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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Vladimir Salnikov: The 15 Minute Man

In Olympic sport there have been several events which have had a time, distance or points barrier which seem impenetrable until that one unique Olympian achieves that breakthrough. In gymnastics it was the perfect 10, first scored by Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal Olympics during the women's team event. In cycling's team pursuit Germany broke the 4 minute barrier at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, whilst Jayne Torville and Christopher Dean took the honours for being the first ice dancers to skate to perfect 6's in the Winter Olympics. Olympic swimming has had its own record barriers to break including the sub-minute 100 metres freestyle for men and women, yet it is arguably the 15 minute men's 1500 metres that held the most imposing aura for most of the modern Olympics era. Considering that in the recently completed Beijing Olympics final all bar the last swimmer in the gold medal race went under this mark it could be argued that 15 minutes was possible, and now it is commonplace. However it took a remarkable Russian swimmer from the Soviet era to take long distance swimming into this uncharted territory, and when he did it twice in the Olympics there were eight years and two boycotts between those swims. His name was Vladimir Salnikov, and he was the first man to swim past the 15 minute barrier.

Salnikov's first stuttering steps on the path to Olympic glory came in his home town of Leningrad, now known in the post-Soviet era as Saint Petersburg. The son of Valeri Salnikov (a merchant ship's captain) he was taken by his mother Valentina at the age of seven to a local pool for a season's pass. At a time when quota's and supplies of all goods and services were limited by the Soviet state it was not surprising that Salnikov missed out on the much-wanted ticket. Next year he returned with his mother and was fortunate to secure a season's pass, plus the attention of swim coach Gleb Petrov. Petrov studied Salnikov's movements on land as well as his eagerness to swim and selected the boy to participate in a 120 member local swim training program. The Soviet system of applying science and beaurocracy to sport was applied in full on developing Salnikov's youthful talent, and by the age of 12 he was part of an elite Leningrad sporting school's swim team. Despite earaches and tonsilitis Salnikov continued to improve and whilst his family weren't involved with his swimming Salnikov later believed his father's stern way of dealing with him helped motivate his work in the pool.

By 1974 Salnikov was attracting more attention from the Soviet sporting system, and in turn new support from new coaches. Coach Igor Koshkin and sports psychologist Gennady Gorbunov helped bring Salnikov on so that he was primed for the 1976 Soviet Olympic trials, with a training regime that included 6 kilometres swimming per day (swum at intervals with his heartbeat between 145 and 155 beats per minute), an hour's weightlifting and only five to ten minute rest breaks. At the 1976 trials Salinkov also utilised visualisation techniques provided by Gorbunov to swim the 1500 metres in 15.43.92, coming third. This gave him the opportunity to participate later that year in the greatest 1500 metres final held in the first 80 years of the modern Olympics.

The 1976 1500 metres final in Montreal was remarkable in that the gold, silver and bronze medallists all finished below the pre-games world record. Americans Brian Goodell and Bobby Hackett took more than four and two seconds off Goodall's world record in their swims, whilst Australian favourite also came in under the mark. Salnikov was the first Soviet swimmer to qualify for the 1500 metres final at the Olympics and came fifth with 15.29.45, which was a dramatic drop from his trial swim. It was to be the last time that an American would win the 1500 metres at an Olympics with either Soviet or Russian swimmers competing in the same pool.

In the period from the 1978 World Swimming Championships in Berlin through to the 1980 Moscow Olympics Salnikov grew into the role of the Soviet's first swimming superstar. In the pool at Berlin he won both the 400 metres and 1500 metres freestyle finals, setting championships records with both swims and in the latter final beating Olympic silver medallist Bobby Hackett by almost 20 seconds. His time for the 400 metres was a world record (3.51.94) and he also backed up to participate in the silver medal winning Soviet men's 4x200 metre relay team. Meanwhile as part of his development and training Salnikov attended training camps in of all places Mission Veijo, California with US coach Mark Schubert. At a time when Soviet and US relations where dominated by the Cold War it was refreshing to see that the sport of swimming could bridge such a cavernous political gap. As Vladimir himself put the experience:

"I really got an idea of what big-time sport is all about after two weeks training in the United States. We had believed we weren't any different to the Americans, but we were unable to understand why they swam faster and won most of the medals at world tournaments. It turned out that their training methods and their attitude to training were different."

In 1979 Salnikov set a world record the non-Olympic distance of 800 metres, becoming the first person to swim under 8 minutes for the event. As the premiere distance swimmer in the world his position as favourite for at least the 1500 metres gold medal in Moscow was virtually unassailable. In the four years between Montreal and Moscow Salnikov swam the eight fastest times aside from Goodell's world record over 1500 metres, and under 15 minutes 10 seconds 6 times. The 1976 gold medallist (and pupil of Mark Schubert) Bobby Goodell was still in the 1500 metres swim game but he had finished fifth at the US Olympic swim trials with Mike Bruner the new American champ, whilst Australian 'superfish' Steve Holland had retired after he took bronze in Montreal. and been supplanted by Max Metzker. The Swimming World Magazine world swimmer of the year for 1979 was prepared for the apogee of his career in the first Olympics to be held behind the Iron Curtain.

As noted elsewhere the 1980 Moscow Olympics were marked by the US-led boycott which resulted from Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. In men's swimming the absence of the Americans, West Germans, Japanese and Canadians had a mixed effect; in some events such as the shorter sprints the non-appearance of the likes of Rowdy Gaines meant that East German and Soviet Union swimmers claimed medals they may not have had a claim to in more open competition. For Salnikov the boycott had taken away one of his major competitors in the 400 metres (Canadian world record holder Peter Szmidt), but it arguably had minimal effect on his 1500 metres swim. Salnikov had already taken the short-course 1500 metres world record from Goodell; now it was the time of the long course event.

The 1500 metres heats were held second day of the Moscow Olympic swimming program, and there were a total of 21 competitors from 14 countries. In the first heat Hungarian Zoltán Wladár won with a time of 15.31.06, whilst in the second heat the compatriot of Salnikov Aleksandr Chayev took out the race in 15.28.68. That same heat saw second place swimmer from the 1978 Berlin 1500 metres Borut Petric (YUG) finish in 15.31. 53, but three other swimmers in that heat failed to complete the race. The final heat was all Salnikov; he completed the 1500 metres in 15.08.25 which placed him over 9 seconds quicker than second place swimmer East German Rainer Strohbach. The line up for the final saw Salnikov in the fastest qualification time, with Strohbach second quickest, Chayev third and Rafael Escalas (ESP) fourth.

Remarkably, considering the recent history of Olympic 1500 metres finals the race for gold silver and bronze in Moscow was held the day immediately after the heats. Unlike in games such as those in Beijing, Athens and Sydney the contestants had to back up without the benefit of a day's rest, plus there were other events to swim for some of the entrants (for example Salnikov still had his 400 metres). In light of this, Salnikov's 1980 final swim can be considered all the more remarkable compared with those from the likes of Perkins and Hackett in later years.

When Salnikov finally dived off the blocks he was undoubtedly the pinnacle of the Soviet swimming program, and without the Americans to threaten this the Russian quickly established his ascendency over the pack. At 100 metres he was already a second in front of the nearest rival with an intermediate time of 58.53 seconds. By 300 metres that lead was doubled, and at the half way mark Salnikov was 5.18 seconds ahead of Goodell's then current world record pace. The spectators who naturally were overwhelmingly biased towards their home town hero responded to the Soviet swimmer's efforts, screaming and calling for him to win and win withing the world record. At 800 metres he was still under the minute per 100 metres mark, and the 1500 metres in 15 minutes looked very vulnerable.

Behind Salnikov the battle for the minor medals was on, with Chayev, Metzker and Strohbach all fighting hard; however they were never in the hunt for gold, which was Salnikov's without a doubt as he came to the last 100 metres. Goaded by a crowd that knew that they were witnessing something historic Salnikov responded in the only way he could; he swam even quicker. For the last 100 metres he completed the two laps in 58.05 seconds; almost half a seocnd quicker than his first 100 metres. As his hands hit the finishing wall Vladimir Salnikov looked up to the scoreboard. The time flashed up: 14.58.27. The son of a Leningrad sea captain, who's country had never won a gold medal in men's swimming before these Olympics, and who had swum fifth in his last Olympic final, had claimed the greatest prize of all. A gold medal in a time that would forever mark him as the first of his kind; the first to go below 15 minutes.

