No more heroes? Six things I’ve learned from watching athletics

Posted: August 29, 2015 in sport
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Athletics was my first love.

Before Italia ’90 turned my head towards football, or the 2005 Ashes beckoned me to the joys of cricket, I loved watching people run.

I don’t see many athletics events these days but I haven’t missed a minute of this week’s World Championships in Beijing. Inspired by this vintage event I’ve been reflecting on the key moments in my life as an athletics fan. Here are my six key races, exemplifying six things athletics has taught me.

Drugs; or Katrin Krabbe, Women’s 100m, 1990 European Championships

My first clear athletics memory is the Ben Johnson bust at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This would subsequently prove a most instructive point of entry to the sport, but at the time I just a assumed Johnson was a rogue cheat, seeking to deny good, clean athletes like Carl Lewis the glory they’d worked so nobly to win.

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing.

My insight may have been limited in 1988, but a much greater learning experience awaited me two years later in the Yugoslavian city of Split.

The 1990 European Championships are remembered now chiefly as Europe’s poignant sporting farewell to Yugoslavia (the Croatian Wars of Independence and the Bosnian War were just around the corner). This wider historical context has, understandably, overshadowed the events in the stadium, but a few incidents from the Split championships deserve to be revisited.

The men’s 10,000m was unforgettable, for a start. Salvadore Antibo of Italy won gold in the most ballsy and ludicrous style imaginable. Twenty-five laps of a 400m track would intimidate most people, but not Salvatore. Rather than pacing himself at the start of the race he decided to sprint the first three laps as hard as he could, gain a 200m lead, and then hang on for more than five miles as his lungs packed in. In Split, in the summer. And he managed it!

No one has ever suggested Antibo was powered by anything more than determination and eccentricity, but it’s generally accepted that the results of the women’s sprints were influenced by darker forces.

Katrin Krabbe glided to the 100m and 200m titles with grace and style, and won the hearts of millions of athletics fans who’d been burned by Ben Johnson and Florence Griffith-Joyner’s antics in Seoul two years earlier. If you don’t remember Krabbe, the new 200m world champion Dafne Schippers bears a remarkable resemblance.

Grit Breuer was less elegant but somehow more human than the untouchable Krabbe; more, well, gritty. She won the 400m in Split and looked set to dominate that distance for a decade.

Alas, I was about to learn the lesson I had neglected when Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold medal.

Krabbe and Breuer competed for the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Germany was unified by this stage, but its East and West components were still finalising sporting business that had started before the Wall fell – you’ll recall that West Germany won the World Cup that summer too.

The GDR won six out of the nine medals available in the women’s 100m, 200m and 400m in 1990, including all three golds. Furthermore, Sigrun Woders and Christine Wachtel secured gold and silver in the 800m.

It’s a staple of TV panel comedy shows to suggest that athletes should be encouraged to take drugs, to see how fast humans can actually go. I assume the comedians who make their living from these programmes are unaware that this has actually been tried already. We don’t have to concern ourselves here with the explosive Stasi files or retested urine samples that later discredited the GDR’s sporting success. We can merely ask ourselves how many German athletes have dominated the sprints at subsequent athletics championships, even at the European level.

Of course, there haven’t been any.

Breuer failed a drug test in 1992, held her hands up, served a two-year ban and later returned to the major championships as a diminished but still competitive figure. Krabbe, by contrast, insists to this day that the clenbuterol was merely resting in her blood system. She retired from the sport at her peak, in dispute with the authorities, never to be seen again but with her medals and performances still sans any tell-tale asterisks.

So it turned out that my pin-ups were dopers and the GDR regime was no longer in position to pep up their performances. Everyone who gets into athletics (or cycling) learns about the sport’s dark side sooner or later, and that was my lesson.

Mind you, at least Krabbe’s lean frame kept you guessing. Look at what the Czechoslovakian athletics regime did to 800m world record holder Jarmila Kratochvilova, seen here setting the world 800m record.

