How I found the Olympic spirit in Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic
Santo Domingo (picture by Andries3/Flickr)

I’ve been enjoying the London Olympics far more than I expected to. Before the Games started I’d feared, like many people, that the commercialisation of sport had got out of hand, that the traffic was going to be a nightmare, that anyone without a Visa card would be effectively banned from spending money, or that the Olympic courts were going to stock our prisons with people who’d gone out in the wrong type of shorts. But since Danny Boyle’s bizarre magical-modernist opening ceremony (topped by the trompe l’oeil of the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter), my disbelief has been suspended. When it comes down to basics, the Olympics, despite the marketing men’s best efforts, is still all about the sport.

And sport, as it hardly needs saying, is about competition. It creates a space in which the rules are tightly defined and referees and invites people to prove their worth on equal terms. To beat your opponent you must be faster, stronger and more skilful (yes, the developed nations have an advantage in the more technical sports involving bikes, boats and horses, but the athletics stadium is still one of the few arenas in the world where people from every continent line up as equals). Competition in this sense is not merely about winning. The men’s 100 metres, one of the events that draws the greatest number of athletes to every Olympic Games, featured no more than four athletes who genuinely had a chance to win the gold medal. Under the ‘winning is everything’ mentality that is gaining ground, the others might as well not have bothered to turn up. Yet still they did. The final was memorable not just for the heroics of Usain Bolt, but because he had to overcome seven athletes, who in turn had risen above thousands of other aspiring sprinters in every country of the world, all of them pushing themselves to their limit.

The Olympics is a world of stories. For a writer who likes sport, it’s like spending two weeks in Disneyland. In the early days I enjoyed the variety of events and the chance to watch sports that never otherwise catch the spotlight. The downside of the British team’s success has been the diminution of the television coverage to a relentless parade of homegrown success, eclipsing everything else. I don’t find it offensive, just inadequate. Much as I’ve enjoyed the feats of Jessica Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy and all the rest, it misses something essential about the complexity of sport. Other competitors have become increasingly incidental, so that at times it was difficult to remember that anybody else was in the race. When the British men’s sculls pair narrowly lost a nerveless battle with a Danish crew, there wasn’t a word of acknowledgement of the achievment of the other team, only a misplaced apology for the viewers back home who had been deprived of their fix of British Gold. Increasingly I started to drift away from the BBC’s straitened coverage to seek out other strands of the narrative. There was the remarkable semi-final in the women’s football in which Canada went ahead three times, conceded a late penalty and then saw the United States snatch a winner in the last seconds of extra time. The turbine-like power of the Dutch freestyle swimmer Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who two years ago was in hospital fighting off meningitis. The astonishing solo run of the Kenyan David Rudisha, who broke the world record in the 800 metres with the graceful ease of a flock of geese in flight. And the brilliant twist in the final of the 400 metres hurdles, as the former champion Felix Sanchez reignited a career that seemed to be in permanent decline with a run of dazzling fluidity.

Sanchez would go on to have a far larger influence on my experience of the Olympics than I could possibly have imagined. I knew he had been untouchable for a few years on the running track, winning the 2004 Olympic crown in 2004, before injuries and poor form brought him down. It was widely assumed he would never hit those heights again and was simply winding down his career. Yet like every Olympic competitor, he was still driven by the desire to do better – perhaps more so, having a memory of what it was like to be the very  best. And on Monday night he vindicated all those efforts, stopping the clock in exactly the same time he managed eight years before. Track athletes are in the business of running in circles, but eight years to get back to the same point must be some kind of record.

