Standing on the top of the podium at the Olympics, is probably the zenith of sporting excellence. For an athlete, nothing can get bigger than that. For Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux, it was no different.
Coming into the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Lemieux who had failed to finish on the podium at the 1984 Games, the stakes were higher.
Lemieux, 32 then had to come a long way to earn a place in the Finn category that he had miss out on four years earlier where he had finished 13th in the Star class. Having begun his career ten years before the Seoul Games, the Canadian seemed primed to reach his peak in South Korea.
And on September 24, in Busan, the site for the 470 and Finn events in sailing, everything was going according to plan.
Sailing in the fifth of the eight races to determine the winner, Lemieux was first in the race and second overall. He was in contention to at least win a silver medal when something even more important grabbed his attention.
The weather during the event had considerably worsened with winds blowing in excess of 35 knots. It had caused steep waves that even Lemieux who was used to sailing in rough weather had not previously witnessed. It was causing plenty of problems for the sailors.
The Canadian saw Joseph Chan and Siew Shaw, the two-man Singaporean team in the 470 event in the sea with their dinghy capsized. One of them had made it to the boat but the other was drifting away due to the force of the waves.
“The distance between him and his boat was quite a way and the boat was drifting faster than he could swim. And if I couldn’t see those big orange markers, who was going to see a little head bobbing in the water? He’d have been lost at sea,” Lemieux was quoted as saying by Financial Times.
“I had to make a decision and once I realised the dynamics of the problem there was no question,” he added.
Lemieux decided to deviate from his course and managed to reach the duo. He rescued them and pulled them out but couldn’t rejoin the race until a patrol boat arrived to take the sailors back to the shore.
He rejoined the Heat but finished 21st. It ended his chances of winning a medal as he only finished seventh in the class.
Lemieux probably lost out on something that he had spent his entire life working on but he had managed to do the more humane thing – save lives.
The Canadian was duly rewarded for his act of courage as he was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for Sportsmanship.
“By your sportsmanship, self-sacrifice and courage, you embody all that is right with the Olympic ideal,” Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was the President of the International Olympic Committee said at the time.
Lemieux may not have won an Olympic medal but he has been immortalised in Olympics history books. The Canadian was was only the fifth recipient of the de Coubertin Medal, and the second to receive it during a Games in which he was a competitor, following Eugenio Monti.
His rescue of the Singaporean sailors is remembered as one of the greatest acts of sportsmanship in history, but Lemieux likes to play it down. He feels it’s what anyone in his place would have done at the time.
“You spend your life working really hard internationally and you get very few accolades, very little attention. But after that race, I was swamped by the media. I had done what anyone in that moment would have done. But the ironic thing; 25 years after this rescue, we’re still talking about it,” he said in an interview later.
Even though Lemieux remains humble about it, the fact that he had the presence of mind to spot the troubled sailors and then the ability to rescue them in testing conditions is worthy of praise.
In a world where sporting success or failure is often a matter of life and death, Lemieux showed that sport is, after all, nothing more than a game and despite it evoking so many emotions across the globe, it can never be the most important thing in life. At the Olympics, the biggest sporting show on earth, Lemieux just provided another reminder.
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