Dummy spitters

By Anson Cameron

To gamble your life on a millimeter and a moment is foolhardy brave. But, being an Olympic hurdler, that’s what you’re called to do. You train ten thousand hours to shed a second and gain a hair’s-breadth so when the gun goes you can shape space and time marginally better than the person next to you. To get this good your whole act is held together by an alarmingly intricate and fragile architecture of rhythm, timing and balance, you trade certainty for nanoseconds.

Then, when the gun goes, suddenly, mysteriously, the perfect understanding you had earned with space and time is broken. Your trailing leg clips the fifth hurdle and you vector off track spastically, while you try and piece together the shattered rhythm of your run, knowing, even as you do, that it’s behind you in shards, back there at hurdle five with your future. This is what happened to Jamaica’s Brigitte Foster-Hylton in the heats of the hundred meters hurdles. At thirty-seven years of age.

As the race finished she threw herself on the track and screamed and writhed. Then remembered herself and rose and tried to leave, but another paroxysm overtook her and she threw herself down again and thrashed about while an English audience winced at the regrettable to-do.

People will say Foster-Hylton spat the dummy. I think she grieved, wildly and publicly as some cultures do, for the sudden violent death of something very dear to her. It might seem greedy, solipsistic, or egotistical to have a dream of greatness. But an athlete doesn’t dream alone these days, they are coerced by experts. And if a promise of glory has been made to you ever since you were a girl of eight, then it loses its less admirable qualities. It’s not even a remarkable dream any more, it’s the only story you know of yourself and your future. There is no alternative narrative, and if there is no alternative narrative then the wrecking of this one is a kind of death. Maybe that’s the delinquency of the modern Olympics, that nations hire people to compete in their name who have no counter truth to victory to rely on when their day turns to ashes.

Shin A-Lam is another dummy-spitter. A South Korean fencer who wouldn’t leave the piste when she lost last week. She sat and cried for an hour, as if she stayed in the place where victory was supposed to happen and refused to believe it didn’t happen then maybe defeat denied could be reversed. If you had quietly deconstructed the stadium around her and replaced it with a smoking village she could have been a refugee. She seemed that bereft. She had lost something profound.

There isn’t next week for an Olympic athlete like there is for a footballer or baseballer or netballer. This is their moment… miss it and it’s unlikely to come again. Shin A-Lam gets home and her chattels have been moved out of the National Sports Academy and her name out of the public domain. She is left on a street corner in a strange new land. Wow, look at the cut and weave of the scooters. Check the hustle and hunger of Seoul. You can’t carry an epee and dream of glory into this.

It’s surprising there aren’t more dummy-spitters, given the significance of the Olympic event to the athlete. The people who don’t buy into the truth that “winning is everything” usually leave the arena early in life. They never become top-flight athletes. They’re the same ones who, when faced with the choice of taking performance enhancing drugs to reach the top, shake their heads and say, no, the price is too high. The more reserved and thoughtful are lost along the way before reaching the Olympic Stadium. They don’t make good athletes. The truth is that it is hard to get someone to commit to the torturous level of preparation necessary for victory on a global stage without first convincing them victory is the most important thing in the world. The track at Olympic Stadium in London is trod by a fully persuaded people.

The nonchalant reaction to losing an Olympic race in 1956 would speak of defeatism to today’s athletes who have heard a lifetime of urging from a thousand state-owned spinmeisters and high-priced hangers-on.

What if the mantra chanted by the coaches, sponsors, states, and sycophants that surround you has convinced you that you are the most important person in the world and your event is crucial to the future of everything? What if this is what you have instead of friends, children, love, family?

Then, perhaps writhing on the track or weeping on the piste is an appropriate reaction to the death of your story.


  1. Anson – interesting viewpoint.

    Lucky for all of us that Foster Hylton doesn’t control a powerful European country otherwise her tantrum might entail conquering a smaller neighbour rather than simply writhing on the ground like an indulged two year old.

  2. Hey Anson, great thoughts. What are you doing next Tuesday night. We’re having a Pie Night at Punt Road and we thought it would be nice if you could drop by and have a chat to the lads. We had Steve Hooker coming, but we’re not so sure now.

    Hope you can make it,

    Benny Gale

  3. Beautifully written but woefully factually inaccurate. Shin-A-Lam has made to sit on the piste for half an hour while they reviewed her protest. The timekeeper was a 15-year old volunteer (apparently) who forgot to put the timer on when there was a restart with 1 second on the clock. Monumental fuck up that cost her greatly.
    So yeah, she sat on for a while after she could have left, but if I was put through what she went through and I had a sword in my hand – heads would have rolled.

  4. For me it’s the human drama – the agony and the ecstasy and the athletes that express what the Olympics mean to them – that make the Games so compelling to watch.

    Perhaps that’s why my favourite tennis player used to be John McEnroe!

    Great to have Anson on the Almanac.

  5. Beautifully expressed. Thanks Anson.
    Its tough having to live in the ashes of your dream.
    There is a point where you are ennobled by the folly of the goals and the majesty of the journey. But that is many years hence for most.

  6. “There is no alternative narrative, and if there is no alternative narrative then the wrecking of this one is a kind of death.”

    I hope I don’t cheapen your wonderful piece, Anson, by confessing that this line reminds me of the precipice that us mad, one-eyed footy fans tread. But you are right – at least we get to go for Gold every year (or in Richmond’s case, Bronze).

    Makes Magnussen’s post 100m performance much easier to forgive. His demeanour for the rest of the week suggests he caught a glimpse of that alternative story.

Leave a Comment