I don’t care much in general for national anthems. The worst thing about the British success has been the endless playing of God Save The Queen, a plodding dirge whose lyrics equate happiness with imperial conquest. There’s been a debate going on in the UK about whether athletes should sing as they collect their medals, as if this were somehow the true measure of achievement. When Felix Sanchez stood on top of the victor’s podium and reflected on the previous eight years of pain and frustration, he wasn’t singing either. Instead he cried, tears of joy mingled with relief, as the sounds of his country’s anthem rang out through the stadium. And the tune itself was a pleasant surprise, like a flower in the desert, strong and delicate at once, a thing of rare and unexpected beauty. On the spur of the moment I sent a Twitter message of appreciation:

At the time I didn’t think medal ceremonies were much more than a courtesy to the winners, an epilogue, a chance to bask in the limelight after straining in it. As I began to realise in the next few days, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The words I’d written chimed with the sense of pride resonating around a nation which had rarely tasted success in the Olympic arena and was determined to savour it. A trickle of messages became a flood; in three days I gained 600 followers from a Caribbean nation of 10 million people. It occurred to me that, not for the first time, I’d dismissed the resilience of the Olympic spirit.

It’s easily done. We’re encouraged to think that sport is only about winning: that second is nowhere. That true sportsmen and women are possessed by a merciless, almost sadistic desire to dominate and humiliate their rivals. For the most part it’s a poisonous myth. One of my favourite Olympic stories is about Jesse Owens in 1936. Not the one about him upsetting Hitler, significant though that is. It’s about the German long jumper, Lutz Long, who saw the American struggling in the qualifying rounds and went over to help him with his run-up. Owens qualified with his final leap and went on to win the gold medal. Under the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality Long’s action was unforgivable, more or less an act of sabotage. But the German was simply adhering to the basic code of sportsmanship. He wanted to win but win properly, by proving his mettle against the strongest competition. Victory in Owens’s absence would have been diminished. Instead he won (or “settled for”, as we say these days) an honourable silver.

Sport verbroedert, as the Dutch say: sport forges brotherhood. True sportsmanship implies respect for the opponent. I find it revealing that tennis, one of the most starkly individual of sports, generates some of the closest friendships among its players. When Novak Djokovic visited Scotland recently, he turned off from the A9 to visit Dunblane, the home town of Andy Murray, and then sent his bitter rival a picture to prove he’d been there. It’s heartening to know, when Djokovic and Murray are bursting every vessel to outscore each other on the court, that underpinning their rivalry is a sincere appreciation of the other’s crafstmanship. It’s because your rival is so good that you want to beat them. Sport isn’t just war without the shooting: it’s the civilisation of the warrior instinct. It brings people together across boundaries and conflicts and makes them compete according to an agreed set of rules, on a basis of mutual respect. To win you have to know your opponent intimately, and once you’ve learned to appreciate an opponent’s qualities it’s much harder to dehumanise them.

I discovered in the next few days that Quisqueyanos Valientes, the national anthem of the Dominican Republic is more than just a fine tune. The lyrics, by the lawyer, teacher, politician and poet Emilio Prud’Homme, convey the pain as well as the pride of a country whose history contains a long and bitter struggle to free itself from slavery. To raise itself up, in the same way that Felix Sanchez climbed back to the top of his event after years of struggle. It was supremely appropriate, in the same sense, that Usain Bolt’s triumph should coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. Nobody would wish to return to the days of colonial rule, when the aggressor nations believed it was their God-given duty to humiliate on the rest of humanity. The Olympic spirit is the antithesis of that. Its proper context is the clean fight in which the winner is first among equals. The glory of victory comes from the drama of the contest, from overcoming opponents of the very best calibre, from the respect and kinship that true competition engenders.

When the Games started I feared that the Olympic values were being corroded: that commercial exploitation and the blinkered focus on results were crushing whatever nobility was left in sport. But by accidentally tapping into the national mood that swept around the Dominican Republic in the wake of Felix Sanchez’s victory, I discovered that the Olympic spirit still exists where it matters: in the hearts of those who take part, whether as athletes or spectators. One gold medal, one flying lap of the track, made ten million people on the other side of the world rejoice. And when that rarely heard jewel of a national anthem filled the stadium, the whole country could share in Sanchez’s triumph, and the whole world could share in the country’s story. That turned out to be the inspiring moment of the Olympics for me, because I was lucky enough to have a part in it. A moment when a few hundred Dominicans helped me discover the truth of that Dutch motto, sport verbroedert.