At this point it could be enough to finish Salnikov's story. He took two more gold medals in Moscow, one in the 400 metres and one in the 4x200 metres men's relay final. Yet this isn't the end. Four years later Salnikov would have gone to Los Angeles as the world record holder, being the only man who had swum under 15 minutes. However in a tit-for-tat boycott the Soviet Bloc spurned the chance to compete in the LA 1984 Olympics, and so Salnikov had to wait for another chance to claim a fouth Olympic gold medal.

In Seoul 1988 Salnikov returned to the Olympic pool forone last games. Up until 1986 he had won 61 consecutive 1500 metres swims, swum under 15 minutes for the distance four times and no one else had come within a bull's roar of his world record of 15.54.76. However his results had slumped since coming fourth at the 1986 world swimming championships, and in 1987 he failed to make the final of the European championships. Written off as a threat for gold, now coached by his wife Marina and only winning a place on the Soviet team after intervention from the sports minister, the hero of Moscow looked decidedly vulnerable.

In the preliminaries though the Salnikov of old re-emerged, clocking the second fastest time (15.07.83), with American Matt Cetlinksi fastest qualifer for the final. Then as the greatest Olympic champions can and often do respond, in the final Salnikov took the lead from 675 metres and was never headed. Surging ahead with every lap the last gold medallist for the Soviet Union in an Olympic swimming final took the race in a time of 15.00.40, thus becoming at 28 the owner of the five fastest times for the 1500 metres ever swum, and the oldest Olympic swimming champion for 56 years. His world record stood until 1991, and whilst that time is now down to 14.34.56 the status of being the first man to swim 1500 metres under 15 minutes will forever be his. Vladamir Salnikov in 1980 and in 1988 demonstrated greatness that will always mark him as a legend of Olympic swimming.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Thorpe Versus Hall: Whose Guitars Got Smashed?

Several countries in the modern Olympics would look to one sport and perceive it to be 'their' domain, the place where their Olympians traditionally excelled against the opposition. For the Swedes and the Hungarians it could be said they both share the modern pentathlon as 'their' Olympic sport. Kenyans and Ethiopians have come to dominate long distance running, whilst India still feels great attachment to men's field hockey. In the Winter Olympics the Canadians are emotionally and historically attached to ice hockey, whilst Norwegians look to cross-country skiing as a particularly strong part of their Olympic identity. And for Australia the overwhelming sport of interest at the Olympics is swimming. Unfortunately for Gary Hall Jnr and his American compatriots at the Sydney 2000 Olympics a quote that smacked of arrogance provoked the most memorable response from an Australian men's 4x100 metres freestyle relay team that was determined to make the greatest swimming power in Olympic history show some respect in the Aussie's own home pool.

Prior to the Sydney 2000 Olympics the 4x100 metres freestle relay was literally American property. First contested as an Olympic event in 1964 at Tokyo, with a short interregnum over the Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980 Olympics, the record stood at seven finals and seven team golds for the US. Australian male swimmers in this period came closest to defeating an American team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when the so-called "Mean Machine" of Greg Fasala, Neil Brooks, Mark Stockwell and Michael Delany swam beneath world record time in coming second behind the US swimmers Chris Cavanaugh, Michael Heath, Matt Biondi and Rowdy Gaines. For a sporting nation proud of their legendary swimmers such as Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose, John Devitt, Mike Wenden and Shane Gould the 4x100 metres freestyle relay was akin to a holy grail; to win that event's gold would show the world that Australian swimmers meant to show up the brasher, bigger, more successful Yanks.

Leading up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics the swimming stocks of several nations in the men's sprint distances were very strong; perhaps stronger over a wider range of nations than had been seen for some time. For the Russians the legendary Aleksandr Popov led their 100 metres charge, having successfully defended his Barcelona 100 metres title in Atlanta, hence aiming for a third gold in Sydney. Lars Frolander was a well credentialled Swedish swimmer who had clocked a sub-49 second time for the 100 metres, whilst Dutch favourite Pieter Van den Hoogenband was a candidate for individual sprint glory and could be the decisive factor for a Netherlands relay team. Yet when it came down to the previews before the Sydney 2000 swim program the battle for 4x100 metres relay gold was expected to be a fight between the underdog Australia and the traditional top ranked Americans.

In the Australian Olympic swimming trials held at the Homebush Aquatic Centre (venue for the Sydney 2000 swim meet) the top four finishers in the men's 100 metres freestyle were Michael Klim (48.56 seconds), Chris Fydler (48.85), Ashley Callus (49.46) and Ian Thorpe (49.74). Of these swimmers Klim and Thorpe had the highest profiles, as the former was a world record holder in the 100 metres butterfly plus a four times world champion two years earlier, whilst the latter was emerging as the greatest male swimmer seen in Australia since Murray Rose. Michael Klim and Chris Fydler had both swum as part of the Australian men's 4x100 metres freestyle relay team in Atlanta where they came sixth, whilst 'The Thorpedo' had set three world records in three days at the Australian swim trials. Callus had won gold with the Australians in the 1998 Kuala Lumpar Commonwealth Games, and so the four leading sprinters in the green and gold had a very respectable aura surrounding them leading into Sydney 2000.

Across the Pacific the US swim trials for the 100 metres men's freestyle were held as late as August 13th 2000 in Indianopolis. The first four finishers in this event's final were Neil Walker (48.71), Gary Hall Jnr (48.84), Scott Tucker (48.95) and Jason Lezak (49.15). Far and away the most famous of these men was the outspoken Gary Hall Jnr. Hall's family had a history of Olympic swimming, and during the 1996 Atlanta games the brash American had duelled both in and out of the water with Russian gold medallist Popov. Like Hall, Tucker was a member of the 1996 US 4x100 metres freestyle team that had won gold, whilst Lezak and Walker were looking to debut in Sydney. On paper these times meant there was less than a second between the leading four swimmers from Australia and America; the upcoming relay was looking to be a highlight of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Then, in an article posted via the CNN/Sports Illustrated website by Gary Hall Jnr in his online diary on August 22nd a supposed joke or even qualified sign of respect poured oil on the flames of the rivalry between the US and Australian swim teams. Hall Jnr wrote:

"I like Australia, in truth. I like Australians. The country is beautiful, and the people are admirable. Good humor and genuine kindness seem a predominant characteristic. My biased opinion says that we will smash them like guitars. Historically the U.S. has always risen to the occasion. But the logic in that remote area of my brain says it won't be so easy for the United States to dominate the waters this time. Whatever the results, the world will witness great swimming."

The Australian media and in turn the Australian swim team grabbed this quote, highlighting the 'guitar smashing' section particularly and then using it to both pour scorn on what was considered American arrogance and motivate further a very driven Australian swim team. After the event and even as recently as the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics Gary Hall Jnr's comments drew attention for their role in the build up to the gold medal relay race in the Sydney Olympic pool. However before the final there were three heats, all swum on the morning of Saturday 16th September, the day after the spectacular opening ceremony.

The first heat saw Dutch hopes crash when their team was disqualified, and though Van Den Hoogenband didn't participate it destroyed his chances of leading the Netherlands to a relay gold. The German men won this heat in a time of 3.18.70, against a relatively weaker team, with the Italians in second and Belarus third. The next heat saw Australia, Russia and Sweden debut their teams with Ian Thorpe and Michael Klim not racing. Thorpe was swimming in the 400 metres freestyle heats and final on the first day of the Sydney 2000 program, and if there was one potential weakness in the make-up of the Aussie team it was whether or not the 17 year old could back up after his main individual event. Todd Pearson and Adam Pine stepped into the team and registered both first place and a time more than two seconds faster than second place team Russia (including Popov). Sweden, France and South Africa filled the third to fifth positions in this heat. The final heat was won by the Americans who rested Hall and Walker, bringing in Josh Davis (an Atlanta relay gold medallist) and Anthony Ervin. Ervin's participation in the heat was in itself an historic event, as he was the first US Olympic swimmer with an African American background to swim at the Olympics. The US team swam the fastest time of all three heats, beating the Brazilians home in 3.15. 43. Scott Tucker's time as the lead was somewhat disappointing, and when the US relay team was confirmed for the final he was dropped for Ervin. It appeared that with the Americans bringing in Hall Jnr and Tucker who were both faster than the second best Australian (Callus), and with Thorpe having to swim the 400 metres final, the gold logically should go to the US. Yet logic doesn't always contribute to the make up of an Olympic Games gold medal final.

