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SIOM #19: The Aspirational Australian Aboriginal

Catherine Astrid Salome “Cathy” Freeman was born on 16 February 1973, the third of five children,  to a family subjected not only to limited financial means but, being Aboriginal, no small measure of prejudice. Her early family life was unstable as her father, a skilledQueenslandfootball player, became increasingly estranged from her mother, distancing himself both physically (through his career) and emotionally (through his alcoholism). When Cathy was five, her father left the family home and was replaced by a lodger who would ultimately become Cathy’s stepfather.

Freeman discovered her talent for running at an early age, winning a gold medal at a school athletics championship when she was 8 years old. Unfortunately, even as a youngster, she encountered prejudice. She recalls winning a primary school athletics competition only to look on as the white girls she had beaten received trophies, one of which was rightfully hers. Freeman’s desire to ultimately win an Olympic gold medal was born.

Cathy was coached by her stepfather until 1989, at which point she accepted an athletic scholarship to Kooralbyn International School, where she received professional coaching. The benefits followed shortly thereafter – the following year Freeman, as a member of the 4x100m relay team at the Commonwealth Games, became the first female Australian Aboriginal to win a gold medal at an international athletics event. Her great triumph suddenly met with personal tragedy as, shortly after returning to Australia her sister, who had been born with cerebral palsy, died. Freeman later said, “I ran because she couldn’t. I’ve got two arms and two legs and it’s my duty to use them.” And use them she did.

In 1991 Freeman was presented with the Young Australian of the Year award and, a year later, became the first Australian Aboriginal to represent Australia at an Olympic Games. While her performance there was disappointing (she failed to qualify for the 400m semi finals and was part of the 4x400m relay team that placed seventh) the experience had been invaluable. In addition to the disappointment surrounding her performance inBarcelona, Freeman soon had to contend with the sudden death of her father, who had a stroke while she was inLondon. She was unable to secure a flight home in time for the funeral.

A promising career threatened to burn brightly but fade early, as Cathy waited four years since her Commonwealth Games 400m gold medal in 1990 to finally secure another international gold medal, which came at the 1994 Commonwealth Games (and was joined by a 200m gold medal). She met with some success in the relay events too, earning silver in the 4x100m and placing first in the 4x400m (although this team was subsequently disqualified). With her performances at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, Freeman attracted the world’s attention and, with her victory lap trademark of carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags, courted stern criticism from some quarters.

By the time Freeman lined up at the start of the 400m final at the Atlanta Games, she was recognised as one of the world’s best (although her fourth place at the 1995 World Championships had been disappointing). Her main competition was Marie-Jose Perec, a formidable athlete who lined up as 400m Olympic defending champion and who won the 200m gold medal at the Barcelona Games. She was also reigning 400m European Champion (1994) and double 400m World Champion (1991 and 1995). Freeman, while certainly a contender, would have to overcome the biggest challenge of her life to win the gold medal she had been dreaming of since childhood.

In the final, Freeman broke the Australian 400m record and recorded the event’s sixth fastest time ever. Perec had had to run an Olympic record, and the third fastest time in history, to beat her. Freeman was far from finished, and made this emphatically clear with a victory over Perec in the month following the 1996 Games, as well as gold medals in the 1997 and 1999 World Championships.

While Perec had been favourite four years earlier, by the time the 2000 Games began in Sydney, Freeman had stamped her authority on the event and established herself as the athlete to beat. As if her position as favourite, demands of the home crowd and expectations of an entire ethnicity were not enough, Freeman was given the added pressure of lighting the flame at the opening ceremony. While the identity of the final torchbearer was kept secret, few expected the honour to be given to her, for never before had a current competitor lit the Olympic torch.

On 25 September 2000, the nation who had waited expectantly, and the athlete who had won her first gold medal almost twenty years earlier, finally had the their answer.

Freeman had achieved her childhood dream and Australia’s 100th Olympic gold medal, breaking Perec’s Olympic record in the process. Many had eagerly anticipated a showdown between these two athletes at the 2000 Games. In the event, Perec left the Games before the final, citing extreme media pressure. Perec’s pair of gold medals from the 1996 Games would prove the last of her international victories. Freeman, conversely, was undefeated in international individual events from her Olympic gold in 2000 to her retirement in 2003. Indeed, between August 1996 and March 2003, Freeman won forty six of forty seven 400m races, the sole defeat partly attributable to a foot injury.

Today Freeman continues to inspire children and budding athletes, as a motivational speaker and the founder of the Freeman Foundation, which she started in 2007 to “bridge the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and provide pathways to success”, envisioning “An Australia where Indigenous and non-Indigenous children have the same education standards and opportunities in life”. The Foundation currently supports around six hundred children of school-going age.

Cathy’s middle names, respectively, mean “star” and “peace”. Her surname has an all too obvious meaning. While her first name means “pure” – I venture to suggest that it’s merely another way of spelling “iconic heroine”.

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SIOM #18: The Dominant Daring Diver

Greg Louganis is one of the greatest divers in the history of the sport; in fact, one would be hard pressed to find anyone better. This week’s tale will not culminate in his winning an Olympic gold medal; for the few among you who didn’t know this already, Louganis won several. The familiar theme with SIOMs past is one of personal hardship, adversity and, ultimately, triumph.

Greg Louganis was born in 1960 to a Swedish / Samoan couple who were sufficiently advanced in years to have a child, had their ages been combined. They felt unprepared and financially unable to raise their child, given that they were both fifteen years old when he was born. Louganis was raised by his adoptive Greek / American parents but life was far from easy. Louganis’ adoptive father was an emotionally abusive alcoholic whose presence only exacerbated Louganis’ feelings of inadequacy, fuelled by the taunts of classmates, who ridiculed him for his ethnicity, sexuality, dyslexia and tendency to stutter.

Louganis’ coping strategy was twofold, a dangerous combination of the high road and the low road, of Dr Jekyll the dance, acrobatic and gymnastic enthusiast who scored a perfect ten at the Junior Olympics diving event at the age of eleven, and Mr Hyde, the speed-ingesting, marijuana-dealing, suicide-attempting angst ridden teen. Correction: Louganis was not yet a teenager at this point.

Fortunately, his growing prowess on the diving board tipped the scales in favour of sporting ambition and, finding oral and emotional expression challenging, Louganis chose instead to express himself physically, throwing himself headlong into diving, immersing himself entirely in a vocation that afforded him recognition while allowing him solitude and silence. During the junior Olumpics, Louganis’ efforts had been observed by Dr Sammy Lee, a Korean double Olympic gold medal winner who soon took it upon himself to be Louganis’ coach and mentor. Four years later, Louganis moved in with Dr Lee. Under Dr Lee’s strict tutelage, Louganis achieved his first Olympic medal at the 1976 games, placing second in the 10m platform event behind Italian sporting legend Klaus Dibiasi (who won five Olympic medals over his illustrious career but retired soon after Montreal).

