domingo, 25 de diciembre de 2011

Henry Rono's Sixth World Record

Henry Rono set world records in 4 different events in 81 days, back in 1978
Photo: George Herringshaw  
          Who is the best long distance runner in history? When the question is raised most track and field followers usually point to classic Ethiopian names as Abebe Bikila, Haile Gebrselassie or Kenenisa Bekele. Also double Olympic champion in Moscow Miruts Yifter should not be discounted; neither should the most prestigious Kenyan runner ever, Kip Keino. Some like to dip deeper in time to remember the overwhelming dominance of the “flying” Finns for decades since the old days of Hannes Kolemainen and Paavo Nurmi to the great champion of the 1970s Lasse Viren. All of the runners cited above had a long and fruitful career, winning several Olympic gold medals and setting uncountable records but there have also been others as talented as them, who for one reason or another could not fulfil the expectations their potential had arisen. The foremost example is Kenyan Henry Rono, an athlete who went from multiple record holder to alcoholism and homelessness, but whose eventual redemption can serve as inspirational lesson for everybody.  

Henry was born in Kaptaragon, at the Nandi district the 12th February 1952. As he was 7, his father died in an accident, while driving a tractor. Then he moved with her grandmother and had to tend cattle so he joined a classroom later than usual and could not graduate from high school until he was 22. The sports he practised at the time where soccer and volleyball. Yet one day in 1971 he heard Kipchoge Keino was coming to run to a nearby place. Despite he was living just three miles away, Rono had never seen the renowned star and thus went to the meeting. After the magnificent impression he received from watching the Olympic champion, Henry Rono decided to become a world class athlete like him. The Kaptaragon youngster started training on his own without any coach, building up his running endurance patiently. (1) His steady progression came to the attention of the national team officials. He was selected to compete at the steeplechase in Montreal but the African boycott cut for the first time Rono’s Olympic dream.
That year he was conceded a scholarship in the United States and in the fall took a flight to study Industrial Psychology at Washington State University, a privileged destination for Kenyan athletes until our days, including double world champion Bernard Lagat. Back in 1976, Coach John Chaplin counted with Rono, Samson Kimobwa, Joshua Kimeto and Joel Cheruiyot. That is to say arguably the strongest line-up of distance runners in NCAA history. Chaplin would allow them to train on their own rhythm. (1) In his words, after a 4 months phase of building-up, Rono was doing about 90 miles a week, with brisk roadwork in the early mornings and intervals on selected afternoons. The athlete used to listen to his own body, deciding when the right moment to push was and which days it was better to go slower, in a typical Kenyan way, heir of Velzian and Lydiard. The ephemeral Kimobwa set a new 10.000 world record in 1977, which Rono would improve the following year. The latter would collect six NCAA titles, including three in Cross country, two at the 3000m steeplechase and another one at the 2 miles indoors. His performance at the steeplechase in 1978 is still a championship record.
1978, his sophomore year, was the stellar one of Henry Rono. During the spring, in a span of 81 days, he would successfully culminate his ferocious assault to four world records at the 5000m in Berkeley, California (13:08.4), 3000m steeplechase in Seattle (8:05.4), 10.000m in Vienna (27:22.4) and 3000m flat in Oslo (7:32.1); an unprecedented feat in track and field and never surpassed afterwards. Besides, all of them were accomplished without pacemakers and without any challenging rival. Rono would bite several seconds to the previous best in every race, up to eight at the 10.000m. In spite the huge progression in distance events in the last two decades, thanks to the likes of Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat, Daniel Komen and Kenenisa Bekele, Rono’s marks still look more than respectable today. Especially, the 8:05.4 at the steeplechase stood for 11 years and is still beyond the capabilities of all but a couple of chosen ones. In 1978 Henry Rono won no less than 31 consecutive races outdoor, and his streak was only put an end in the last stages of a very long campaign in September, by future Olympic champions Bronislaw Malinowski and Steve Ovett. (2) That year the Kenyan athlete also shone at the Commonwealth Games, winning gold medals at the 3000m steeplechase and 5000m, and at the All-Africa Games, where he grabbed two more titles, again at the steeplechase and at the 10.000m.
Not quite at the same marvellous form, Rono still kept a good level during the four next seasons, achieving a last world record in 1981, improving his 5000m timing further to 13:06.20. The Nandi runner talked about his confidence in dipping under 8 minutes at the steeplechase, under 13 at the 5000m and under 27 at the 10.000m. (3) He was the first athlete in setting such ambitious targets. For sure he was gifted enough for this and more. It is worthy to consider, even in his magical season he states he was just 85% fit, and always had to dedicate plenty of time to his academic duties. Therefore he still had a lot of room to improve. However reality was much harsher: he was denied again his participation at the Olympic Games, because of a new boycott, and soon came his tragic fall.     

Henry Rono in 1978, his groundbreaking year
Photo: George Herringshaw  
Henry Rono was unable to handle his ascent from ashes to riches as it was also the case of Daniel Komen, another Kenyan track and field shooting star, some 20 years later. In Rono’s time, there were not as many world class athletes from the Rift Valley as nowadays. Actually, he was one of the African pioneers in going to live to the Western world, along with Mike Boit, Ben Jipcho or Mike Musyoki and he would be described as “a fish out of the water”, struggling to find his way. (4) In every interview of the time, Rono would complain about a negative attitude, full of prejudices, from too many people in his host country. Some  US born citizens were amazed of his intention to return to a land they believed with no food and no jobs: "Lot of Americans, if you say you like it here, they think you do not like it at home. Who does not like home? If I tell you that you have a fine house, does it mean I live in a poor one?" (1) Contemporary athletes as Bernard Lagat, Sally Kipyego, Sam Chelanga or Lawi Lalang are warmly welcomed and integrated without any trouble to their College and US life in general. Yet, Henry Rono and his compatriots were accused back then of just coming to take advantage of the NCAA system, stealing scholarships which should have been for national students. Nevertheless, African runners also contributed to improve the level of the local athletes they were competing with, as Alberto Salazar or Rudy Chapa, who was quoted recognising how much he had learned from Kenyan tactics. (1) Race was in the centre of the controversy and Rono even denounced to have received death threats. (3) He was astonished of that rarefied atmosphere, so different to what he had known in Kenya, and also about the way kids were instilled prejudices by their parents in America.