Come the finals on the first night of the Olympic swimming program in Sydney and 17,500 spectators filled the Aquatic Centre, with all Australians there plus millions at home watching to see how Ian Thorpe would swim in his 400 metres final. The current world record holder the 'Thorpedo' was never really threatened by his rivals, winning gold in a time of 3.40.59; a new world record (breaking his own mark) and streeting his nearest competitor Massimiliano Rosolino by almost three seconds. As his competitors finished the race Thorpe signalled his satsfaction with a determined two handed fist pump slightly betrayed by a small grin, and then it was time to prepare for the 4x100 metres freestyle relay final.

Meanwhile the Americans had changed their line up for the final, dropping Tucker in favour of Ervin. Ervin's time in the relay heat earlier that day was the quickest of the four Americans who swam, whereas Tucker's time was slightly slower than Chris Fydler who had swum the first leg for the Australians in their heat. The teams who then lined up were matched as follows:
  • Klim versus Ervin
  • Walker versus Fydler
  • Lezak versus Callus
  • Thorpe versus Hall Jnr
As the eight finalist teams lined up at the blocks for the start of the 4x100 metres freestyle final there was one man missing. Thorpe was struggling with his swimsuit which required 4 people to help him change, and unlike his compatriots who were able to leisurely (if nervously) prepare, greeting the announcing of their names to the massively pro-Aussie crowd, Thorpe had to race out, making the start just in time. Mounting the blocks and under the starter's orders the shaved down Michael Klim was ready for the swim of his life.

With the starter's signal sending the relay teams down their respective lanes for 8 laps Klim went out hard and very, very fast. By 15 seconds into Klim's leg he had already established half a body length on Ervin, and when Klim touched the wall at the end of the first lap the Australian's time of 22.83 seconds was looking good for a new world record. The gap extended as the second lap continued, and by the time Klim reached the end of his leg he had swum a new world record time for the 100 metres freestyle for men; 48.18 seconds. Then it was the turn of Fydler and Walker. Chris Fylder kept the lead for his first 50 metres, but then in the back half of his leg Neil Walker grabbed the lead. This would have possibly been the time in past Olympic men's freestyle relays when the US team would storm to an unassailable claim on gold. Yet Fydler responded, no doubt spurred on by the deafening screams of the Australian fans. As the rest of the field slid further back in the wake of the Australian and the American the first half of the relay ended with Chris Fydler touching the wall for an aggregate time of 1.36.66; 1.77 seconds under world record pace.

Lezak for America and Callus for Australia were the third pair into the pool for their respective teams, and within th early stages of their respective legs Lezak took the lead. Keeping this for almost three quarters of the 100 metres that he swum the American was matched near the end, then surpassed almost imperceptably by Anthony Callus. The third ranked Aussie male over 100 metres had given Ian Thorpe what he need; a lead (if small) over the man who had made the not-so-funny now jibe about smashing the Australians like guitars. The 4x100 metres freestyle title would either be won by a man who was at his first Olympics, and had just won a gold medal in the 400 metres whilst breaking his own world record. Or it would be won by an extroverted and experienced sprint swimming expert who already had relay gold from Atlanta, plus he swam for a country with an undefeated relay history at the Olympics.

Hall began excellently and with a dramatic turn of speed and high stroke rate almost instantkly caught then passed the Thorpedo. The Aussie's arms seemed to move in slow motion, languidly curving into the water as his size 8 feet acted like flippers; but at the end of the seventh lap it was the Americans with the lead, and Gary Hall Jr had them still under world record time. Again, in another Olympics and with other swimmers the US could have, would have...nay should have swum away for a tight gold medal victory. Yet with about 20 metres to go Thorpe's inexorable momentum took hundredths of a second away from the brash American. The crowd in the Sydney Olympic swimming venue literally shouted through the roof as their home town hero (who lived as a boy only half an hour's drive from Homebush, Sydney's Olympic precinct) swam the race of his lifetime, if not of anyone's lifetime. As the two leaders swam under the false start rope at 15 metres to go it looked almost dead level between them. The wall approached and with a final surge of his amazingly powerful teenage body Thorpe grabbed the lead; Hall swept to the finish too but in a result which broke the world record, ended American Olympic dominance and defined this 4x100 metres relay as probably the greatest team swim ever seen at an Olympic Games Ian Thorpe beat the American home by 0.19 of a second. The Australian men had won gold with a final time of 3.13.67, the Americans were second in 3.13.86, and almost as an afterthought the Brazilians took bronze.

Then came the exuberant Australian 'get square' to the now not-so-brash Gary Hall Jr; as Thorpe climbed out on the pool deck Chris Fydler, Anthony Callus and a surly Michael Klim formed an air guitar trio that strummed a silent but pointed note of 'take that' to the Americans. It was in the opinion of legendary Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser "probably the greatest race I have ever seen", whilst Thorpe was to say later the relay gold medal meant more to him than his 400 metres. He said "being able to share that experience with three other swimmers was incredible," and for Michael Klim he had the good fortune to have Thorpe confirm he had swum a world record time for his first 100 metres leg.

In the silver medal winning American team the reaction was understandably ruefull. Hall looked back on the race and said:“I don’t even know how to play the guitar,” but he was gracious in defeat: “I consider it the best relay race I’ve ever been part of. I doff my cap to the great Ian Thorpe. He swum better than I did.”

At the Summer Olympic Games which then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch called the best ever, this 4x100 metres men's freestyle relay was the best team swim in the entire history of the modern Olympics.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Billy Mills: Running Brave in Tokyo

The burden of being the favourite in an Olympic Games event can be both a boon and burden. Over the 112 years of the modern Summer and Winter Games many a pre-event world champion or world record holder had taken their standing as a platform for launching their ascendancy over their Olympic competitors. Michael Phelps in Beijing 2008 was is just one of the most recent examples of this situation, and the same could be said about Maurice Greene in Sydney 2000. On the other hand an athlete who was considered a certainty for Olympic gold because of their pre-games form or ranking has been known to blow up, lose out to a near rival or even a complete unknown. Matt Biondi felt this particularly painful sting when Duncan Armstrong literally surfed to a world record and gold medal over the leading qualifier in the 200 metres fresstyle final in Seoul 1988, followed by an equally surprising loss to Anthony Nesty from Surinam in the 100 metres butterfly at the same Olympics. For Ron Clarke his Olympic career will always be known for his role as the defeated favourite in the men's 10,000 metres final in Tokyo, when William 'Billy' Mills took gold with an audacious and historic run.

These two greats of Olympic distance running in the 1960s came from very different backgrounds. Clarke was an Australian from the host city of the 1956 Summer Olympics, Melbourne and had the great honour of lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony of those games. Immediately prior to these Olympics Ron Clarke had featured in a famous 1500 metres final at the Australian national championships when after tripping. The second man to break four minutes for the mile, John Landy stopped after accidentally spiking Clarke, helped him up and then completed the race winning the title. This was but the first time Clarke would be involved in great drama on the athletics track. The Australian's athletics career was put aside after the Melbourne Olympics and it took until 1962 before he re-emerged as a world class distance runner. His efforts at that year's Perth Commonwealth Games were encouraging, and in 1963 Clarke finally set his first world record over the 10,000 metres. It was hoped by his Australian fans that Ron Clarke would follow on the traditions set by the likes of Landy and Herb Elliott, and collect gold in Tokyo 1964.

