LONDON — There are only three or four movies where it’s permissible for guys to cry. Most of us have been raised on that. There’s a long list of candidates – “Brian’s Song,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” “Toy Story 3,” “Up,” “E.T.,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Field of Dreams,” “Life is Beautiful,” “Old Yeller,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “It’s A Wonderful Life” and so on — you can choose whatever you want. The point is that you cannot choose more than three or four. Anyway, that’s what we were told as guys.
You don’t have to choose movies. You can also choose short clips, such as Mike Eruzione’s goal or Carlton Fisk’s home run or John Kennedy Jr. saluting to his father’s coffin or Whitney Houston singing the national anthem. That still counts against your three or four, though.
The clip that makes me cry every single time is Derek Redmond. I’ve probably watched it 100 times. It gets me every time.
I watched it again on Tuesday. I watched it five or six times. Earlier in the day, China’s Liu Xiang was running in the 110-meter hurdles. You probably know Liu’s story. In 2004, in Athens, he became the first Chinese man to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field. This made him a national icon and the face of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. But in 2008, Liu was injured … much more than he let on. At the start of the qualifying round, a fellow competitor false-started. But in that start, Liu realized that he could not go on. He limped off the track to the horror and tears of the enormous crowd.
The next day, he could only vow that he would be back for the next Olympics.
Four years later, on Tuesday morning, he was back, at age 29. His four years had been spotty, difficult, but ultimately encouraging. At the 2011 World Championships, he won silver, and there were those who thought he was the best runner on the track. Earlier this year, he broke 13 seconds for the first time since the injury. There was hope.
But, the Olympics are about pain as well as hope, heartache as well as triumph, disaster as well as world records. Liu hit the first hurdle on his first qualifying race. He fell to the ground. He had hurt his left foot so badly that he could not even stand on both legs. He tried to stand, fell back, tried again. It was as sad a moment as we’ve had at these Games; it was said that the broadcaster on Chinese television cried on the air.
Then Liu did something. He worked his way up on to one leg. And though he could not get over the hurdles, he hopped around the track as if attempting to finish the race. At the end, he went to the final hurdle in his lane, and he kissed it. The moment was … eerily beautiful.
And there was no way I could see that and not think of Derek Redmond. I immediately called up the clip. And, I immediately cried.
You certainly know his story — you’ve at least seen the Visa commercial narrated by Morgan Freeman. Redmond was a 400-meter runner for Great Britain. He was good, too, especially when he was young and healthy. He was fast enough to set the British record, fast enough to be on the British team that shocked the United States in the 4×400 relay at the World Championships in Tokyo.
But he was also jinxed. His body kept breaking down. He was in Seoul and he hurt his Achilles. He so desperately wanted to compete that, according to The Guardian, he had two pain-killing shots. But even with those, he could not go on … though he waited until just seconds before his heat before pulling out. He was heartbroken. His body never fully recovered. Even when he was part of that World Championship team, he was in pain.
Still, he kept trying. Twenty years ago, in 1992, at the Olympics in Barcelona, he seemed to be about as healthy as possible. He ran well in the early heats. He would say that he felt great. In the semifinal, he got off to a good start (“Redmond’s gone off very fast indeed,” the BBC announcer said). And then, all of a sudden in the back straightaway, maybe 125 meters into the race, his hamstring popped. And he fell to the ground.
“And Redmond has broken down,” the BBC announcer said. “He’s on the track, kneeling down, and Derek Redmond, his injury problem, the jinx has struck again.”
While at first the pain had shocked him into a kind of obliviousness, when trainers surrounded him, Redmond remembered again where he was. These were the semifinals of the Olympics. And, as if driven by instinct, he got up and started hobbling toward the finish line. He would say then that in his mind, he was racing again. He still thought he might be able to pass some runners. He did not seem to understand that the race was long over, that everyone else had finished.
And when that realization came, his eyes began to water, and his face contorted into a ghostly look of pain. He would say that he was not thinking clearly. But, while he had made no decision, his body had decided to finish the race. He would not recall why. In the end, he was a runner. And the race had not been run.
A couple of officials tried to stop him or help him, it’s hard to tell, but you can see even on the grainy video that he was too angry, too hurt, too proud to let anyone even touch him. Nobody seemed to know what he was doing. Redmond himself would always say that he did not know what he was doing. But his body kept hobbling closer to the finish.
Then, from behind, you see a figure running on to the track. He, too, was being stopped by an official, but he shoved through. He raced up behind Redmond, and Derek’s first reaction was to push this man away too. Then he realized: This man was his father, Jim. Derek broke into tears on his father’s shoulder. Jim had not come to help his son run. He had come to take his son off the track before he hurt himself more.
“You have nothing left to prove,” Jim told his son.
“Yeah, I have,” Derek said. “Get me back into Lane 5. I have to finish.”
Jim understood. They had trained together. They knew each other’s hearts. Another official came over, tried to get them off the track. But Jim said his son was going to finish the race, and when the official protested, Jim shouted, “Get out of here!” with perhaps a few choice words thrown in. One more official stepped in, but he, too, was shooed off. Then, together, father and son finished the race. Derek held on to his hamstring. Jim held on to Derek.
“Whatever happens, he had to finish,” Jim said afterward, as he still held his son. “And I was there to help him finish.”
Derek Redmond’s life did not end that day. Even his athletic career did not end. Later in the Games, a swimmer named Sharron Davies came over to him to say how much his finish had inspired her: They were married two year later. That same year, against his doctor’s expectations, Redmond made the British Olympic basketball team. Redmond has been a competitive rugby player, and he has been involved in motorcycle racing. His competitive spirit never stopped raging.
Redmond said in the weeks and months after his 400 that he hoped people would not remember him for that race in which he was hurt and hobbled over the line with his father long after the race was over. But he was much younger then. Twenty years later, he shows the video when he gives motivational talks. It is the worst moment of his athletic life. And, of course, it is the best, too.