It’s worth noting at this point that Kratochvilova set the 800m world record in 1983 and it still stands. What’s more, nine of the fifteen fastest times ever for the distance were set before 1984 by athletes from Eastern Europe. Just as curiously, four of the remaining six fastest times were all achieved by one athlete (Pamela Jelimo) in a single year (2008), just before her performances declined almost overnight.

The women’s 400m world record is even more out of reach. 23 of the 30 fastest times ever (including nine of the top ten) were recorded by athletes from Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 80s. The GDR athlete Marita Koch recorded five of the top seven times herself, including the fastest of all. The great Marie-José Pèrec is the best I’ve ever seen at the distance and she didn’t get within half a second of this time.

I don’t know if athletics fans believed the performances of Koch or Kratochvilova were credible when they witnessed their turbo-charged speed endurance in the 80s. For me, I was unlikely to take athletics at face value ever again after Breuer got caught.

I was ten years old.

Fulfilment; or Linford Christie, Men’s 100m, 1992 Olympics

Whatever happened to all those heroes?

With time comes an appreciation of the complexity of the human character. With maturity we ask and expect less of people, acknowledging our common human frailty. And so one day we wake up and realise we have no more heroes anymore. Because what else is a hero than a human being whose flaws we have not yet recognised?

As such, we never revere our heroes more intensely than we do as children. And my first and greatest hero was Linford Christie.

Today he’s a successful yet curiously marginal figure in British sport, as he sort of always was; the prime mover behind a phalanx of effective sprinters whose wisdom and experience remains unshared with the viewers of the BBC’s (outstanding) athletics coverage. One can only speculate why he remains oddly peripheral to the established commentariat.

In my view, Linford was and is the greatest sportsman Britain has ever produced. He stood alone and stood tall throughout the golden age of the 100m and became World and Olympic champion; the world’s fastest man.

There is no silence in sport quite like the holding-of-breath prior to the start of the men’s 100m final. In Barcelona in 1992 and Stuttgart in 1993, Linford stood at the starting line surrounded by alpha males desperate to flaunt their machismo. He didn’t even know they were there, such was his tunnel vision and ruthless focus. And when the athletes settled into their blocks, he was ready. In that cacophonous silence, Linford was always ready.

Just as it is difficult to distinguish our memories of the young Paul Gascoigne from Barry Davies’s peerless commentary (“that is schoolboy’s own stuff!”), Christie’s finest moments are eternally linked with David Coleman. The 1992 Olympics loomed large throughout Linford’s career as his best hope of reaching the pinnacle of his sport, and Coleman was there to call the final.

it’s Dennis Mitchell…and Fredricks…and Christie comes storming through! It’s Linford Christie!

I was ten years old (this was mere weeks after the Krabbe and Breuer bust) and my mum and dad had taken my sister and I with them to visit their wonderful friends Calum and Marit. Oblivious as ever to social cues, I insisted on watching the 100m final in one room while the rest of the party chatted next door. I was nauseous with nerves. I had obtained Linford’s autograph at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow when he’d won the European indoor title, and here he was battling it out with the hated Americans.

Linford was mine.

Linford was ours. While the Yanks bragged and preened and strutted, he stood imperiously apart from everyone, staring stoically down the track. When I think of Linford it’s that stare I remember, with his absolute, self-contained refusal to acknowledge the existence of anyone else in the field. When he got that stare working, Linford epitomised the solipsism of a champion athlete.

And on that famous night in Barcelona it all came together; all those years of carrying British athletics on his shoulders, of challenging the Americans on his own, of competing against dopers. His running was always a matter of inertia – if he could get his broad frame moving it was difficult to stop him. On the biggest night of his life, with the Olympic title on the line, he got the best start of his life. Inertia took care of the rest, as he careered through the field to seize the title.

He’d done it. He was 32 years old, a survivor of the Ben Johnson final four years earlier and a triumph of hope over expectation. He was Olympic champion; the world’s fastest man.

I burst into tears in Calum and Marit’s house. I can’t begin to imagine how he must have been feeling.

And then he backed it up the following year by winning the World Championships in a brilliantly fast time (Coleman: “And Christie comes through, to become champion of the world!”).