Billy Mills came from a somewhat different background prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Born in Pine Ridge South Dakota, Mills was one of twelve children and had been orphaned at the age of twelve, whereupon he was sent ot the Haskall Insitute in Kansas. Taking up running originally because he was interested in boxing, the part-Lakota Native American then developed further as a distance runner at the University of Kansas, where Mills was coached by Bill Easton. During his time at the University of Kansas Billy Mills established himself in NCAA amateur athletic meets with some strong performances in 1959-1960. Then Mills joined the United States Marine Corps, and after qualifying as a Second Lieutenant in December 1962 he served in motor transport units of the USMC. By the time of the trials for the US Olympic team in 1964 he was based at Camp Pendleton, California. At those trials he ran 29 minutes 10.4 seconds for the 10,000 metres, almost a minute slower than Clarke's world record time of 28 minutes 15.6 seconds. Mills was the second US entrant for this event as he was beaten by Gerry Lindgren; so when it came to pre-race favourites for the Tokyo Olympics Billy Mills was way way under the radar.

Coming into the Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympics Ron Clarke was the world record holder for the 10,000 metres plus a well-regarded contender for the 5000 metres. It was widely expected that the Australian would be the one to beat in the longer of the two races. There were others with some claim, amongst them Degaga 'Mamo' Wolde from Ethiopia, Murray Halberg (NZL), defending Rome 1960 10,000 metres gold medallist Pyotr Bolotnikov (URS) and Tunisian Mohammad Gammoudi. The American pair of Lindgren and Mills were not ranked as gold medal hopes, and it looked even less hopeful for the US athletics team in Tokyo just two days before the 10,000 metres final. Lindgren twisted his ankle near the Meiji shrine whilst running a practice cross-country course and then ignoring advice he failed to get the injury treated for at least three hours. It looked fairly bleak for those who were hoping to hear the 'Star Spangled Banner' played after the longest men's athletics race in the main Olympic stadium in Tokyo.

The day of the 10,000 metres final in Tokyo was held on a wet track at 4.00 pm on Tuesday July 14th, 1964. Seventeen nations had competitors in the final, with 28 men expected to chase Ron Clarke to the final line. Clarke's tactics were to surge every second lap, and with his ability to burn off his competitors he hoped this would bring him the gold. Surprisingly Billy Mills was running the 10,000 metres in borrowed shoes as the US team's shoe sponsors said there were only enough for potential winners. Between the world record holder an a US Marine in borrowed track shoes there seemed a huge unbridgable gulf. But these were the Olympic finals...

The race started as expected with Clarke in the front grouping, accompanied by Gammoudi, Walde and local favourite for the Japanese supporters Kokichi Tsuburaya. Mills was seen to drop back from these front runners four times, and at one stage was nearly 14 metres behind Clarke and the other leaders. However even though he was often caught up in the bunch of slower competitors Mills returned on each of the four occasions to rejoin the leading group. He even took the lead five times, but Clarke reasserted control of the race so that by the last 1000 metres the gold medal looked to be the Australian's with the rest of the field to fight over the minor medals.

Walde dropped away at this mark, leaving Clarke, Gammoudi, Tsuburaya and Mills fighting out the medal hunt. The Japanese was dropped off by the last lap, leaving the Australian, the Tunisian and the American running abreast for the final 400 metres. In the back straight Clarke was blocked to the front by a straggler from the back of the field, and at the side by Mills. Trying to get a clear run the world record holder tapped the USMC officer, attempting to get Mills to give way. Mills stayed in his path, so Clarke shoved making the American veer off to the right of the track. Seeing an opening the Tunisian Gammoudi sprinted between the leaders, grabbing the front for himself. Gammoudi lengthened his lead as Mills reattached himself to Clarke, and these were the placings as the three struggled to pass slower competitors. Later Clarke would describe the crowded final lap "like a dash for a train in a peak-hour crowd", whilst Mills was able to say of his brief shoving with Clarke "It was a break, out there I found harder ground, better traction, and I was able to pick up immediately". The Australian realised that he had to bridge the gap that Gammoudi had established, so he began a final spurt. Mills appeared to be out of it, but his desire to stay in the chase kept him nipping at Clarke's heels.

At the beginning of the home stretch Clarke caught Gammoudi and it appeared that he was going to take the gold everyone expected. Yet Gammoudi came again and then, with an amazing rush whilst going through more stragglers Billy Mills hurtled forward like a sprinter. Gammoudi was well in front of Clarke as Mills passed the Tunisian and then to the astonishment of all in the event and watching the American crossed the finish line. His gold medal was won in a time almost 45 seconds faster than he had ever run the 10,000 metres before, plus he had beaten a man who was considered the best runner over that distance in the world at that time. Clarke the world record holder had taken bronze behind Gammoudi, but it was Billy Mills who had made Olympic history.

As Mills was slowing down from his supreme efforts a Japanese official came over to him. For a moment the American was uncertain what he was saying, and whether he had in fact finished too early. It then dawned on him that he was being asked repeatedly "Who are you? Who are you?" An unknown before the 10,000 metres the Japanese official hadn't recognised the gold medallist. Then the same official said "Finished," and it sank in for Billy; he was the 10,000 metres gold medallist and the first American to achieve this honour at the Olympic Games.

The manner in which Mills won his gold medal showed that in an Olympics there will be moments of unscripted heroics. Ron Clarke was unbackable as a favourite, and his efforts to replicate the achievements of the great Emil Zatopek would normally have been considered unlikely but probable. Billy Mills on the other hand had only one race in Tokyo and he was not expected to have any effect. Instead Clarke would walk away from these Olympics with no gold, and in fact end up setting 19 world records without ever finishing first at the Summer Games. It was Billy Mills who would have the honour of being known as an Olympic gold medal champion.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Daley Thompson: The Decathlete Legend

In the track and field program at a Summer Olympic games the title of best all round male athlete resides with the man who collects the gold medal for the decathlon. This ten discipline, two day event has provided many of the iconic figures of the modern Olympics. Jim Thorpe was the first great decathlon gold medallist, picking up the unique double decathlon and pentathlon victories in Stockholm 1912. Glenn Morris, the American gold medal winner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics not only showed his supremacy over his rivals, he also began a short tempestuous relationship with the director of the definitive official Olympic film of these games, Leni Riefenstahl. Bob Mathias took the gold medals in the first two Olympics after World War Two, in London 1948 and Helsinki 1952, whilst Rafer Johnson's victory over C.K. Yang in Rome 1960 is one of the 101 greatest moments in modern Olympic history. Then in 1976 Bruce Jenner turned his decathlon triumph into a multi-million dollar industry back home in the USA. However the greatest decathlete of all time didn't come from the United States like all these illustrious predecessors. The remarkable Daley Thompson won his first gold in the boycott-effected Moscow 1980 Olympics, then reached a new level of Olympic greatness in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.

Daley Thompson was born on July 30th, 1958 in the London suburb of Notting Hill, to a Nigerian father and Scottish mother. Whilst at a Sussex boarding school the young Thompson showed promise in athletics, which was further developed by a period at the age of 17 with the Essex Beagles athletics club. Prior to winning the 1976 British AAA decathlon title the young Briton went to Montreal and came 18th with 7434 points. It was an inauspicious start for an Olympic career that would stretch through to Seoul in 1988, and include not just two gold medals but also world championship titles, world records, European championships and Commonwealth Games gold medals as well.

At the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games Thompson won his first major international senior decathlon title, and in the period between then and Moscow 1980 he rapidly grew in stature and performance. His only loss in this period came in 1979 at the European championships; between then and 1987 Thompson never lost another decathlon. As the upcoming Soviet-hosted Olympics were threatened by a major US-led boycott Daley Thompson became engaged in a personal duel with West German decathlete Guido Kratschmer. Kratschmer was the then world record holder before the two met in May 1980 (by this time West Germany had joined the Moscow boycott). At this decathlon Thompson beat Kratschmer and set a new world record (8622 points). This performance established Thompson as a red hot favourite for the Olympics in Moscow, and whilst Kratschmer won the world record back his non-attendance(plus the absence of American and Canadian athletes) meant the Briton had the Moscow gold medal to lose. And he didn't disappoint; winning the decathlon gold medal with a final score of 8522 and running 153 points ahead of his silver medallist rival Yuri Kutsenko.