Few could have known it at the time, but Dibiasi’s retirement was a passing of the torch. In 1978, Louganis won his first world title, also in the 10m platform event. By 1980, with the Moscow Games approaching, Louganis was favourite to win both the 10m platform and 3m springboard gold medals. US President Jimmy Carter, however, had other plans, deciding that the US would boycott the 1980 Games in protest against Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan (ironic, given present circumstances).

Having been cheated in 1980, Louganis was overwhelming favourite to win two Olympic golds at the 1984 Games, in front of his home crowd in Los Angeles. His dominance by then was so comprehensive that anything less than double gold would be considered a failure. Louganis had been undefeated in the 3m springboard even since 1981 and easily won gold, with his 3m springboard winning streak subsequently extending to 1987. Going into his final dive (of eleven) in the 10m platform event, Louganis’ lead was such that he could have belly flopped his way to a zero score, watched his closest opponent score a perfect ten and still stood atop the podium, the first male diver to win the Olympic double since 1928. The competition was over prior to his final dive, but he was not one to disappoint his home crowd.

One year previously, Louganis had been standing at the top of the stairs to the 10m platform. The diver ahead of him, a Russian, set off on an extremely dangerous three-and-a-half somersault tuck. Shortly thereafter, Louganis felt the tower shake beneath him and immediately realised that something had gone terribly wrong. The Russian had not gained sufficient clearance to avoid the board on his way down. His head hit the platform with such force that Louganis felt the tower shake. For his final dive at the 1984 Games, Louganis attempted, and performed magnificently, the same dive that had killed a fellow competitor. Louganis became the first person to score over 700 points in a single event.

Four years later, twelve years after his first Olympic medal, Louganis travelled to the 1988 Games in Seoul, where his stiffest competition would be a Chinese diver half his age. The preliminaries of the three metre springboard should have been nothing more than a formality for the defending champion, but provided one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Games. On his ninth dive of eleven, Louganis repeated a mistake that had brought about a Russian’s demise, a mistake that Louganis himself had made in Tbilisi, a year before the Moscow Games.

Louganis’ error in judgement required eight temporary stitches. Thirty five minutes later, he completed his last two dives, easily qualifying for the final, which he won the following day. Louganis would later express his gratitude for this mistake, “It turned out to be a mixed blessing. I was heavy favourite but in a split second I became the underdog. It was an easier position to come from because the expectations weren’t there.” A few days later, Louganis mounted his title defence in the 10m platform competition. Going into the final round, he trailed fourteen year old Chinese prodigy Xiong Li (wh0 would subsequently win three gold medals in total at the 1996 and 2000 Games) by such a margin that nothing less than sublime execution of an extremely difficult dive would suffice:

Louganis won his fourth gold medal, this time by the narrowest of margins – a mere 1.14 points. For his efforts, he was awarded the Maxwell House/United States Olympic Committee Spirit Award as the Olympic athlete who had best exhibited the ideals of the Olympic spirit, demonstrated extraordinary courage and contributed significantly to the sport. It would transpire, almost a decade later, that Louganis’ courage in mounting the three metre springboard so soon after his accident was as psychological as it was physical. With temporary stitches in the back of his head, Louganis was impeded not only by fear, but moreso by guilt – the doctor had attended to him without gloves. At that stage and for years thereafter, his coach was the only other person who knew that Louganis had tested HIV positive while training for the 1988 Games.

Louganis declared his sexuality in 1994 during a videotaped message to athletes competing at Gay Games IV in New York. He remains extremely busy, speaking to youth clubs about drug and alcohol abuse and working with organisations that help the dyslexic. Always humble about his sporting achievements, Louganis has said, “I don’t want to be remembered as the greatest diver who ever lived. I want to be able to see the greatest diver. I hope I live to see the day when my records are broken.”

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SIOM #17: The Triumphant Trainwrecked Turner

This week’s story comes in the wake of numerous riots throughout England, ostensibly in reaction to the death of a gang member at the hands of the police, but, ultimately, amounting to little more than opportunistic looting of electronics and clothing by a bored and disenfranchised youth. Theft of food and basic essentials notwithstanding, these mindless acts have primarily involved petty theft and vandalism, harming London’s reputation ahead of next year’s Olympics. Swift action by the powers that be can, and arguably has, done much to restore confidence in London’s suitability for the 2012 Games. In the meantime, this week I give you George Eyser, a German-American gymnast who certainly had more to complain about than the majority of this week’s looters, but chose instead to rise above his circumstances and prevail on the world’s stage.

George Eyser was born on 31 August, 1871 in Kiel, Germany. Little is known about his early life (or, as will be detailed further on, his later life) other than the fact that he was injured irreparably during his childhood following a collision with a train (he was on foot at the time). When he was 14, his family immigrated to America. They ultimately settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where Eyser worked as a bookkeeper at a construction factory. Their choice of location would prove fortuitous, as the 1904 Games were ultimately scheduled to take place in his home town.

Eyser was an able sportsman whose talent encompassed athletics and gymnastics. He focused his efforts on the latter and joined local gymnastics club Concordia Turnverein (Team Concordia). The 1904 Games were the third modern Games and the first where gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded for the first three places. (The first competition, the brainchild of Baron Pierre de Coubertain, was held in Athens in 1896. At these and the 1900 Games, winners received trophies, while runners up received handshakes.) Eyser did not participate in the 1896 or 1900 Games (possibly because for these and the 1904 Games, the team events were organised at a club, not country, level).

Team Concordia qualified for the 1904 Games and Eyser was among its team members. American spirits were high, particularly as the1904 Games had been scheduled to coincide with the World’s Fair, an international exhibition focusing on technological inventions and advancements. The locals were hungry for gold medals; few anticipated that many would come from gymnastics, given German dominance in this sporting discipline at previous Games. Team Concordia faced further obstacles, given that one of their principal medal contenders was thirty four years of age and still bore the effects of his train collision.

Unlike contemporary Games (which last some two weeks), the 1904 Games were subject to a complex and protracted schedule. The gymnastics component consisted of two phases, the International Turners’ Championship on 1-2 July (encompassing the all-around, triathlon, and team events) and the Olympic Gymnastics Championships on 29 October (comprising seven individual apparatus events and the combined event).

Team Concordia in 1908 - Eyser is in the centre.

Eyser fared terribly in the International Turners’ Championship, placing 10th in the nine-event all-around competition. In the gymnastic-all round competition (consisting of the same nine events but comprising fewer routines) he came 71st. Eyser also competed in the athletics triathlon, registering 15.4s for the 100 metres, 4m for the long jump and 8m for the shot put, efforts that were insufficient to garner anything more than last place. Given the legacy of his train crash, it was surprising that Eyser competed in the triathlon at all.