Henry Rono felt as “a fish out of the water” and also as “a fish swimming among the sharks”. (5) In 1981 he wanted just concentrate in getting his degree but people around was pressuring him to make him race in as many places as possible. It was about the time another athlete, with great personality, Edwin Moses, would deceive all expectations not competing in one year, to fully focus in his studies in Physics, then would found Utopia Track Club with just two members: he and his friend and then roommate Henry Rono. (6) Unfortunately, the Kenyan was not as wise to deal with that interested world of corrupted coaches and unscrupulous agents and promoters. He felt they never thought of him as a person, about what he really wanted. Instead, he was treated just like a moneymaking-machine. (3) He took personal all those things and was affected in a way he lost altogether his balance, embracing a bottle as a solution. Famously, Rono had been drinking all the previous night, before achieving his last world record in 1981. So immense was his talent. In the following years the Kenyan champion would often appear in a pitiful condition at the meetings or would not appear at all. Among pizzas, quiches, beer and whisky, with his weight almost doubled up and a deteriorated wealth, soon it was impossible to keep competing.   
Despite his six figure contract with Nike, all the money was quickly gone, siphoned by Athletics Kenya, European agents, meeting directors and by his own addiction and failed investment in real-estate. Thereafter, the living ghost of the old champion went from friends’ houses to rehabilitation clinics in different towns all across the country, when he was not arrested for driving drunk. Eventually he would temporarily join a homeless shelter at Washington D.C. and Salt Lake City.  Puma had rescued John Akii-Bua from a refugee camp, but Rono was denied help by their track and field partner Nike, as he went to their base in Beaverton, Oregon in 1995, asking for a job cleaning floors. Nor much luckier was his visit to the Kenyan consulate, which refused to assist him telling the former athlete “he was a disgrace for his own nation.” (7) Any job should fit him and he was spotted in Portland parking cars and washing windscreens, then in Alburquerque carrying luggage at the airport. In the latter destination, on occasion of having helped survivors from a van crash, his photo appeared on the local newspaper, with a simple epigraph: “Henry Rono, skycap.” (8) The whole world had forgotten him.    

Nonetheless, Henry Rono never quit in a race and in the turn of the century his struggles had brought him to a newly recovered life, no more a victim of the alcohol. He has started running again, losing many of his 220 pounds. Now in his fifties, Rono is competing in races in the Masters category, hoping to improve the mile best and set his sixth world record, a very long way from the fifth one. Besides he was admitted as a coach, and also as a special education teacher in an Alburquerque high school. Guiding athletes, the Kenyan is highly appreciated by his trainees: “He seems to understand the little things the body goes through, what the body needs. I think that must come from the fact he was not in shape all the time during his career. Being in shape or out of shape, he had to figure a way to get back.” On the other hand, Rono is also admired as a person: “He is really selfless. He gives us a lot of personal attention and he is very optimistic, the most optimistic person I have been around.” (5) Recently, Rono had accepted a job to train in Yemen but was back again in Alburquerque, escaping the unsettled situation of the Arabic country. He has also published his autobiography, entitled “Olympic Dream.” Henry Rono hopes the account of his troubled life and final redemption, overcoming 20 years of alcoholism and homelessness, will be an inspiration for people also experiencing tough times. Now the old champion can feel proud of his ultimate triumph, beginning to see the light after so long in the interior of the darkest tunnel. It has been his most remarkable record.

Henry Rono, joining forces with the new generation of track and field
Photo: Henry Rono

             "I learned my mind was too small and weak. I was not able to handle or channel the energy in the proper place. I learned how you abuse yourself when you are successful. You think you can handle all that happens because you are a champion and champions handle things. I used to win races when I was drinking. Who is (to tell) me I am an alcoholic? ... My first profession is sports. My second is teaching. My ability, my talent of running is something I want to maximize while I am still at the age I can. I want to use it the right way this time around. Before, I do not think I used it properly because my life was mixed up, with my lifestyle in college, with alcohol, with struggling in the American culture. I understand it all better now." (9)             


viernes, 18 de noviembre de 2011

Remembering John Akii-Bua

"I remember my father bringing home sweets. There weren't enough for everyone. He set up competitions, races over different distances. We ran in groups the same age. I don't think I ever won. I had to beg sweets from my brothers.
John Akii-Bua, talking about his childhood for Sports Illustrated (5)

