martes, 31 de enero de 2012

Abebe Bikila: the Black African breakthrough

     "I was amazed by his feet. I knew later that he ran barefoot. The soles of his feet were as thick and black as coal. I remember that I wanted to touch his feet, the hard skin of which resembled the tyres of big military trucks. I was sure that he would feel nothing but, on the contrary, this hard skin was very sensitive: I hardly brushed it with my finger and he jumped up on the bed and gave me an astounded look."
 Rhadi Ben Abdesselem, silver medallist at 1960 Rome Olympic marathon (1)

The legendary Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila, Olympic champion at the marathon in Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964 
One of the most memorable moments in Olympic Games history was when that Ethiopian barefoot runner entered the Roman Via Appia to produce a shock victory at the marathon in a new world record time, becoming the first ever black African Olympic champion in 1960. No one had ever heard of him and it was indeed the first international competition of 27-year-old Abebe Bikila. However, prior to the race, Swede Onni Niskanen had actually warned journalists about the chances of his trainee, stating he had ran during the year the marathon in 2:21:23, a respectable clocking, well under the actual Olympic record of Emil Zatopek. No one took him seriously. Imagine he could have added that mark had been achieved at the national trials with the hindrance of altitude and through a hilly course. 
             Italy had organised the 1960 Olympic Games, wanting to show they were a new progressive nation, which had overcome the times of fascism. The marathon had been staged at sunset, to avoid the summer heat. The course intended to evoke the past grandeur of the Roman Empire, in a setting which has been described as a mix between gladiator games and Verdi opera. (2) The last kilometres of the track followed the ancient military route Via Appia Antica. Every ten metres there stood a uniformed soldier carrying a torch in his hand. The torch spread its flickering light over the antique ruins in the background. There was however a relic in the scene which did not belong to the age of Octavius Augustus: that monumental obelisk had been looted by the invading Mussolini troops as a trophy war in 1935 from Axum in Abyssinia
             The favourite, Russian Sergey Popov, who had broken the world best at the European championships two years before, had been left well behind. The race had become an unprecedented duel among two Africans: World Cross Country champion Moroccan Rhadi Ben Abdesselem and unknown Ethiopian Abebe Bikila. The cameraman by then was focusing in the latter runner bare feet. The Axum obelisk, with 2000 metres to go, was precisely the symbolic place chosen by Niskanen for Bikila’s decisive attack. When that modern gladiator, “whose running was so light that his feet scarcely seem to touch the ground” (1) surged away, his last companion was unable to respond. In huge disbelief, the journalists inside the box press could hardly found appropriate words to describe this unbelievable victory: "Suddenly we could see the lights of a little convoy twinkling in the distance - here he came... trotting rhythmically and strongly up the Appian Way, the route of the conquerors in a city where his ancestors had once been slaves." (1) 

Abebe Bikila leads Rhadi at the last stages of 1960 Rome Olympic marathon

            In fact, Bikila’s triumph had more contemporary implications: Mussolini, in spite of sending all the best of his army and using chemical weapons, had never really got to colonise Ethiopia but, on the contrary, one lonely disarmed man had conquered the invaders back with his inspirational running. Abebe Bikila became a symbol for the whole Africa in its historic moment of emancipation and rising. Ghana had gained the independence in 1957 and winds of freedom were blowing throughout the black continent. Abebe Bikila was showing the way: “I want the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.” (3) The Ethiopian hero would become so inspirational that a poll in Jeune Africa magazine found he was then the most popular person in the continent. Bikila’s astounding victory had also appealed to track and field specialists. The Italian doctor, who examined Abebe after the race, had only one word to say: "Fantastico!" His pulse was 88, his eyes bright, no signs of tiredness and not one blister on his bare feet. Bikila stated he would have been able to continue at the same pace for 10-15 km longer. (4) Reputed sportive journalist Robert Parienté from L’Équipe believed in athletics “there are no spontaneous generations”, but that man had come from nowhere to win an Olympic gold medal in such incredible fashion. That Ethiopian’s superhuman nature had made the miracle. Yet, was it all the truth about?

Abebe Bikila was born the 7th August 1932 in Jato, a remote village in a countryside of rolling hills of difficult access even today, about two hours North of Addis Abeba. Jato is in the Oromian region, where almost every Ethiopian runner comes from. As every one of his countrymen, Bikila’s father was a shepherd and thus the future Olympic champion grew up grazing cattle. Interestingly, Rhadi Ben Abdesselem, the runner-up in Rome, came from similar background, being also a shepherd, yet in Moroccan Rif Mountains. Tending cattle, both would walk and run several kilometres a day and this precocious physical activity would make them become tougher as well as acquire a solid aerobic base, which would be really useful for their Olympic running days. Besides, Rhadi and Abebe grew up (and later train) in high altitude. Back then this important factor for those African athletes success at Rome Olympics passed unnoticed even to the most accomplished sportive journalists. Some years later there would be some pioneers training in that kind of conditions as miler Jim Ryun, but it would not be until Mexico Olympics, when every sprint and jump event world record was smashed, that the athletic world realised about the benefits of living and training at 2000 or 3000 metres high.  