With little to lose in the Olympic Gymnastics Championships some four months later, Eyser mounted what must surely rank as one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history, and one of the most successful individual performances at a modern Games, let alone in a single day’s competition. Eyser won six medals in total: gold in the parallel bars, long horse vault and 25 foot rope climb, silver in the pommel horse and four-event all round competition and bronze in the horizontal bar. The only gymnast more successful than Eyser at the 1904 Games was fellow countryman Anton Heida, who won five gold medals and one silver.

Without wishing to detract from Heida’s achievements, it’s worth mentioning at this point that he, unlike George Eyser, did not compete with a wooden leg.

Eyser’s Team Concordia finished fourth in the team competition, going on to win a 1908 international meet in Frankfurt, Germany and a national meet in Ohio the following year. Eyser’s life thereafter remains a mystery. Last recorded as a St Louis resident in 1910, he is not registered on census records, social security death records, death certificate registries or leading ancestry websites. Eyser’s whereabouts post-1910, and the date of his death, are unknown.

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SIOM #16: One of the Greatest Guys in the World

One need not be a running aficionado or even have so much as a passing interest in the sport to know the name Haile Gebrselassie. The Ethiopian has won multiple Olympic and World Championship gold medals as well as  major championship gold medals in distances ranging from 1,500m to 10,000m and has placed first in nine of the eleven “big city” marathons that he has entered to date. This week’s instalment is not about him, although that would be fitting, given current events in his country, the nature of which is nevertheless a feature of this article.

Sporting immortality is generally granted to those who have prevailed. The champions. The winners. Many of the performances that have bestowed immortality were, however, borne of rivalries with those who didn’t do quite as well and who, consequently, aren’t nearly as famous. Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France for seven consecutive years, from 1999 to 2005. The lesser known Jan Ulrich boasts a single victory (1997) with second places on either side of that and on three further occasions during Armstrong’s run. Pete Sampras won fourteen grand slams, prevailing over Andre Agassi in the final on three of those occasions (and losing to him in a grand slam final just once). Armstrong and Sampras had the courage and self belief to triumph over stiff competition, but the competition’s contribution to their performance and to sporting history is often overlooked. Paul Tergat’s contribution to Gebrselassie’s achievements and distance running history is often overlooked, although he is, according to Wikipedia, “one of the most accomplished long-distance runners of all time”.

In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “I love the Olympics, but I think I have a problem with the silver medal. These races, the margins are a few hundredths of a second. The difference between gold and silver is: greatest guy in the world, never heard of him”.

Paul Kibii Tergat was born on June 17 in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. Unlike many athletes, Tergat recorded his first significant victory (and competed for his country) only after he had finished high school. His status as a relatively late bloomer could be partly attributed to his malnourishment as a child, as his family was too poor to send him, and his sixteen siblings, to school with food. By Tergat’s admission, he went to bed hungry and would not have been educated had it not been for the UN World Food Program, which provided lunch at school and gave him the strength to start running the three miles to and from school from age eight. Gebrselassie had run his commute too and, as a result of carrying his schoolbooks during his childhood, still runs with his left arm at a crooked angle.

After high school, Tergat sought a way to earn a living, to earn the money that would feed his siblings and educate them, such that they may have the same opportunities that he did. Fortuitously, the military was the training ground of many Kenyan distance stars and gave Tergat the exposure and competition he needed to finally realise his talent. His first major victory came in 1995 at the relatively ripe old age of 26, when he won the World Cross Country Championships. His dominance in this event is without peer, as he remained champion until 1999, recording five consecutive victories. In Tergat’s words, “”Cross country is what I always liked most. It was my world, my passion.” In 1999 he also won the World Half Marathon Championships, repeating this feat the following year, having set the half marathon world record in 1998 (a record that stood for over seven years).

Judged by the strictest of standards, Tergat was not as successful in other major competitions. On more than one occasion, the same man stood between him and the top step of the podium. Tergat and Gebrselassie faced each other in four major 10,000m races. In the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Gebrselassie beat him by less than one second. Video footage of this event (all copies of which are part of a montage with the 2000 Games in Sydney, hence their exclusion so as not to ruin the climax of this article) shows that Tergat was first to embrace and congratulate Gebrselassie. A year later, at the 1997 World Championships in Athens, Gebrselassie again prevailed, this time by marginally more than a second over silver medallist Tergat. Tergat, buoyed by his cross country and half marathon performances, kept believing. He met Gebrselassie at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, only to once again take silver to Gebrselassie’s gold (the margin this time just shy of 1.5 seconds).

As they lined up at the start of the 10,000m final at the Sydney Games, Tergat had one last chance to beat his great rival, having lost to him at the previous Games and two World Championships since. The smart money was on Gebrselassie, who was undefeated over the distance for the preceding seven years. Tergat had to believe that he could prevail in the face of overwhelming odds. He had to have the conviction that his best effort would be sufficient to earn the greatest reward. As world record holder in the event for 9 months between August 1997 and June 1998, he was in with a chance (although he’d taken the record from Gebrselassie, who had subsequently claimed it back). Tergat had said, “Ask yourself, ‘Can I give more?’ The answer is usually ‘yes’.” Only with an effort that would answer that question differently would he be able to beat Gebreslassie.

What unfolded in Sydney is without doubt one of the most incredible distance races in history, a fitting culmination to one of sport’s great rivalries. The footage is longer than all that I have featured to date (at some four minutes), but I implore you to watch it all, for the grace and synchronisation of the lead pack and for the finish that defies belief and transcends the realm of the possible:

For all the gold medals that were arguably denied him, and the world records taken from him, by Gebrselassie, Tergat has remained an ambassador to good sportsmanship. Nicknamed “The Gentleman” he has had nothing but praise for the man he calls “my brother”. Following the 2000 Games, their rivalry continued over the marathon distance. Tergat edged ahead for a while, winning the 2003 Berlin marathon in a world record setting 2h04m55s. In 2006, many looked forward to their first face off over 26.2 miles at the London Marathon, from which Tergat had unfortunately to withdraw with a calf injury. Following his exit, he said, “I would bet on Haile – he is a smart guy, he has learned a lot about tactics.” Tergat’s marathon record stood until Gebrselassie ran the same race four years later, triumphing in 2h03m59s, the current world record. In the run up to the 2010 New York marathon (an event that Tergat had won in 2005), he was asked, “What would you advise a runner who found themselves level with Gebrselassie with 200m remaining? What would you tell him?” Tergat paused, smiled and said, “That he has no chance”.