John Akii-Bua celebrates his victory at the 1972 Munich Olympic Gamesásico.
         John Akii-Bua’s achievements were and still are a milestone in African history of track and field. He won the only Olympic gold medal for Uganda ever in the sport, in Munich 1972, and the only one the black continent has achieved in a single event shorter than the 800 metres. He was the first man who dipped under 48 seconds at the 400 meter hurdles distance at that classic Olympic final, becoming a reference and inspiration for every African or Afro-American athlete to follow, starting by the greatest, the invincible Edwin Moses, and including the current record holder in the continent, Zambian Samuel Matete. He was also the inventor of the now-indispensable lap of honour and an unusual performer, with an unorthodox approaching to the speciality. He was finally a man with a personal life often touched by tragedy, as a result of the convulse situation of his country at the time.  
           Akii-Bua was born in December 1949 in Moroto, at the Lango region, from a semi-nomadic family. His father was a prosperous chief, owner of 120-herd of cattle and married to 9 women, who gave him 43 sons and daughters.  Yet when the father died their descendants could not keep the same fortunate life.  John immediately left school, as he was 16, to bear farmer duties as milking and ploughing, then worked as a cashier in a relative's business and ended up going to the capital Kampala, where he enrolled the police.  His future coach Malcolm Arnold remembered him the first time they met as someone who struggled for one meal a day and lived in a hovel. (2) Even when Akii-Bua started a promising athletics career and was offered scholarships in the USA he turned them down because he had to help his younger brothers. Notwithstanding, despite never going to college, he is often described by their interlocutors as a smart and refined man with exquisite manners. (3)
           In the police, John was introduced to the practice of the sport. Because of his outstanding stretching flexibility, he was oriented to the high hurdles, where he had the chance of receiving instructions from the foremost 400 meter hurdles Ugandan specialist Jorem Ochana. He used to bang his knees, ankles and even his head in the effort of catching the right technique. At that time he was also practising with success other events as sprints, javelin and even beat the Ugandan record in the decathlon. His sportive exploits in the police gained quickly Akii-Bua a place in the national team, where he was to be trained by the young Malcolm Arnold, along with George Odoke.  Arnold, a PE teacher in a Bristol secondary school and part time athletics coach, had accepted an offer in 1968 to take in charge the national Ugandan team.  In Africa, he would collect the first medals of a long and highly successful career, in which he has coached among others Colin Jackson, Mark McKoy and Linford Christie. Yet Akii-Bua stands as the indisputable number one of all of his illustrious trainees: “he had everything: enormous talent, a huge commitment and capacity for work, and a very astute mind”. (2)
Soon Arnold swapped Bua to the intermediate hurdles, which was proved his best event as at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh he finished fourth in the final, despite his lack of experience and having sustained a hernia. (4) After running in 49.7 on a grass track in Kampala, Akii-Bua was invited, along with famous Kenyan William Koskei, for the match Africa versus USA, to be held in Durham, North Carolina in July 1971, which also included stars as Kip Keino, Ben Jipcho or Miruts Yifter. The Ugandan hurdler, introduced himself to the athletic world by winning the race in 49.0,  which was a new Area record and the best mark of the year. After achieving other victories at international meetings, John Akii-Bua arrived confident to Munich Olympic Games. Yet, he was not favoured to win in an event which was thought too technical and scientific for a black African. This honour belonged to defending champion David Hemery from Great Britain and new star Ralph Mann from the United States. Hemery’s 48.1 world record from Mexico Olympics, obtained at the same special conditions than Jim Hines’ at the 100 metres or Lee Evans’ at the 400, was just out of question at the Munich low altitude venue. However, Akii-Bua was thinking differently. The Ugandan hurdler crossed the line first in his heat and also in his semi-final, which included both the Briton and the American.  


  The night previous to the decisive race Bua could not sleep, haunted by images of a Hemery’s glorious victory. The Ugandan, who was wearing a worn out pair of Puma trainers, in which a spike was missing, was assigned lane 1, the worst of all, while his archrivals where running in the centre of the track. Yet he was determined to prove his country could have as good champions as any other. Even after hitting hurdle six, Akii-Bua did not lose his timing: he overcame Hemery at the eight obstacle and resisted his last charge at the homestretch, winning easily in a demonstration of power, stopping the clock in a marvellous 47.82.  Mann won the silver six metres behind and Hemery the bronze. Only another athlete has been able of winning an Olympic final from lane one: Angelo Taylor in Sidney. After his victory, came the arguably most emotive moment of that sad Games, most remembered for those tragic terrorist attacks: Akii-Bua, who had been dancing and waving to friends in the minutes previous to the final, while his rivals were tense and staring blanky (5), showed again his amazing personality by making what it would later be known as the lap of honour: Bua did not stop as he crossed  the finish line and hardly slowed, keeping jumping barriers towards the backstretch, under the cheers of the crowd. An official came to bring the champion to the required doping test but he eluded him and started leaping imaginary hurdles, still full of energy, while his rivals where on the ground trying to recover from the effort. He stated he felt ready to start the race all over again.  
Much has been written about the gruelling training regime John Akii-Bua had endured to accomplish this devastating performance and about his strange technique over the barriers. (3) (5) Uganda could not offer to his athlete the optimal facilities required for his workouts but they happened to have Malcolm Arnold, one of the best hurdles coach in history, and an ingenious and highly motivated pupil. Arnold and Odoke, influenced like most of the coaches of their generation by Arthur Lydiard, set a workout program based in conditioning and  periodization, which Akii-Bua adopted in the hardest imaginable fashion.  
The government had contributed with $150 so the athlete could move to Kabale, where the hills are very steep. In January, Bua started with a preliminary phase of long Cross Country sessions at moderate pace in order to acquire a strong endurance base. Two months afterwards he devoted his workouts to hill resistance: twice a day he used to run up to a 600 meter-hill six times, with little rest, wearing a 10-12 kg vest. By then he had also entered the track, first without caring about times, just emphasizing in the right position of head, arms and body. In April, clock and barriers had been included. John would spread over the track five hurdles, much higher than they are in the races, and would complete 1500 metres four times, always with his heavy coat on.  By May the Ugandan started working the speed, with repetitions of shorter distances as 200 or 300 metres, with and without hurdles. Eventually, he went to Munich, one month in advance in order to complete this last phase of training. John Velzian, the godfather of Kenyan athletics, would simply qualify Akii-Bua’s ferocious preparation for the Olympics as “madness”. Yet he reacted in awe after watching his wonderful performance at the Games.  
 While most of intermediate hurdles jump over the barriers using as leading leg their left one, John Akii Bua was an ambidextrous athlete, who alternated both lower extremities with this purpose. Outsiders considered that jumping technique as being disadvantageous for the Ugandan, because when he led with his right he tended to be thrown a little bit to the inside lane while landing and he finished doing about 10 metres more than his rivals. Some just say he could win, in spite of his technical lacks, thanks to  be trained as a distance runner, (6) the same way Kerron Clement's superior speed makes up for his troubles with the barriers.  However, Bua stated this alternation helped to keep the timing in case of hitting a hurdle, when the left was used as emergency leg. (3) Amazingly, Asian Games champion Ashwini Akkunji, before being suspended, stated she wanted to adopt Akii-Bua’s technique in order to balance the effort between both sides of the body and thus finish the race less tired. The Ugandan, because of his natural muscle-shaped body did not work much in the gym, but the uphill workouts and the vest, which he used to wear for one of his two daily sessions the whole time, helped him building up his stunning leg strength. He also had specific exercises for his left leg, the weakest one, as tiding it up to his head, adopting the barrier-attack position.  
    Akii-Bua was also famously quoted as approaching the event almost instinctively, deciding on the way to take either 13 or 14 strides between two hurdles. (7) However, years afterwards of his Olympic victory, as he was asked about the subject, he stated his timing had been planned since January and was not casual in any way: it was easy to check in every one of his three races in Munich he had used 13 steps for the first five hurdles, 14 for the sixth and 15 for the last four. He also remembered he had needed several weeks of training for adapting to the change after the fifth barrier. (3)     
John Akii-Bua showing all his power over the hurdles
          John Akii-Bua, despite not competing much in the previous seasons, had sharpened his form in order to defend his Olympic title in 1976 in Montreal. However, the African boycott ruined what could had been the clash of the century, against a young Edwin Moses, who ran the distance in 47.63, beating the Ugandan’s world record with his flowing strides, which allowed him to run the whole race taking 13 steps among hurdles. Soon after this, Akii-Bua began a dramatic descent into hell, related to the fall of General Idi Amin in 1979.
            John Akii-Bua belonged to the same Lango ethnic group than the overthrown president Milton Obote.  300.000 Ugandan, mainly Langi and Acholi, were killed in 8 years by Idi Amin’s soldiers in one of the worse genocides of the 20th Century.  Kenny Moore, the fourth placer at the marathon at that same Munich Olympic Games, went to Uganda in 1972, risking his life, to make for Sports Illustrated the most emblematic interview ever to Akii-Bua (5). Moore witnessed brilliantly in his article those sullen years in the African country: the massive deportation of Asian citizens, the continuous roadblocks, the tense situation in the Tanzanian border with soldiers everywhere… However, Amin, a famous boxer himself, welcomed as a hero the Langi Olympic champion. Akii-Bua was promoted in the police institution, was offered a house and a car and a street was named after him. Bua was blamed for closing his eyes for years to that bloodthirsty regime, which had even murdered some of his brothers. This dictatorship he would later describe as “Africa’s most unspeakable atrocity.” (2) In fact, Amin would not dare to kill such popular personality but would restrict his freedom in the following years: Bua was occasionally under arrest; her wife and children had to stay in the country when he was competing at international meetings, fearing he would defect; he was not allowed for training trips to Germany. It reached a point where all he could do was “staying at home listening to Diana Ross records.” (8)       
          As Tanzanian troops with the addition of Ugandan dissidents entered Kampala in 1979, overthrowing Idi Amin government, Akii-Bua fled to Kenya with his pregnant wife and three children, fearing for his life. Because of the stress, the baby was born prematurely and died. Bua had no money to afford the burial. He ended up in a refugee camp, where he was recognised for an international reporter, who filmed him. After seeing the footage, the West German embassy and Puma shoes company could rescue the former Olympic champion. Akii-Bua and his family flied to Germany, where he was offered a job at Puma's marketing department. (2) In 1983, He returned to the democratic Uganda, becoming a coach in the police and the national team. Still he competed at 1980 and 1984 Olympics, but was not anymore in his prime. John Akii-Bua died in relative poverty in 1997 in Mulago Hospital in Kampala, suffering from abdominal pains, probably ocasioned by cirrhosis disease.
 11 years afterwards a documentary about his life and athletic career called “The John Akii-Bua story: an African tragedy” was released by the BBC, under Dan Gordon's direction. (1) (2) The film is mainly based in 12 handwritten autobiographical pieces of paper which Akii-Bua handed to former coach Malcolm Arnold in the eightees. It features the same Arnold, Kriss Akabussi and Edwin Moses. The film will be soon premiered in Uganda and maybe it will help vindicate in his home country this awesome hurdler who, as for now, is a long forgotten hero. (9)  
John Akii-Bua kisses his Olympic gold medal