I’ll never hero-worship anyone the way I worshipped Linford Christie. He’s the greatest we’ve ever had. And although he achieved so much more after he won the Olympic title, his victory in Barcelona brought with it a sense of closure – the achievement of his dream, the fulfilment of his potential and the proof of his greatness.

Linford delivered the greatest prize under the most intense pressure. British athletics needs to hear more from this man.

Redemption; or Hicham El Guerrouj, Men’s 1500m, 2004 Olympics

If there’s a germ of fascism within me it emerges in my appreciation of athletic elegance.

David Rudisha is the most beautiful runner in the world today, combining uprightness of torso, a gliding stride and a curious arm-pump that suggests he’s working out with dumbbells mid-race. I had the pleasure of watching him run in the 800m heats at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014. He was a mile out of form and clearly unfit, but he still transfixed the stadium with his grace.

Rudisha is a spectacularly elegant technician, but no one has ever run with as much style as the Moroccan middle-distance legend Hicham El-Guerrouj.

El-Guerrouj was world champion four times in a row between 1997 and 2003, but he kept making an arse of himself in the Olympics. He tripped in the 1500m final in 1996 and then somehow contrived to lose in 2000, to the astonishment of Steve Cram, when he’d been effectively unbeatable all year (“El-Guerrouj is not gonna make it…I can’t believe it...”).

Was he a bottler? The case was starting to build; it was all very well setting world records on balmy evenings in Rome but could he hack it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke in his last Olympic final in Athens with the pressure on?

The men’s 1500m final is the main event in the stadium at every Olympics, and the El-Guerrouj subtext made the Athens final one of the most emotional races ever run over the distance. As this excellent short documentary explains, El-Guerrouj confronted his demons on the biggest night of his career. With two laps to go, he reached the front of the pack and bent the race to his will.

El-Guerrouj broke the final 800 metres down into eight 100m bursts, and ran each one faster than the one before. As Brendan Foster observes in the clip, you couldn’t really tell what he was doing because it was done so seamlessly, but it broke the field apart. Constant acceleration, for half a mile. He wasn’t going to die wondering.

I say you couldn’t really tell what he was doing, but Steve Cram could. His commentary on the race is one of the many outstanding moments of his broadcasting career. One of the many things I love about Cram, and about his co-commentator Brendan Foster, is the undisguised pleasure they take in the successes of the good guys of athletics; Gebrselassie, for example, and Farah. In 2004, El-Guerrouj was the athletes’ athlete and Cram roared him home. But he was up against the great Bernard Lagat, so the gold medal was far from assured.

(“El-Guerrouj needs to fight here if he wants this one…Lagat’s coming on the outside…Has El-Guerrouj got anything left?…”)

Seemingly unaffected by El-Guerrouj’s brutal pace, Lagat battled past him with 50 metres left. El-Guerrouj saw his previous Olympic losses flash before his eyes. “I was telling myself, Hicham, don’t lose!”.

And then…”El-Guerrouj is fighting back! El-Guerrouj is gonna get there! C’mon El-Guerrouj! He’s got it!”

And El-Guerrouj lived happily ever after, the pressure lifted, redemption won for his 1996 and 2000 losses.

Never in the course of athletics history has anyone run with such elegance under such a weight of expectation. In the cradle of Ancient Greece, Hicham El-Guerrouj, the loveliest runner of them all, willed himself to a performance worthy of Athena herself.

Desire; or Mohamed Farah, Men’s 10,000m, 2012 Olympics

I was out when Mo Farah won his Olympic 10,000m title. I missed the whole of that tumultuous Saturday night in the Olympic Stadium, when Farah, Ennis and Rutherford’s new lives as superstars were born within an hour of each other. I was obviously excited when I heard that he’d won the gold, but nothing prepared me for the re-run on the BBC iPlayer.

Have you ever heard anything like the sound of that stadium? I decided to watch the race back a couple of days after the event while I battled through a session on my exercise bike; I thought it might distract me from the tiredness. I wasn’t in the saddle for long.