Abebe Bikila at home with her wife and daughter Tsige

As he was 19 Abebe moved to Addis Abeba, following her mother. After a year unemployed, the young man was lucky enough of being engaged at the imperial bodyguard of Emperor Haile Selassie. This responsibility would be important in the development of his personality. Journalists and writers who went to meet Bikila in his home country described him as a serious and reserved man but interesting and cooperative.  “His smile is slow, but when it comes, it is complete and rewarding, like the opening of a wide curtain.” (5)  Bikila was fond of sports. In his youth he had played ganna, which is a sort of an Ethiopian long-distance version of hockey, with the goalposts in the opposing team villages - maybe a couple of miles apart. In Addis he  enjoyed more westerner sports as volleyball, basketball and football  In 1956 he started practising athletics too. He was 24 years old, not the usual age for a beginner in track and field but, as we saw before, he actually had a long experience in running. When Onni Niskanen, the national coach, knew about this man who to be fitted would run the 20km distance back and forth from Addis to Sululta every day, decided to make of him a marathon specialist.  
Abebe Bikila is awarded by Emperor Haile Selassie, after returning
victorious from Rome Olympic Games

Onni Niskanen was one of the around 600 Swedish who were engaged in the development of Ethiopian society, with a blend of adventurer and humanitarian spirit. Haile Selassie I, the last of the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was proud of being the head of a nation which had got to remain independent for centuries. Notwithstanding, Ethiopia was a backwards nation, with a big average of unemployment and whose inhabitants kept living in straw-roofed mud huts, even in the capital, Addis Abeba. The Negus wanted his country to become a modern nation but on the other side knew the danger of being dependent of the USA or the Soviet Union. Back from the exile after the end of World War II, he asked for help a neutral country, Sweden, who had impressed the Lion of Judah in a visit he had made in 1924. Officers, doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, physical trainers and aid workers would arrive in the 1940s to develop the different institutions of Ethiopian society. Onni Niskanen came in 1946 with a two years contract as sport instructor of the Emperor bodyguards and he would stay in the country forever.      

When his contract training with the imperial bodyguards expired, Onni Niskanen was engaged by the Ministry of sports and became also the Secretary-General of the Ethiopian Red Cross. Niskanen, along with ten other compatriots, organised the practise of sport, following the Swedish model, at school, police and military level, starting from scratch. “When we arrived there was not a civilian sports federation, no organisations, no sports grounds and no instructors or leaders.” (6) Ethiopians enjoyed competitions but it took some time until they understood the need of regular training. Soon it was evident the main sport would be long distance running. In the absence of sport grounds and equipment it was the logical choice. Besides running is a natural way of transport in Ethiopia. Many workers in Addis Abeba lived several kilometres from the workplace. Friday afternoon you would see them jog away over the mountains home to the family and on Monday morning, they would come jogging back with a bundle with a little food in. Usually, they ran barefoot in spite of the stony terrain. Running is a lifestyle. Ethiopians are used to run all the time since early childhood.” (6) Due to his commitment, Onni was named national coach. He had assisted to the Ethiopian Olympic debut in 1952 in Helsinki. Then missed the next Games in Melbourne, because of two years in Sweden to update his knowledge in physical education, but the head coach was ready to guide his promising bunch of athletes to amazing results in Rome.   

Major Onni Niskanen and Abebe Bikila take a break in their training session

Onni Niskanen had his native Finland in his heart and he proved it fighting for his country independence in both World Wars. As a fanatic of track and field to the point her first wife gave him an ultimatum so he had to choose between sport and her, Onni knew every exploit of the legendary Flying Finns Kolemainen, Nurmi, Ritola or Iso-Hollo. (7) However as a Swede athlete, then coach, he looked for the antidote to beat their invincible neighbours, along with other Swedish trainers, and eventually got it. The winning formula was called fartlek (speed play), which was a form of interval training with a free blend of both aerobic and anaerobic system developing strategies, speed and endurance, in a natural environment. During a fartlek session, faster-than-race pace was required. (8) This method, created by Gusta Holmer, was disclosed when Gunder Hägg trained at Gösta Olander's in Vålådalen but Niskanen was also in the same town at the time and he might have been first. (2) With their innovative workouts, Hägg and Arne Andersson would smash the records from the 1500m to the 5000m during the 1940s.
            No matter he was or was not the inventor of fartlek, Niskanen introduced the Swedish “natural school” methods in Ethiopia. The coach of Abebe Bikila left precise information, later published by his heirs at the Niskanen foundation, about his training strategies prior to Rome Olympics. As in Holmer’s, fartlek in the forests was combined with track sessions, with the emphasis in speed, and long road runs up to 32km. “Cross-country running sessions of 1 to 1½ hours were part of the daily training for the long distance runners, but not some casual jogging. Pace training, pace training and more pace training. Speed running for 4-500 metres at highest speed, up rather steep slopes, varied with a bit slower running in between. The same thing when it came to track training. Pace! Six to eight 1.500 metres races, to start with in 4minutes 20 to 25, then they had to press the times downwards. They also ran on the track for 30 - 40 minutes, with varied pace. Sometime full speed through the bends, sometimes on the straights. Road running was done twice per week and on distances that were increased day by day. Sauna baths twice a week was included in the training, as well as massage after the road running.” (4) As you can guess, race pace was also required by Niskanen during the long road runs. Thus Bikila did 32km at 3:10/ 3:15 pace average. With such preparation the gold medallist in Rome, after a conservative start, killed the Olympic marathon with two 5km splits mid-race of 14:37 and 13:42!!! (4) Speed endurance at its best. Only a stunning athlete as Rhadi could manage such demanding sustained change of rhythm, but he was inexorably left behind as the Ethiopian sped up near the end.

Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde, the first Ethiopian Olympic stars
                 Abebe Bikila’s Olympic victories were the combination of the athlete immense talent and the wise preparation of Onni Niskanen for the event. Yet when they first met, the future champion was no more than a rough diamond: "When I started training him, he ran like a drilling soldier. A long-distance runner must concentrate on running with a minimum loss of energy." (1) However the pupil’s willingness and self-discipline brought him to improve quickly in every aspect of his technique to a flowing and relaxed style, which one day would be described as so light his feet scarcely seemed to touch the ground. Besides his discipline, focus and wish of learning, Abebe had a never seen before capacity for running. He could endure the toughest training regimens and seemingly never got tired… And behind him was a coach with the intelligence and knowledge required to guide him to the top.  Even the decision of running the Olympic race barefoot was taken by Niskanen. Usually, Bikila and the second Ethiopian marathoner selected for Rome, Abebe Wakjira, would run without shoes but there was also the national pride: showing up two barefoot Ethiopians to the whole world, would result in negative image for the country; it would seem as though they were so poor they did not have the money to afford shoes for their representatives. Bikila and Wakjira were tested with and without shoes on the Olympic marathon track. Niskanen realized both runners were faster running barefoot and besides their style was more effective. The coach took the risk and asked the runners to also walk without shoes on even in the Olympic village to harden their feet. Wakjira recalls they needed to hide into the tent because athletes from other countries were laughing at them… but he who laughs last laughs longest.   

             Abebe Bikila’s gigantic size as athlete overshadowed other excellent runners in the Ethiopia of his time. Abebe Wakjira was named for the Olympics as he was already 39 years old. In spite of a too cautious start in Rome, he progressed until an eventual 7th place in the second half of the race, overcoming some of the favourites. Two other remarkable long distance runners had to remain at home, due to illness. Besha Teklu had beaten Bikila at the national military championships. Wami Biratu was the number one in the country before the arrival of Bikila. He was expected to run the 5000m and 10.000m in Rome but made a mistake which left him out of the Games. The athletes were paid a bus to go to Addis for the fitting of their costumes. However, Wami made the distance (100km overall) running, to improve on his stamina. Instead he got sick. Finally Mamo Wolde, who had participated in the precedent edition of the Olympics in Melbourne, was also absent this time around. Not as talented as Bikila, Wolde was however as hardworking. After narrowly losing a medal in Tokyo, his moment finally came in Mexico at 36 years of age, as the defending champion faltered, thus keeping the Ethiopian winning streak in the marathon.  

            Abebe Bikila’s 2:15:16 world record from Rome was broken by three other athletes before Tokyo Olympics: Toru Terasawa of Japan, Leonard Edelen of USA and Basil Heatley of Ireland, who lowered the universal best down to 2:13:55. Anyway, Bikila and his coach Onni Niskanen never worried about records. They only cared about not over racing and peaking in the best possible shape at the Olympic Games. In those years Abebe competed sparingly over the world in places as Osaka, Kosice (9) and Boston, now wearing running shoes. In the latter race he suffered his only defeat in all the marathons he completed in his career, crossing the line in fifth place. All the preparations seemed to be under schedule for Tokyo Olympic Games but with 40 days to go his participation was jeopardised when being diagnosed appendicitis. He could not resume his training. After being operated, he just was able of jogging. Thus many dismissed his chances. However, in the decisive moment Bikila proved how privileged his nature was, winning the race again in a world record time, 2:12:11, this time wearing shoes. The runner-up arrived more than four minutes afterwards, while the Ethiopian double champion was doing his stretching routine.

            Abebe Bikila was mentally ready to defend in Mexico but he suffered a leg injury while training for Zarautz marathon in 1967. At the Olympic race, not yet recovered, he had to leave after 17km, before encouraging mate Mamo Wolde to win the gold for Ethiopia. One year afterwards the national hero suffered a tragic car accident, while trying to avoid some students in a political demonstration in Addis Abeba. Despite being send by the Emperor to London, he left hospital paraplegic on a wheelchair. However Abebe did not lose his sportive passion. Encouraged by Niskanen, he started practising archery and joked about the possibility of winning a third gold medal in Munich, where he was invited as a special guest. Abebe Bikila died from a cerebral haemorrhage, related with his car accident, the 25th October 1973 at age 41. He has been a major inspiration for every Ethiopian athlete who has come since. 

jueves, 19 de enero de 2012

Cathy Freeman: the Mystic of Running

Home... Cathy Freeman with the Olympic torch
              Bruce Barber was the first person who realized about the huge natural talent her stepdaughter Cathy Freeman had for running. And he knew more. "There are people in this world who have been born to accomplish important feats, who might be in the limelight for just one minute, but the purpose of their whole life is aiming to that one minute. Cathy is one of those chosen ones." (1) Yet that minute, or more precisely those 49.11 seconds, became one of the most transcendental moments in Olympic history and a landmark for Australian society. Cathy was raised in Baha’i faith by her mother Cecelia and it is Baha’i belief we are all the branches of one tree, the flowers of one garden. (1) Australia had transformed from the white male-dominated imperial squad in Melbourne-56 to the multicultural melting pot they were as they organised the Olympic Games for the second time, in the inaugural year of the new millennium. (2) As a positive sign of that new world, a member of the long persecuted Aboriginal people, Cathy Freeman, had been chosen to light the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony. Then that same athlete fulfilled the dreams of an ecstatic crowd of 110.000 spectators, which had gathered at Sidney Olympic stadium, delivering the only gold for her nation in track and field. Freeman achieved the symbolic reconciliation between black and white Australian, who became one heart and one soul cheering the charismatic girl and celebrating her prowess. In her subsequent victory lap, Cathy would take together both the official Australian flag and the Aboriginal one, reunited for that special day.   
                Nevertheless, there was a long way for Cathy Freeman and the indigenous Australian people until that historical date. The Aborigines, considered the oldest civilisation on planet Earth, had migrated from the African continent to Australia around 50.000 years ago. Since British settlement in the XVIII century, the indigenous inhabitants were taken their land and water resources away, as well as suffered discrimination, were murdered and ultimately had their children stolen until not long time ago: kids were removed from their parents and adopted by white families, pretending it was done to protect them from mistreatment. Actually the final aim was to assimilate the indigenous population in a moment it had a quick decline and was feared its extinction. Eventually, in 2008 the Australian government would apologise to indigenous people for what was called the stolen generation issue. Cathy, born in McKay, Queensland, the 16th February 1973, had experienced this unfair treatment against her own family: her grandmother was stolen and never could meet again her true parents. “Imagine. It was like a prison within a prison. Imagine seeing your child walking across a street and not being allowed to make any contact with him”, says Cathy. (3) Elsewhere, her father and grandfather were excellent rugby players but it was not possible back then for an Aboriginal to represent Australia or to develop a career in an English club. "People in my family were slaves, were prisoners, were so trapped and imprisoned within the laws of the day. No wonder they were such fighters and no wonder I am such a fighter too, how could I not be?'' (4)
"Cos I'm Free"