domingo, 6 de noviembre de 2011

New York Marathon without Grete Waitz

Grete Waitz crosses the finish line at the 1992 New York marathon in company of race director Fred Lebow
Photo: AFP/ Scanpix
                She was the first female distance runner I ever knew. It was at the 1981 World Cross Country Championships, held in Madrid, which witnessed the historical debut of Ethiopian and Kenyan squads in the contest. Grete Waitz was labelled by the TV commentator as the sure winner of the race, an athlete in a superior level, untouchable at the distance. Indeed she displayed a masterful demonstration of running, a supreme long ride on her own, to romp home unopposed and grab her fourth consecutive Cross Country title. All over the race her looks were characteristically stern and impassive.  She really seemed to come from a distant planet of ice.  Yet as we knew her better with the years she would prove a specially warm and kindhearted human being. 
               Grete Waitz’s tough running personality had been moulded during her winter workouts at the wild Norwegian lands. While most athletes just abandoned training as the snow started to cover the fields, leaving on their own the practitioners of cross-country skiing, Grete enjoyed challenging the wind and the rain. She would instead take holidays as the days would become sunny and warm; too easy for her. Being a full time teacher in a secondary school, she would need to wake up for her runs at 5 o’clock, long before the Northern dawn. Then, during the day, she would attend her courses in PE, Norwegian and English and as the light had again failed she would be picked by her accountant husband Jack for her evening training. This one would consist in repeated charges to steep snow-swept hills, seeing no more than a stride or two ahead, her breath snapping in the 10-below zero air. (1) Jack Nilsen was always a really supportive partner, giving company Grete in her hard workouts in the country and discussing with her programs and tactics.  
            Grete Waitz had been the heir of a fecund tradition of distance running at the rigorous Scandinavian lands, mainly in Finland and Sweden, from Paavo Nurmi to Lasse Viren. She had also continued the tradition of strong and independent women in the region, which dated back from the time the Vikings used to be all the time out, sailing the seas in search of new territories, leaving their wives in charge of house, land and servants. Scandinavian women were the first in the world who got voting rights and also pioneered in the 1960s the combat for equality between men and women and the sexual revolution. Grete was a private person, looking for quiet after a noisy day with children at school but at the same time was determined and independent as we see for example as she did not want to accept monetary help from the national federation, in order to keep her individuality and freedom.

