With our 2016 Irish Olympians having endured years of sacrifice, training for events that are over in moments, winning an Olympic medal is truly a monumental achievement. With the current standing of two silver medals, Ireland is ranked 59th in the Rio medal standings, something that all of the island can be proud of. But it turns out there is a fourth medal awarded to sportsmen and women at the Olympic Games, and it’s worth even more than gold, silver or bronze.
Named after the founder of the modern games, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, this medal honours athletes who embody and exemplify the spirit of sportsmanship or exceptional service to the Olympics. To date, after 30 summer games and 22 winter ones have come and gone, only 17 Pierre de Coubertin medals have been awarded, making it the single most prestigious prize offered by the International Olympic Committee.
Among the most famous recipients of the medal is Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, who was also honoured with the opportunity to use the Olympic flame to light the Rio cauldron. A retired marathon runner, de Lima was in the lead of the endurance event at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens when a spectator, regrettably of Irish origins, ran out from the crowd and tackled the runner. The Brazilian never recovered from the incident, managing to finish third and at least claim a place on the podium. “It’s bronze,” he said at the time, “But it means gold.” De Lima’s grace during the unfolding scandal earned him praise all over the world, as well as the de Coubertin medal.
Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima poses with his Pierre de Coubertin medal, while the bronze one for the 2004 men's marathon hangs from his neck [Pixabay]
Another of the 17 winners is the German long jumper Luz Long, who represented Nazi Germany during the Berlin Games in 1936. The story, though disputed, goes that African-American athlete Jesse Owens was struggling to qualify for the finals of the competition, having stepped over the line before leaping. Luz advised Owens of where to place his foot, helping him to jump his way into the final leg of the competition, where he would go on to win gold, defying the Nazi regime’s insistence on the superiority of the Aryan race. Long and Owens embraced in front of Adolf Hitler, and would go on to remain friends, even throughout the Second World War, during which Long was killed in action in Sicily in 1943. In 1964, the International Olympic Committee decided to award Long the de Coubertin Medal.
Other winners of the prize include a bobsledder who offered his own equipment to the team that would ultimately win the gold, and a sailor who abandoned a race in 1988 to save others from drowning.
As for Rio 2016, the games have, like many before them, been mired in controversy – albeit, most of it taking place off the field or outside the stadium. But the athletes taking part have displayed a level of sportsmanship worthy of claiming the rarest medal of them all. Olympic fans will be watching to see if the IOC doles one out to Yusra Mardini, the 18-year-old Syrian refugee who is credited with helping to rescue 20 others after jumping into the water during a dangerous crossing of the Aegean Sea. Or it could be the US and Kiwi 5,000m-runners Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin, who fell during a height after a collision. The two women then encouraged each other to get back up, despite injuries, and cross the finishing line.
With the Pierre de Coubertin prize not awarded every games, only time will tell whether or not 2016 will bring the number of medallists up to 18.