Shiny happy people
This newsletter was first published on Patreon on 2 August 2021 during the Tokyo Olympics
Once, in one of those puff piece, quick-fire interviews that weekend magazines like to do with famous people, the actor Sean Connery was asked: “What makes you cry?” His answer was direct and succinct: “Athletics.”
I first remember sitting down to watch athletics (“track and field”, if you’re American) as a 10-year-old in 1984. I remember Steve Ovett collapsing in the Los Angeles heat, Daley Thompson casually somersaulting on the high jump mat, and Carl Lewis powering away from everyone like some kind of American superhero.
Each Olympics since, and each world athletics championships, it has been my guilty pleasure to find a quiet corner somewhere, put my feet up, and watch the dramas unfold.
I never really had any friends who also liked to watch athletics - and I sometimes wondered if I was a bit odd - but I just loved it. The events last night, in the empty stadium in Tokyo, re-enforced, yet again, why I love it so much, and why I nod along in agreement to that Belle and Sebastian song Stars of Track and Field are Beautiful People.
There’s just something so undiluted about athletics. Each event is pure simplicity. On the face of it, one basic, human action - running, jumping or throwing - but yet, also, bucketloads of determination, guts, power, poise and poetry.
While the long-distance events are my favourite, with their continual ebbing and flowing, their lulls and surges, all building to those climactic last few laps, on Sunday it was the sprints and jumps that had me close to tears.
First up was the irrepressible Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas. She seems to stand about 8ft tall on the runway, all loud, brash energy, winding herself up like a mechanical jumping machine. With the gold medal already in the bag, on her very last jump she let fly and smashed the world record. It was the pure joy of her rivals when they saw what she had done that had me welling up (top picture). They all leapt around together, just happy to have been there at ringside to witness something so spectacular.
That spirit of togetherness, of mutual respect, of mutual understanding, was the theme of the evening. These athletes spend most of their lives ploughing a very lonely furrow, working for years for these moments when they come together finally to make it count. The respect they have for each other - those few other people who really get it, who fully understand what they’ve been through - is huge.
In one of the men’s 800m heats earlier in the evening, two athletes came together and both fell down with about 150 metres to run. As they got up gingerly, instead of sulking, or remonstrating with each other - surely one of them was to blame? - they both instinctively hugged, and jogged home together.
And then came the moment that had the whole athletics world in tears. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but if not, two high jumpers, Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Essa Barshim both had perfect records throughout the competition, clearing every height on the first attempt, as the bar was raised to 2m 39cm. When they both failed to clear it, they were left tied in the gold medal position.
Now these two guys have history. In the last Olympics, Tamberi had his leg in a cast and watched from the stands. Close to giving up the sport, Barshim went to see him in his hotel, standing at his door and knocking and knocking until the Italian let him in. He convinced Tamberi not to give up, but helped him get back on his feet and the two men became best friends.
The official approached the pair after they both failed at 2.39 to tell them that they had a choice: to either take part in a jump off for the gold medal, or to share it. Tamberi didn’t seem to understand, but Barshim clarified with the judge: “We can have two golds?”
Barshim then looked at Tamberi, the realisation of what that meant dawning across his face, and the understanding between the pair was instant. They didn’t even need to discuss it. “History, my friend,” said Barshim, as Tamberi jumped into his arms like a child. Then they both ran away celebrating.
It was a beautiful moment, and one that will go down in Olympic history. Commentators were quick to their hot takes, of course. “This ruins the live or die, guilt-edge nature of sport that makes it what it is. Sharing is for school sports day, not the Olympics.”
But this misses the spontaneity of this particular moment. Neither of these jumpers were planning this outcome. They had both given it everything. They had cleared everything up to 2.37 flawlessly. It was an incredibly high-level competition. It just happened. The stars aligned and joy, happiness - and yes, tears - reigned. Let it be, let it go. Sport is not always the dry, cut-throat business some people want it to be. At its best, it is emotional, unexpected and alive. And this, quite simply, was sport at its best.
Where are the Kenyans?
In 2017 I wrote an article for the official programme for the World Athletics Championships in London in which I raised the possibility that Kenyan dominance of the middle and long-distance track events may have peaked. In 2011, the year I was in Kenya, they were winning everything. Kenyan men broke the course records in all five world marathon majors - there were only five at that time. In the 2011 World Athletics Championships they won an incredible 18 medals. Yet six years later, it was mostly the same athletes at the top, I wrote. I was sensing that the water level in the talent pool was beginning to drop.
Of course there have still been some incredible new talents coming through, but not quite with the regularity as before. I quickly plotted how many medals Kenya has won at every global championships since 2011:
2011 WC - 18
2012 OG - 13
2013 WC - 12
2015 WC - 16
2016 OG - 13
2017 WC - 11
2019 WC - 11
I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect Kenya may drop below 11 medals this year. So what is going wrong?
It’s a complex and unclear picture, and I think my thoughts have moved on a little from my article in 2017. Partly it is due to the fact that for Kenyan runners, struggling to find an opportunity to race abroad, to find any chink of a path to success among their thousand of talented Kenyan rivals, the best option is to head for the roads. There are hundreds more big road races, offering prize money and opportunities, than there are track races.
In Ethiopia, in contrast, there is a strong club system that allows up and coming athletes to try their luck on the track first, supporting them with a small income. Something like this doesn’t really exist in Kenya.
As a result, on the roads, Kenya is still a powerhouse, and not surprisingly the marathon is the best chance for a haul of Kenyan medals in Tokyo.
Another factor is that other countries are raising their game. You have the rise of running in Uganda, for a start, in some ways copying the success in Kenya. But also places like the US and Norway are beginning to make big improvements - even the UK in the middle distance events.
Other factors are more hypothetical, but I can’t help feeling the success of mobile phones in Kenya has had an effect somehow, bringing an encroaching of the modern world to rural Kenya, with all the “benefits”, but also the downsides.
The fact that the only free-to-access running track in Iten was shut for about five years, also can’t have helped. Here you had the Mecca of long-distance track running, with no track. The Kenyan officials who decided to shut it - supposedly for a refurbishment that never happened - have a lot to answer for.
Crack open the racing shoes
Finally, a quick update on my own training. Not much to report really, except that after a lovely but tiring 15-mile run across Dartmoor on Friday, I got up on Saturday and at the last moment decided to pop down to my nearest parkrun. It’s a long time since I did anything so short (5km), but without any time to think about it - or to get nervous - I was on the startline and racing away at full pelt - less than 45 minutes after waking up!
I kept telling myself to slow down as I didn’t want to kill myself - in my head it was just a short tempo run, a bit of speed work - but of course the frisson of competition was too much to resist and I battled through the field to finish in fifth place in 18:27. Not my fastest time by any means, and I doubt my performance left anyone in tears, but on tired legs, and at the ripe old age of 47, I was rather pleased with that.