Grete Waitz in her younger athletic years
             Women athletes were also struggling to be accepted in track and field competitions at the same level than their male counterparts. At 1972 Munich Olympics, when Grete competed for the first time at the Games as she was 18 years old, only 14 female events were contested, against 24 in the men’s side. Especially women who excelled in long distances were clearly discriminated, being the longest held event the 1500 metres. Delicate girls were not supposed to be able of enduring too many miles and were not accepted either in classic marathons. Doris Brown Heritage, who was a five time World Cross Country champion as Grete, between 1967 and 1971, was one of many women whose talent was wasted: she was forced to run the 800 metres distance at Mexico Olympics, when she was a potential marathon runner. It is also worth mentioning the amazing story of American pioneer Kathrine Switzer, who challenged the all-male tradition in 1967 Boston marathon, getting a number entry, after misleading the organisers by registering with her initials (K. V. Switzer). Boston official Jock Semple tried to remove her form the race physically, but the competitors helped Switzer out so she could reach the finish line. Eventually she was suspended by her national athletics federation, after being found guilty of up to four different infractions. (2)

Some of the female entries at the 1972 Boston marathon, the first time women were allowed in the race
            Grete Waitz, who had entered athletics, inspired by neighbour javelin phenomenon Terje Pedersen, had started with the sprints but quickly moved to longer distances, feeling she was growing stronger but not faster. By the time she was in her twenties the longest Olympic available events did not suffice her anymore. She achieved a bronze medal at the 1500 metres at the 1974 European Championships and another one at the 3000 specialty four years later, noting she had endurance but lacked a kick which could match the ones of stars Lyudmila Bragina, Gunhild Hoffmeister, Tatyana Kazankina or Svetlana Ulmasova. At the Montreal Olympics she could not go further than the semi-finals and, despite breaking twice the world record at the 3000 metres, she was about to quit sport and only her husband encouragement made her continue. Then she won her first major title at the 1977 World Cup in Düsseldorf, beating for the first time at this level Lyudmila Bragina, who would retire soon afterwards, and also came her five victories at the World Cross Country, beginning in 1978. At the only long distance global championship women were allowed, Grete got revenge of Kazankina, Ulmasova or Marasescu. Only Romanian Maricica Puica, who became in Los Angeles the first 3000 metres Olympic champion, could beat her in natural environment at the 1982 and 1984 editions. By then Grete Waitz had also become an outstanding marathon specialist.
             Prior to her marathon debut, Grete Waitz had run the 1500 metres in 4:00.55, the 3000 in 8.31.8 (the second best mark at the time) and the 10 kilometres on the road in 31:15.4 (a world record which some years later would improve further to 30.59). With such credentials, which still sound stunning 30 years later, that 25-year-old jewel nowadays would have quickly moved to the marathon. Yet back in 1978 things were not as simple. New York marathon had just been launched in 1970.  Only 55 men had finished that race, with about 100 spectators watching them. The race was growing slowly in popularity, lagging Boston and Fukuoka classics. Women were included in 1971, with Beth Bonner getting the triumph. Boston did so one year later. Then Fred Lebow, co-founder and director of New York City marathon had the idea of inviting Norwegian track star Grete Waitz for the 1978 edition.

            Grete had never run straight that distance in her life, not even in training. She had not even tried a half-marathon and was really hard to be persuaded. Her husband Jack and former track champion Knut Kvalheim got her on the plane to the Big Apple race. She was given the anonymous number 1173F and was supposed to act just as a pacemaker. (3) Grete had not endeavoured her workouts to specific marathon preparation and travelled mainly to visit the town in what was called a second honey moon. In the race, the debutant trailed cautiously German Christa Vahlensieck, the then record holder with 2:34:48, not launching her attack until 10 miles to go. Eventually, Grete crossed the line first, improving the world best in more than 2 minutes (2:32:30). Yet she finished exhausted and half-injured. Indeed, she reacted furiously against Jack: “I’ll never, never do this again.” She could not run in several days; hardly walk. (4)  
            However, afterwards she realised her performance in New York had been a milestone in her career. Soon she would quit her teacher job and abandon the track to concentrate in marathon workouts. She was back in New York in successive years, achieving up to nine victories from 1978 to 1988, a record in both sex categories, unlikely to be beaten in many decades. In 1979 she would smash again her world record to 2:27:32, being the first woman under 2:30, and the following year she would complete the race in 2:25:41. In three years she had lowered the women’s best in no less than nine minutes, breaking all topics about female limitations and proving they could be as competitive as men. Finally, her long experience in the track in middle distances had allowed her to acquire speed endurance enough to destroy all road records. Grete also shone in London, another young marathon, winning the 1983 and 1986 editions, the former with her fourth world record (2:25:29) and the latter in her all-time PB (2:24:54).  
Joan Benoit and Grete Waitz celebrate together
after the 1984 marathon Olympic final
               Grete Waitz arrival in the American roads was contemporary to the big boom the marathon experienced in the late 70s and 80s. People all around the world started to practise massively jogging or fartlek, for healthy reasons or simple pleasure. Besides women were not anymore ignored by organisers and the media but began to receive identical support than the men they were now running alongside by thousands. (5) Grete contributed decisively to some of these things. (6) She became the face of the Race of the Five Boroughs, which passed from local curiosity to global cultural phenomenon. (7) Just 55 people had completed the race in 1970. In 2010 the number increased to 45.000. On the other hand, in 1978, the year of Grete’s debut, only 8.9% of the finishers were female. In 1988 as she won her ninth and last title the figure had grown up to 18% . In 2010, female made up nearly the 36% of the field. (8) In words of the current responsible of the race, Mary Wittenberg, all the little girls in New York wanted to be like Grete, who never had children but enjoyed to be surrounded by hundreds of them in Central Park. She opened the doors for every upcoming marathon woman and every one recognised the big influence she had had in her, starting by her contemporaries Olympic champions Joan Benoit and Rosa Mota and her compatriot Ingrid Kristiansen.  Her archrival and friend Benoit would call her wisely “the Queen of Hearts”. Paula Radcliffe would even ape her trademark pigtails. In 1985 her heir Kristiansen would become the new record holder with an unbelievable 2:21:06 in London, only 15 seconds better than Benoit in Chicago some months afterwards. No one could doubt anymore about long distance female abilities.  
      Grete Waitz’s performances also influenced decisively the incorporation of the female marathon event in the Olympic roster. The Norwegian became the first World champion in Helsinki in 1983, three minutes ahead of medallists Marianne Dickerson and Raisa Smekhnova, in what she called her first tactical race. (9) However she suffered the biggest disappointment of her career the following year at Los Angeles Olympic Games, not being able of catching up the brave Joan Benoit, who surged in the first kilometres of the race and never relinquished her swift pace, despite the heat and humidity. Then Grete Waitz showed all her grandeur and sportmanship.
             We can see many different kinds of behaviour on an athletics track, depending on the athlete. There is Yelena Isinbayeva who relax reading a book on her own, waiting patiently for her rivals to reach the heights where she usually begins her competition; but there is, also at the Pole Vault, Pawel Wojciechowski who was clapping his hands to cheer Lázaro Borges, as the Cuban was trying to jump 5.95 in order to beat him in Daegu Worlds. Then to lose a competition is not easy to be accepted sometimes: Carl Lewis left the stadium frustrated, after being defeated at 1991 Tokyo Worlds by Mike Powell, who also broke the legendary’s Bob Beamon record in the process. He also had the option of celebrating with his compatriot the best long jump competition ever. Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat always did so, despite belonging to different countries.
            Grete Waitz was not as outgoing and expressive as Haile but her interaction with her rivals was similar to the Ethiopian champion’s way. As she was defeated, Grete congratulated effusively Joan Benoit and both were seen sitting together at the stadium the following day. They shared a lifelong friendship and the same kind of relationship and encouragement was established with the upcoming Portuguese star Rosa Mota. When Grete Waitz started to open herself to the other athletes, journalists and officials, everybody could find out how humble, warm, generous and even funny that woman was. She was really the role model for everybody and not only because of her victories. In words of Amby Burfoot she “gave and gave and gave and asked nothing in return.” (10) After retiring, Grete became one of the most known ambassadors for the sport and was also in charge of many charity initiatives. She ran for the last time the New York marathon in 1992, along with long time partner Fred Lebow, who had been diagnosed a brain tumour, in the most highly emotive five hours and a half in the history of the race. In 2005 Grete knew she was also suffering cancer. Then she helped the creation of Aktif Mot Kreft, working tirelessly for other people with the same disease. She died the 19th April of 2011, the day after the most successful Boston marathon of all time. Joan Benoit-Samuelson, who at age 53 was back at the 42,195 km distance, recalled a gust of wind which helped her late in the race: “It gave me a big push when I most needed it. Looking back on it now, I think it must have been Grete saying: ‘keep it going Joanie, not just today but for life itself.’ ”(11).

