Thursday, June 28, 2012

The greatest never to the best of all-time

The Olympic Series: A glance back at history of London 2012

August 24, 2004: There was a giant monkey in the Athens Olympic Stadium. You couldn’t see it, but you knew it was there. The beast sat on the shoulders of the world record holder, the four-time world champion, and arguably the greatest never to win Olympic gold, the popular, genial Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj.

This thing weighing El Guerrouj down had grown over a period of eight years. It had nothing to do with the expectations of the 30 million Moroccans that followed his every move. Nor was it the weight of Morocco’s past performances at the Games. Rhadi Ben Abdesselam was a beaten favourite in the Marathon in 1960, defeated by the bare-footed Ethiopian Abebe Bikila. But that defeat had been erased with Said Aouita’s 5000m gold in Los Angeles 1984, and back-to-back 10000m gold in Seoul and Barcelona to Brahim Boutayeb and Khalid Skah.

The beast that sat on El Guerrouj’s shoulders came from his own tortured Olympic journey. In 1992, as an 18-year-old hailing from the small city of Berkan, situated where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Moroccan-Algerian border, El Guerrouj first announced himself on the international stage winning bronze in the 5000m at the World Junior Championships in Seoul. The gold medallist in that race was a young Ethiopian beginning his own international career, Haile Gebrselassie.

Aged 19, El Guerrouj was a part of Morocco’s World Champion Road Relay team that set a new world record in 1994.

A year later he won gold at the World Indoor Championships in Barcelona, and was second at the world outdoors in Gothenburg to two-time defending champion, and the fastest of all-time, Algerian Noureddine Morceli.

The scene was set for a fascinating Olympic final in Atlanta 1996. It was a physical, tactical battle straight from the gun. El Guerrouj settled seventh, two wide from the inside, after 100 metres. He was then shuffled as far back as ninth and as far forward as fifth through the next two-and-a-half laps, all the while jostling with opponents around him. Morceli, the shortest man in the field, took control with 450 metres to run and El Guerrouj pulled up to his shoulder. But the Moroccan was to be dealt the cruellest of blows. Morceli, at the precise moment the bell rang, got his own feet tangled. The Algerian’s trail leg clipped the calf of his plant leg, his next stride veered into the path of El Guerrouj, who clipped Morceli’s right heel and fell. The Moroccan, the only man to fall as others hurdled and sidestepped him, had gone from second to last in an instant. Morceli had an unassailable lead, created by the carnage behind him, which ensured he would claim gold. El Guerrouj finished 12th, almost in tears trying to reconcile his misfortune.

One could argue Morceli deserved his crown. With three world titles and a world record to his name, the Algerian had not been beaten over 1500m in four years. El Guerrouj, however, had been unjustly denied the chance by the fall.

A month later the Moroccan beat Morceli in a Grand Prix final in Milan. Over the next four years, El Guerrouj would attempt to erase the bitter memories of Atlanta by erasing Morceli’s name from every record book ever written. He would win the next two world titles in 1997 and 1999, on his way to claiming four in a row. In 1997 he broke the indoor world records for both the 1500m and the mile. In 1998 he smashed Morceli’s outdoor 1500m record in Rome, running 3:26.00, 1.37 seconds quicker than the Algerian’s mark. By 1999 he had smashed Morceli’s mile record, his 2000m record, and was the second fastest all-time over 3000m. Sydney, 2000, beckoned as the only conquest left for El Guerrouj before he could truly be judged the greatest of all-time.

But the 1500m is one of the toughest Olympic races to win. The quality of the fields, and the lack of pace making in Olympic finals, makes it one of the most unpredictable spectacles on the track. No Olympic final had been won in under 3:32.00. So the advantage the being a sub-3:30 runner amounts to little without a sacrificial pacemaker to bury the hopes of the slower competitors through first 1000m.

Owning the world record on the start line of an Olympic 1500m final has been far more a poisoned chalice than a guarantor of gold. American Abel Kiviat broke the world record three times in 1912, only to be beaten by Britain’s Arnold Jackson in the Stockholm Olympic final that year. Swede Lennart Strand set a new world mark in Malmo, 1947, a record that would stand for five years, but was second across the line at the 1948 Games in London to countryman Henry Eriksson. American Wes Santee, Australian John Landy, Hungarians Sandor Iharos, Lazslo Tabori, and Istvan Rozsavolgyi, and Denmark’s Gunnar Nielson each lowered the world record in a 25-month stretch between 1954 and the 1956 Games, yet Irishman Ron Delany won gold in Melbourne, with Landy the best of the aforementioned in third. Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe went to Moscow in 1980 as the world recold holder’s in the 1500m and 800m respectively; they each walked away with gold in the other event. Only two world record holders had ever started an Olympic final and won it, Australia’s Herb Elliot in 1960, and Morceli in Atlanta. Unsurprisingly they were two of the most dominant metric milers in history.

El Guerrouj had been equally dominant when he lined up in Sydney. His major threats would come in the form of two Kenyans. One, a man who had paced and shadowed him through the past four years, Noah Ngeny, the other a youngster who would become one of his greatest foes, Bernard Lagat.

Whenever El Guerrouj raced he always looked relaxed. He ran with a magnificent elegance. Long, languid strides, matched by rhythmical, rolling shoulders, he never looked strained or under pressure. Through the first 1400m of this final he looked like the Hicham El Guerrouj we all knew would win. He got to the front early, upped the pace to sort the men from the boys, and looked the winner as they went through the bell. But Ngeny and Lagat were tracking him and El Guerrouj’s insistence to get to the front and avoid another catastrophe saw him expend too much energy. El Guerrouj faded late. Ngeny pulled up alongside with 50m to run and was never headed. Ngeny celebrated after winning in a new Olympic record. El Guerrouj looked non-plussed, in complete denial of what had just occurred. He sat down quietly, without emotion, and untied his shoelaces. His conqueror, his opponents, all came to shake his hand and commiserate with him. But he scarcely blinked, almost in a catatonic state. He walked through a throng of reporters, sat down in the tunnel, and wept uncontrollably. El Guerrouj had a photo of his despair post-race in Atlanta, which he had carried with him for four years. It had spurred him, driven him to replace it with another of triumph in Sydney. But it was Ngeny who would retire this night an Olympic gold medallist, El Guerrouj had to stare at that photo for another four years.

