An Olympic Gold Medal Favorite Who Fell, Hiromi Taniguchi Weighs In On Online Harassment and Athlete Mental Health
In a world where slander and abuse run freely on the Internet, words have become a deadly weapon that can end someone's life. 1991 marathon world champion Hiromi Taniguchi, 60, saw his own life change dramatically when he uttered a single phrase after finishing 8th in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics men's marathon. The words he said right after finishing, "I had a little whoopsie-daisy!" have become part of folklore as the good-natured reaction of someone who simply lost their race, but in the years since then they've become in their own way a cross that Taniguchi has had to bear. We talked directly with Taniguchi, now a professor at Miyazaki University, to find out what impact those Olympic Games now 28 years distant had upon his life and fate.
Taniguchi teaches at Miyazaki University three times a week. His classes and appearances at marathon-related events have been heavily impacted by the coronavirus crisis. "Everything on the schedule this year has been canceled," he says. "There's nothing I can do about it." His rueful Miyazakian smile when he says those words is the same as the one he had 28 years ago when his life changed as the result of something he said in passing.
As the gold medalist the year before at the Tokyo World Championships, Taniguchi went to Barcelona a favorite to medal. But at a drink table near 20 km he collided with another athlete and lost one of his shoes. Stopping to put it back on, he lost touch with the leaders and ended up only 8th. It was a shocking setback, but right after he finished Taniguchi laughed ruefully and said, "I had a little whoopsie-daisy along the way!"
In that instant you could see everything about Taniguchi's personality, his honest acceptance of failure, the strength of character to laugh at his own mistakes. It struck the hearts of the Japanese audience, even stealing a large part of the limelight from Koichi Morishita's silver medal, the first Japanese men's marathon medal in 24 years at that point. The media seized upon the phrase "a little whoopsie-daisy" and ran with it. "I got back to Japan on Aug. 11, and for the next week it was nothing but news talk shows," says Taniguchi. "Housewives who didn't know anything about athletics recognized me, and when I was just out in public like normal they'd gasp when they saw me."
Things didn't settle down for Taniguchi. Wherever he went people only wanted to hear about the "whoopsie-daisy" and his Olympic fall. "I didn't really think about it that much while I was still competing," he says. Most people seemed to think of it as a beautiful little story, but negative words and criticism started to come out too. "It's always been the case that 'the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,' and some people feel jealous," says Taniguchi. "People saying, 'If you were a favorite then how come you were only 8th?' too. But in my case I was lucky because there were more positive voices than negative."
"If I'd had that accident during today's Internet era I can only imagine what kind of negative attacks there'd have been," he says. "Just recently the young female wrestler Hana Kimura took her own life after than kind of relentless online harassment. I think a lot of athletes are going through that. They may look strong, but they're really as fragile as anyone else. Nobody is 100% strong. I was lucky to have been active in the era I was."
These days Taniguchi can take it all good-naturedly. When he appears at public events there's always someone who thinks it's original to call out, "Hey Taniguchi, don't fall!" or "Hey Taniguchi, have you got your shoes on?" He's gotten to the point where he can just laugh it off and answer, "Yes, I made sure I tied them properly so there won't be any problems today!" "I feel like that's all I can do," he says with a laugh. "Just take it in a friendly way when the talk turns to the 'whoopsie-daisy.' I guess the fact that I think that way means I've gotten old."
The legacy of his Olympic experience continues to live on in Taniguchi's life. He was selected as an Olympic torch bearer representing Miyazaki prefecture. The coronavirus crisis has meant that the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games have been canceled, and there are doubts about whether they can be staged at all. "I think the Olympic are in a very tough position because of the coronavirus crisis," Taniguchi says. "But the chance to see an Olympics on Japanese soil won't come again during my lifetime. I really hope they can pull it off." His tone remains calm and measured as he says those words, but all the same in them there lingers the afterglow of the profound joy that the Olympics left within Taniguchi's heart.
Hiromi Taniguchi - Born Apr. 5, 1960 in Nangocho, Miyawaki. PB: 2:07:40, Beijing 1988. Left home at age 15 to attend Kobayashi H.S. and Nittai University before joining the Asahi Kasei corporate team. Won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1991 Tokyo Olympics. Finished 8th at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics after falling mid-race and placed 19th at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Began coaching after retirement, leading the Tokyo Nogyo University men, the Oki corporate women's team and Tokyo Denryoku corporate men's team. Became a professor at Miyazaki University in 2017.
Translator's note: The woman in the video above is Taniguchi's mother, watching Barcelona live with other hometown supporters.
translated by Brett Larner