            Cathy has a famous tattoo on her right shoulder which says “Cos I’m free.” It refers to her way of feeling life and love but also to her Aboriginal identity. From her cultural background she has inherited determination, pride and strong sense of self. Her mother also believes Cathy possesses an inner peace and sense of spirituality which comes, either from her Baha’i teachings, either from her daughter's own childhood, growing up into the woods. When she was a little child, aged 5 or 6, Cathy would enjoy running for hours with no shoes on, as well as riding bikes or horses, along with brothers and cousins. Running among the bushes and by the banks of the river would made the young Cathy feel free, strong and in communion with nature. “Freedom is only something you can find inside of yourself. The heart is kind of like, metaphorically and spiritually speaking, your wings. It makes you soar and fly. There is a connectivity that I used to feel anyway, through the actual earth. So much life force and energy that comes up in through my toes and into me, which makes me feel like I can do anything.” (1) For Cathy, running was as natural as breathing, it was her gift.  Running would help the young athlete to keep an emotional stability, in spite sad events, as her parents divorce or the untimely death of her father and sister Ann-Marie. It would also help to balance her often erratic sentimental life, which episodes as the romance with her manager Nic Bideau, which ended up in a bitter court contractual battle.  “I took all of the feelings and all of the emotions I had about everything and everybody that ever mattered to me in my heart and just took it and just threw it into the thing I could do the best, which was run.” (1)
           No matter how much enjoyed sport Cathy Freeman, it was not an easy task to make her become a disciplined and focused athlete. Rebel was not the word. She was actually dizzy. “I guess I have always been away with the fairies a little bit. I am spacey, vague…” (3) She was a natural free runner in the bush but did not seem to care much about committing for a serious professional career in sport. There was not either any Aboriginal role model to look up, the only exception being tennis player Evonne Goolagong. Romanian Mike Danila was her first real coach. They met as she was 14. Danila used to tell her one day she would be signing autographs in Australia but Cathy could not see the rewards. (5)Then it was the time for old-glory Raelene Boyle to try but Freeman was also too much undisciplined for her. Eventually it would be Peter Fortune who convinced the freewheeling teen methodical training was indispensable for international success. Under Fortune’s influence, Cathy would become one day Olympic champion. Anyway, Cathy has not changed much. She keeps much of her dizziness and all her quirky sense of humour. The same Cathy describes her personality as a mix of a big kid and a wild cat, as her pets Billy and Bob. (3) However she still remembers one day she was too lazy to go out of bed for training and her mother shouted: “you are not like Anne. You have two good legs and two good arms. Use them!” (6)

Cathy Freeman with her mother
               Anne-Marie was born with cerebral palsy seven years before Cathy. After passing most of her late years at a special centre, she would eventually die of an asthma attack three days after her sister became the first Aboriginal golden medallist ever at the Commonwealth Games in 1990, as a member of the 4x100m relay.  At the funeral Cathy swore aloud every race she ran thereafter would be for Anne-Marie. (6) The deceased sister has always been a driven force for the winner at Sidney Olympic Games. Every time she points at Anne as her main hero. “Because she could not talk or walk, communicate the way that most of us do, her expressions were just ultimately so pure. And when she felt love, she gave love. And I think that had a lot to do with why I was so good at what I did, too, because she taught me so many wonderful lessons, and the importance of pure love."  (6) 
            Another source of inspiration for Cathy Freeman was the extraordinary three times Olympic champion Marie-José Pérec. 1994 was the year of Freeman’s sensational breakthrough at the Commonwealth Games, where she won both the 200m and 400m, displaying for the first time the Aboriginal flag in a lap of honour, in a self culture-pride demonstration later reprimanded by the Australian Committee. Yet Freeman was still far from being a match for the best athlete in the world of that moment. Still a junior, the Australian had made her debut at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, witnessing the French’s stunning victory at her event. It was the turning point of her career, when she could realise how big the Games were and think about what she would need to do to become one day an Olympic champion. The full mental process started when Sidney was awarded the Games the following year. From then on Freeman was slowly growing as an athlete for her day, which had to come in seven years time. (5)
               At the 1995 World championships in Goteborg, Pérec was again untouchable in a final where Freeman finished fourth. "I respect her so much, not just as a competitor but for what she stands for and the way she has done it. She is such an aggressive runner... ballistic! She would go out hard and if you were not physically or mentally prepared for it you were never in the race. I knew I had to strengthen my character to match her.” (5) Indeed she did. Marie-José Pérec had pushed her to become tougher and Freeman seriously challenged for the first time the defending champion at the 1996 Olympic Games final. That race stands as one the best 400m competitions in history, along with the inaugural World championships in Helsinki, where Jarmila Kratotchvilova broke for the first time the 48sec barrier, and the 1985 World Cup in Canberra, where Marita Koch set the current world record. Pérec, also gold medallist at the 200m in Atlanta, clocked 48.25 and Freeman followed with 48.63, which still rank both runners 3rd and 6th respectively in the all-time lists. Four other women also dipped under 50sec in that awesome final. Thereafter the French suffered from injuries and illness, being unable to keep her number one status. This honour went to Cathy Freeman, unbeatable in the next couple of years, where she won back-to-back world titles in Athens in 1997 and Seville in 1999, where she celebrated again with the Aboriginal flag. 

