Slow Sprinter Urges Fast Action To Save His Marshall Islands Homeland


We ask Elliott Denman, a member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic team at 50k, to cover what he finds unique and interesting each and every day. On Day two of track and field, he supplied us with this story. The fascinating story of a not so fast sprinter who wants to save his heritage, the Marshal Islands.


RIO de JANEIRO - Richson Redmond Simeon doesn't stand alone as the slowest man in the Olympic Games.

No, it's a tie.

Simeon, representing the Marshall Islands, ran the 100 meters in 11.81 seconds, placing eighth in the first heat of the Preliminary Round of the event Saturday morning at Olympic Stadium.

Then it was the turn of Etimoni Timuani, another South Pacific islander, representing Tuvalu. Running the third and final heat of the Preliminary Round, he placed seventh, clocking an identical 11.81.

"It's an honor just being in the same event as Usain Bolt," said Simeon.

Usain Bolt hasn't yet said it's an honor being in the same event as Richson Simeon.

Just a few months ago, Simeon had never dreamed such a thing could actually happen.

It's the International Olympic Committee's emphasis on its first title word - International - that has made Simeon's presence at the Games possible. Globalism is the name of these Games - sort of.

The more flags flying over Olympic Stadium, the more teams marching into Maracana for Opening Ceremonies, the better the IOC likes it. NBC too, likely.

Thus, when they count 'em all up, the Marshall Islands flag and the Tuvalu flag rank as highly as
USA's, or Brazil's, or Great Britain's, or China's, or Germany's, or Australia's, or Canada's, or
France's, or anybody's.

The medals table? Well, that's a bit different story.

Simeon's story, however, is of solid gold quality.

He's really a California kid, still just 18 until October 5th, and a student at Sacramento City College.

But his mother is a Marshallese - as these islanders are termed - while his dad is Trukese, which is someone whose heritage stems from Truk Island.

Born in Costa Mesa, California, Richson lived for a stretch in the Marshalls, and for another stretch in Hawaii, before moving to Sacramento with his family. Typically Californian, he dabbled in football, tennis, basketball and soccer.

At C. K. McClatchy High School, football coaches noted his basic speed, and he scored a few as
a running back for the McClatchy Lions.

It was track coach Rob Dewar, though, who sped Richson's path to Rio.

"Coach Dewar saw that I had some speed," said Simeon, in the mixed zone in the basement of Olympic Stadium, where media masses gather to grab their quotes from the Usain Bolts of the world.

Just a handful, though, bothered to hear out the Marshall Islands delegate. One was from Guam, one from France, one from New Jersey.

Once he learned of Simeon's Marshallese heritage, Coach Dewar dotted his I's and crossed his T's and got all the paperwork done that was needed to expedite his athlete's journey to Rio.

Simeon had done all those other sports, you know, but he'd never done any track until maybe six-seven weeks ago.
His first recorded 100-meter was a 12.3; Usain Bolt was probably running 12.3s in third grade.

Still, it was promising and, while not really a fast runner, Simeon began proving himself a fast learner.

He learned how to start a race, how to rush through those middle meters, and how
to maintain his relative speed to the finish line.

Having no other viable candidates, sports officials back in the Marshalls quickly made him
Olympic-eligible. When the confirmations came through, he still thought "it might be some kind of joke."

But it sure isn't - so here he is Rio - unconcerned with Usain Bolt, leaving that to the Justin Gatlins of the world - but making his mark everywhere in his Olympic travels nevertheless.

Especially at Opening Cerermonies.

He'd wiggled one finger on his right hand, five fingers on his left, as the world's TV cameras zoomed in on Team Marshall marching proudly in the parade of nations.

And he told his three interviewers just why those wiggling fingers in the mixed zone.

"I was telling the world '1.5,' as in 1.5 meters, as in any more rising sea than that, and the
Marshall Islands are gone, flooded over, gone, maybe forever.

"That's what global warming is doing, that's what's happening to our homes, our islands, everything we have.

"I wanted the world to know. It's important.

"We normally have a population of 60,000, maybe 70,000, I don't know exactly.

"But some people are leaving already. To Hawaii, to California, to America.

"They're afraid they'll have no country in a few years."

Through earlier history, the Marshalls - 29 main coral atolls, along with 1,150 other islands, some inhabited, some not, shuttled between periods of control by Spain, Germany, Japan, and now, as as a signator to a Compact Of Free Association With The United States.

Occupied by Japan through the early years of World War II, the Marshalls, whose best known islands are Eniwetak and Kwajelein, suffered hugely and were eventually freed by the invasion of America and its allies.

Later, the Mashalls were the sites of numerous nuclear tests, and all the horrors they left behind.

But now, for another reason, the Marshall Islands' future is as dire as it's ever been.

It took a non-fast kid from California to remind the rest of us that we'd better take some fast action, or there will be no Marshall Islands team at the next Olympic Games, and no Marshall Islands, either.

"Remember what I'm telling you," said Richson Simeon. "Remember that 1.5. Any more than that and we're gone."

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