Is winning all that counts? Are you absolutely sure about that?
Two weeks ago, on December 2, Spanish athlete Iván Fernández Anaya was competing in a cross-country race in Burlada, Navarre. He was running second, some distance behind race leader Abel Mutai – bronze medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the London Olympics. As they entered the finishing straight, he saw the Kenyan runner – the certain winner of the race – mistakenly pull up about 10 meters before the finish, thinking he had already crossed the line.
Fernández Anaya quickly caught up with him, but instead of exploiting Mutai’s mistake to speed past and claim an unlikely victory, he stayed behind and, using gestures, guided the Kenyan to the line and let him cross first.
“I didn’t deserve to win it,” says 24-year-old Fernández Anaya. “I did what I had to do. He was the rightful winner. He created a gap that I couldn’t have closed if he hadn’t made a mistake. As soon as I saw he was stopping, I knew I wasn’t going to pass him.”
Fernández Anaya is coached in Vitoria by former Spanish distance runner Martín Fiz in the same place, the Prado Park, where he clocked up kilometers and kilometers of training to become European marathon champion in 1994 and world marathon champion in 1995.
“It was a very good gesture of honesty,” says Fiz. “A gesture of the kind that isn’t made any more. Or rather, of the kind that has never been made. A gesture that I myself wouldn’t have made. I certainly would have taken advantage of it to win.”
Fiz says his pupil’s action does him credit in human if not athletic terms. “The gesture has made him a better person but not a better athlete. He has wasted an occasion. Winning always makes you more of an athlete. You have to go out to win.”
Fiz recalls that at the 1997 World Championships in Athens he was followed by his countryman Abel Antón the whole way. In the final meters Antón attacked and easily won the race, having exploited all Fiz’s hard work. “I knew that was going to happen. [...] But competition is like that. It wouldn’t have been logical for Antón to let me win.”
Fernández Anaya trains in the Prado every day, putting in double sessions three times a week – when his vocational studies allow. Experts say he is one step away from entering the elite of Spanish cross-country running. His goal this year is to at least make the Spanish team for the world cross-country champions.
But according to his coach, the pressure gets to him. “He doesn’t know how to overcome the pressure, which is what differentiates champions. If he did, he would have been at the recent European championships,” Fiz notes.
“In the Burlada cross-country race there was hardly anything at stake [...] apart from being able to say that you had beaten an Olympic medalist,” says Fernández Anaya.
“But even if they had told me that winning would have earned me a place in the Spanish team for the European championships, I wouldn’t have done it either. Of course it would be another thing if there was a world or European medal at stake. Then, I think that, yes, I would have exploited it to win... But I also think that I have earned more of a name having done what I did than if I had won. And that is very important, because today, with the way things are in all circles, in soccer, in society, in politics, where it seems anything goes, a gesture of honesty goes down well.”