Cathy Freeman lines up for the 400m final at Sidney Olympic Games
Photo: Getty Images
            After scarcely competing in the previous year, Marie-José Pérec was back in 2000 to try to defend her Olympic titles. She made the trip to Sidney but mysteriously left the country after reporting being threatened in her hotel. Some observers said she actually was not fitted enough for the occasion. Whatever it was, Cathy Freeman was fairly disappointed of not having the challenge of Pérec in “her race.” The Aussie thinks she would have run considerably faster had Marie-José been in the race. (7) The same Cathy was asked to boycott the Games by activists who denounced Aboriginal rights were not respected yet. However, Cathy rejected that idea, stating she could not understand life without running. And how could she withdraw from the race she had waited for so many years? The most Australian successful sportspeople in the Olympic Games had traditionally been swimmers. However, Cathy Freeman, who had become “our Cathy”, had surpassed them as country’s heroine for the contest. To train anonymously in a quite place she travelled to Eton in Great Britain but, at her return, just after getting off the plane, she behold her face in a colossal picture in the airport. Some others were covering tower blocks in the city. Cathy could not escape pressure anymore. Instead she had to find the way to stay calmed and relaxed to deliver her best in the race she had prepared all her life for.  
                 Wearing a space-like one-piece jumpsuit, which covered her from head to toe, Cathy Freeman chose to start the final cautiously. She wanted to avoid, pushed by the public and her own emotions, going out too hard and then hit the wall. After a controlled first 300m, the favourite entered the homestretch in third place, after Jamaican Lorraine Graham and British Katharine Merry. Then she dramatically increased her pace to overcome everybody and win handily, completing the last 100 metres in an incredible split of 12.97, for an eventual clocking of 49.11, her second best mark ever. Graham won the silver medal and Merry the bronze, ahead of her compatriot Donna Fraser, all of them under 50 seconds. After her sensational victory, Cathy pulled back her hood and just sat down on the track, emotionally exhausted. The burden had been too much and she remained overwhelmed for a long minute. Then she got up and recovered her riveting smile for a triumphal victory lap, under the enthusiastic ovation of the crowd.    
            When asked how she had been able to cope with the pressure of a whole nation over her in the Olympic final, Cathy Freeman found again the secret in her cultural background and special charisma. “I have a focus in humour and fun. I do not take myself too seriously and it helps me to relax before relevant events. Besides, I love the people I belong to and the place I come from. I have a strong attachment to my ancestors, which allows me to always have a sense of belonging to a very special group of people. I also have a strong sense of connection to nature and a higher consciousness so I feel a part of a world of wonder and power. I love and accept with grace the person I am. If you are true to yourself you cannot put a foot wrong.  You have to be honest and sincere in your feelings, thoughts and actions. When such purity of purpose occurs it creates magic. (7) And it was a magical moment indeed.  

Cathy Freeman is elated after her Olympic victory in Sidney
Photo: Getty Images


lunes, 9 de enero de 2012

Nawal El Moutawakel: "Aim Far and High"

"I chose the 400m hurdles as the event constitutes a lesson in life. For me it is a school of life. There are ten barriers around one track and you learn to get over each of these during the course of the race.  Sometimes you fall, but you pick yourself up, dust yourself and continue running this circle of life. In life challenges are always there. You never find a red carpet waiting for you." (1)  


Nawal El Moutawakel becomes the first Moroccan Olympic
 champion ever, in 1984, in Los Angeles