Grete Waitz, the athlete who opened the door for every female long distance runner


sábado, 15 de octubre de 2011

The day Mike Powell needed to jump beyond Bob Beamon's record to get to beat Carl Lewis

mike powell tokyo Pictures, Images and Photos
Mike Powell's greatest day
From the magazine "Atletismo español", Sept-Oct 1991
              Sorry I keep on saying it: thanks to Eurosport for broadcasting the last World Championships; otherwise in Spain we were really lost. Anyway, if we could watch every single track event live, who decided it was enough to offer from field activity just some previously video recorded highlights between races?  Sure we saw (some minutes or some hours afterwards) all the winning jumps and throws but, because of the natural rhythm of the competition being cut on TV, we missed all the emotion created by the steady progression of the contest: we just assisted to the final result.  One of the best finals of the whole championships, the riveting duel between Barbora Spotakova and Mariya Abakumova at the javelin was almost ruined because of it for the audience and so were all the rest of field competitions.  Not much time was allowed to the astounding breakthroughs of youngsters Christian Taylor or Pavel Wojciechowski.  Nor especial dedication to such extraordinary exploits as the third world title for Valerie Adams at the shot put and the fourth one for Dwight Phillips at the long jump. I already pointed at this unfair situation when I spoke about the Diamond League coverage. For instance no less than 16 specialties are being deprived of catching the eye of the audience with their beauty and their professional athletes are increasingly missing the chance of a good sponsorship, because of becoming anonymous.  This is not really what needs a sport as Track and Field, which has dropped so much in popularity in the last couple of years.
            I just like travelling to better times. The inaugural edition of the World Championships in Athletics was one of the most celebrated sportive outings of 1983.  In the field events we had the privilege of beholding the first major victory of two of the best jumpers (and sportsmen) of the 20th Century: Sergey Bubka and Carl Lewis.  Can you imagine a live broadcasting offering just recorded highlights of an event which has Bubka or Lewis taking part in? The “high-flying Ukrainian” would go on to win 6 world consecutive crowns, thus being the titleholder for no less than 16 years, besides becoming Olympic champion in Seoul. He was the first man in breaking the impossible barrier of 6 meters with the pole vault and achieved a more than remarkable 35 world records in the discipline.  The “son of the wind” would become one of the most decorated athletes in history with 8 world and 9 Olympic titles, at 100, 200, 4x100 meters and long jump. In the latter discipline he won the gold medal in 4 Olympic Games, something which only he and discus thrower Al Oerter have accomplished in a single athletic event. However, while Bubka set 35 world bests, Lewis, who everybody  for many years pointed out as the man to beat the mythic Bob Beamon’s 8.90 record, could never reach this target. Furthermore, he would have to witness how another jumper, Mike Powell, carry this glory, which had been predestined for him ever since the single day he was born. Last 31st August was the 20th anniversary of this historical feat at the 1991 Tokyo World Championships, at arguably the best long jump competition ever, where Powell needed to overcome Beamon’s record to get to beat Lewis for the first time in his life.    

Bob Beamon competing indoors in 1968
           The long jump has traditionally been one of the most emblematic events in Athletics, maybe because of holding some of the most emblematic world records in sport.  In 80 years, only five men have been able to jump beyond the previous best. The first of them, the legendary Jesse Owens, became in 1935 the first athlete in breaking the 8 metres barrier (8.13 exactly), just the previous year of his four gold medals landmark at Berlin Olympic Games, before the astonished gaze of Hitler, who believed in the superiority of the Aryan race.  No less than 25 years were needed for further improvement. Eventually, another Afro-American, Ralph Boston, went to 8.21.  Boston and Soviet Union representative, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, would take turns in adding steadily some centimetres to the record, reaching 8.35 by 1965 and 1967 respectively.  Then came the unforgettable Mexico Olympic Games with the unbelievable jump of Bob Beamon, who landed in the far end of the pit and needed a manual measurement, because the optical device installed with this purpose had not been designed to cover such incredible distance: 8.90!!! When Beamon realized about his feat, he collapsed to his knees and placed his hands over his face in shock, having to be helped to his feet by his competitors.  It suggested to physiologists he had somehow summoned all the superhuman strength which ordinarily comes upon people only in disasters. (1)  
      Amazingly, among this exclusive club of record beaters, only the ones with the most modest exploits, Ralph Boston and Ter-Ovanesyan, could follow a long successful career.  Jesse Owens was suspended as he tried to obtain some economical benefits from his talent, in a time Athletics was just understood as an amateur sport, and from then on could challenge only horses.  Anyway, the II World War put a long hiatus to any Olympic dream.  Bob Beamon’s big jump was not a fluke: he had already reached 8.33 outdoors and went on that same 1968 year to an 8.30 indoor world record, which was not improved until 1980 and still stands into the all-time lists. Yet he would not jump further than 8.22 for the rest of his career.  His gigantic 8.90 had killed the athlete and the event itself. No one could try to get reasonably close to this distance in many years, including the same Beamon. (2)