In 2001, the beast grew bigger. El Guerrouj won an indoor world title over 3000m in March, a third outdoor 1500m World Championship in Edmonton in August, and he went within 12-one hundredths of breaking his own world record in Brussels. It grew larger again by the close of 2003. He won another world title in Paris and claimed silver in the 5000m. He also completed an unprecedented treble, winning the IAAF Golden League prize three years running. He had gone three seasons unbeaten. No athlete in any discipline had matched that feat in the Golden League era.

But 2004 seemed perhaps a bridge too far for the Moroccan. He endured an indifferent start to the season in his 30th year. He ran eighth in a 1500m race at the Golden League event in Rome. Then twenty days out from the Athens Olympic Games, El Guerrouj was narrowly beaten by Lagat in the fastest race of the season in Zurich.

Three weeks shy of his 30th birthday El Guerrouj was looked as nervous as ever on the start line in Athens. The guerrilla on his back was weighing a tonne. Lagat looked calm, but equally nervous next to him.

They started and would finish together, but through 700m they were as far apart as could be. Lagat was on the front, El Guerrouj four wide near the rear before he shifted gear and blew the race open. The Moroccan, as he had done in Sydney ran a 53-second split between the 800m-mark and the 1200m-mark, but again you wondered if he had expended too much energy. Lagat tracked him the whole way. Ukrainian Ivan Heshko strained every sinew to hang onto the Kenyan’s heals. Portugal’s Rui Silva was flying up with a rush. But with 100m to go it was a carbon copy of Sydney, El Guerrouj in front, Lagat, like Ngeny had, pulled up to his shoulder and edged ahead with 50m to run. You feared the worst. Not again. It surely could not happen again. But Lagat slowed, El Guerrouj edged back in front and finally won the title he had coveted for eight long years.

There were tears again. Tears of pure joy, relief, and elation. El Guerrouj slumped to his knees; Lagat knelt down to embrace him, for even the vanquished Kenyan knew what the moment meant to the Moroccan. 

Four days later, El Guerrouj won the Olympic 5000m. He became the first man since Finland’s Parvo Nurmi in 1924 to win the 1500m-5000m double at an Olympic Games. The heartbreak of Atlanta and Sydney dissipated in four momentous days in Athens.

He retired a champion. He had gone from the greatest never, to the best of all-time.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ten seconds that took fifteen minutes

The Olympic Series: A glance back at history in the shadows of London 2012

July 27, 1996: Out they walked for the fastest show on earth. More so than ever, the men’s 100m final was the showpiece of the Olympic Games. No longer just the blue-ribbon event, but almost the main event that defined an Olympics. Think Jessie Owens not only defeating Germany, but an entire race of people, with a world record in 1936. Think Carl Lewis equalling Owens’ four gold medals in Los Angeles 1984. Think the greatest upset in Olympic history that in reality was not, when a substance-enhanced Ben Johnson beat Lewis with what appeared to be the fastest run in human history in 1988.

And so on this hot summer’s night in Atlanta, one of the deepest, most open fields in Olympic history assembled for the men’s 100m final. There was Linford Christie, the defending champion. Christie had become just the second Brit to win this title since Harold Abrahams in Paris 1924. Abrahams’ story made it to the silver screen. Christie’s legend was coming close. Second to the upgraded Lewis in Seoul, he was looking to join King Carl by becoming the second only to win back-to-back 100m gold. Alas for Moscow’s 100m champion Alan Wells, there would be no silver screen, just an asterisk for winning the only Olympic 100m final without an American runner present.

Frankie Fredericks was here too. The popular Namibian had won silver in both the 100 and 200m in Barcelona. He won a 200m world title in the interim, having won gold in Stuttgart in 1993. Fredericks' conqueror in the 200m in Barcelona would also line up in this Atlanta final. Michael Marsh was one of two Americans in the field, alongside Denis Mitchell, who was third on the podium behind Christie and Fredericks in Spain. Each was hoping to join Lewis (Los Angeles 1984), Eddie Tolan (Los Angeles 1932), and Archie Hahn (St Louis 1904) as the only Americans to win 100m Olympic gold on US soil. Another American, the world record holder Leroy Burrell, was absent due to an Achilles injury.

The reigning world champion was a Jamaican-born Canadian, Donovan Bailey. The former basketballer had only taken up sprinting in 1991, aged 24. His win in Gothenburg, 1995, was in some way a restoration of national pride after the disgrace of Johnson seven years earlier. Bailey was in red-hot touch, having broken the 50m indoor world record months earlier. He would be a key figure.

There was also a 22-year-old from the island of Trinidad. Ato Boldon, born in Port-of-Spain, had immigrated to New York as a teenager. He was discovered playing soccer, his speed on the wing catching the eye of an elite track coach. Two years later, aged 18, he found himself in Linford Christie’s first round heat in Barcelona, only to be beaten badly and ousted before his first Games experience had really sunk in. But a month after Olympic failure Boldon showed his true talents winning the world junior 100 and 200m titles in Seoul, becoming the first in history to achieve the junior double. He would progress to a senior medallist in Gothenburg winning bronze behind Bailey in 10.03, but had run a blistering 9.93 to be an early world leader in 1996, and had announced himself as a real threat in Atlanta.

The early rounds were psychological warfare. The exuberance of youth saw Bolden run 9.95 in the second round. Fredericks went toe-to-toe with the young man lowering that with 9.93. Christie and Bailey simply did what they had to. They exerted little energy and made their way through quietly. Modern sprinting and championship racing was fast becoming an art of who could make the biggest statement in the quietest way. Bailey and Christie were whispering, Fredericks and Boldon were shouting their form from the rooftops. Boldon qualified fastest for the final with 9.93 in the second semi, after Fredericks clocked 9.94 in the first.

At 9.50pm local time the eight men strode out to the start. Bravado and testosterone saturated the hot Atlanta air. They were in the land of showmanship. Tommy Smith and John Carlos, of Mexico City infamy, were the fathers of it. The US Dream team, led by Michael Jordan and company, had brought the commercial branding and bright lights of the NBA to the Olympics in Barcelona. Atlanta, the home of Coca-Cola, were the “brand” Games. Michael Johnson marked his 200m world record with his Nike golden spikes. The eight that were about to toe the 100m line were there to put on a show.