57 thoughts on “How I found the Olympic spirit in Santo Domingo

  1. I’ve always said it’s one of the most beautiful anthems worldwide (yes, im Dominican hehe), and it felt great to have it played when our champion Sanchez, broken into tears, stood up on the podium. It was definitely an honor to read such comments about our country and our national anthem from you, thank you!!

  2. Oh…u had me in tears when I read this:
    “… One gold medal, one flying lap of the track, made ten million people on the other side of the world rejoice. And when that rarely heard jewel of a national anthem filled the stadium, the whole country could share in Sanchez’s triumph, and the whole world could share in the country’s story…”
    Thank you for sharing our happiness and pride with the world! Regards from Santo Domingo 🙂

  3. I have to confess that tears filled my eyes. As a Dominican leaving oversees, this is one of the most honoring articles that I have read about me beloved and very missed country. Thank Mr. Darrock for being faithful to the honor of influencing lives through your writting.

  4. Dear Mr. Darroch,

    Your words manage to somehow explain what 10 millon Dominicans felt that nite. To have our flag and anthem risen above every other, by the sweat and tears of a man that CHOSE to be Dominican, is something that it´s just not easy to put to words. Our flag has a history of it´s own, since the first one was sewn by women that belonged to the independentist movement, our anthem reflects the true nature of the Dominican, always figthing, always free. I invite you to read the full anthem, and i´m sure you will love it.

    Best part? for me is this one:

    Compatriotas, mostremos erguida
    Nuestra frente, orgullosos de hoy más;
    Que Quisqueya será destruida
    Pero sierva de nuevo, ¡ jamás !

    (Countrymen, show your head up high with pride,
    Quisqueya will be destroyed, but a slave again ¡Never!)

  5. It’s a refreshing reading in these days of terrible heat and hurricanes, a new style of writing: lively, accurate and as elegant as the moving of the wings of a hummingbird.
    We are surprised by the elegance of a journalist and writer, have subscribed to your page.
    For the independence of Scotland, which will be achieved in a 27 February in a near future.

  6. You don’t know how much those words mean to our Dominican Country, thanks a lot for that!! And yes, our national anthem is and always will be one the most beautiful anthems in the world. @Diego_Ramir3z

  7. As a very proud dominican….thank you for your words! Yes, you make my eyes wet once again, yes we are very proud of Felix Sanchez and also of Lugelin Santos, silver on 400 mts and Yes! We are very proud of our anthem! Visit us anytime! It’s a beautiful land!

  8. This is a brilliant and very emotional point of view! Thanks for telling our history and letting others know why only 1 gold medal means so much to us! We are very proud of our country and our culture! 🙂

  9. Thank you Mr. Darroch for such a beautiful post explaining the real way it feels this wining for us Dominicans.
    We’ve been following Felix Sanchez since he decided he wanted to compete for our country despite the fact he was trained in the US. He has made us proud ever since and every time he wears our colors BLUE, RED AND WHITE.
    I invite you Mr. Darroch to read our full history and you will understand completely a country that has rise from the slavery and colonialism and will not tolerate it never more even if we have to die just as our anthem sings.

  10. Thank you…Than you.. Thank you…. I don’t wear hat’s, but if I did, It would be off at this moment… I take my hat off before you and salute you Mr. Darroch, not only for what pertains our beautiful Dominican Hymn…but also for taking the time to highlight such an important and intricate aspect of something that like you said, seems to have been long lost. Your words, and the way you have conjugated them, took me, and I’m sure every other person who had the pleasure of reading this, on a vacation from our every day hurdles. After reading your blog, I can only say that you are truly a servant of the people, through your writings. God bless you!

  11. Lovely post, I really enjoyed it. When Félix won gold in the 400 meters I felt genuinely good about him, about the country and about the moment. Then I saw your tweet, and a few others praising our national anthem, and I couldn’t help feeling that much better. It’s like you said: we rarely bask in olympic glory, and rarely is our anthem played in international circumstances. It is true that commercialisation has gotten the best of almost everything, including sports, but yes, there are still out there people who enjoy these events for their essence. I’m glad we have inspired you much the same way you inspired us. By the way, a local newspaper, El Nacional, wrote a small piece on your tweet. You’re like a celebrity back here.