Naturally with the non-appearance of the then world record holder, plus the overall paucity of quality opposition of the Moscow 1980 decathlon field, Thompson's first Olympic decathlon gold medal could be regarded slightly tarnished by harsh critics. However the story would be dramatically different four years later in Los Angeles. The period between these two boycotted Olympics was dominated in decathlon by the hard-fought battle between Daley Thompson and new West German champion decathlete Jürgen Hingsen. These two would duel repeatedly over European, world championship and finally Olympic stages and in the process create one of the greatest moments in Olympic history.

Hingsen like Thompson was born in Duisburg in 1958, and the two first came into serious competition at a European Junior championship in 1977. At this event Thompson came first and Hingsen third. Hingsen developed slower than Thompson, and it wasn't until 1982 that the West German claimed the position as the new threat to the British Olympic champion. At the West German championships that year in Ulm Hingsen set a new world record of 8723 points. This gave him the favouritism for the European championships in Athens, however Thompson took that title. In 1983 Hingsen set another new world record point score the decathlon, scoring 8779 at Bernhausen. Yet again however at the next major international track and field meet (the 1983 Helsinki IAAF World Championships) Thompson defeated Hingsen, with the scores being 8714 points for the Briton and 8561 for the West German. For a third time Hingsen set a world record (8798 points), this time at Mannheim in 1984; the third time he had achieved such a result on West German soil. The question was would Hingsen be able to buck the trend of losing out to Thompson on foreign soil for a third time. The next meeting of the two in such conditions would be the Los Angeles Olympics.

During the final months of the lead up to the 1984 Summer Games Thompson again and again added personal colour to his rivalry with the so-called "German Hercules". When Hingsen claimed he would be winning gold in Los Angeles Thompson claimed "There are only two ways he is going to bring a gold medal home; he'll have to steal mine or win another event." For other Olympians this could have been called arrogant; yet Thompson's clowning and cheeky sense of humour excused him from most criticism. He also called the West German "Hollywood Hingsen" because he resembled the actor Burt Reynolds, whilst in a separate showing of supreme confidence Daley Thompson wrote a postcard to dual decathlon gold medallist Bob Mathias saying "I'm coming to get you." When it came to mind games the Briton was setting a leading pace from his West German and other rivals.

On August 8th 1984 athletes from 18 countries began the 10 event final chase for decathlon gold. Unlike 1980 the field wasn't as significantly weakened by the revenge boycott implemented by the Soviet-bloc at Los Angeles; Thompson and three West Germans, Hingsen, Kratschmer and Siegfried Wentz formed the core lead group, whilst the Americans expected to do well with home soil advantage and world championship entrant John Crist. The first event was 100 metres, and Thompson (who could perform creditably in 4x100 metres relays at Olympic and Commonwealth Games) raced Hingsen and Kratschmer. Setting his best ever time for the distance in a decathlon Thompson scored 948 points with his time of 10.44 seconds. Hingsen was third behind Kratschmer as well, and down by 122 points from the Briton.

Thompson had another win in the next event, the long jump (his result would have earned him fifth in the final of the LA 1984 long jump final), but Hingsen narrowed the gap slightly. The shot put followed and this was an opportunity for Hingsen to reclaim more ground between him and Thompson. However Thompson again rose to the occasion and putted the shot to a personal best of 15.72 metres. Hingsen was behind the defending Olympic champion and he wasn't as yet able to pull in enough points at this stage to threaten Thompson yet. The high jump however saw Hingsen make up some ground, with his final height of 2.12 metres clawing back 77 points from Thompson. Importantly for Hingsen he aggravated a knee injury in his right leg, receiving four pain killing injections to continue competing. This may not have stopped Hingsen physically yet it did work against him mentally, and the coming final event of the day needed strong legs.

The last event of the decathlon's first day was the 400 metres. Thompson reasserted his pre-eminence with a win against Hingsen and the American Jim Wooding. The close of the first day saw the West German world record holder on 4579 points and the British reigning gold medallist from Moscow on 4633 points. Hingsen was only trailing his world record by 17 points, but Thompson was 114 points ahead and had achieved the highest first day score in an Olympic decathlon. It appeared that Thompson would surpass the slightly injured Hingsen and win his second Olympic decathlon title.

The second day of the 1984 decathlon began with the 110 metres hurdles. Hingsen clawed back all of 6 points and so stayed in the silver medal ranking. The seventh event was the discus, and it was here that Hingsen finally unleashed his promise. On his first throw the West German reached 49.80 metres; his best ever result in a decathlon. Thompson on the other hand had a poor first throw, sending the discus down range only 37.90 metres. Hingsen's second throw was even better, reaching 50.82 metres and applying significant pressure to the Briton. Daley Thompson improved only marginally, and with Hingsen's last throw not improving his position the lead was posied to change. As Thompson later described it, he was looking over the edge and needed to meet the challenge. And like every great Olympic champion he did; the third throw from Thompson sailed to 46.56 metres. It was another personal best for Thompson and whilst Hingsen had won this round with 888 points, the Briton still led. It was getting closer and closer to crunch time.

The eight event was the pole vault and it was here that Hingsen unfortunately suffered the effects of illness, effectively ending his hopes. Before his first two vaults the West German had vomited twice, and his best height after three attempts was a sub-par 4.50 metres. Thompson on the other hand flew over the bar, and with his best height being a full half metre above Hingsen (earning him 1052 points) the gold medal was almost around the Briton's neck. In the penultimate round (the javelin) Hingsen again underperformed whilst Thompson took 824 points with his throw of 65.24 metres. Then it came down to the final race; the 1500 metres.

In the closing event of the 1984 Los Angeles decathlon Thompson knew he had gold, but on his horizon was beating Hingsen not just in places on the medal stand but also in the world record point score. Needing a time of 4 minutes 34.8 seconds Thompson literally strolled to the finish line. His time was 4 minutes 35 exactly, which meant he fell a single point shy of equalling Hingsen record. The first double decathlon gold medallist since Bob Mathias (who as promised he had 'caught'), Daley Thompson took a victory lap of the LA Olympic Coliseum track, showing his joy whilst pointedly criticising the jingoistic coverage of the American host broadcaster. Wearing a t-shirt that read "Thanks America for a great games," on the front and then on the reverse "But what about the TV coverage?" he was met by Princess Anne (herself an Olympian). Later when asked what she had said to him, Thompson again revealed his comedic side; "She said I was a good looking guy!" joked the Briton. To add a much later layer of glory on his victory, in 1986 the IAAF established that Thomspon had run one second quicker than recorded in the 110 metres hurdles, hence claiming that single point he needed to equal Hingsen's record.

For Great Britain and for Daley Thompson Los Angeles was a golden games, and whilst Hingsen had been competitive at these Olympics up until the discus there was no denying that the dual gold medallist from the United Kingdom was the best decathlete of his generation. Three times the great rivals had met in major international championships and each time Daley Thomspon had prevailed. Later Thompson continued to Seoul where he placed a credible fourth, whilst Hingsen suffered the crushing disappointment of being disqualified for false starts in the 100 metres. In some ways this served as the perfect postscript for an epic duel between two great Olympians; one who scaled amazing heights, one who was unable to reach the potential he had displayed away from the cauldron of Olympic decathlon competition.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Song Kee-Chung: Korean To The Core

One of the most dramatic and enduring moment of any Olympic Games opening ceremony is when the Olympic flame is brought into the main stadium during the opening ceremony. There have been occasions when the theatre of the event has perhaps overshadowed the actual bearer, such as when Stein Gruber of Norway brought the 1994 Lillehammer torch down a ski jump, or when Antonio Rebollo used a flaming arrow to assist with the lighting of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic cauldron. On other occasions it has been the celebrity or relative athletic greatness of the final torchbearers who have defined an Olympic opening cermeony, as in the case of Rafer Johnson at Los Anegles in 1984, or Niklos Kaklamankis in Athens 2004. Finally, there are those times when the symbolism of that final torchbearer goes beyond spectacle or sporting greatness; that person or persons symbolizes something specific about the host nation and its culture. Cathy Freeman in Sydney 2000 is a prime example of this. In 1988 the presence of one man in the final deliverance of the Olympic torch brought (to quote David Wallechinsky) "tears to an entire nation...". That country was South Korea, and the torchbearer who evoked such a powerful response from his countrymen and women was Sohn Kee-Chung. 52 years prior to the 76 year old's entrance into Seoul's Olympic stadium this immensely proud Korean had won a gold medal for the marathon whilst competing as a member of the Japanese team. Yet even though he had to wear the occupier's uniform, listen to their national anthem and even have his name changed to echo Japanese norms, Sohn never let the colonial masters of his homeland take away his dignity.