For all of his achievements, Tergat has remained cognisant of his roots and eternally grateful to the World Food Program. In January 2004, he was named a UN World Food Programme “Ambassador Against Hunger”. The following year, he established the Paul Tergat Foundation, intended to help disadvantaged Kenyan sportspeople. He also runs Sports Marketing and PR company Fine Touch Communications (which organises the annual Sportsman Of the Year Awards in Kenya, his intention being to provide the youth with role models).

For his character, his example and his achievements both on and off the athletics track, I give you Paul Tergat: one of the greatest guys in the world.

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SIOM #15: The Handgrenade Hardened Hungarian

Recent headlines have featured the tragedies that have befallen the people of Norway, including a murderous rampage by a crazed gunman that claimed the lives of almost a hundred people. Given these events, some may question the wisdom of my choice for this week’s feature – Károly Takács, a man little known outside of his native Hungary, where he is revered as one of his country’s Olympic greats. Takács is a marksman who himself fell victim to a senseless violent episode which would have cost him his career had he allowed it to.

Takács was born in Budapest. Following his formal education, he joined the national army, where his talent for marksmanship was quickly identified and actively developed. By 1936 he was sufficiently skilled to warrant a place in the Hungarian Olympic team, but was excluded on the grounds that he was a sergeant and only commissioned officers were eligible to compete. He was thus denied a place in the Olympic team that travelled to Berlin (where Jesse Owens won four track gold medals and Fanny Blankers Koen achieved little besides obtaining Owens’ autograph).

After the Berlin Games, the “seniority restriction” hitherto applied to Olympic team selection was lifted. Two years later, Takács was already recognised as a leading contender for the 1940 Games, scheduled to be held in Helsinki. One fateful day in army training, however, he fell victim to a faulty grenade, which exploded prematurely and shattered his right (shooting) hand to bits and, many prematurely presumed, obliterated his dreams of Olympic glory as well. He spent a number of months in hospital, such was the extent of his injuries, and would suffer from a partially functional hand for the rest of his life. Surely many would have forgiven Takács had he decided to wallow in self pity and live the rest of his life wondering what might have been. He realised, however, that reflection and self pity were luxuries for those with time and, with little over a year to the 1940 Games, he hadn’t much of that.

Barely a year after his injury, Takács attended the 1939 Hungarian Pistol Shooting Championships. He was regarded with respect and a measure of pity for having the courage to watch his former rivals compete in an event that, had his right hand been intact, he could well have won. Condolencies and compassion for the Takacs the spectator were, however, soon replaced by incredulity and congratulations for the Takacs the contender, whose effort was sufficient to warrant a place in the national team. It transpired that he had been training in secret for months. He emerged as worthy an opponent as he had been prior to his accident, with one major difference – he had taught himself to shoot with his left hand.

Before investigating Takács’ record at subsequent Games, it’s worth understanding the gruelling nature of his event, the 25m rapid fire pistol. The competition consists of two stages. Each stage comprises thirty shots, fired as six series of five shots each. Each five shot series is subject to a time limit, being 8 seconds for series one, 6 seconds for series two and 4 seconds for series three (i.e. more than one shot per second). This is repeated to complete series four, five and six. Competition rules state that, at the beginning of each series, the competitor’s shooting arm must be raised from a 45 degree starting position and, crucially in Takács’ case, must be unsupported throughout. The target consists of concentric zones, the centremost of which is worth ten points, yielding a maximum possible score of 600.

Károly Takács strzela podczas zawodów Polska-Węgry-Jugosławia, Bydgoszcz, 1961

Having regained his position in the national team, Takács again set his sights on Olympic glory at the 1940 Games. Unfortunately, both these Games and the 1944 Games were cancelled due to World War II, and he would have to wait a while longer. Filled with tenacity and unwavering self belief, he qualified for the Hungarian Olympic team that travelled to London for the first post-War Games in 1948. This fairytale would not be plain sailing. The 38 year old Takács faced a formidable opponent in the form of 31 year old Argentine Carlos Enrique Diaz Saenz Valiente, the reigning world champion and world record holder.

Valiente, having heard of Takács’ misfortune, was surprised to see him at the 1948 Games. When Valiente asked him what he was doing at The Games, Takács humbly replied that he was “there to learn”. Takács’ temperament was pushed to breaking point during the compeition when his gun flashed fire during one of the series, as he was taking aim. The judge ruled this a failure shot, a decision that, had it stood, would certainly have eliminated Takács’ chances of a gold medal. After a lengthly deliberation, the jury allowed him to repeat the shot. Later that day, as Valiente looked up to Takács from the silver medal winner’s podium, he said, “I think you’ve learnt enough”. Takács had finally attained his Olympic dream, breaking the world record in the process.

Takács, however, was was not content. He travelled to Helsinki four years later, where he had been due to perform at the 1940 Games prior to their cancellation. The 1952 Games saw many special performances – three gold medals for Emil Zatopek, more world records broken than any Games before or since and 42 medals for Takács’ native Hungary, placing them third in the overall league table, behind the far more populous nations of the United States and the Soviet Union. One of those Hungarian medals belonged to Takács. Naturally, his was gold.

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SIOM #14: The Hard of Hearing Hero

The Hard of Hearing Hero

With all of the excitement that surrounds the so-called “able-bodied” Olympic Games, the achievements and contributions of physically challenged athletes are often unfairly and tragically overlooked. This week’s story features an individual who has successfully participated in both forms of competition and, furthermore, boasts significant achievements in more than one sport. Unlike athletes of features past, Terrence Parkin was not economically challenged nor did he face significant family problems. His challenge is one that affects him on a daily basis but, instead of regarding this constant obstacle as a burden, he argues that he uses it to his advantage. Terrence Parkin is deaf.

Born in April 1980 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Parkin was an active youngster. He discovered swimming at the age of 12, using sign language to communicate with his swimming coach. His deafness presented a problem in competition, where races would be started by a gunshot. Undeterred, he and his coach devised a strategy whereby his coach would position himself within Parkin’s line of sight and give a hand signal as the gun went off. Naturally, this placed Parkin at a disadvantage, particularly in top flight competition where the few milliseconds between the starting gun and his coach’s signal could be the difference between winning a race and not featuring on the podium at all. Fortunately, competition standards (notably at the Olympics) were revised to provide a visual indicator (light system) together with an auditory indicator.

