In Less Than Five Minutes, a Match and an Olympics End, from the New York Times

Jacob Gnahoui of Benin, right, lost to Ludwig Paischer of Austria in their 62-kilogram match. He was the first person eliminated from the event. (photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
Published: July 28, 2012

LONDON — This is how Jacob Gnahoui spent his Olympics. For a little more than three minutes, he grappled and pulled and squirmed and strained, on his feet and on the floor and back on his feet again, and then he spent a little less than a half-minute in a smothering embrace. And then it was over.

The day had started at 9:30 a.m., and before it was even 9:35, the day was done.

Of the thousands of athletes here, Gnahoui, a practitioner of judo, was among the first to be eliminated. There would be many more by the end of the day, and of course there are countless more athletes who never made it to the Games, missing their chances by a few centimeters or tenths of a second, or by a quick miscalculation.

But it is different when you make it all the way here and it ends so quickly. The whiplash has to be even more powerful for Gnahoui, who less than 11 hours earlier was holding aloft the flag of his home country, Benin, and leading the country’s tiny Olympic delegation out into the delirious roar of Olympic Stadium.

“It’s normal,” he said through an interpreter in the Olympic Village on Saturday afternoon. “It’s normal for an athlete at this level, because they expect it.”

This is particularly true in judo, as pitilessly efficient a sport as they come.

There is little fanfare when the two judokas approach the mat. They face each other and bow like diplomats, and then they go straight for each other as if attached by bungee cords — no dancing, no circling, but immediately grabbing fistfuls of the other’s uniform and trying to get him on his back.

A match, which in the men’s category lasts for five minutes, can end with one competitor being lifted in the air and slammed on his back, or with a 25-second pin, or with a hold so painful or suffocating that the sufferer taps the mat, as if to say “uncle.” Those last two things probably feel like an eternity for a competitor, but for a spectator, the whole thing seems to pass in a flash.

“Five minutes of fighting is the same as 90 minutes of soccer,” Gnahoui said.

But his familiarity with fleeting intensity goes beyond the judo match or even his whirlwind Olympics appearance.

There is not much biographical information about him on the official Olympics Web site, other than his weight, height and birthday. Unlike other athletes, his page does not mention his past victories or his coach’s name or his hobbies, and unlike the man who beat him (and who himself was beaten less than an hour later) he does not have a personal Web site. And off the mat, he is deceptively small and compact for a man who spends his free time throwing people onto the ground.

Gnahoui, 26, was born in the ancient town Allada in Benin, a small country in West Africa that was once a French colony. He learned judo from his older brother, fighting for years in T-shirts because he did not have a traditional uniform. Eventually, he began winning tournaments in Africa and in 2006 was invited to the World Cup in Hamburg, Germany, to fight for Benin.

At the last minute, Benin officials told him they did not have enough money for his airfare. He had already obtained his 10-day visa to Europe. So his parents scraped up enough money to buy him a ticket.

On his seventh day in Europe, he decided to stay in France, he said, and applied to the French Foreign Legion. If it did not accept him, he had decided he would stay anyway, but illegally. He had three days on a legal visa to find out what his future would look like: the life of a soldier or a life far less predictable.

So, all of that is to say, “there are many things that I can deal with in the short term.”

As it happened, Gnahoui was accepted by the Foreign Legion and has been living in France ever since. He has not seen his family, but he remains attached to Benin, paying his own transportation and lodging to represent Benin at international judo tournaments. When the officials asked him to carry the flag, he thanked them, he said, then went into a room by himself and cried.

“I like my country,” he said, this time in English. He hopes his parents saw him on television.

So now what? He was planning on meeting a friend Saturday night who lives outside London. And he is looking forward to learning about the city. The gold in his event was awarded Saturday — to Arsen Galstyan of Russia — so he would not have had an extensive Olympics tenure in the best of circumstances, but he is debating how long to stick around.

Even if he does stay awhile, he said, he is packing up his uniform. After all, as far as his job is concerned, he’s on vacation.

Christopher Clarey contributed reporting.

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