  12. “One gold medal, one flying lap of the track, made ten million people on the other side of the world rejoice. And when that rarely heard jewel of a national anthem filled the stadium, the whole country could share in Sanchez’s triumph, and the whole world could share in the country’s story. That turned out to be the inspiring moment of the Olympics”

    That’s what the olympic spirit is all about… For the usual winners, the wealthy nations, is just another medal… For us, is a chance that you can surpass all the challenges in the world, in order to climb to the top of the podium and say: “YES, WE CAN”

    Thank you for your kind words

  13. Thanks for your comments, you have to visit our country and know our people and culture and you will aprecciate this country for ever, the country and the anthems.

  14. Dear Mr, Darroch,

    It is lovely to know that their are still people that are open minded and appreciate what other cultures have to offer. I was born in the United States and was raised in the Dominican Republic. And as much as I love the US anthem , there’s never been an anthem that has moved me the most as the Dominican anthem. The anthem is poetic… to read every verse is to understand what those countrymen had to go through to obtain independence. I would recommend you as Miguel has to read the full anthem. Since the anthem is only sung until the first four verses,due to it’s longevity , there’s a lot more to this compelling piece of artwork .

  15. Mr. Darroch thank you very much for these words that Monday of our second gold medal at the Olympic Games, Felix Sanchez with pride our hearts and our eyes with tears, then later as a special being you are with these beautiful words revived us what pride as a people and nation all feel.

    God bless your family and you keep writing so deeply so that we can continue to enjoy your writings here and elsewhere in the world to beat a good heart and noble as that of this beautiful town that today is very grateful and we all know that will be a long-standing relationship with you and yours, count on our warmth as a people because we know that we are visiting our beautiful half island within a short time, a big hug! Tanya Rodriguez!

  16. As I read this tears come to my eyes. As a Dominican, Im so proud of Feliz Sanchez and proud of our National Anthem. Thanks Gordon!

  17. Quisqueya (Dominican Republic) is a proud country. Your words, as Félix’s victory on Monday, fills out hearts and mend our souls. We are a small and poor – yet brave – nation. We are really grateful for this words. Please consider yourself as an honor Dominican.

  18. Thank you Mr. Darroch for your ‘love letter’ to our small and wonderful country. Indeed, very few people have heard our anthem before, and it’s touching to see that others outside our country appreciate how beautiful it is. I happened to be present at London’s Olympic stadium when Felix Sanchez won the race on 6th August . Even though I don’t know him (I’m just a fan, like every Dominican person), I shouted his name after the race and waved our flag to him as I was sitting near the track. He approached me and I then handed him a Dominican flag while he was running his lap of honour, followed by an exchange of huge hugs and kisses (on the cheeks of course 🙂 between us. He was just so humble I could hardly believe it! I can only describe that as a dream, which was, incredibly enough, topped by the inmense pride I felt while singing on my own the Dominican anthem between 80,000 people (the vast majority non-Dominicans) and seeing our athlete crumble in tears of happiness and all sorts of emotions. We should also praise the young athlete Luguelin Santos, only 18 years of age, who after Sanchez’s race stunned many by winning Silver on the 400m race. Two medals in less than two hours – I can say that I was lucky enough to witness one of the most dramatic and incredible days of our sport’s history!

  19. Lovely piece!…however our (Dominican) hymn, as beautiful as I think it is, does not refer to freedom with respect to traditional slavery, but from Haitian domination. Our celebrated independence was not from Spain,our former colonial power, but from the invading Haitian Republic. Later the DR tried to become once again a Spanish colony even, but ultimately our own identity as a nation was shaped….very confusing!

  20. This is really moving. I am Dominican living abroad for many years. But how can I forget my formative years where I was taught the national anthem and how much emphasis and determination was put by our school principal insisting we learn all the stanzas of our national anthem. How greatful I am to her today that I got the chance to do so. Thank you Gordon for such awe inspiring words and bringing me a little bit closer to my compatriots as the same feelings they were experiencing in the Dominican Republic were being emulated by me and so many other Dominicans living abroad. Cheers to Felix and may the Lord continue to bless you.