Marsh would run on the inside, 100m seeming half the distance it needed to be for him to be a real challenger. Christie had drawn lane two. His disrobing and preparation was the equivalent of a striptease show on a catwalk. He pranced up and down his lane like the defending champion he was. Tracksuit was removed in a teasing fashion; his one-piece British race suit was only on from the waist-down. He waited until his name was announced before he slipped his hulking arms into the top half to finally cover his concrete slab chest.

Boldon projected an outward confidence, hiding the inexperience behind his trademark Oakley’s and expressionless face. Denis Mitchell would run in lane four. He looked a man possessed, his eye-balls bulging, almost bursting out of their sockets, naturally twitching the gold ring that was pierced through his right eye-brow. Mitchell chattered to himself like an inmate in an asylum. Boldon could not have been in a worse spot next to the devil Mitchell in four.

Fredericks stood to Mitchell’s right in five. He had seen it all before. He looked so relaxed he almost appeared disinterested. It was this that so endeared him to fans around the globe. Many believed this would be the Namibian’s night to finally stand on the top level of an Olympic dais.

The World Champion was in six. Although Jamaican by birth and genetics, he was Canadian through and through. Quiet and focussed, but excited to be there, Bailey was warm and all encompassing as he acknowledged the crowd reception that accompanied his introduction.

In seven stood reigning African champion Davidson Enzinwa. The Nigerian, like Boldon, had been a world junior champion in the 100m and had come as close as anyone to winning the double that Boldon eventually achieved, also claiming silver in the 200m in Plovdiv 1990.

In lane eight was the sole Jamaican, Michael Green, which is hard to comprehend given that sixteen years on it seems easier to win an Olympic final than to make a Jamaican relay team. Green was the fastest runner to ever graduate from William Knibb Memorial High School, until some kid called Usain Bolt enrolled there.

Finally at 10.00pm, they were ready to go.

10.01pm: “On your marks!”

Mitchell bounced around and into the crouch first. Fredericks eased his way down, with the grace and smoothness of a cat curling up on a couch. Sweat beads gathered on Christie’s brow as he checked his hands behind the line.


Away. Two gun shots were fired. Christie broke. He was first up at “set” and jumped well before acceptances. There was no doubt it was a deliberate act by the old fox to unsettle the nerves of the youngsters alongside him. He turned around immediately and raised both arms to acknowledge it. Bailey ran 30 metres with Green despite the rest returning to their blocks promptly. Christie was ashen-faced. Fredericks remained relaxed.

10.05pm: They were called to their marks again.


Away. Boldon jumped quickest. Christie a little slow. Fredericks got a smooth start. Fifteen metres run a second gun was fired?! It was as late a recall as you would ever see. All eight heads tilted skyward. Enzinwa threw his hands over his eyes. Christie pulled up quickest. Bailey and Green ran 65 metres before stopping. Boldon turned and stood motionless, with hands on hips, half-way down. Bailey stormed back, understandably frustrated, but almost excited at how well he had run the 65m. Boldon then spotted an official marching to his lane. He threw his arm at him in frustration and shook his head violently as the yellow card was raised. He was adjudged to have broken.

In April 2010, Boldon said if he had the chance, the Atlanta final would be the only race of his career he would run again. “I fell into an old habit that night. I was saying to myself why is this happening to me? I should not have done that.”

Two breaks. All eight were still there behind their blocks. Mitchell kept talking to himself. Christie looked tired, breathing heavily after two starts. Boldon, who replays confirmed had broken, calmed himself. Fredericks was still the coolest cat in the line.

10.08pm: They were called to their marks for a third time. Tension in the stadium was building. Everyone, including the eight runners, was restless now.


They were held for what seemed an eternity.

Away. They seemed even this time but again the second gun shot rang out! Boldon lost it, throwing an enormous tantrum. Christie turned and hoped. Fredericks dropped to his haunches, the first sign of any concern from the Namibian.

The officials congregated. One held up two fingers. One of Boldon or Christie was to be disqualified for a second false start. Boldon was back behind his blocks in a flash waiting for another start. Christie saw the official walk towards him and raise the yellow card. The defending champion was out. He went straight to the reply monitor on the infield. The replays confirmed him the first to move, whether he had beaten the gun was another question. He shook his head calmly, went back to his lane, removed the red flag that had been placed there and readied himself to continue. It was shades of cricketer WG Grace putting the stumps back in place after being cleanly bowled and remarking his guard. This was Christie’s coronation. Instead of being crowned he was being hung. He refused to believe it.

10.11pm: The seven other finalists walked up the track leaving Christie alone behind the blokes. He was still arguing his case with the officials. He raised his arms to the crowd looking for support. Boldon sat down on his lane sign, looking a bit like a trouble-making student who had just been censured by his teacher. Christie sat next to him. Reality was beginning to sink in.

10.12pm: Attention was diverted by another Brit, Jonathan Edwards, in the men’s triple jump final. The symmetry was scary. Edwards was the world champion and world record holder, but he lay second on the night behind American Kenny Harrison with one jump left. With the chaos of Christie happening in the home straight, Edwards’ last jump was delayed. When he finally went, he fouled by the barest of margins, and bowed out an Olympic silver medallist.

With Edwards’ crowd acknowledgement, Christie exited. He pulled his suit down to his waist and walked back down the tunnel. The defending champion was finally, officially, disqualified. He was asked to head into the tunnel but he turned and stayed to watch the race, still shaking his head.

10.14pm: The seven remaining were called to their marks. It is always strange to see a lane vacant in a 100m race. But never before has the hole looked as large as that in lane two, left by the larger than life defending champion.

“Set!” for the fourth time in 15 minutes.

10.15pm: Away cleanly, finally, and Marsh all alone in lane one got the fastest start. Boldon and Mitchell got away reasonably well. Fredericks was sluggish and Bailey was slowest out for the third time in succession. Boldon’s drive phase was strong. He led at half-way. Fredericks was finally into gear and Bailey came with a rush, flying past Fredericks and Boldon to win in a new world record of 9.84! Fredericks was second again. Boldon tightened late, and faded for third. Bailey had held his nerve. He roared with delight, but also with self-assurance. His world title was no fluke.

