olympic folklore. “I wasn’t hurt, just frustrated,’’ she said afterwards and later became an articulate spokesman for environmentally sensitive farming and reducing waste.
Which brings us back to Eddie the Eagle. It was BBC Television commentator Ron Pickering who exclaimed: “The Eagle has landed.”
He remains one of the few individual athletes to be singled out for praise at a closing ceremony. Calgary organising chief Frank King told the athletes: ”Some of you have soared like an eagle". Edwards is still revered in Canada and was invited to carry the Olympic torch in 2010 as it made its way towards Vancouver.
Olympic champions rightly enjoy their moments in the spotlight, but sometimes the golden glow also alights on those who will never step onto the podium.