In the years leading up to the Olympics, Parkin became a giant at the Deaflympics, an Olympic Games equivalent competition for deaf athletes, where he competed for South Africa. In 1997 in Copenhagen, Parkin participated in eleven short course swimming events, winning five of these and coming second in two. He fared well in able-bodied competition as well, registering silver medals for the 200m breaststroke and 400m individual medleys in the 2000 short course World Championships held in Greece. Ahead of the Sydney Games in 2000, Parkin held the African records for the 200m and 400m individual medley. Prior to setting off for the Games, Parkin communicated his motivation in a short video, where he indicated that, moreso than personal glory, he sought to put deaf athletes in the spotlight:

At the end of the race, unable to hear stadium commentators announcing the results, Parkin looked to the scoreboard, where he saw a “2” next to his name. Given that he had participated in lane 2, his immediate thought was that the “2” referred to his lane number. He soon realised that it represented his position in the race. He had earned an Olympic silver medal against able-bodied athletes. Parkin had proved to the world that he was able to overcome the obstacle posed by his deafness. He was, however, far from satisfied, going on to earn 24 gold medals in the next three Deaflympics competitions (five in Rome, 2001, twelve in Melbourne, 2005, and seven in Taipei, 2009).

Parkin was undefeated in the Taipei pool, which would lead one to presume that he had achieved his goal at the Taipei Games. However, he had one more performance up his sleeve. In the wake of his utter dominance in the swimming pool, Parkin managed a bronze medal in the 93-km cycle road race. (If this surprised some, it shouldn’t have, as he had won a gold medal at the 2006 World Deaf Cycling Championships road race and a silver medal in the mountain bike event.)

Parkin is the most successful Deaflympics athlete in history, prompting some commentators to regard him as the Deaflympics equivalent of prolific able-bodied Games gold medal winner Michael Phelps. The achievements of Parkin and the rest of the Deaflympics team at the Teipei Games were unfortunately largely overlooked, as they returned to little fanfare at the airport, as the first video on this page illustrates:

In addition to his prowess at various Deaflympic and able-bodied competitions, Parkin’s achievements extend to his personal life, as both a father of two and swimming coach at the Parkin-Windex Academy for (the latter part of the name reflecting sponsorship from a hearing aid manufacturer), responsibilities that he fits in around his training commitments (some seven hours a day, a workload that fellow South African swimmer and multiple Olympic gold medallist Roland Schoeman regards with respect and awe).

Parkin has twice won the Midmar Mile (the world’s largest open water swimming event) and received a cheque from the race organisers (and a further cheque for the Deaf Association of South Africa) following his second victory in 2002. His abilities and achievements have been recognised by sponsors, fellow athletes and commentators. The fact that entering his name into the YouTube search box yields no relevant results is merely one of many indicators that he and other similarly challenged athletes don’t receive commensurate recognition from the public at large.

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SIOM #13: The Flying Housewife

SIOM 13: The Flying Housewife

Last week’s instalment took us to the Berlin Games in 1936, where Jesse Owens emphatically discredited aspects of the Nazi doctrine which asserted racial supremacy and consigned many races, including blacks, to a “sub-human” category. Owens returned a national hero but continued to battle segregation in his native America, ultimately finding success but only after suffering a series of indignities (including racing against horses). His four track and field gold medals at a single Games have since been matched only by Carl Lewis (LA, 1984) and one other. If Owens’ performances were a statement against racial discrimination, those of Fanny Blankers-Koen were a middle finger to gender discrimination which, in the first half of the 20th century, manifested in conventional thinking, the media and the rules of sporting competition (not least, those of the Games).

Blankers-Koen was born Francina Elsje Koen near the Dutch town of Baarn on 26 April 1918, little over six months before World War I officially ended, with the international ceasefire effective from 11 November 1918. Her father had competed in the shot put and discus, and she had five brothers to keep her on her toes during her formative years. As a teenager, her sporting abilities became apparent, as she excelled in tennis, swimming, gymnastics, ice skating, fencing and running, her diverse talent presenting her with a difficult choice as to which sport to pursue. A swimming coach advised her against his discipline, pointing out that the Netherlands already had numerous swimmers of the highest calibre (including Rie Mastenbroek, who would win three gold medals and a silver medal at the Berlin games). Discouraged from swimming by one of her coaches, and encouraged by her father to pursue athletics, she elected to focus on track and field. She worked with specialist coaches, declaring, “I’ve made up my mind to go for sport.”

At the age of 17, in 1935, Fanny became a member of the Amsterdam Dames’ Athletic Club, and rode her bicycle 18 miles each way from her home in Hoofdorp to the gymnasium. Without an outdoor track at her disposal, she trained indoors, running in the gymnasium hallway. Koen’s first competition that year showed little promise, as she finished towards the back of the field in the 200m. The following month, however, she broke the national record for the 800m, a performance that attracted the attention of Jan Blankers, the Dutch national team coach, fourteen years her senior and himself a former athlete. Jan invited her to join the national team. Unfortunately, following the 1928 Games, the 800m had been withdrawn from the women’s competition schedule, considered too difficult and arduous for female athletes. Undeterred, Fanny focused on other track and field events.

Koen’s Olympic debut was less than spectacular. She was selected for the high jump and the 4x100m relay and placed tie fifth in the former and fifth out of six teams for the latter (ahead of the German team, which had been disqualified). The Games, however, were not a total loss for Koen, as she obtained Jesse Owens’ autograph, which she since described as her “most treasured possession”. Koen’s fighting spirit and indomitable determination manifested in the years that followed, as she set her first world record in 1938 (clocking 11 seconds flat for the 100 yards). That year, she also won her first international medals, earning bronze in the 100 and 200m at the European Championships. Many expected her to do well in the 1940 Games, scheduled to take place in Helsinki. World War I had not affected her but its sequel certainly did. The outbreak of the War put paid to the 1940 Games, which were formally cancelled on 2 May 1940, a week before the Netherlands was invaded by Germany.

Around six months after Germany’s invasion of Holland, Fanny married her coach, changing her name to Fanny Blankers-Koen. Her husband, while supportive as her coach and personally, was also a sports journalist who, until his marriage to Fanny, had regularly expressed the popular opinion that women should not compete in sports. Fanny gave birth to her first child in 1941, following which the Dutch media wrote her off as an athletic prospect, presuming her retirement in an era when married female athletes were rare, and the concept of an internationally competitive mother unthinkable. She resumed training a few weeks after giving birth.

During the War, Blankers-Koen set six world records, in the 80m hurdles, high jump, 100m (although this performance was never officially recognised, as she had run against men), the long jump, the 100 yards and the 4x100m and 2x200m relays. Koen’s performances were impressive not only in the wake of giving birth and considering her advancing age, but also in light of meagre war time rations. In 1946, she gave birth to a second child, six weeks before the European Championships. Despite this, she again quickly resumed training, emerging victorious in the 80m hurdles and 4 x 100m relay. In 1947 she won national titles in six events, was the leading athlete in the Netherlands and qualified for the first postwar Olympic team. Again, Fanny’s talents gave her excessive choice, as Olympic rules prohibited female athletes from competing in more than four track and field events. Blankers-Koen elected to focus on four track events and was therefore, ridiculously, prohibited from competing in either the long jump or the high jump, a situation made all the more farcical by her status as the then world record holder in both of these events.