Fredericks looked numb. The Christie saga had got to him. Boldon was disgusted with himself. He had succumbed to the emotion of the false starts. He had spent too much energy earlier to finish off a race that he owned through the first 60 metres.

Christie usurped the moment but running down the straight, topless, waving to the crowd. There are those who believe he false started to save face in the knowledge that he could not win that night. Regardless, he was still an Olympic champion. Only now he was a “former”, as it was Bailey’s crown to wear.

Canada thought they had their first 100m Olympic champion in Seoul. Eight years later they could celebrate properly. Donovan Bailey had won the slowest 100m race in Olympic history in the fastest time ever run.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Three Kings of Ethiopia

The Olympic Series: A glance back at history in the shadows of London 2012

Nineteen-sixty was a different time. There was no Euro-crisis as there was no Euro-zone. Europe was divided in two rather than spiralling as one. It had been 14 years since Winston Churchill had first described “the Iron Curtain”, yet the wall had not been built, let alone knocked down. Civil rights was merely a concept let alone a movement in full-motion, as Martin Luther King had yet to articulate his dream.

The world congregated on one of its oldest and most famous cities, Rome, for the global Games that were not yet truly global. They were the Games of the XVII Olympiad yet across the previous 16; no black African had won Olympic gold. Despite the extraordinary feats of African-American Jessie Owens in 1936, the track events were still dominated by Anglo-Saxons. In Rome, the status quo remained. An Italian, Livio Berruti, won the men’s 200m in front of his adoring countrymen. The men’s 800, 1500, and 5000m were all incredibly claimed by Antipodes. Peter Snell of New Zealand and Australia’s Herb Elliot both broke Olympic records, with Elliot setting a new world mark for the 1500m.

But on September 10, 1960 the world of distance running changed forever when the first black African claimed Olympic gold. An Ethiopian won the Olympic Marathon as the sun set on Rome, and he did it barefoot.

ABEBE Bikila was born the day Juan Carlos Zabala, of Argentina, became the first South American to win an Olympic marathon in Los Angeles 1932. Bikila’s childhood was framed by turmoil in northern African. Ethiopia, one of the largest landlocked nations on earth was occupied by Italy through the war before becoming a charter member of the UN. Despite its modernization under the leadership of Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia had anything but peaceful borders.

The son of a shepherd, Bikila spent his formative years walking and running several miles a day around the tiny village of Jato chasing his father’s herds. At 19 he joined the Imperial Bodyguard, the elite corps entrusted with the protection of Emperor. During his time in the capital, Addis Ababa, Bikila was spotted by Major Onni Niskanen, a Finnish-born Swede who was employed as the Guards sports trainer. In the lead-up to Melbourne, 1956, Niskanen had helped train the first Ethiopian athletes to ever compete at an Olympic Games. In Bikila, he had "seen this soldier running from Sululta to Addis and back every day, and hit upon the idea of letting him try the marathon." Sululta to Addis Ababa was a 20km journey.

In two marathons in the lead-up to Rome, Bikila ran 2 hours 39 minutes 50 seconds and 2:21.23 to win the Olympic trial. The second was faster than the immortal Emil Zatopek’s eight-year-old Olympic record.

In Rome, Bikila was provided with shoes from the Games sponsors but they did not fit comfortably on his feet. He had trained barefoot in Addis and elected to run the 42km on the cobbled streets without shoes. You could not script such an insane notion, yet Bikila undertook the task without thinking. Moroccan, Rhadi Ben Abdesselam was touted as a pre-race favourite and the man to make history. Niskanen told Bikila to look for Abdesselam wearing bib 26. At the 20km mark the Ethiopian was running alongside Abdesselam in the lead, but the Moroccan was wearing another race bib, 185. Bikila kept the pace up looking for athlete 26, and pressed clear of Abdesselam in the last kilometer to create history. Not only had Bikila become the first Sub-Saharan African to win Olympic gold, he had won the 14th Olympic marathon in world record time. Bikila’s effort of 2:15.16.2 obliterated Zatopek’s Helsinki Olympic mark and was a second quicker than Sergei Popov’s two-year-old world record. The shock to the world was that no one, outside Niskanen, had ever heard of Bikila before that day.

The legend was still to grow. He had been convinced by a Japanese shoe manufacturer, Kihachiro Onitsuka, that shoes could help him in Tokyo. But footwear was the least of his issues when 40 days out from the 1964 Games Bikila was hospitalized with acute appendicitis. Without complications from the surgery Bikila was fine to run in Tokyo. He smashed his own Olympic record and reclaimed the world record, becoming the first Olympic marathoner to defend his crown winning in 2:12.11.2. Bikila and East German Waldemar Cierpinski remain the only two men in history to have won two Olympic marathons. Extraordinarily, Bikila could have won a third. He ran in Mexico City in 1968 but withdrew at the 17km mark. It is believed he had broken a bone in his foot during training. Bikila’s long-time training partner, Mamo Wolde won gold in 2:20.26, but stated it would have been Bikila’s title had he not been injured.

And thus began the dominance of African distance running. It was a legacy left by Bikila. Unfortunately he would not see his legacy reach its zenith. In 1969, whilst driving through civil unrest in Addis he crashed his Volkswagen, a gift he had received from the Emperor. The crash left Bikila a paraplegic. Four years later, aged 41, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The day of his funeral was declared a national day of mourning by the Emperor, who was one of 75,000 in attendance. The Stadium in Addis now bears Bikila’s name. But his legacy is so much more, as it lives on in Ethiopian dominance of Olympic distance events.

BY Atlanta 1996 middle distance running was the territory of northern Africans. Ethiopians, Kenyans, Moroccans, and Tunisians had all won Olympic gold over distances of 800m and above. Atlanta was the high water mark. The first black South African gold medalist ever, Josia Thugwane, would win the men’s marathon. Burundi would produce it’s only ever gold medalist with VĂ©nuste Niyongabo winning the men’s 5000m, whilst an Algerian, Noureddine Morceli, would win the men’s 1500m.

Ethiopia had only two male Olympic champions since Bikila. Wolde could not defend his title from Mexico City winning bronze in the Munich marathon in 1972. Miruts Yifter claimed a famous 5000m, 10000m double in Moscow 1980, becoming the first non-European to achieve the feat and joining some of the greatest ever in doing so.