  21. Thank you Mr. Darroch for such an exquisite article. You should follow up the welcome party have been prepare for Felix Sanchez and the others athletes who represent DR in the Olympic Games!

  22. Thank you for your words! No one has ever taken the time to understand what being Dominican meant until that glorious moment that our anthem filled the London stadium. You brought tears of joy, thank you for understanding how proud we are of our country, you are more than welcome to visit and I can say for sure you will enjoy the landscapes and the culture.
    God bless you!

  23. A diferencia de otros países Nuestro Himno Nacional une a cada dominicano y narra toda la epopeya que pasamos para ser independientes desde la independencia hasta la restauración de la misma, pero lo mejor es que el himno a pesar de ser centenario sigue vigente como el primer día su letra y música son realmente hermosas.
    Un millón de gracias Sr. Darroch por referirse a él con tanto respeto y admiración no se si sera independentista pero espero que Escocia su tierra pueda serlo y tener un himno como el nuestro .

  24. Thank you Mr Darroch for your beautiful words, they have reached not only the 10 million dominicans living in DR, but also the other millions that live abroad. Your feelings and admiration towards our anthem make me feel proud”er” while living in Canada. Once again, Merci. Catherine Tactuk

  25. Gracias Sr. Darrochs, is amazing how you could describe in words the immense pride we feel every Dominican that day, seeing to get ahead of Sanchez and hear our beautiful hymn played in front of 80000 people and they feel and almost touch the tears of our athlete when he went up to podium, his humility felt around the world who was watching at that time, his words Mr. Gordon has been a balm for our country, thanks for your words, invaluable to us, we invite you to go to our country and feel for itself not only our anthem is a delicate piece of poetry, but much more on our half of the island, stop by here and take a delicious coffee, walk our beaches … and infinite thanks!

  26. thank you so much for honoring our country and our atheletes with this article.. for just one minute on that amazing monday afternoon, everyone either at work or at home was watching as one of our own make history on our name. We are so very proud of Felix Sanchez and each and everyone of our athletes>

  27. Thanks for your inspiring words, and for your honest appreciation of the Dominican culture!Your words make me ever so proud of my nationality and reminds some of us that some people out there go beyond the stereotypes and recognize the true nature of our people.

  28. Thanks a million for making us proud by recognizing our athletes. I saw Felix’s tears while playing our national anthem. All I can tell you have been already said by my fellow Dominicans. Merci beaucoup. Muchas gracias. Danke.

  29. Excelente articulo, Inspirador y lleno de sensibilidad, tenia bastante tiempo que no leía algo como esto. Gracias desde la República Dominicana.

  30. Incredible words. all the Dominican people welcomes your beautiful words. Sanchez’s victory certainly was a blanket of joy and peace for a small country in need. Thank you!

  31. Im so glad that my brother won the olympics you guys just dont know how bad he wanted this and deserved this my abuela would have been so proud of him.


  33. One day I will sit down with my now 8 month old son to try to explain the events that took place on August 6th and how we all shook our heads, laughed, cried, hughed and felt like one, together. This will really come in handy. Thanks for your kind words

  34. The heart is trembling. Excited after the reading of your article. Great feelings of joy, thankfulness and humility. Your words have made big impact in me. First of all i will thanks god for you and will be praying a big amount of time, like Job, postrated, knowing and apreciating the only thing that really matters in our lives : God loves me as i am.
    You will receive a lot of blessings in your life. 10 million people will wait for that to happen. Hasta la vista.

  35. I have had the privilege today to remember this recent event through your writing and I really appreciate that someone from ´´a land far away´´ as we Dominicans may see it, recognizes the kind and proud spirit of Dominicans as a result of Feliz Sanchez´s amazing rise from the ashes. Thank you very much.

  36. You made me cry sir. We don’t aspire of being among the world powers, we just wanna share our piece of heaven with the world.

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