Although Blankers-Koen displayed compelling form in the weeks leading up to the Games, beating her own 80m hurdles record, journalists suggested that, at 30 years old, she was past her prime. The British athletics team manager, Jack Crump, claimed that she was “too old to make the grade”. Back home, many in the Netherlands were critical, stating that she should retire from international competition so that she could look after her children. Blankers-Koen had entered the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4 x 100m relay. Could she silence the critics and naysayers by executing performances that would cement her place in history, not just as an Olympic gold medal winner, but as a triumph against conventional wisdom that explicitly expounded on the perceived frailties and physical limitations of female athletes, particularly aging mothers?

She had seen her hero, Jesse Owens, achieve four Olympic gold medals at the previous Games when she was 18 years old. Twelve years later, at the age of 30 and at this stage a mother of two, she sought to emulate him. Sports participation in its entirety had at one stage been considered unsuitable for women, based on the premise that participation could impair women’s ability to have children. In a 1990s paper, Michelle Stanworth, a leading sociologist, identified the irony of motherhood as an empirical paradox, describing it thusly, “motherhood, and the responsibilities which it encompasses, often repress women while at the same time allowing and encouraging women to unearth newfound aspects of self-worth through mothering. Therefore motherhood is both a potential constraining social construction as well as a prospective process of self-exploration and advancement.” Essentially, the question put to Blankers-Koen at the 1948 Games in London was, “Could she have her cake and eat it”?

Blankers-Koen had matched the achievements of her hero and, together with Carl Lewis, remains one of three athletes to attain four track and field gold medals at a single Games. Her peerless performance had not been without incident. In her second event, the 80m hurdles, her closest rival was British Maureen Gardner, who had not only equalled Fanny’s world record prior to the Games, but was coached by Jan Blankers. At the end of the race, the British anthem was played, eliciting rapturous applause from the crowd and despondency from Blankers-Koen. It then transpired that the anthem signified not the result of the race, but the arrival of the royal family. Two gold medals down, with two events to go, Blankers-Koen suffered a near mental breakdown, experiencing extreme homesickness and wishing to return to her family. She pleaded with her husband to let her withdraw from the Games, but he encouraged her to persevere. There was consternation before the start of the 4x100m hurdles, as Blankers-Koen almost missed the start, having gone shopping for a raincoat.

Blankers-Koen returned to her native Holland a hero but, similarly to Owens’ experience on his return to America, faced continued prejudice, albeit good-natured and well-intentioned, when the Dutch government presented her with a bicycle, to help her “run less and go through life at a slower pace”. Global gender discrimination and debate as to whether women could physically manage to run the 200m competitively continued, with one international correspondent at the games describing the London Games 200m thusly, “Mrs Blankers-Koen won by less than a couple of her rapidly shortening strides, weakening indeed visibly after her prolonged all-out effort on the sodden track… Miss Williamson did well to gain second place in such a gruelling race – a shade too gruelling for women, as many people thought. Even Mrs Blankers-Koen looked white and strained at the finish.”

On her return, Fanny said, “”All I’ve done is run fast. I don’t see why people should make much fuss about that.” She subsequently recalled, “I remember thinking how strange that I had made so many people happy, but times were harsh and people were glad of the opportunity to celebrate anything. I was proud to bring joy into people’s lives”. Queen Juliana subsequently made her a knight of the Order of Orange Nassau and in 1999 she was voted “Female Athlete of the Century” by the International Amateur Athletics Federation, in recognition of her four Olympic gold medals and sixteen world record performances in eight events (appropriately including the diverse pentathlon).

In 1972 she had met her hero at the Munich Games, when she said, “I still have your autograph, I’m Fanny Blankers-Koen”, to which Owens replied, “You don’t have to tell me who you are, I know everything about you.”

Blankers-Koen died in 2004, at the age of 85, a year after the first biography of her life was released, entitled “Een koningin met mannenbenen” or “A queen with men’s legs”. She is survived by three children, the youngest of which was born in 1949 and had been conceived prior to the 1948 Games. Four Olympic gold medals whilst pregnant? So much for conventional wisdom.

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SIOM #12: The African American Aryan Assassin

Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games. One need not be the most ardent of Olympic fans to know that fact. (Fewer among you may know numerous experts don’t view this as his greatest athletic achievement.) One need not be an expert on the history of segregation in American society to surmise that, as an African American in the first half of the 20th century, Owens had some challenges to overcome. The source of inspiration for this story arises from the detail and magnitude of his accomplishments and of the challenges he faced, throughout his life, a review of which has forced me to wonder whether he succeeded despite these challenges or, due to his frightening determination and resilience, because of them. I hope to do him justice.

A sickly child

J.C. Owens was born in 1913, the youngest of thirteen children, on a farm in Alabama. His father worked on a farm, where J.C. and his siblings (some of whom died when he was young) were also put to work. By the age of seven he was expected to pick 100 pounds of cotton a day, a tall order for a sickly child who, partly due to inadequate housing, food and clothing, suffered from chronic bronchial congestion and several bouts of pneumonia. When he was nine, his family moved to Cleveland, as part of the Great Migration, where he attended school. During roll call one day, a teacher asked him his name. He replied “J.C.” which, given his thick Southern accent, the teacher interpreted as “Jesse”, the name by which he would henceforth be known.

A talent discovered

Owens began his athletic career at Fairmount Junior High, under the guidance of track coach Charles Riley. Given that he had to support his family in his spare time, by delivering groceries, loading freight cars and working in a shoe repair shop, Riley allowed him to practice before school. Owens would, throughout his life, attribute his athletic success to Riley, who not only coached him, but, having sympathy for the sickly youth, brought him food in the mornings and invited him home for dinner in the evenings. On Riley’s nutritional programme, and under his technical guidance, Owens grew stronger. He met with success at the schools level but had yet to achieve nationwide fame. This duly came when, at the age of 20 and while attending East Technical High School, he equalled the world 100 yard record, clocking 9.4 seconds (having broken the world broad jump, otherwise known as the standing long jump, record the previous week).

A historic performance

Jesse’s athletic prowess initiated a flood of college offers, from which he selected Ohio State University. Despite his proven abilities, Owens was not offered a scholarship and had to work several jobs, including elevator operator, waiter and petrol attendant, to afford his tuition fees. In his junior (third) year, Owens was undefeated in 42 events, including a memorable performance at the Big Ten Finals (a Midwestern intervarsity meet) in Michigan. Nobody had expected much as, a week prior, Owens had been horsing around with a fraternity brother and had hurt his back following a bout of wrestling which had culminated in their falling down the stairs. His back hurt to the extent that his coach and teammates had to help him into the car ahead of their journey to Michigan and, once there, had help him out of it. He tried in vain to ease his back trouble by bathing in ice water for half an hour. Unable to stretch (and having been unable to train for the previous week), many suggested he withdraw. He did quite the opposite.

