A lot is said in the Olympics after a great sporting triumph – generally the joy, jubilation and satisfaction that comes after four years of sacrifice and hard work. But what about those who had to wait even longer – whose sporting triumphs are measured not only by their feats but also when you consider their unbelievable persistence, diligence and patience in the face of adversity? The James Magnussens of the world compete with an expectation of success. Thankfully there are athletes who simply do the best they can and compete fully aware of the privilege and honour that comes with being able to represent your country on the biggest stage. No more, no less.
The story of Yamilé Aldama typifies these athletes. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1972 she grew up competing in the high jump and heptathlon before turning to the triple jump at age 22. Success eventually followed for the hard-working competitor after missing the 1996 Olympics through injury, with a World Championship silver medal in 1999 and a fourth place finish at Sydney in 2000.
Then her life changed. In 2001 she met and feel in love with a Scottish film producer, Andrew Dodds. They met while Dodds was in her native Cuba studying Spanish. Shortly after they moved to London and were soon married with their first child on the way. With her son 6 months old and her application for British citizenship lodged, a police raid in the middle of the night while quietly watching TV with her new family was most unexpected.
As it turned out, a few miles from the family home was a warehouse owned by Dodds which was used for trafficking heroin. Dodds was charged and convicted of heroin trafficking, all of Dodd’s assets were seized and he was sentenced to 15 years jail. Aldama, completely unconnected to the offence, was now a single mother in an unknown country who barely spoke English. Despite all this, she decided to stay in London and support her husband despite his transgressions.
Her decision to stick by Dodds is best described in her own words: “No, it wasn’t even a difficult decision…it was probably due to the way my mum and dad brought me up. We’re very faithful, when people are good to us. He made his mistake in 1999, before we were together. It had nothing to do with me. From the moment we met, he had been a great: a fantastic husband, good father, somebody who was kind to my parents. I had no reason not to stand by him.”
Too add to her adversity, she now had to negotiate the labyrinth of London’s roads to make the 2 hour trip from her home in the East End to her training base at Barnet. For a while police even followed her and her son Amil to training (to ensure she had nothing to do with the crime). But she kept on working away – even on the most punishing of wintry days she would take her young infant to the track, swaddled in blankets to run laps as her coach, Frank Attoh kept watch on both mother and baby. Despite the unbelievably difficult circumstances Aldama was now in the peak of her powers, jumping five times further than 15m in 2003 – a feat no female triple-jumper has ever achieved before or since. One of those was the fifth longest jump of all time – 15.29m.
However, there were more difficulties. Cuba refused to support athletes living overseas. Since she was a new resident, she had to wait the mandatory 3 years to gain a British passport. Although she was the world No. 1 with the 2004 Olympics approaching, she had no country to represent. Despite offers from Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic, she decided to compete (for no money) for Sudan at Athens in 2004, where she came a somewhat disappointing fifth.
Over the next few years she competing solidly for Sudan – she finished 2nd at the World Indoor Championships in 2004, 3rd at the World Athletics Final in 2006 and made the final in Beijing in 2008. But by that stage was mentally and emotionally fatigued: she described 2008 as a “terrible year” after the best part of a decade without her husband.
In 2009 Dodds was released, which proved to be a turning point for Aldama. In 2010 she finally received her British passport and in August the couple had their second child together. Now representing Britain and her family fully supporting her, last year she came 5th at the World Championships and then became the oldest British world champion in March 2012 at the World Indoor Championships in Turkey. Still, she had to endure more knockers – this time from claims she was a ‘plastic’ Brit (i.e. not British enough to compete under the Union Jack, despite having lived in Britain for a decade, raising British children and continually cooking Sunday roasts with gravy and roast potatoes. As if that doesn’t count as British! Oh, and she drinks tea. Enough said).
On August 5 2012, despite every setback, Yamilé Aldama competed in the final of the women’s triple jump at the London Olympics, aged 39. Her father passed away 2 months prior but her mother flew from Havana to watch her compete – the first time she has done so since she was 12. She was cheered by her native crowd but despite a realistic prospect of winning a medal, she finished fifth with a best jump of 14.48m, (behind winner Olga Rypakova of Kazakhstan’s 14.98m) well behind her personal best of 15.29m but not bad considering a recent shoulder injury and an aging body.
She was in tears after the competition, too upset to speak to reporters after the contest. Hopefully upon reflection she can realise that she has achieved more than a medal could ever signify. In the end Yamilé Aldama has shown how hard work and stubborn determination in the face of adversity can lead to great achievements – a testament to the true nature of the Olympic Games.