       Eventually, the new indoor record holder Larry Myricks and Lutz Dombrowski achieved marks over 8.50. It was the first sign Bob Beamon was not from another planet and one day humanity would be able to close the gap. Dombrowski can be easily considered one of the most talented long jumpers ever.  A pity his country’s boycott to Los Angeles Olympic Games deprived us from what should had been a stellar duel against Lewis. Besides, the East German 8.54 winning jump at 1980 Moscow Olympic Games had been done without the aid of altitude.  Mexico’s placement at 2240 meters had proved optimal for sprint and jump performances. Stunning world records were set almost in every event.  Especially ideal were the conditions enjoyed by Bob Beamon, who was jumping into the rarefied thin atmosphere just previous to a rainstorm and counted with the maximum allowable wind in his favour (+2.00 m/sec). As an indication, Lee Evans in the same hour ran the 400 meters distance in a time of 43.86, which was not improved until 1988.  In successive years athletes would try to take advantage of similar conditions and thus Pietro Mennea or Joao Carlos de Oliveira respective records at the 200 meters and triple jump were also accomplished at altitude.  

Carl Lewis running in full speed

      Nevertheless, the new kid in town in the long jump was reluctant to this mode.  He stated he did not want to see an “A” after his marks and even refused competing in some outings held at altitude.  Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1961, Carl Lewis , under the masterful guidance of Tom Tellez, first at the University of Houston, then as a member of Santa Monica Track Club, dominated the event in a way never seen before, since his 1981 breakthrough. That year he overcame Dombrowski’s low-altitude best, flying to 8.62, then improved to 8.76 and 8.79 in successive years.  No wonder for someone always jumping at sea level, his still standing indoor world record, set in his highly successful 1984 year, would match his outdoor best.  He was equally dominant in the sprints and by 1983 he also owned the low-altitude best at 100 (9.97) and 200 metres (19.75).  He would not care too much about other athletes achieving better marks, as soon as he could beat them when it mattered most, as he would do at Helsinki-83 Worlds before Calvin Smith or at Rome-87 before Robert Emmiyan, who previously in the year had landed just 4 centimetres short of Beamon.
          This is maybe why Carl Lewis was such sensational an athlete. In his prime, he would never run a bad race and was rarely defeated, especially at the big occasions, where he always showed his best.  There was a moment Ben Johnson seemed to have reached a superior level, but this episode ended badly for the Canadian, who would recognise his massive use of steroids. Enraged, Lewis would show in the next major championship, in Tokyo, he was still the number one sprinter, winning gold with a new world record (9.86).  At the long jump, Myricks was pretty irregular, Dombrowski, besides the boycott, had an injury plagued career and Emmiyan did not stand for long time.  Lewis, on the other hand, prior to his famous defeat against Powell in Tokyo, had been unbeaten for more than 10 seasons in the event, for a total of 65 consecutive victories.  He had reached 28ft (8.53) no less than 56 times during this period.  It is hard to imagine more consistency.
       Carl Lewis wanted to become the most famous, admired and richer sportsman who ever lived (3) and he did not fell far away from his ambitious targets. The IOC named him Olympian of the century and so did Sports Illustrated magazine, which curiously in Lewis’ most accomplished seasons had chosen instead Mary Decker (1983) and Edwin Moses and Gymnast Mary Lou Retton (1984) as sportsmen of the year. For me it does not make too much sense to decide whether Lewis, Mark Spitz, Mohamed Ali or Nadia Comaneci was the best, with every one practising a different sport and living in different circumstances.  It stands also for athletics and the comparison with Moses is illustrative: The hurdler was also unbeaten for more than 10 years and even with a superior winning streak (107 finals and 122 races overall).  However he was less lucky in his Olympic curriculum and thus could only won two titles: he missed one chance because of the US boycott in Moscow and in his last Olympic Games he was a little too old and just could struck bronze. Lewis was also in the latter stages of his career in Atlanta-96, but Iván Pedroso, overwhelming dominator at the precedent year World’s, was still in recovery from an accident and Mike Powell was limping throughout the whole final. Anyway, it is hard for one athlete who participates in a single event to match in Olympic titles another one who can enter four.
       Lewis interest in making money helped athletics become a professional sport and overcome the hypocritical amateurism conception, from which Jesse Owens had been a victim. However things took an unexpected twist when Lewis was turned down a contract by Nike because of his flamboyant clothes and flat-top haircut: “If you are a male athlete I think the American public wants you to look macho” (4) Owens had suffered from the racism of his time, having to have lunch or be lodged in restaurants and hotels just for blacks, when competing with the American team. Beamon had been involved in the same controversy, refusing to compete against Brigham Young University, alleging it had racist policies. As consequence he was suspended by his own college and left without a coach, so fellow Olympian Ralph Boston had to take care of him.  Now Lewis had been denied because of his supposed homosexuality.   