At 3.15pm, he equalled the 100 yard world record, which he jointly held (again running 9.4 seconds). By 4pm he had broken the world records for the long jump (managing just one attempt, in which he leapt 8.13m, a mark that would be bettered only twenty five years later), the 220 yard dash (and concurrently, the 200m) as well as the 220 yard low hurdles (concurrently, the 200 metre low hurdles). Numerous experts today cite this 45 minute display, during which he broke six world records, as the greatest athletic achievement in history.

A political statement

The following year, Owens was ready for the 1936 Games in Berlin, which Hitler and his  Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (or “Propagandaministerium”, headed by Joseph Goebbels) viewed as the perfect opportunity to showcase their racial policies, enshrined in a Nazi doctrine which asserted the superiority of the “Aryan Race” (a master race of people of northern European descent) and the inferiority of other racial groups (including blacks) which were classified as Untermensch (“sub-human”). A few weeks prior, the German press had applied an Aryan interpretation to German boxer Max Schmeling’s heavyweight boxing defeat of African American champion Joe Louis. Ahread of the Games, they criticized the American team (10 of which, out of 66, were black) for relying on “black auxiliaries”.

Owens, once ensconced in the athlete’s village, was visited by Adi Dassler (who had formed the “Brothers Shoe Company”, roughly translated, with sibling Rudi) who, in the first ever sponsorship of an African American athlete, invited, and convinced, Owens to use the Dassler Brothers’ shoes. Owens participated in four events, winning gold medals in all, tieing the world 100m record, setting Olympic records for the long jump and 200m and helping his teammates to a world record in the 4x100m relay (which stood for 20 years):

 Of all the events, it was the long jump that Owens found most challenging. In the preliminary rounds, he fouled twice (overstepping the board) and was on the verge of disqualification. Luz Long, the European Champion from Germany and Owens’ stiffest completion, had been looking forward to jumping against Owens and refused to let the contest fizzle out. He advised Owens to take off a foot before the board, for he would still reach the qualifying distance. Owens did so, qualified for the final and traded the lead with Long, ultimately beating him into silver. Long was the first to congratulate him. In Owens’ words, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.”

A lack of recognition

Following Owens’ victories, Hitler did not shake his hand, prompting allegations that Hitler had snubbed him. On the first day of the Games, Hitler had shaken the hands of only the German medal winners. The IOC informed him that this was not in the spirit of the Games, demanding that he either shake all athletes’ hands or none at all. He opted for the latter and attended no further medal ceremonies.

Owens returned to America a hero, the first American athlete to win four gold medals at a single Games, a feat not repeated until the Los Angeles games in 1984, when compatriot Carl Lewis (also from Alabama) won gold medals in the same four events that Owens had, ultimately cashing in on his athletic success to the tune of c.$20 million. Segregation, however, remained rife. When travelling to competitions he had to eat at “black only” restaurants and stay at “black only” hotels. He said, “”When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.” Owens had to ride the freight elevator down a reception, in his honour, at the Waldorf Astoria.

An unfortunate decline…

The next few years were not kind to Owens. Businessmen paid him for the right to use his name on their stores but none would offer him a permanent job. Shortly after the Games, he became ineligible to compete for Ohio University due to poor academic standing. Forced to make ends meet, not least because his second child had just been born, he accepted low paying odd jobs and founded a dry cleaning company. He filed for bankruptcy a year later. His third child was born the year after that, shortly before he withdrew from Ohio University. By 1945, Owens had become a pack a day smoker and was accepting fees to race professional baseball players (always giving them a headstart), racehorses (who he later admitted selecting based on their skittishness, knowing that he would have an advantage once they were distressed by the starting gun), motorbikes, cars, trucks and dogs. Many criticised him for behaving in a manner not befitting of an Olympic champion and role model, to which he retorted, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals. Sure, it bothered me. But at least it was an honest living. I had to eat.”

… and subsequent redemption

Fate, however, finally smiled kindly on Owens, his four gold medals and numerous world record performances ultimately changing his life. He was appointed the Director of National Fitness by the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense and, the following year, hired by Ford Motor Co. as Assistant Personnel Director of African-American workers, before being promoted to Director and working in public relations. In 1950, he and his family moved to Chicago, where he established a public relations agency. His reputation flourished, aided by his achievements finally receiving the recognition they deserved, including the tile “greatest track athlete of the past half-century” (Associated Press, 1950), induction into the US Track and Field Hall of Fame (1974) and a doctorate from Ohio University. He finally received formal recognition from the White House forty years after the Berlin Games, when President Gerald Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. government.

A lasting legacy

In 1979, Owens was diagnosed with lung cancer and died the following year. In the preceding three decades, he had travelled the world, giving speeches and running athletic clinics. In his final years, instead of running against racehorses, he owned racehorses that raced for him. Upon his death, President Jimmy Carter remarked, “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry.”


Jesse Owens’ name lives on in many forms, including the Jesse Owens Memorial Plaza outside Ohio Stadium, Jesse Owens Memorial Park in Alabama and Jesse Owens Allee, a street near the Berlin Olympic Stadium. In 2009 at the World Championships and on the same track that Owens achieved his 100m Olympic gold medal, Usain Bolt, wearing Puma shoes, set the current 100m world record, clocking 9.58 seconds. (During World War II, Adi and Rudi Dassler had a bitter feud, dissolved their joint company and formed Adidas and Ruda (later rebranded Puma), respectively.) A week after Bolt’s performance, and at the same competition, Marlene Dortch (Jesse Owens’ granddaughter) and Kai and Julia-Vanessa Long (son and granddaughter of Luz Long) hosted a press conference, where they spoke about the mutual legacies of their families.

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SIOM #11: The Locomotive

Emil Zatopek was one of the greatest runners of the 20th century. A man of humble beginnings, he was the sixth of eight children, born in 1922 to a carpenter in Moravia. Little about his tranquil rural upbringing, aside perhaps from regular physical activity, would suggest that he was destined for greatness. His athletic achievements in the Olympic arena, primarily at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, are without peer. It is, however, his attitude to life and his personality, captured by quotes oft cited to this day, for which he is just as revered.

A beast awakened

Following Emil’s idyllic if somewhat economically challenging childhood, he was fortunate to have been picked as part of an intake of 100 teenage boys to complete an apprenticeship at the local shoe factory. One day the factory sports coach, by all accounts an intimidating and terrifying character, chose four boys (Zatopek included) to participate in a footrace across the city. Despite Emil’s protests, which included a feigned knee injury, he was coerced to take part. The race awakened the sleeping beast, as he suddenly found that he desperately wanted to win. His second place garnered an invitation to join the local running club up the hill from the factory, which he gladly accepted.