On a hot, sultry night in Atlanta, Ethiopia had its best chance at producing another, when a dual world champion and dual world record holder, a man named after an Emperor no less, lined up in the men’s 10000m.

HAILE Gebrselassie was only six months old when Bikila died in 1973. But like Bikila he grew up on a farm and ran more than 10km to and from school daily. Gebrselassie’s style was not the military precision of Bikila. His gait was all his own, with crooked shoulders and flailing arms a legacy left from running with school books each day. But junior and senior world titles and two astonishing world records in 1995 made him the favourite in Atlanta.

Through 8000m there was a lead group of six. The pace was hotter than the air they were breathing, and with five laps to go Kenyan Paul Tergat made a decisive move that only Gebrselassie could follow. The tall Kenyan was a picture of concentration. Gebrselassie was tucked in so close that from face on he could not be seen behind Tergat’s frame. The Kenyan’s 21st lap of 25 was a blistering 60.55 400m split to burst the race open. Then a trio of 62-second laps got both men to the bell together. Tergat’s face was strained with 450m to go. His burst had not only burnt most of his opponents, but had wounded himself. Gebrselassie peeled out from his hiding place, gritted his teeth, his eyes rolled left without turning his head to survey Tergat’s face, before putting his head down and flying away. The Ethiopian’s last lap was run in 57.49 to beat the gallant Kenyan by five metres in a new Olympic record. Bikila had another disciple. Gebrselassie had started a journey to become the greatest of them all.

Four years on, with two more world titles to his name, Gebrselassie lined up alongside Tergat again in Sydney for arguably the best 10000m in Olympic history. The race was run very differently to Atlanta. A far cooler September night meant for a far more tactical affair. As they came to the bell there were five left in the mix, two Ethiopians, Gebrselassie and Assefa Mezgebu, and three Kenyans, Tergat, Patrick Ivuti, and John Korir. Gebrselessie was tracking the leader again but this time it was Korir, with Tergat lying fourth at the bell. No one made a move until 250m from home when Tergat, as if playing hopscotch, found a path clear and sped away. Gebrselassie tracked him but looked unlikely to head him as they raced to the line. The Ethiopian puffed his diminutive chest at the line to defeat Tergat yet again and emulate Bikila with back-to-back Olympic crowns.

Like Bikila, Gebrselassie found a third consecutive title a bridge too far. Indeed no man had ever won three consecutive Olympic track events when Gebrselassie lined up in Athens. He would finish fifth, however, behind countrymen Sileshi Sihine and the heir to his 10000m throne, Kenenisa Bekele.

THE mantle had already all but been passed. Bekele, nine years Haile’s junior, had thrice beaten Gebrselassie in 2003 over 10000m, including at the Paris World Championships, denying him a fifth world title in the process. In June of 2004 Bekele broke Gebrselassie’s world record that had stood since 1998. Athens was Bekele’s coronation. Gebrselassie was dropped with 2km to go in the final leaving Bekele, Sihine, and Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese to fight for the medals. Tadese, having set the early pace lost contact with the Ethiopian pair and with 500m to run Sihine and Bekele ran side-by-side. With 400m to run the gap was nearly 10m. Bekele put in a breathtaking acceleration to assert his authority. His last lap was astonishing. He ran a split of 53.02, four seconds quicker than Gebrselassie’s final lap in Atlanta, and good enough to set a new Olympic record of 27:05.11. The mantle had not so much been passed, as it was emphatically claimed.

In many ways Bekele’s style was the antithesis of Gebrselassie, and the contrast is evident in the final laps of both men from Atlanta and Athens. Gebrselassie was a winner. He did what he had to on each occasion, in each race circumstance to cross the line first. His ungainly, flailing arms were a trademark, and at maximum effort his mouth was wide open, teeth gritted together, neck strained, head still, eyes were bulging and darting to either side watching, hoping to see that he was doing enough to hold off his challengers.

Bekele by comparison is a Rolls Royce. His motion is poetry. Upper body still, shoulders relaxed, arms working in sync with his legs. His burst of acceleration comes from an incredible turnover in his legs. They spin over the ground like the Road-Runner speeding away from Wile E. Coyote. Bekele’s last lap in Athens saw no strain on his face. His eyes were half closed, his faced as relaxed as could be. As if in meditative state he focussed on his breathing and sprinted clear of Sihine with the energy of a 400m runner, not a man who was covering 10km.

Bekele raised the bar. He almost matched Yifter in 2004 by winning the 5000m as well, save for Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj who was invincible in Athens. Bekele is the greatest cross country runner to have lived, having won 11 World titles across the country-sides of Dublin, Lausanne, Brussels, Saint-Galmier, Fukuoka, and Edinburgh. All of this in the face of tragedy, having lost his fiancé Alem Techale in 2005, when she died of a heart attack whilst on a training run with Bekele.

Like Gebrselassie, he added two world titles in between 2004 and 2008. Beijing would be his coup de grace. The 10000m was tight affair through 9km. Indeed, 20 men ran under 28 minutes. But Bekele again destroyed his opponents with another frightening 53-second final lap. He smashed his own Olympic record, running 27:01.17. Six days later he did match Yifter, atoning for his last gasp defeat in Athens. Bekele won a third Olympic Gold in 12:57.82, becoming the first man to break 13 minutes in a 5000m Olympic final. In Berlin a year later he did the double again at the World Championships. Although six had achieved the feat at Olympic level, it had never been achieved at the Worlds before. Both of these efforts were lost as the Jamaican phenomenon Usain Bolt stole the headlines, and the world’s attention in both Beijing and Berlin. But even Bolt admitted the quiet, unassuming Bekele did not get the credit he deserves.

Bekele tried for a fifth consecutive world 10000m title in Daegu but came up shorter than Gebrselassie, dropping out with 10 laps remaining of a race that was stolen by another Ethiopian, little-known Ibrahim Jeilan.

London will play witness to Bekele’s attempt to do what Gebrselassie and Bikila could not, and that is win Olympic Gold in the same event at three games. If he fails, it will not be such a disappointment, as it would unfair to split this trio. Three generations of greats. Bikila broke new, unconquered, ground. Gebrselassie made that ground his own, Bekele raised the ground to new levels. Three distance running legends. Three kings of Ethiopia.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Practice makes perfect

The AFL is an anomaly amongst ball-sports worldwide. With the exception of the unique scoring system in tennis, most sports operate on a simple basis, the team that scores the most times wins.