Sohn Kee-Chung was born in Sinŭiju, North P'yŏngan Province in 1912 and during his youth he would run against friends riding bicycles, as well as up and down logging tracks near his home town. When his talent was recognised by the relevant authorities he was then sent to Yangjung High School in Seoul, where many well-credentialled Korean runners were based. Running for Sohn was not just a physical activity, it was a way of showing his Korean-ness. As quoted in "Berlin Games: How Hitler Stole The Olympic Dream" by Guy Walters, Sohn stated:

"The Japanese could stop our musicians from playing our songs. They could stop our singers and silence our speakers. But they could not stop me from running."

After initial success in the 800 metres and 1500 metres Sohn turned to the marathon. Winning his first three races held in Seoul (possibly over a reduced distance), Sohn Kee-Chung was twice national champion by 1935. In April his considerable marathon reputation spread beyond Asia, when it was reported that a 'Japanese' runner had beaten the two and a half hour mark for the distance. In his seven races that year (four in Korea, three in Japan) Sohn cemented his position as a leading exponent of the longest distance run by any Olympic athlete, then made a definitive statement of intent with his marathon run of November 3rd 1935. Completing a course staged in Tokyo Song Kee-Chung crossed the finish line after 2 hours 26 minutes and 42 seconds. This was a new world record. This was almost five minutes faster than that recorded by 1932 Los Angeles marathon gold medallist Juan Carlos Zabala of Argentina. The issue for Sohn going into the Olympic year and the 1936 Berlin Summer Games wasn't his fitness or speed; it was his nationality.

At the first Japanese Olympic trial marathon held on April 18th 1936 Sohn Kee-Chung was running under his Japanese name of Kitei Son, and whilst he laboured under this cultural burden his athletic ability was in no way impaired. Winning in a time of 2.28.32 the Korean beat leading Japanese entrants Shinichi Nakamura and Fusahige Suzuki. Then in a final trial event Sohn came second behind Tamao Shiaku, and these two plus another Korean native, Nam Seung-yong (a.k.a. Shoryu Nan) would form the basis of the Japanese entries into the Berlin marathon.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world's marathon runners were also preparing for the Berlin Games. Two South Africans, Johannes Coleman and Henry Gibson both set sub 2 hour 33 minute times in their national championship. In Britain Donald McNab Robertson and Ernest Harper qualifed for Berlin in July at the AAA Championships with times about 9 minutes slower than Sohn's world record. The Americans had three contenders for Berlin, William McMahon, Mel Porter and John Kelley. However none of these three were close to Sohn's times. Finally the Argentinian Zabala trained extensively in the host city of the 1936 Summer Olympics for several months prior to the games, and in the absence of a leading German competitor established himself as a local favourite. The Berlin marathon promised to be a great race.

The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics opened on Saturday August 1st, and both before and after that date whenever Sohn Kee-Chung met anyone in Berlin he took the opportunity to impress upon officials, journalists and fans alike that he was Korean, not Japanese. He even went to the effort of signing his name in its Korean form, not as Kitei Son. Yet when it came to the day of the marathon, Sunday August 9th he like his compatriot Nam wore the Hi-no-maru or Rising Sun of Japan. Lined up against a field of 56 competitors from 27 countries, Sohn was about to stage a truly unique act of national protest against foreign domination of his homeland.

The Berlin course ran from the Olympiastadion through the Grunewald forest, then back into the main stadium for one last lap before the finishing line was reached. Conditions for the marathoners were good, being dry and sunny with an air temperature of around 22 degrees celsius, and this assisted Zabala as he took off with great speed from the race's beginning. Wearing a white handkerchief on his head the Argentinian set a quick pace with the first 8 kilometres traversed in 26 minutes 18 seconds. Portuguese runner Manuel Dias was in second place, but Sohn and Britain's Harper were also near the front of the race. The lead narrowed at the 15 kilometres mark with Dias only lagging about 100 seconds behind Zabala, with Sohn and Harper closing the gap to be half a minute behind the Portuguese runner.

By the half way mark Dias was caught by the Korean and the Briton, and Zabala's lead was dropping to less than a minute. Then in the style of many an Olympic gold medallist Zabala fought back, lengthening his lead to 90 seconds at the 25 kilometre point. Harper and Sohn were locked together in joint second whilst Ellison 'Tarzan' Brown of the USA surged into fourth. Then came the crucial moment in the 1936 Marathon. At the 28 kilometre mark as Zabala approached the northern end of the neighbouring Avus raceway he tripped, fell and recovered just as Harper and Sohn passed him. Sohn took the lead by the 31 kilometre mark (leading by 16 seconds from Harper), whilst within another kilometre Zabala dropped out. The Korean extended his lead over Harper at every major mark between this point and the stadium. Meanwhile, in the battle for the bronze Sohn's fellow-countryman Nam claimed third position by the 35th kilometre. The order wouldn't change from here until the end of the race. Sohn Kee-Chung racing under the 'official' name of Kitei Son returned to the Berlin stadium in first place, crossing the finish line to win the gold medal. Nam was finishing quickly but Harper claimed silver, even as his one of his shoes filled with blood from a bad foot blister. It was the first marathon gold for an Asian country at the Olympic Games, even though it wasn't actually the one that the winner believed he was truly representing. Mobbed by Japanese journalists Sohn had to endure their claims to his victory on behalf of their nation; this was a bittersweet gold medal victory.

Foreshadowing a far more notorious incident mounted by Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when the time came for the medal presentation the two Korean medallists Sohn and Nam showed their distaste for representing Japan. With the Japanese anthem playing and the Rising Sun climbing up two of the stadium's flag poles Sohn Kee-Chung and Nam Seung-yong bowed their heads in mute protest, with Sohn even obscuring his uniform's Japanese emblem. Following this Sohn made sure to point out to those reporters he was Korean not Japanese, however his Japanese minders made sure that this point didn't get translated. Sohn was even tempted to tell Adolf Hitler his story, yet the Korean demurred at the last moment. It would have been unfathomable for Hitler to understand the Korean's situation, and as Guy Walter's points out the German dictator wouldn't have cared.

There were several intriguing postscripts to Sohn Kee Chung's victory. As a further expression of national pride the Korean newspaper Dong-a-Ilbo reported Sohn's gold accompanied with an edited photo that removed the Japanese flag on his sweatshirt. The colonial Japanese government respnded to this act of defiance by jailing 8 Korean staff members of the newspaper and then suspended its publication for 9 months. Meanwhile Sohn and Harper were brought back to Berlin so that famous German documentary director Leni Riefenstahl could re-film segments of the marathon. This incident may have added to the lustre of the Berlin Olympics official film, but it again insulted a great Korean gold medallist. Sohn retired after these events in 1936, never running for Japanese governed Korea again. However in 1948 he was given the honour of carrying South Korea's flag at the London Olympics. This partially reinforced his position as a Korean patriot on the world stage, but it was back in Seoul more than half a century after his Berlin gold medal that Sohn Kee-Chung was allowed to run in front of his own countrymen at their Olympics. Whilst the IOC never changed its records to show Kitei Son was not who the Japanese represented, but the Korean Sohn Kee-Chung both he and all Koreans knew where his heart and spirit lay.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Bobby Pearce: The Sculler Who Stopped For Ducks

Australia has a remarkable heritage in the sport of rowing, dating back to 1876 when Parramatta quarryman Edward Trickett won the single sculls world championship on the Thames River, Great Britain. The first Australian to achieve this distinction in any sport, Trickett was followed by many others in the years to come. In 1888 Henry Searle repeated Trickett's achievement, whilst another compatriot of Trickett who was an early Australian world sculling champion was William Beach. In the early years of the next century one of the prodigies of Australia rowing was Frederick Septimus Kelly, who as part of the Leander Club's rowing eight helped with a gold medal for the host nation at the 1908 London Olympics. However it took until 1928 and the Amsterdam Summer Olympic Games for an Australian rower to win a gold medal; that Olympian was Bobby Pearce, and his regatta in the Netherlands was marked by one of the most unusual events in Olympic history.

