Following on from part one, these next few instalments (I have no idea how many there will be) focus more on the competition itself in Rio, plus a few other experiences away from the competition arena. It’s not a blow-by-blow report of each event, as they have already been covered in depth long ago elsewhere; it’s simply my own personal account of some of the more memorable events.
A flying start
No one expected a world record in the first morning session of athletics.
Almaz Ayana was crowned the first athletics champion of the Games when winning the 10,000m in a world record of 29:17.45. Much has since been written and said about the performance – some comments fair; others less so – but many are missing some key observations.
– Simply running faster than someone with a questionable past does not automatically mean that the faster athlete is also questionable. The logic is so flawed, but it can be summed up in two words: Bernice Wilson.
– When Wang Junxia broke the world record, she did it with massively uneven splits (15:05 first half, 14:26 second half, a final 3000m of 8:17). Had she attacked it from the outset with an even pace, the record would be closer to 29:00 flat. So for all these years, the world record could have been stronger.
– Athletes feared the world record, simply because it was ‘a Chinese world record’ and believed it to be beyond reach. The same happened with the women’s 5000m world record, which stood to Jiang Bo at 14:28.09 until it was finally broken in 2004, after which the floodgates opened. Jiang’s mark has now been bettered on 24 occasions.
– There have been very few top-class women’s 10,000m races in which elite athletes at their absolute peak have attacked it from the start. Although they set PBs in Rio, Tirunesh Dibaba and Vivian Cheruiyot aren’t currently at their prime. Had they really gone for a fast time earlier in their careers at the peak of their powers, they too could have broken Wang’s world record.
– When Dibaba ran her 29:54 at the 2008 Olympics, she only picked up the pace during the final 3000m, covering it in 8:40 – some eight seconds quicker than Ayana’s closing 3000m in Rio. And Dibaba was still able to produce a final lap of 60.16. I’m utterly convinced that Dibaba in 2008 would have been more than capable of running 29:15 or faster in an even-paced race.
– The fact that four women went sub-30 in Rio shows what can happen when a 10,000m race has good, fast pacing from the start. It also shows that the 30-minute barrier needn’t have been feared for so many years.
Walking the walk
In between the morning and evening sessions on day one, I headed over to Pontal for the men’s 20km race walk and by the time we got there, we knew the race would be coming up to the half-way point. The first thing we saw was Tom Bosworth a few strides ahead of all the main contenders.
“Now either Tom has gone off like a rocket,” I thought to myself, “or he is about to be lapped.”
Thankfully I was wrong on both accounts.
We quickly got up to speed with what exactly was happening and realised that Tom was indeed leading, but hadn’t gone off at a ridiculous pace. Although a few guys eventually caught him, Tom managed to maintain his pace and finished a superb sixth in a national record.
I’d spoken to Tom earlier in the season in Rome, where things didn’t quite go to plan for him, and I knew he was keen to put things right in Rio, so it was great to see it all work out so well for him. He fully deserves it.
There were other guys in that race whose training and preparation I’d had a little bit of an insight to over the past year or so. Some of them were pleased with their performances, while others had a day they’d rather forget.
It was perhaps the closest I’d come to comprehending just how much of a knife-edge these athletes are on. Personally, I’m filled with nothing but the utmost admiration for any athlete who reaches this level. But having followed the training that some of these athletes put themselves through – all of which builds up to one day that comes around once every four years – and to then see them fall short of what they’d hoped to achieve, sometimes due to factors beyond their control, it made me realise just how brutal sport can be.
It happens in every event and in every sport, of course. But when you have an appreciation of the work and sacrifices that are involved, it makes it even tougher to watch those moments.
Thankfully, though, the low moments in Rio were few and far between. In fact, the absolute high point of my trip – perhaps even of my life – came during a taxi ride on the afternoon of 14 August.
To be continued…