Who knows why?
In two weeks they'll light the world's largest wick, let some white birds loose and then start lining up men and women from around the earth to see who can run the fastest from here to there. The fastest down straightaways, around curves, over barricades, through puddles, even clenching metal sticks. Who knows why? For days you'll sit in front of your TV and watch all of these races. Except for one.
It's the oddest and longest footrace, the one that forbids the competitors to go as fast as they can—in fact, that forces them to walk. It's the one Olympic race you'll scoff at, at first. Then ignore.
That's the race I'll be watching closest. See, I know what happened one day five months ago in the race to get to this race. I know how much can be at stake when a man takes a four-hour walk: Everything.
Al Heppner was the first race walker to arrive. He appeared just as dawn did on the U.S. Olympic Trials 50-kilometer course at Chula Vista Marina, a few miles south of San Diego. His stomach hurt. He hadn't slept. No one had ever wanted a race as badly as he wanted this one.
The others began to materialize in the wan gray light on that Sunday in February: the race officials, the media, the walkers and their dearest friends and loved ones, along with a few dozen high school cheerleaders that the event's organizer had mustered to create noise and excitement.
No one else cared about race walking. No one else would watch men or women walk that funny walk for hour after hour. Neither the NCAA nor the U.S. and European pro track circuits bothered to hold the event. Bob Costas, NBC's Olympics host, would say that having a race to see who can walk the fastest is like having a contest to see who can whisper the loudest.
The walkers assembled for the 7:30 a.m. start. They'd all long since made it to the other side of mirth and disdain. They'd all had seven-year-olds follow them and ape their pumping arms and swaying hips. They'd all heard 20-year-olds barrel by in rusting cars and scream Fag! at them on country roads. They'd all shed their need for the world's approval, attuned their ears and hearts to an inner voice. Except for one.
Al stood out. He was the 5'8" pied piper of race walking, the 29-year-old with the munchkin's cackle who was loved by everyone in his fringe fraternity. The one so loud that other walkers would remind him to use his indoor voice. So vulnerable that he'd sob on a stranger's shoulder after being disqualified from a race. So exuberant that he'd end up on the dance floor at a postrace party, his shirt soaked, juking like no Jew ever juked, encircled by people chanting, "Go, Al! Go, Al! Go, Jiggy!" Rabbi Jiggy. That was just one of his nicknames.