But with a two-tiered scoring system, six points for a goal and one point for a behind, the AFL is an exception to that very simple rule.

Thus we have a very unique set of circumstances that confront us. Of the 45 matches played in the 2012 AFL Premiership season, the team with the lesser number of physical scores has won six times. Twice more sides have been locked on the same number of scoring instances at full time, yet the result has not been a draw.

It is a strange concept to understand, and one that is worth analysis. In theory it is not as simple as blaming inaccurate kicking, as a number of scores are concessions by the defending team, but it in actuality it can be as simple as that.

Playing in the AFL is not an easy task. There is enormous pressure and physicality involved in every moment. The athletes are elite. Most of them are physical monsters. Six-foot at a minimum, few less than 80kg, and yet they are astonishing runners, with the ability to run repeat 100-150m bursts at top speed over 100 minutes, covering beyond 16km in total.

This is not to mention the physical aspect, featuring high-speed body clashes, powerful wrestling, grappling, and tackling of strong, yet nimble men.

These athletes spend months preparing themselves physically to cope with all these aspects of the game. On top of that there are the tactical aspects. Coaching staffs spend hours drilling zones, presses, stoppage scenarios, offensive and defensive set-ups.

The hours spent drilling these aspects of the game at training are all for one common goal, and that is to win games. Coaches, players, commentators, and scribes file through mountains of stats to analyse these games. Those stats that carry the most weight are contested possessions, score involvements, inside 50s, and defensive rebounds.

Yet what is the point of hours upon hours of drilling to set up scoring opportunities only to be wasteful in front of goal when you get there?

Why should Richmond bother winning a contested ball on tired legs, spread well, hit targets, and find their forward, one-out, only for him to miss a set shot to put his side in front with less than four minutes to go against West Coast on Sunday.

Why would St Kilda, a week earlier, bother to win 15 more contested possessions than Fremantle, and send the ball inside 50 on 12 more occasions only to lose because they kicked 11 goals from 24 scores, to Fremantle’s 14 goals from 22.

It begs the question, why is the most vital skill in the game, the ability to maximise scoring from the opportunities you are presented, one of the least important factors to football clubs. Why do coaches continually say “we’re giving ourselves opportunities, and that is the pleasing thing,” when their side has had more chances than the opposition and lost? Why are the excuses of pressure and fatigue thrown up every time a player misses at a crucial juncture?

England World Cup winning fly-half Jonny Wilkinson never made those excuses. He never had to. The man spent hours every day practising his goal kicking, in rain, hail, or shine, for the one moment he needed it. His faultless boot carried England to the 2003 World Cup final, and single-handedly got them to extra-time, and when the moment arrived to win the Cup he did not let them down. And that simply comes from work ethic, and a trust that he’s done it a thousand times before in training.

“I want to use every moment when I’m out there whether training as team or individually. Every run, kick, pass or communication should hold meaning. You should aim in every situation to replicate that match situation.” Wilkinson said.

Tiger Woods is another example. NBC golf commentator Dan Hicks immortalised Tiger’s birdie putt at 18 at the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines with the famous line “expect anything different?”

Woods dropped a 12-footer that bounced and bobbled from left to right down a slope to force a play-off with Rocco Mediate, a play-off he won to claim his 14th major title.

We expected Woods to make that putt because he expected to make it. There were no excuses lined up about the state of the parched green, the soreness of his knee, the unjustness of the world had the putt lipped out. Woods never contemplated it. Why? Because he hit 100,000 putts just like it in the years leading up to that point. At his zenith, Woods would stand on a putting green at the end of a day’s practice and hole 100 six-foot, breaking, putts in a row. One-hundred in a row, without missing. Is it any surprise he made the one that mattered? Are there any AFL footballers out there making 100 set shots in a row before leaving the training track every day?

You would suggest not. Hence the competition after five rounds is collectively operating at 51.76 per cent in front of goal and no team is above 60 per cent.

What about other sports? The 2011-12 NBA leading scorer, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, had a season field goal percentage of 49.6. Field goal percentage is number of baskets made from number of attempts put up. That is comparable with the AFL, only the goal Durant fires at is a ring 45cm in diameter, as opposed to 6.4m wide and infinitely high. Put Durant on the free-throw line, the AFL’s equivalent of a set shot, and his percentage sky-rockets to 86.

Durant is the best in the league, but there is a reason why he is the best. Aside from his remarkable, natural, athleticism, he is meticulous in his shooting in practice, as the majority of NBA players are. That is how they make their living, from scoring.

No surprise then that with 3.5 seconds left in Game One of Oklahoma’s first playoff series with defending champions the Dallas Mavericks, Durant made a fade-away jump shot for two points to steal a 99-98 victory. There was some luck involved, with the ball taking a piece of the rim, and glass, before dropping. But as golfing legend Gary Player said “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” Few work harder than Durant, hence he makes a shot at a key moment that undoubtedly he has made thousands of times before.

No sportsman is the best in the world without working harder than the rest. No matter how much natural ability you possess, it will fail you without practising basic skills on a regular basis.

Goal kicking is a basic skill, and the most important skill in Australian Football. It is pointless to spend infinite hours on structures, and set-up, and zones, if you cannot complete the most important, oldest, skill in the game, kicking goals. Losing a tight game, having scored more times than your opponent, is about as worthwhile as losing by 100 points. It has happened six times already this season. West Coast, Geelong, and St Kilda have all lost Grand Finals in the same manner across the last seven seasons, whilst Collingwood were fortunate to escape with a draw in the first Grand Final of 2010.

You just wonder when teams will learn.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The toughest job in Australia

Consider this. Between September 1988 and April 2012, Australia has had only five Prime Ministers, six test captains and six test match wicketkeepers. But given three of the glovemen - Phil Emery, Graham Manou, and Tim Paine - have stood in just six of the 264 tests in that time, it is essentially easier to win in a federal election in Australia than it is to wear the gloves and the baggy green in a test match.

So when incumbent Brad Haddin withdrew from the tour of the Caribbean on the eve of the test series for personal reasons, reserve Matthew Wade was well aware of the enormity of the opportunity he had been given.