Nawal El Moutawakel is no less than an icon of our time. As she won the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, she became the first Moroccan Olympic gold medallist in history and at the same time the first African, Muslim and Arabic woman who had accomplished such goal. This largely unexpected victory converted that tiny young girl in a role model and symbol of freedom for every North African and Middle Eastern female of her generation. Every one wanted to be like that Moroccan champion who had proved success in life was possible if you believe in yourself and fight for your dream. El Moutawakel had a brief athletics career: we can say only that famous race. However, after retirement, she proved her grandeur continuing that mission she had begun in Los Angeles, almost by coincidence. As a member of the Moroccan Department of Youth and Sport and working inside the IAAF and the IOC she has devoted her life in endeavour to improve the conditions of Arabic and African girls and, in general, children of poor background, through the practise of the sport. 
Nawal El Moutawakel was born the 15th April 1962 in the outskirts of Casablanca. Since being a little kid, she stunned for her running skills. Her father used to set races near the beach, where Nawal always got to beat brothers and cousins. Then as she went to school she kept winning effortlessly over every boy around. One day she joined an athletic club in Casablanca. She was 15 at the time, perhaps a little late to start practising sport seriously; especially in a country, where girls get married very young and, as they do, they are supposed to give up sport and any other teen distraction to become good wives for their husbands and good mothers for their sons. Most fathers in Morocco would have been shamed of having a daughter running in shorts among the boys, but Mohamed El Moutawakel was not most fathers. (2) He was instead an open minded and tolerant man, maybe as a result of being often in contact with French people. Mohamed would talk to his children largely about the different education and values French had and would listen attentively to Nawal’s tales about how people from other societies she met in her trips lived. He used to drive her daughter every day to the stadium for training (3) and would encourage her to become someone extraordinary: “always aim far and high.” (4) Mohamed had a high opinion of Nawal: he believed one day she would be famous and would bring honour to her family. And she really did!
Since she was 17, Nawal represented Morocco in international competitions. In spite of being a girl she was the first member of the family travelling abroad. She was selected to represent Africa for the 1981 World Cup, held in Rome, at the 100m event. Yet her French coach Jean François Coquand realised the event which suited her best was the 400m hurdles. (5) Some argued Nawal was too small to succeed in a specialty with obstacles but the coach was proved right in the end. Her first victory of note came just some months afterwards at the African Games in El Cairo and by 1983 she already belonged to the elite of the 400m hurdles. That year she won the Mediterranean Games, held at home, and reached the semi-finals at the inaugural World championships in Helsinki, after winning her heat. It was considered a huge success in her home country. However, Nawal and her father felt that staying in Morocco the athlete would never be able to fulfil all her potential. The young girl had a chat in Helsinki with Sunday Uti, who was studying in Iowa University, and the Nigerian quarter miler promised to recommend her for a scholarship in his own College.
Nawal El Moutawakel in the United States
when she was a student in Iowa State University
      Soon the Moutawakel received a parcel with an application form from the USA. Nawal and her family knew little English and it was needed a translator to register the girl to study Physical education and Physiotherapy in Iowa. (6) Despite knowing it was the best for her daughter, it was not easy for Mohamed to let her go and Nawal was crying during the whole trip, hoping the plane would eventually turn back. She arrived to Des Moines Airport on a January afternoon of 1984. A woman was waiting for her, bearing a sign, with the Moroccan hurdler’s picture and name. (2) She drove her to Ames, where they met her future coaches Pat Moynihan and Ron Renko. For a lucky coincidence, Moynihan, a former hammer thrower, spoke Nawal’s language, which he had learned as he was a long distance track and field coach in Saudi Arabia for a year. Being also acquainted with the Muslim culture, Pat knew how to behave in front of the shy newcomer (“I knew what not to do”), and so became a priceless support for Nawal’s integration in America
 Nevertheless, a tragedy had taken place back home: Mohamed El Moutawakel died in a car accident just 8 days after her daughter had left. Her oldest brother went to Iowa to communicate Nawal the sad news and bring her back to Morocco. However the athlete refused to move from Iowa arguing she wanted to achieve her father’s dreams for her: go to school in America and get to the top in athletics. (2) Moynihan and Renko travelled to Venice Beach, California, training Nawal away from the other athletes, in order to recover her mentally. The hurdler improved quickly, grabbing the NCAA title with a new championship record. Meanwhile Moroccan officials kept the pressure on her. The same King Hassan II told the Iowa student he expected her to win no less than the gold medal at the Olympic Games.

In a Moroccan delegation for the Olympics of 126 people, among athletes, coaches and officials, Nawal el Moutawakel was the only woman. She could feel intimidated but could not let down her family, her country and all the people who expected her doing great. She remembered again her missed father words: “Aim far and high.” He had said that after she thought it was too hard for her to shine at the 1982 African Games. As Nawal won two gold medals in that contest, Mohamed told her it was time to target an Olympic victory. The Moroccan teen could not believe she could have a chance against such strong women from all over the world but her father repeated one more time: “always aim far and high."
After her successful first year living abroad, meeting many interesting people in the USA and winning the NCAA championships for the Iowa Cyclons, her confidence had increased. Due to the boycott many of the most outstanding athletes in the world did not make the trip to Los Angeles. The 400m hurdles event, which was held for the first time at the Olympic Games, was particularly affected, because the specialty had been dominated by the Soviet Union and East Germany since its inclusion in the athletic calendar. None of the five best women at the precedent year World championships, as the gold medallist Yekaterina Fesenko and runner-up Anna Ambraziene, were at the Games. Neither was world record holder Margarita Ponomaryova. Notwithstanding El Moutawakel had fearsome rivals as the reigning European champion Ann-Louise Skoglund from Sweden and the winner at the American trials and main favourite Judi Brown, a friend of Nawal’s. In the final there were also rising athletes as Sandra Farmer-Patrick and Debbie Flintoff from Australia, the future winner in the next edition of the Games in Seoul. Skoglund and Indian P.T. Usha had dominated the semi-finals, with El Moutawakel third at the first heat, but the decisive race was another thing.