Henry Robert Pearce was born in London in 1905, but was known for most of his life as Bobby Pearce. His father Harry was a much accomplished rower who had twice challenged for the world championship. His grandfather Harry Pearce Senior had sculled against Ed Trickett and had beaten William Beach before Beach went on to win the world championship in 1885. With so much sculling heritage in his family, it was no surprise that at the age of six Bobby first entered a regatta and won an under-16 handicap race. Pearce then went on to win his first open event at the age of 14, and in 1926 he took the Australian single sculls championship title. Growing up in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Double Bay, his immediate rowing future before the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics came under a shadow due to accusations of professionalism. Convincing the New South Wales Amateur Rowing Association that this was a case of mistaken identity (arguing it was one of his brothers who had received payment for race rowing, an insurmountable bar to Olympic competition which was firmly amateur in 1928), Bobby Pearce was confirmed by the then Australian Olympic Federation as Australia's single sculls entrant.

The Amsterdam 1928 rowing regatta was held on the Sloten Canal, and in the single sculls (also known as the skiff) there were fifteen countries represented with fifteen entrants. The format of the competition was an initial round of seven match races, followed by a reclassification/repercharge round, a second round of six matches races and two reclassifications, a third round of four match races, a semi-final and then the gold medal final scull. Bobby Pearce had carried the Australian flag at the front of the Australian team in the Antwerp opening ceremony and this honour was a tribute to his potential results in the upcoming Olympic regatta. The leading rivals for Pearce were the Briton Theodore Collet, the American Kenneth Myers and the local sculler, Dutchman Lambertus Collet.

In the opening round Pearce demonstrated his superiority over his German rival Walter Flinsch, a five-time national champion, reaching the finish of their scull 26 seconds in front of the German. In the Sydney Morning Herald it was reported that Bobby Pearce had actually pulled up and waited for Flinsch to finish. Amongst the other potential medallists Myers had defeated De Kok from South Africa, Collet beat Candeveau of Switzerland and Gunther had narrowly lost to the Canadian Wright. Importantly Pearce had set the quickest time for the distance, winning in 7 minutes 55.75 seconds.

The next round of sculling matches were even more promising for Pearce. Rowing against the Dane oarsman Schwartz Bobby Pearce won with eight lengths to spare, taking almost a full half minute off his previous race time. Gunther had won through his reclasification round and won his race, whilst Myers defeated Collet. It was obvious by now that Bobby Pearce was in gold medal winning form. It was going to take a lot to stop Pearce in his quarter-final race against the French rower Victor Saurin. No one would have expected what did stop the Australian on his way to gold.

As recorded by Harry Gordon in his book "Australia and The Olympic Games", the following story was reported by a Dutch newspaper and had many and varied retellings. However Pearce himself gave only one recorded version of the incident that occurred in his scull against Savrin, in an interview given to sports historian Henry Roxborough in 1976, just after Pearce's death;

"I had beaten a German and a Dane in earlier heats and I was racing a Frenchman when I heard wild roars from the crowd along the bank of the canal. I could see some spectators vigorously pointing to something behind me, in my path. I peeked over one shoulder and saw something I didn't like, for a family of ducks in single file was swimming slowly from shore to shore. It's funny now, but it wasn't at the time for I had to lean on my oars and wait for a clear course, and all the while my opponenet was pulling away to a five length lead."

With an effort that would have been considered impossible from any of his competitors, and even today is hard to believe Pearce chased Savrin after stopping for the duck and its ducklings, caught up with the Frenchmen and then by the time the race was over Pearce had finished almost 30 seconds in front of his challenger. In fact Bobby Pearce's time even with the stop included was the fastest of the remaining eight scullers in that round. Not even swimming ducks could halt Bobby Pearce.

In the semi-final Pearce came up against the Briton Collet, and won through to the gold medal race by four lengths. The American Myers was unbeaten like Pearce, but his fastest time for the course was still a good 12 or so second behind the Australian's best. The final race, held on smooth water in the Sloten Canal on 15th October 1928 ended as it was expected. Pearce took the gold (in a time of 7 minutes 11 seconds, a record that would remain for the Olympic single sculls until Munich 1972) and was thus the greatest single oarsman at the 1928 Olympics. He was the first Australian rower to win a gold medal at the Olympics, then four years later he was the first Australian to successfully defend an Olympic title when he took gold at the 1932 Los Angeles regatta. Arguably the greatest pre-World War Two Australian Olympian, Bobby Pearce will always be remembered as the man who stopped rowing for ducks at the Olympic Games.


Friday, August 8, 2008

Emil Zatopek: The Czech Locomotive in Helsinki

At the Opening Ceremony of the 1952 Summer Olympics the Olympic torch was brought into the Helsinki Olympiastadion by legendary Finnish long distance runner Paavo Nurmi, with his fellow legendary athletic compatriot Hannes Kolehmainen actually igniting the main cauldron. Each one of these so-called "Flying Finns" had excelled in distances ranging from the 5,000 metres through to the marathon. Therefore it was poetic justice in Helsinki that one of the most iconic performances in Olympic history was that given by the Czech long-distance runner Emil Zatopek. Zatopek entered these games with one gold medal; at the end of them he added three more plus perhaps more importantly showed the spirit and honour of a truly Olympic champion.

Emil Zatopek was born in Kopřivnice, Czechoslovakia on September 19, 1922 and didn't start running competitively until the age of 19, when he (reluctantly) ran in a race sponsored by the shoe factory in which he worked. His second place encouraged him and a local athletics club to make further efforts in developing his running, and by 1943 he held the Czech 1500 metres record. By the age of 22 he had broken the Czech national records for the 2000 metres, 3000 metres and 5000 metres and then at the end of World War Two he was drafted into the army where he was given the opportunity to concentrate on his running. With no coach he developed his own system of interval training, influenced by the great Paavo Nurmi and the Swede Arne Andersson. Running alone in every weather type, on athletic tracks or cross country he went to the 1948 Olympics as an entrant in the 5000 metres and 10,000 metres. He ended the first Olympics after the Second World War with a gold in the 10,000 metres and a silver in the 5000 metres, winning fame and respect for his efforts. It was in Wembley Stadium at the 1948 London Olympics that the world first heard an Olympic crowd chant 'Zat-o-pek, Zat-o-pek!" as the anguished face of the Czech runner circled round the athletics track.

Whilst the medals he won in 1948 were brilliant achievements for the Czech lieutenant, it was four years later when Zatopek emerged from mere greatness into Olympic legend status. Between the London and Helsinki Olympics Zatopek won 38 10,000 metres races plus every 5000 metres event he entered. In 1951 after a delayed start to his season due to a skiing accident he broke the world record in the one hour event, breaking the 20 kilometre barrier. He held the world record over 10,000 metres (29 minutes 2.6 seconds) and was undoubtedly the favourite for Helsinki in this distance. On a personal note he had also married Czech javelin thrower Dana Ingrová after the 1948 Summer Olympics, and both Zatopeks were going to Helsinki hoping to bring back gold for Czechoslavakia.