Replacing a long-term Australian gloveman is a thankless task. Five wicketkeepers were tried in the four years following Rod Marsh’s retirement. The sixth was the only one to survive three consecutive test series. Ian Healy eventually played 119 of 120 test matches. Such was the Queenslander’s popularity; his replacement was booed to the crease in his first test match in 1999. Adam Gilchrist was never booed again in his astonishing 96-test career. He took just 134 minutes to step out of Healy’s shadow, making a swash-buckling 81 on test debut, and created his own legend only a fortnight later with an breath-taking 149 not out in a record run-chase in Hobart.

Gilchrist created a monster for those following in his footsteps. He revolutionised the role of a wicket keeper batsman. Rod Marsh was the first Australian gloveman to make a test century. He made three in his career, Healy trumped that with four. Gilchrist produced eight in his first 43 tests including, at the time, the fastest double-century ever made. His 5570 test runs at 47.60, with a blistering strike-rate of 81.95 and 17 test centuries, resemble the record of a tremendous batsman, let alone a wicket-keeper who effected 416 dismissals, more than any other in his country’s history.

For Brad Haddin, an outstanding player in his own right, Gilchrist’s career casts a pall over his. Like the smog of a heavily polluted metropolis, it is suffocating, unrelenting, and permanent. There are days when the sun peeks through, and shines a light on its magnificence, yet we will never see its greatness in clear, unfiltered light.

Haddin’s record is impressive. Three test centuries in 43 matches, averaging 35.82. Healy averaged 27 across his career, but had never passed 71 in his first 43 tests. Haddin’s record even compares favourably with MS Dhoni, whose test average, strike-rate, and century tally, is only marginally in front of the New South Welshman, with 24 more tests to his name.

Despite this, the 34-year-old Haddin has a problem. It is doubtful in the week coinciding with Anzac Day the Australian selectors will have the Ode of Remembrance at the front of their minds, “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.”

A man ten years Haddin’s junior, a man who has overcome many obstacles to play test cricket for Australia, may well have gone from seat-warmer to incumbent in the glorious sunshine of Dominica.

Matthew Wade’s maiden test century was of the highest quality. In a series where no Australian has reached 80, Wade’s devastating counter-attack, to tilt the game in Australia’s favour, had a bit of Marsh, Healy, Gichrist, and Haddin all rolled in.

It wasn’t the breath-taking, mind-blowing, assault of Gilchrist on Wasim, Waqar, Saqlain, and Mushtaq in Hobart 1999, but it did feature some equally strong slog sweeps and crisp drives. It was remarkably similar to Marsh’s Centenary Test century. As in 1977, the game was on a knife’s edge needing a tough uncompromising innings from a tough uncompromising player. The scorecard had a similar feel to Healy’s 161 not out against the West Indies in Brisbane, 1996. Healy, like Wade, entered at five down with less than 200 up, batting first after fits and starts from his top order, only to take control with the lower order and set up a match-winning first innings total.

Although it featured some Haddin-esque clean striking, including one enormous straight six, there are no comparisons to any of Haddin’s test centuries.

Reason being that Haddin’s three hundreds have come in relatively more comfortable circumstances. All three were made with at least one player in front of him having already reached three figures, and the best, against England in the first Ashes test of 2010-11, was made redundant by England’s second innings total of 1 for 517.

Wade’s century was made even better by the situation posed to him on match eve. His captain spoke of Haddin’s return to the test fold as a fait accompli. The analysts read this as Michael Clarke’s loyalty to his NSW teammate and a man who he first played under in first-class cricket. But this would be narrow-minded. Captaincy is part-psychology. Clarke has spent enough time with Wade over the past few months to know his story and know that he responds to a challenge.

Wade, aged 16, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He has subsequently beaten two rounds of chemotherapy. He moved away from home at 19, from Tasmania to Victoria, forced by the knowledge that he would live in the shadow of the highly regarded Tim Paine should he remain in Hobart. He had also rescued Victoria in the 2009-10 Sheffield Shield final from near disaster on day one. Wade made a gritty 96 on a difficult wicket, after his team floundered at 6-75 with four international representatives failing in the top order. Clarke had to know that a public comment about Haddin’s return would inspire Wade to make the most of his opportunity.

Wade had done nothing wrong in his first two tests, but he had not made a statement to the selectors to say that he wanted the job long term. His glovework has been sound, if not marginally better than Haddin’s recent efforts. Wade has scarcely missed a chance and although his bye count is high, difficult wickets, and some wayward deliveries inflate it, thus he can hardly be blamed. Keepers often measure themselves against their direct opponent in the series, and Wade has had Carlton Baugh’s measure in all facets.

Wade’s batting possibly lacks the class or devastation of Haddin, but probably features more mental resolve. He needed a score of significance to make Haddin’s return a question rather than a foregone conclusion.

Suddenly it is a loud question that will only get louder. Haddin’s value was being queried in South Africa last year, when a brain explosion in Cape Town made him the headline act in a 47 all out horror show. The stroke he played was inexplicable and the rage of those watching was incandescent. But Haddin’s predecessor had played equally mind-boggling strokes at equally vital junctures. At Edgbaston in 2005, Gilchrist holed out to mid on off Ashley Giles, for just 1, in that famous two-run loss. But Haddin’s highlights are far less frequent than Gilchrist’s and thus his credits in the bank are fast running out.

With Wade rising to his captain’s challenge, is Haddin’s career over? It would be an unfortunate end to a contribution that will never be truly valued. But the job is a tough one, and you are made to earn it. Wade has done all that has been asked of him and more. Australian wicketkeeping is as ruthless as federal politics, and the caucus may well have spoken.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cowan, Copeland star on attritional day

Stumps Day 2 - New South Wales 440 (Hughes 138, Katich 96, Rohrer 64no) v Tasmania 3 -160 (Cowan 80no, Copeland 2-52)

Sheffield Shield finals are rarely free-flowing, cut and thrust affairs. More often than not they are attritional, absorbing, last-man standing encounters.

And so it proved on day two of Australian cricket’s domestic showpiece in Hobart. Whilst day one featured the batting of two Test stars in Phil Hughes and Simon Katich, day two featured a battle of wills between hard-nosed Shield journeymen.