Nawal El Moutawakel celebrates her Olympic victory
           Right from the start the girl from Casablanca took the lead. Competing flawlessly over the barriers, she increased the gap progressively over the rest of the field. In spite of slowing a little in the homestretch, Nawal was never challenged, romping home in 54.61, a new African record. More than half a second afterwards crossed the line Judi Brown and Romanian Cristeana Cojocaru. Usha’s last effort was not enough to reach the first medal ever for her country, which she lost by only 1 hundredth of a second. The two other American residents, Brown and Farmer came to congratulate El Moutawakel and the three of them threw their arms around each other emotively. The Moroccan girl and Brown started crying together, until someone gave Nawal a Moroccan flag to make the lap of honour. Three days afterwards, Said Aouita also won the gold medal for his country at the 5000m. El Moutawakel was received like a queen in the airport by her countrymen. In Casablanca, people celebrated in the street for several days and also inside Nawal’s house to the point they had to call the police to finally get to sleep. Hassan II gave the Olympic champion a warm welcome and he decided to the girls born in that glorious day would be named after her. An intercity train was also called “the Nawal”, because it was almost as speedy as she was. 
           All of a sudden, Nawal El Moutawakel had become a national hero and a Pan-Arab idol for the women. Yet she was just a young female with a humble background, who had trained hard to achieve some success in sport. She did not know how to manage that unexpected popularity, what to say and how to behave before the avalanche of letters from women who said they wanted to be like her and questions from journalists which had nothing to do with athletics: “I feel a big responsibility as the Arab press tell me things as ‘how do you feel now that you are a symbol. You have saved Arabic women. Arabic women used to be in jail. Now that you won, it is going to allow them to come out and work out and race. How do you feel?’ I do not know what I should say. They ask me political questions. I just do not know what to answer. I said, 'Hey, all this stuff is not for me.' I understand nothing from politics. I do not know what I should do to make the women free in this world, the Arabic women. All I know is that the obstacles I jump are true for me, the hurdles. I can touch them. They are concrete. I can jump them; I know that it is true." (2)  
            One thing El Moutawakel knew was she wanted badly to break the World record. She had trained properly just for two years and had plenty of room to improve. Yet in the beginning of 1985 her knee got injured. It came actually from a fall she had from a mountain slope as she was six but had never prevented Nawal from running until that winter. In spite in the US had argued surgery was not necessary, King Hassan II wanted to keep in good health his national treasure and sent her to his personal doctor in Paris. The athlete was operated in mid-January. Still she could reappear during the year and clock a respectable 55.11, the second best mark of her career.
           Notwithstanding, a second tragedy took place less than two years after her father’s death in a car accident: the plane carrying Moynihan and Renko, along with three athletes, back from the NCAA women cross country, crashed and all the passengers were killed. It was a big shock for Nawal, who was so grateful to her coaches for all they had done for her in Iowa. All her 1986 season was ruined because of fatality. Meanwhile, the Moroccan press was increasingly pressuring her, insensible to her ill mood: “Les chiens aboient, et la caravane passe” was quoted the angry Nawal (7) Said Aouita was breaking every record but, on the other hand, the other country star was not progressing anymore. Marina Stepanova had lowered the world best below the 53sec barrier, while El Moutawakel had still not run under 54sec. Then she started working with Danny Harris’ coach Steve Lynn and again with Coquand to recover the time lost. In 1987 she won some Grand Prix meetings, the Universiade and defended her Mediterranean Games title but at the World championships she ran poorly and did not go through the heats. Besides she was now suffering from her back. After think it over El Moutawakel opted for retirement, without even trying to defend her Olympic title.          

             Nevertheless the seed had already been spread. As the 1984 Olympic champion said, "no woman wanted to do the dishes anymore." Nawal El Moutawakel had opened the door for every future Arabic and Muslim sportswoman, though things were still far from easy for them. In the next decade Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka in Barcelona 1992, and Syrian Ghada Shouaa in Seoul 1996 won the first gold medal ever for their respective countries at the Olympic Games. Both also became world champions. Boulmerka, still the African record holder at the 1500m with 3:55.30, refused to wear the hijab on the track, in spite of receiving dead threats from Muslim fundamentalists of her country. She even had to move to France for security reasons. Her victories came in the beginning of Civil War and conservative reaction in Algeria, which tried to expel women from University and forbid them to practise sport. (8)

Ghada Shouaa in a press conference back in 1996
Elsewhere, Shouaa became a world class athlete with huge sacrifices and little economic support, in a country where facilities are almost unplayable. It would had not been possible without the help of Latvian Paris Votes, who she refers as an outstanding coach who prepared her meticulously to become a champion in the heptathlon, as well as a spiritual mentor in life, who formed her personality. After her Olympic victory the Syrian athlete was received as a hero by her countrymen but soon after she suffered a severe back injury. Ignored by athletic authorities, she had to remain at home for 72 days, without being given the required treatment. Finally, the President Bashar Al-Assad sent her to Germany to undergo surgery. “Without him I would have been crippled by now.” (9) After a long and miraculous recovery Shouaa was able to win an excellent bronze medal at the 1999 World Championships but in her country it was considered a failure, and she was treated “as if I had been doing tourism in Germany.” (9) After a new accident, she retired from sport. Today she speaks bitterly about how her achievements have been recognised and awarded everywhere in the world except in her own country. She also said something about unattractive female runners for Arabic male audience. With a score of 6942 from a victory in Gotzis, Ghada Shouaa still ranks 6th in the heptathlon all-time list. As today she is the only Syrian who has accomplished an Olympic gold medal.   
At her same 400m hurdles event, Nawal El Moutawakel found a worthy heir in Nezha Bidouane. The Rabat-born hurdler enjoyed the long and consistent athletic career El Moutawakel could not have. Bidouane won gold at the 1997 and 2001 World Championships and narrowly lost to Cuban Daimí Pernía in 1999, in one of the most thrilling endings in a track race in history, where she clocked 52.90, which stands as the African record in the event. She also won a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sidney, in spite of an illness. Bidouane is largely seen, technically speaking, as one of the best intermediate hurdlers in history. (10)   