Jesse Owens competing at Berlin Olympic Games

      Carl Lewis knew he was talented enough to have a place in the history of sport, alongside two of the most charismatic athletes ever: he dreamed with matching Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in a single Olympic Games and beat the record of records, held by Bob Beamon.  He succeeded brilliantly in his first target at Los Angeles-84 and was not far from do it again in Seoul-88, but Joe DeLoach had the better of him at the 200 metres and the American relay squad dropped the baton in the heats.  His second target was achieved instead by Mike Powell.
            Powell, from Philadelphia and two years younger than Lewis, had move at 11 to the West Coast and when the time came enrolled the California University of Irvine; then was transferred to UCLA.  He grew for years at the shadow of his archrival but like every long jumper he dreamt also with being the man jumping beyond the 8.90 world record.  Reportedly he was trying even in his living room and “every day got to break Beamon”. (5) Prior to Tokyo Worlds, Powell was 0-15 against Lewis but was getting closer and closer.  His first success had been the silver medal at Seoul Olympic Games with an excellent 8.49. Two seasons afterwards he had improved to 8.66, leading the yearly lists and he felt ready for more. 1991 could be a decisive year for him and he gave King Carl a first warning in the national trials for the World Championships. Powell led throughout the contest with an 8.63 jump but Lewis proved how amazing a competitor he is landing just one centimetre forward in his last try.
Despite his achievements, the Philadelphia jumper had always felt neglected by journalists, promoters and public in general. The New York Times pointed out in Seoul he just had won the silver because “it was not possible for Lewis, who had the best three jumps, to be awarded the three medals” (5) Powell stated European meeting organisers would not even care about holding a long jump event if Carl Lewis was not around and was tired of the preferential treatment bestowed to the Santa Monica Track Club in every meeting.  He also felt he had the right to belong to that elite club, because they used to engage the UCLA and Houston University best athletes and he studied in the former. Finally, Powell would tell his friends he was ready to beat Beamon’s record but they just laughed at his face and said it was King Carl’s task.  Lewis was looking for fame and money. Mike Powell was often fighting just for recognition.
            Powell was a very emotional jumper. He was unable to control his nerves when competing and it was a huge hindrance for him and even needed to search the help of a psychologist.  He often got just two or three valid jumps in competition so he was called by his mates “Mike Foul”.  Indeed he had a quite respectable number of long foul attempts, one of them near the 9 metres line. His final results were not really talking about his real potential. On the other hand, Lewis always stayed cool and was able to coordinate flawlessly run, approach and takeoff for a perfect jump.  The Santa Monica athlete, in spite of being known for some, as Powell’s coach Randy Huntington, as a “sprinter who jumps”, had worked extra hours all his life, aiming to be the best long jumper in history and this is why he was so good. Tellez also conceded a great importance to speed and final acceleration but Huntington said to be the fastest was not so decisive.  Not many sprint stars have become a long jump champion as well.  He said the speed must be controlled in search of getting the ideal body position for starting the takeoff.  Mike Powell stated his style was more close to German or Russian schools than to American.  As them he had made up for his limited speed (10:44 PB at the 100 metres) working specially the technique of every phase of the jump.  He said in the last two steps the athlete must arrived with flat-foot and hips upright for an optimal take-off and the landing must be done with the heels not with the body. (6)

Ralph Boston jumps 8.34, a new world record, in 1964 in Los Angeles
             That evening Tokyo skies remembered with their stormy clouds the Mexico Games atmosphere. A typhoon was soon to come and there were swirling and changing winds. (1) Mike Powell was hyperventilating.  In his own words, due to the pressure, he could scarcely breathe so his first leap was not really great (7.85). Carl Lewis started business as usual, keeping control, opening his participation with a new championship record (8.68).  Then Powell started to relax and reacted positively, moving to second place (8.54).  
      However, the defending champion was  performing  astoundingly. Always approaching perfectly the takeoff line, he went to the longest jump of his life (8.83, though wind aided), and improved again in his fourth leap to 8.91: beyond Beamon!  But again the wind (+2.9 m/sec) invalidated his record. In between, Powell got a narrow foul in the 8.80 region.  At this stage of the competition the eternal bridesmaid was increasingly enraged, feeling “the way you do when you are about to get into a fight” (5).  He had lost too many opportunities in his career and did not felt like failing again the same way.  He took the runway with determination and this time around, in his 5th attempt, his emotive temper played in his favour: Finally he achieved the perfect jump he had inside of him and the officer measured it 8.95 (+0.3). The ultimate record had been surpassed!!
Nevertheless, he had not won the competition yet. Lewis had two tries left and he was not the one who gives up. Again King Carl responded with another massive jump (8.87), into a slight headwind, a new PB, but not enough. Still one more chance: Powell bent to the ground, praying, not wanting to see his rival final attempt: he was sure Lewis was to deliver a 9 metre jump…  Yet, he did not: he had landed 8.84 metres beyond the board to close his best competition ever.  The “son of the wind” had been eventually beaten the day he accomplished the fourth best jumps of his whole career. (7) He put an arm over the winner’s shoulder briefly not daring to look at his face. Powell, overjoyed, started to celebrate, giving a hug to the board officer, then to Coach Huntington, then to every Japanese spectator around. He also tried to hug Lewis but the beaten champion just took his bag and left the stadium visibly disappointed. He would never be the man who broke Beamon’s world record.
Observers said technique was decisive in Beamon’s triumph. (8) Despite his last six strides speed in his winning jump had been 39.38 Km/h, to 40.53 km/h in Lewis longest attempt, his performance was flawless; meanwhile Lewis had some technical imperfections as too low hips prior to his takeoff. Beamon had hit the sand right with his feet. Lewis did it with the butt, but Powell with a last move in the air pulled his upper body to the right so he landed with his legs.  King Carl, who had carried for years a deserved reputation of egotist and arrogant did not want to accept his defeat: “I had the greatest series of all time. He had just one jump.  He may never do it again” (5)    
Carl Lewis took a minor revenge, defeating Powell narrowly at the following year Olympics (8.68 to 8.64).  Then the new world record holder defended his crown in Stuttgart, with Lewis absent. Both retired after Atlanta Olympics, leaving Iván Pedroso as the new leader of the event. The Cuban obtained no less than one Olympic and nine World indoor and out titles but never produced a valid jump further than 8.71, though he achieved a fraudulent 8.96.  Some journalists and enthusiasts claimed he once went beyond 9 metres and his leap was wrongly considered foul, what is also stated about Carl Lewis when he was just a newcomer. (3) The most decorated jumpers of the moment, Dwight Phillips and Irving Saladino, have also failed to deliver a jump superior to 8.74. Mike Powell’s world record is now twenty years old and is likely to stand longer than Jesse Owens’s and Bob Beamon’s.  Maybe in the future two other long jump giants will be born to deliver another exciting match comparable to the one we had the chance to watch one day between Carl Lewis and Mike Powell.