Ben Rohrer has played just 20 Shield matches in four years since scoring 163 on debut at Bellerive. The 29-year-old was preferred for this final over 19-year-old prodigy Nic Maddinson, and his experience was invaluable this morning.

With the second new ball still nipping around Rohrer made 64 not out in a positive display of stroke-play to help NSW reach their total of 440 by lunch time. Rohrer, who was well supported by cameos from nightwatchman Scott Coyte (25) and Trent Copeland (26), cracked seven fours and two sixes in a 91-ball stay. The Blues plundered 124 runs in 29.5 overs and the game charged forward at a rate of knots.

Ben Hilfenhaus put a poor day behind him yesterday when he took a wicket with his first ball this morning. It was little surprise it was his first ball to a right-hander for the innings. He bowled an impressive spell to remove the only two right-handed NSW batsmen in the top eight as he found prodigious swing on a cool and overcast morning. James Faulkner and Xavier Doherty both added to their tallies to finish with three wickets.

Whilst the Blues opening batsmen clattered 85 inside 19 overs yesterday Tasmania’s top four took 35 overs to reach the same mark. The middle session was a grind highlighted by a battle of wills between a former Blue, Ed Cowan, and former Bathurst wicketkeeper turned wicket-taking machine in Copeland.

Cowan bats for a living. He watches each ball like a hawk and plays to his strengths without trying to over-extend himself. Copeland is the bowling equivalent. He doesn’t try to bowl any quicker than 125kph. Instead he uses guile and patience to strangle his victims, delivering over after over with metronomic precision.

It was a fascinating duel over four absorbing hours. Cowan finished unbeaten on 80 from 177 balls, nothing less than he deserved. Copeland delivered 21 overs and claimed two wickets and perhaps deserved more.

There were other players who impressed aside from that duo. Pat Cummins bucked the trend of the day. The 17-year-old raw-boned quick was exceptional bowling 20 overs over genuine pace. His first ball of the day was 134kph, his last 142kph. In between he was far too fast for Nick Kruger trapping him in front for one, and troubled every Tasmanian he bowled to. No batsman was excluded from the barrage of high velocity short balls. George Bailey was troubled more than any but it was Copeland who was rewarded for Cummins’ work. He is the youngest player ever to play in a Shield final eclipsing the former record-holder Michael Kasprowicz. It will be no surprise if his career reaches the same heights as the Queenslander.

Alex Doolan also played a nice hand. His 46 oozed class and reminded onlookers of the uncomplicated style of Martin Love. But the 25-year-old fell to Copeland, edging behind attempting to score a rare boundary from the medium-paced scrooge.

Mark Cosgrove’s entrance unshackled Cowan with the pair adding 53 in from 13 overs. They will need a lot more tomorrow to eat into the 280-run deficit.

Hughes and Katich make NSW's day

New South Wales 5 for 316 (Hughes 138, Katich 96) v Tasmania Day 1 Sheffield Shield Final at Bellerive

Four years ago in the 2007-08 Sheffield Shield final Phillip Hughes announced himself as a future test player with his first Shield hundred to help New South Wales to victory. Four years on, with suggestions that his international career was at the cross roads, Hughes made arguably his most important century to anchor the Blues on day one of this decider.

It wasn’t the same Hughes that we’ve come to know and expect. It was a new and improved Hughes. A mature version who has shelved his dashing, flashing, style for a recalibrated technique that allowed him to survive 278 balls, and compile a classy 138 on a fresh day one surface in Hobart.

Tasmania fans might look at the stumps scorecard and wonder why George Bailey decided to bowl first when the coin fell his way. But the Blues captain Simon Katich admitted he would have done the same on a surface that had a lot of live green grass. Add to that the fact that the average first innings total in Hobart this year has been just 172, and that the side fielding first in all five matches at Bellerive this year has won, it was no surprise Bailey elected to bowl.

But the surface was harder than expected. Although it did plenty off the seam early, anything overpitched was driven without fear. Hughes and a rejuvenated David Warner set up the day with a wonderful opening stand. They put on 88 in the first 74 minutes. They played the lines and were unperturbed at being beaten on a consistent basis. But anything overpitched was punished. Warner was particularly savage on Ben Hilfenhaus. The Test bowler’s first seven overs cost 40.

Warner looked set for another big score before Xavier Doherty was introduced. Doherty didn’t produce consistent spin. But he spun two balls sharply and both claimed wickets. He enticed Warner to drive on 47 and ripped it back to through gate to rattle leg stump. The Test discard then forced a defensive prod from Usman Khawaja, yielding an inside edge which was claimed by Ed Cowan’s quick reflexes at short leg.

When James Faulkner trapped Phil Jaques in front just on lunch Tasmania looked to have reclaimed the ascendency. But the middle session belonged to Hughes. He had looked impressive but vulnerable at different times in the morning. He was 55 at lunch having been reprieved by the normally reliable Bailey on 48. But in the afternoon Hughes showed how far his game had come. He looked impenetrable. His movements were simple; his bat looked as wide as the Derwent. His previously unusual back foot movement to leg was now going to off. He covered off stump in defence. He drove magnificently straight when given the chance. He also cut responsibly and sensibly when offered width and struck one powerful slog sweep off Doherty for six.

He combined beautifully with his captain and, at times, test opening partner who was unusually batting at number five. Katich was dogged prior to tea while Hughes flourished. After tea Katich scored prolifically while Hughes dropped anchor. It was typical Katich. Anything short and wide was punished and anything straight picked off. Their partnership of 185 looked to set the game up before Tasmania took the new ball and showed the wicket still had plenty to offer for the bowlers. Katich was trapped four shy of a century by Faulkner. His 96 had taken him to fourth all-time for total runs scored in Shield Finals. Hughes fell to a beauty from Luke Butterworth who bowled better than his one wicket suggests. Butterworth consistently beat the bat all day but Hughes’ was the only edge that went to hand.

The Blues sent in nightwatchman Scott Coyte with Katich falling in the 87th over. But the man they were protecting, Ben Rohrer, batted anyway with Hughes departure. New South Wales will look to post 400 plus with Peter Nevill and Steve O’Keefe still to come. It will be a good platform for the away side that need to win to claim their 46th Shield. A draw will be good enough for Tasmania.