The first event for Zatopek in Helsinki was the 10,000 metres. Held on the first day of the athletics program there were 33 competitors from 21 countries. Zatopek was the world record holder and favourite, however Gordon Pirie (GBR), Aleksandr Anufriev (URS) and the so-called "Zatopek's Sahdow' Alain Mimoun (FRA) were credible opponents. Aamzingly the night before the gold medal race an Australian journalist entered Zatopek's room around midnight; instead of being hustled out by a reasonably angry Zatopek, the Czech champion calmly and with great dignity was interviewed by the journalist for twenty minutes. When Zatopek discovered the reporter had no bed for the night he offered to share his room with the Australian. The next day after one lap the Australian Les Parry had the lead in the 10,000 metres, but this evaporated when the Soviet Anufriev took over. If Zatopek was wearied by the previous night's activities he failed to show it. With 2000 metres completed Zatopek too the lead and was never headed. Mimoun stayed true to his nickname and up until the 8000 metres mark was running a strong second. Yet Zatopek surged away at that point, completing the last five laps well in front and raced to cross the finish line first. The gap between him and Mimoun the silver medallist was over 15 seconds or about 90 metres, with Anufriev third. Zatopek had won his second gold medal in his career and successfully defended his 10,000 metres title from London. It was also the first in his Helsinki saga which made Emil Zatopek a legend.

When asked if he would compete in the 5000 metres Zatopek replied "The marathon contest won't be for a long time yet, so I must simply do something until then." This self-deprecating reply and his behaviour in his heat of the 5000 metres belied his ability and desire to win the event he had come second in four years earlier. Two days after his 10,000 metres gold Zatopek lined up for his qualifying heat relaxed and keeping in mind the first five from each of the three heats would progress on the next day's final. Chatting with his competitors as he ran Zatopek finished in third with Anufriev winning the heat. Zatopek demonstrated his immense personal friendliness after the race bu presenting the fourth place runner Les Perry his training suit.

Going into the final on July 24th 1952 Zatopek was again to race Mimoun, Anufriev, Pirie and Perry from the 10,000 metres, plus fancied German runner Herbert Schade and Pirie's compatriot Chris Chataway. Zatopek tried to advise Schadeon the starting line how the German could approach the final, however Schade failed to appreciate this help to his later regret. With about a lap and a half to go a group of six runners were poised for the final surge. Zatopek, Pirie, Chataway, Mimoun, Schade and the 1948 gold medallist, Belgian Gaston Reiff. Reiff dropped out, unexpectedly leaving the track. Then Pirie fell behind, and as the bell lap began the red shirted figure of Zatopek was in front of his three main rivals.

His face contorted in rictures of agony (later saying "I was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time.") Zatopek surprisingly lost the lead in the back straight. With 300 metres to go and the crowd yelling "Zat-o-pek!" the Czech runner was in fourth and now out of the medals. Then coming into the final curve Zatopek surged, showing his unique ability to time his pace at the most effective time. Passing Mimoun, Schade and Chataway Zatopek hit the lead. Chataway clipped the concrete bordering the inner track and tripped, effectively ending his race. Meanwhile Mimoun and Schade faded, and as the finish line came closer it was Zatopek first and the Frenchman and German fighting for the minor medals. Mimoun was running the race of his life but his nickname of 'Zatopek's Shadow' struck again; the gold went to the Czech now-triple gold medallist and Mimoun took his third silver behind Zatopek. Schade took bronze and Pirie passed his British team mate Chataway to come fourth. Zatopek had won a remarkable long distance double at the Summer Olympics; the last time anyone had won both the 5000 metres and 10,000 metres golds at the same games was at Stockholm in 1912, when Helsinki cauldron-lighter Hannes Kolehmainen had taken the golds in the two longest track races.

Later that same day Dana Zatopek won the gold medal in the women's javelin. It was a golden day for Czechoslavakia and the Zatopeks and when Emil was asked if he would try to win the marathon he replied:

"At present the score of the contest in the Zatopek family is 2-1. This result is too close. To restore some prestige I will try to improve on it - in the marathon race."

That chance came three days after the 5000 metres final. Zatopek had never run a competitive marathon before, and the favourite was British runner Jim Peters. Peters paradoxically owed his status in the marathon after taking to the event when he was beaten by Zatopek in the 1948 London final of the 10,000 metres. With a recent time of 2 hours 20 minutes and 42 seconds the British runner had established a time about five minutes better than all his prospective competitors in Helsinki. This included the marathon virgin, Emil Zatopek.

At the start Zatopek sought out Jim Peters, looking to the favourite to help him pace the longest event for male athletes at the Helsinki Olympics. Looking for Peter's number (187) the Czech marathon debutant found the British world record holder and asked "Hello are you Peters?" Jim Peters said yes and Zatopek then said "I am Emil Zatopek from Czechoslovakia, I am very pleased to see you." The fastest man over the marathon distance and the man who had already won two gold medals in Helsinki then set themselves for the climax of their relative Olympic careers.

From the beginning Peters set a fast pace, with the first five kilometres completed in 15 minutes 43 seconds, then the 10 kilometre mark was passed in 31 minutes 55 seconds. Zatopek and Swedish runner Gustaf Janssen challenged Peters after the 15 kilometre mark and it was then Zatopek asked Peters "Jim, the pace. Is it good enough?" Peters replied "Pace too slow", even though he was feeling the effects of his efforts so far. Zatopek considered this reply and then said "You say too slow. Are you sure the pace is too slow?" Peters again said yes, at which point Zatopek shrugged his shoulders, before making his move. Then Zatopek made his move nearing the 20 kilometres. Jansson followed with Peters falling behind, so that with roughly half the race marathon to go Zatopek and the Swede were equal first (1.04.27) and Peters third (1.04.37). Jansson took a slice of lemon at a feed station and Zatopek noted this, thinking that as the Swede was running well when the Czech came to the next feed station Zatopek would take two lemons. Meanwhile Peters was fading fast, and at the turn for the last half of the marathon Zatopek grabbed the lead, without taking any lemons to suck. Jansson faded as well and by the 35 kilometre point he was over a minute behind Zatopek. Peters had collapsed exhausted after 32 kilometres, so he was no longer a threat. The Argentinian Reinaldo Gorno improved his position from fourth after 30 kilometres so that by 40 kilometres he was second behind Zatopek, with Jansson third. The incredible strength and ability of Emil Zatopek was about to bring him the amazing troika of gold medals at the one Olympics; 5000 metres, 10,000 metres and the marathon.

The Helsinki Olympiastadion rang once last time with the chant 'Zat-o-pek! Zat-o-pek!' as their hero ran the last lap of the marathon. The gap between gold and silver ended up to be over two and a half minutes, with Zatopek crossing the line in 2 hours 23 minutes and 3.2 seconds. The Jamaican 4x100 metres realy team hoisted Zatopek on their shoulders chairing him around as the ecstatic crowd gave him a standing ovation. Then as Gorno crossed for his silver medal Zatopek came over to the Argentinian, greeting him with a slice of orange, with Jansson collecting the bronze. After his victory Zatopek said:

"I was unable to walk for a whole week after that (the marathon), so much did the race take out of me. But it was the most pleasant exhaustion I have ever known."

So it was when the Helsinki Olympics finished the most renowned athlete from any nation was the Czech Emil Zatopek, increasing his career Olympic medal tally to 4 golds and one silver. Greatly loved by his competitors as well, the quality of Zatopek not just as an Olympian but as a man was shown not just by his victories in Helsinki, but also by the way he went about securing them. Finally, with one last generous act Emil Zatopek soared further into the stratosphere of Olympic legends. In 1968 Australian 10,000 metre world record holder Ron Clarke met with Zatopek after the Mexico City Olympics. On the point of leaving Prague after his visit, Clarke was walked through customs by Zatopek. Shaking hands in a final farewell Zatopek passed a small package to the Australian, which Clarke took unopened onto his flight. Worried that he was carried some smuggled information from Zatopek (who signed the manifesto supporting the so-called "Prague Spring" of 1968), Clarke only opened his package when the flight was well outside Czechoslovakian airspace. Inside was Zatopek's 10,000 metres gold medal from Helsinki. With this act of true sporting friendship Emil Zatopek's words to Ron Clarke as he had got on the plane made sense to the Australian; "Because you deserved it". If anyone can be said to have received the gift of Olympic greatness, then it must be Emil Zatopek. Because he too deserves it.


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