The 10,000m is probably my favourite race. I love the tactical slow-burn. You get a real sense of the personality of the runners when they’re required to put themselves on the line over 25 laps of the track. It’s a bit like Test cricket in the way the duration of effort exposes weakness and reveals silk and steel. The great Haile Gebrselassie was the best in the world when I was growing up; I’ll never forget his heroic contests with the noble Paul Tergat, a man with the historic misfortune to reach his peak at the same time as the greatest distance runner of them all. The Sydney Olympic 10,000m final in 2000 is one of the most ridiculous races I’ve ever seen, concluding with a scorchingly fast sprint finish between the two great men that was decided in Gebrselassie’s favour by a dip on the line. After 25 laps! You could not watch the elemental contests between those two without appreciating their iron competitiveness and unforced, graceful camaraderie. They were great to watch. (I note that the first comment on one of the YouTube clips of their Sydney race suggests they were both doping. I can’t help but chuckle at the response immediately below: “Why don’t you go and shoot yourself in the face”. How joyless would you have to be to doubt Gebrselassie?).

It’s testament to the brilliance of Mo Farah that the 10,000m has been undiminished by Gebrselassie’s departure from the sport. He has seized Haile’s crown and transformed our expectations about how to win over the distance.

He was already world champion but Farah knew he had to win in London to confirm his place at the top of his sport. The crowd clearly recognised their own role in the drama too, because I’ve never heard anything like the sound of that stadium.

What was that sound?

Here’s Steve Cram: “Mo Farah hits the front…a lap to go. The bell rings; is it tolling for a gold medal for Britain?”

Brendan Foster: “He’s running magnificently now…Kenenisa Bekele looking for room on the inside…and Farah is kicking on!

(That’s the last we heard from the wonderful Brendan, as he apparently burst into tears at this point).

By this stage Farah is rounding the top bend for the final time.

Cram: “The crowd are lifting him, they’re cheering him on! Farah into the home straight – you’ve got 100 metres to go…has he got enough? He’s kicking again! Mo Farah is going for it! It’s gonna be a glorious, glorious win! Mo Farah, for Great Britain…it’s gooooold!……Oh yes! Oh yes!”

Sorry, I think there’s something in my eye here.

When West Germany won the 1954 World Cup against all expectations, Herbert Zimmermann’s radio commentary passed immediately into folklore as he captured the astonished delight of a renascent nation. He reacted to Rahn’s winning goal by crying “Tor!” (Goal) four times before going quiet for ten seconds. When he pulled himself together he produced his famous words, “call me mad, call me crazy…”, a formulation as dear to West Germany’s post-war generation as Kenneth Wolstenholm’s “some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over…it is now!”.

Cram’s fevered commentary (and Foster’s wordless sobbing) captured Mo’s defining moment as perfectly as Zimmermann’s giddy surprise conveyed the Miracle of Berne. But the noise in the background…

By the time Farah approached the final straight, waves of sound were crashing around the stadium. I’ve heard loud crowds before, but there was a warmth, a love in that noise that I’ve never heard anywhere else. The deafening desire of the Olympic Stadium carried Farah to victory. That noise contained everything that is great about Britain; everything that is great about sport.

Imagine what it must have been like for Mo, to be enveloped in and surrounded by that clamorous, amorous sound; to be propelled to the finish line by the best athletics crowd ever; to be needed and to be given what he needed when he needed it most. The emotion of that final lap is still overwhelming three years on. And then his wife and daughter appeared on the track, and…well, I think I’ve got something in my eye again.

The rest of us needed a lie down to recover, but Mo somehow shrugged all of that off and won the 5000m a week later. I was out that night too. It’s a good job Mo’s timing is better than mine.

Class; or Usain Bolt, Men’s 100m, 2015 World Athletics Championships

You’ll have seen this race, of course.

Once in a blue moon an athlete comes along who transcends his or her sport, and we’re lucky enough to be living through the Usain Bolt era. Everyone loves Usain, and rightly so. He’s just great.

Where would athletics be without him? It’s easy to forget just how brutal the Marion Jones/ BALCO doping scandal was. People really had given up on the sport, and I was one of them. There seemed little point in engaging with any of the events when you were likely to find out that the guy who finished seventh or the woman who didn’t make the final were the only clean athletes in the field. But then Usain Bolt came along.

