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Olympic Athletes' Names: Endurance (Track), Moist (Swimming), And A Leeper

Nathan Leeper of the United States jumps during the IAAF World Championships in this photo from 2001. A high jumper, Leeper is one of several athletes whose name suited their sport.
Andy Lyons
Nathan Leeper of the United States jumps during the IAAF World Championships in this photo from 2001. A high jumper, Leeper is one of several athletes whose name suited their sport.

"What's in a name?" a British writer named Shakespeare once asked in Romeo and Juliet, long before the Olympics ever came to London.

Well, it turns out that some Olympic names herald the greatness athletes seek, and the events they enter, while some bear monikers better suited for others.

Take the Nigerian sprinter running in the 4x400m relay here in London. 400 meters may seem like a considerable distance (a quarter of a mile) to armchair athletes, but it's really a sprint. Abinuwa Endurance will do her best to more than endure. She's got to go out hard and maintain a good pace to finish well, but it's all over in under a minute.

Eight years ago in Athens, Endurance Ojokolo also ran in the Olympics for Nigeria, in the go-all-out-from-the start 100-meter sprint.

But back in the 1900 Olympics in Paris, Ernest Fast of Sweden went fast enough to finish third — but not too fast too soon, to exhaust himself before the end of the endurance-dependent marathon. That's according to Olympic historian and trivia collector David Wallechinsky, whose new work The Book of Olympic Lists has some fun with Olympic names.

At Sydney in 2000, Wallechinsky notes, Nathan Leeper lept for the United States in the high jump, though not high enough for a medal. And back in 1996, Team USA's Eugene Swift was swift enough for sixth place in the 110-meter hurdles in Atlanta.

A weightlifter named Samson (N'Dicka Matam) not only was powerful enough to compete in three Olympics, but also represented two countries: Cameroon (1996) and France (2000 and 2004). Sporting short, tightly-curled hair, Samson finished in sixth place in his last Olympics.

Britain has sent two aptly named swimmers into Olympic pools. Walter Bathe not only got soaked at the 1912 games; he won gold medals swimming breaststroke at 200 and 400 meters. But Lewis Moist, who was surely moist enough at the first London games in 1908, wasn't swift enough, and lacked the endurance to make it out of preliminary heats in the 1500-meter freestyle swim.

Wallechinsky lists four athletes in Olympic history named Lucky — but none were lucky enough or competitive enough to box, kick (soccer), sprint or endure (marathon) their way to medals.

Which brings us back to Endurance Abinawa. Even if she doesn't need endurance for the sprint, she'll have Blessing and Wisdom on her side: Nigerian teammate Blessing Okagbare races in the shorter sprints and leaps in the long jump. And Wisdom Isokem teams with Blessing in the 4x100 relay.

Endurance and Wisdom, with a Blessing. Every team should be so lucky, but luckier, hopefully, than the Luckys that came before.

As for Mr. Shakespeare, a gold medalist in literature by any measure, his famous question about names was followed by a lovely answer: "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

By my quick and unofficial count, there are at least six men and women with Rose in their names competing in London. And each would surely be an Olympian by any other name. Let their sweetness begin.

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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