Nezha Bidouane competing at the 1997 World Championships

            Nawal El Moutawakel graduated in Physical Education and Physiotherapy in 1988. She enjoyed her five years in Iowa, though she decided not to settle in the United States and went back to Morocco as she ended her studies. One reason was there were some aspects of American civilisation she did not like at all: “American life is too fast, all business and materialism. I cannot understand how married couple can be split between jobs in California and New York, how people live from one phone call to the next, how no one wants to waste a minute. Maybe in 100 or 200 years Morocco will be like that.” (7) The second reason was she wanted to return to her country to be of help for her people. As an athlete she had contributed with the example of her Olympic victory to the liberation of Moslem women or rather, as she pointed with irony, of Moslem men, “who were forced to meditate on my ability.” (7) Now she wanted to commit herself further in this mission.
Nawal got married to Mounir Bennis and they had two children, Zineb and Ròda. At her return to Casablanca she was appointed Inspector of the Ministry of Sport and Youth and then became national coach in sprints and hurdles for both men and women. She promoted to the post of Secretary of State in 1997 and finally was put in charge of the Ministry of Youth and Sport in 2007. That same year she was elected vice-president of the Moroccan Athletics Federation. Besides she is president and founder of the Moroccan Association of Sport and Development. At international level, El Moutawakel is a member of the IAAF Committee since 1995 and also entered the IOC in 1998. She directed the IOC Evaluation Commission for the 2012 Olympic Games, which chose London, and was renewed in her task for 2016, inspecting among other candidatures Chicago, in a quick visit to the country she used to live as a young student, in very different circumstances.
El Moutawakel realised as she was an athlete how important was sport in developing her personality. Based in this experience she has been engaged in promoting the practise of sport among women, as a vehicle to empower their self-esteem, confidence and independence so they have the resources to continue their education, instead of following the traditional pattern of leaving school in their mid-eighties and later entering arranged marriages. (11) For this purpose, first of all they have to overcome inner psychological barriers and trust themselves to build a new self-consciousness. It can help not only women but youth and Third World people, in general. Impossible does not exist. In the same way she grew a role model thanks to athletics, everybody can get a similar rise from zero to hero.     
Nawal explains in this interesting fashion all the good consequences of embracing sport: 
“Sport is a great tool for empowering women and young girls because it provides many opportunities for developing character and personality as well as opportunities for good physical health needed to overcome challenges and difficulties. Sport also provides positive feedback, enjoyment and accomplishment. It provides sensations of reward through winning, team spirit and applause for success. It enables you to learn from losing as well. Sport also combines physical and mental abilities and teaches leadership skills, self-respect and decision-making. Historically sport is an important part of our society and by allowing women and young girls to participate in this activity, which is often seen as very male, they begin to feel on a more equal level with men. It also provides a great community for women to come together and demonstrate their strengths and skills.” (12)

Nawal El Moutawakel in a visit to Addington Primary School in Durban, South Africa 
  One of Nawal El Moutawakel’s most popular initiatives through her work at the Ministry of Youth and Sport was to create in Casablanca an all-women 10km race in 1993, called “Courir pour le Plaisir” (Run for Fun), which is currently the largest manifestation of its kind in Africa. It has grown from 2000 runners in its first edition to nearly 30.000 recently, including also international running stars. Inspired by Nawal, another former Moroccan champion Nezha Bidouane organises annually a similar race in Rabat. Searching further social development through running, El Moutawakel launched a parallel pilot project, “Courir pour la Vie” in 2007 at Imam Mouslim High School, in the small village of Ben Abid, in partnership with Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and the Regional Academy of National Education in Casablanca. Nawal is the vice-chair of the Laureus Foundation, which under the direction of Edwin Moses has supported financially more than 50 projects worldwide, improving the lives of more than 150.000 children. In Casablanca, the project involved 180 rural girls from 12 to 15 years old, who took part for five months in an innovative sport and social programme, combining basketball, volleyball and football, alongside citizenship activities, including subjects such as women’s health, hygiene and nutrition. In words of El Moutawakel, the girls changed completely, gaining in self-esteem and at the same time the whole community was galvanised: the school had been repainted and services and facilities had been added: permanent water, electricity, basketball court, volleyball nets and poles. (11) In the end, the 180 girls were introduced to the “Run for Fun” annual race. It was followed by a nationwide scheme, launched by the Moroccan Sport and Development Association in successive years, impacting the lives of more than 20.000 girls. 
Currently, women are incorporated to sport in nearly same numbers than men in Morocco and receive identical amount of money in prices. However, El Moutawakel resents there are very few female in the country assuming jobs of responsibility as coaches, officials or managers. She is fighting against this lack, opting herself to all kind of administrative positions. It is not only happening in the Arabic countries but in the most prestigious worldwide institutions. The former hurdler was the first female elected to be part of the IAAF Committee in more than 80 years of history. 
She is also breaking barriers into the IOC, which has always moved around the interests of European and North American business men, massively represented in the association. (13) Even Baron Pierre de Coubertin was an aristocrat opposed to the presence of women in sport, but lately new members are giving a new image to the Century-old IOC. They come from poor countries and some of them are women athletes, as Nawal el Moutawakel and also Hassiba Boulmerka, who survived those difficult times and now is struggling for the rights of nowadays Algerian female runners. There is a rigid hierarchy inside the Committee and newcomers are expected to be quite, listening to the experienced older members. However El Moutawakel is not the one who sits comfortably and cashes at the end of the month her salary without more implication. Her voice was heard since the very first day: calm and polite but persistent; and her determined attitude and cleverness has gained her the solid position she holds nowadays inside the IOC. When the Qatari Federation asked for a major track meet, the newly-minted Moroccan representative quickly negotiated a deal, allowing the meet only in case they loosened their policies which prohibited women to compete before male audiences and even attend sportive events. Not so long time ago, Nawal was brandishing the Koran, reciting stories of how the prophet Muhammad was competing against his wife in archery, swimming and horseback riding, to prove no religious law said women should stay at home while her husband was playing sport. The battle is long and difficult but Nawal El Moutawakel is patient and strong. One day the world shall belong to Muslim women.