Bolt has been crucial because (a) he’s obviously clean, (b) he’s incredibly fast, and (c) he’s good fun. Much as I admired Linford’s serious tunnel vision, Bolt charms everyone with his relaxed good-humour. He’s brilliant – the best we’ve ever had – but he also seems to have things in perspective. You look forward to seeing him. I never felt that way about Tim Montgomery, say, or Gatlin, or Gay.

Prior to this week’s heroics in Beijing, my standout memory of Bolt was his 2009 World 200m win in Berlin. I was in a pub after work and had the feeling I was the only person watching the athletics. I was wrong. Bolt surpassed himself with a magnificent world record of 19.19 seconds, a truly mindboggling feat. I found myself brought inadvertently on my feet, my mouth hanging open, my eyes hanging out of my head – and quickly realised that everyone around me was in exactly the same state. And then everyone burst out laughing. 19.19? Ridiculous. Bolt is so good it’s actually funny. And it’s fun.

Great as he is, who would have thought he’d win everything again at this week’s World Championships? He looked crocked. He seemed to have lost his start altogether, his pick-up was clumsy and he didn’t seem to be able to turn on the afterburners in the middle of the race. He looked anxious before his races and wasn’t much of a laugh afterwards. It wasn’t our Usain. And all the while the sport was facing the ultimate humiliation of Justin Gatlin winning its highest-profile title.

Let us recall for a moment that Gatlin has twice failed doping tests, is running even faster than ever now and has never accepted any culpability for his misdeeds. That’s not really ideal.

Usain showed his face in Beijing and made it clear that he’d defend his titles like the champion he is, but I don’t think anyone really thought he’d win. I thought he’d run about 9.8 and relinquish his gold medal with honour, while Gatlin would clock about 9.6 to win a tainted title. As we know, Gatlin turned out to be a flat-track bully with no big-match temperament. When Bolt finally got a decent start, didn’t trip himself up in the pick-up and gave himself half a chance to get his massive stride working, Gatlin tightened up. He bottled it. He actually looked like he was being electrocuted in the last ten metres. Meanwhile Bolt took the lead after about 98 metres and held on for the greatest of all of his triumphs.

My partner and I watched the race through the cracks between our fingers. I had braced myself for the worst so successfully that I didn’t actually realise Bolt was going to win until the moment he crossed the finish line. Like all of the best 100m finals, it seemed to last for ages; a mini-epic over 41 colossal footsteps. And when it was over? Absolute euphoria.

I didn’t realise how badly I needed Bolt to win until he did it. We might look back on Bolt’s smiting of Gatlin as the greatest moment in the history of track and field. For me, I recalled my ten-year-old self watching Linford Christie against the world. Such is the greatness of Usain Bolt – he brings out the child in us all. If I was ten years old today I know who my hero would be.

Perspective; or Aries Merritt and LaToya Hubbard, Men’s 100m Hurdles, 2015 World Championships

But I’m not ten years old, so I don’t need heroes any more. Winning a race doesn’t make you a good person, as Justin Gatlin reminds us. Digging deep to win a long-distance race doesn’t really make you brave, as Lance Armstrong reminds us. What actually matters are everyday, unsung acts of goodness, of bravery. And that’s why my current athletics heroes are Aries Merritt, the 100m Hurdles bronze medalist, and his sister LaToya.

Aries came to Beijing knowing he’d fly home after his competition to have a kidney transplant. He’s been unable to train at full capacity or eat properly because, y’know, he needs a new kidney. And still he came to the World Championships, somehow finishing third in the 100m Hurdles final. To think that some of us struggle to put in a decent shift at work after an interrupted night’s sleep.

Aries is going to be okay, because his sister LaToya has donated him a kidney. Who knows what the impact will be on his career, or her’s, but they’ll both live to fight another day.

Whatever happened to all those heroes? They’re still there; they just went undercover.

Good luck Aries and LaToya.

  1. anna bennett says:

    Amazing article. Had tears rolling down my face. You summed up everything perfectly. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

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