Training revolutionised

When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Zatopek took solace in running. In his own words, “During the war, for me, being in the club was a great pleasure. Because it was a sad time, not a favourable time. It was not allowed to dance, maybe. It was not possible to buy chocolate, maybe. It was very trieste, very sad. But the stadium, oh, it was very nice. We you boys had not only training but pleasure, too. To run. To jump. To have fun”.

Zatopek spent the next five years training and competing only in his native Czechoslovakia, after which he was accepted for officer training at the Czech military academy. This was an ideal situation, for his superiors encouraged him to train. And train he did. Now credited as one of the forbearers of interval training for distance runners (a revolutionary idea at the time, which, together with his ungainly running gait, earned him scorn and ridicule from competitors and coaches alike) he would sprint 400 metre intervals, with 200 metre recoveries in between, forty times a day. Aside from his brutal interval sessions, he invariably trained in heavy army boots and regularly in the snow. His reasoning for combining these elements was simple – “Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I must learn how to run fast”. In competition, the burden of his heavy boots removed, he was suddenly very fleet of foot indeed (if somewhat loud; his nickname likening both his pace and the sound of his breathing to that of a locomotive).

The world takes notice

In 1947, the merits of his unconventional methods bore fruit and he silenced his detractors. In his first 5,000m race that year, he clocked the second fastest time ever and was undefeated over that distance for the rest of the season. At the 1948 Olympics in London the following year, he was favourite for the event, but placed second by 0.2 seconds. He had entered the 10,000 metres, but faced Viljo Heino of Finland, who had held the world record for the previous four years. As was the case with his training, Zatopek’s strategy was cunning in its simplicity. He targeted 71 second laps throughout the race and had asked a friend to sit in the crowd and wave a red shirt every time the pace “slackened”. Zatopek sat comfortably in the middle of the pack until the 8th lap, as the end of which the red shirt appeared. He burst through the pack into the lead and was unchallenged for the rest of the race, winning by 48 seconds. His performance, while impressive, would pale into insignificance four years later.

In 1949, Emil achieved his first world record, running 29m28s in the 10,000m. This earned the respect of his military superiors, and their disappointment when Heino eclipsed him days later. They firmly suggested that he run again, to which he replied that he needed three weeks without military duty so that he could focus on his training. Three weeks later, he reclaimed the world record, knocking six seconds off Heino’s mark. Zatopek was just warming up. The following year, he beat his own world record by 18 seconds and won gold medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m at the European Championships, despite having fallen sick from eating spoiled goose.

Zatopek’s attempt at the 1 hour world record in 1951 was subsequently referred to by Australian distance legend Ron Clarke as “probably the best performance ever”. As one of only six people in history to have run 10,000m in under 30 minutes, Zatopek became the first person to achieve this twice, consecutively, and completed 20km in 59m51s. Roll on Helsinki, the 1952 Games, ahead of which Zatopek had been undefeated in the 10,000m since his victory at the previous Games.

Olympic dominance

Ahead of the Games, Zatopek had fallen ill with a gland infection, a blessing in disguise that prevented him from overtraining. Days before the Games, one of his team mates was omitted due to his father’s political allegiance. Zatopek boldly declared that he would not leave the country without him. The Communists acquiesced in the nick of time, and both athletes boarded the plane for Helsinki. Some commented that Zatopek was the only man in Czechoslovakia who could have got away with such a stunt. When he arrived in Helsinki, the Finns, far from being angered that he had taken the world record from their beloved Heino, adopted him as one of their own, and called him “satu pekka”, meaning “fairy-tale guy”.

Zatopek had earned the respect of his competitors and captured the imagination of the world, not only for his achievements and ability, but for his humility. He said, “To boast of a performance that I cannot beat is merely stupid vanity. And if I can beat it that means there is nothing special about it”. He had entered the 5,000m and 10,000m. His favoured event, the 10,000m, was first. Roger Bannister (he of four minute mile fame) recounts a story that illustrates Zatopek’s character. The night before the race, an Austrian reporter burst into his room seeking an interview. Far from evicting the man, Zatopek granted him an audience for twenty minutes and thereafter offered him half his bed when he realised that the reporter didn’t have one of his own.

The following day, starting positions were dictated alphabetically, placing Zatopek in the third and last row. His competitors ushered him to the front and he won in an Olympic record time, repeating this feat in the 5,000m and on both occasions beating his great friend, Alan Mimoun of France, into silver. Later that day, it was his turn to support. He had married Dana Igrova, a fellow team member, shortly after the London Games, on 19 September 1948, their joint 26th birthday. As she emerged to partake in the javelin, she spotted her spouse and yelled, “Where is your gold medal? Give it to me. I’ll bring it for good luck”. She promptly beat her personal best by two metres and earned her own Olympic gold. Zatopek later insisted that his 5,000m victory had inspired his wife. She invited him to see if he could inspire anyone else to beat her.

The couple was not finished with the Helsinki Games. Zatopek decided at the last minute to enter his first marathon. Jim Peters of the UK was the record holder at the time and favourite for the event. Again, Zatopek’s strategy was simple. Acknowledging his blatant lack of experience, he decided to shadow Peters. Peters, unnerved, set off in a startled fashion, running 15h43 for the first 5km. His reckless pace soon caught up with him, as did Zatopek at the 20km mark:

Zatopek won his fourth Olympic gold by two and a half minutes, once again in Olympic record time. Of his victory, he said, “If you want to win something, run the 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon”.

In the wake of the 1952 Games, Emil was asked to cite his most impressive accomplishment. Surely three gold medals in eight days would be a contender. Zatopek’s replied, “For some reason our housekeeper never liked me. But after the 1952 Games, she said ‘I am now your friend’ ”.

Not quite finished

A few months later, Zatopek added the 30km world record to his 10k, 15k and 20k world marks. His military superiors, somewhat hard to please it seems, sternly pointed out that the 5k was an Olympic event, yet he did not hold the world record. They asked him simply, “Can you get it?” Again, he requested a three week “sabbatical”. This time, he ran fifty 400m intervals in the morning and another fifty in the afternoon, every day for two weeks. He then flew to Paris, rested for a week and launched his assault. Four kilometres into the race, he was three seconds off world record pace. After a final kilometre of 2m43s, he eclipsed the world record by a second. The very next day, he became the first person ever to run under 29 minutes for the 10,000m, a distance over which he triumphed on 38 consecutive occasions from 1948 to 1954. At the 1956 Games, Zatopek attempted the marathon but, suffering from a hernia that he had contracted while carrying his wife in another bout of innovative training, he managed only sixth place. He was delighted for the winner, Mimoun of France (silver medallist to Zatopek’s gold in the 5,000m at the 1948 Games and 5,000m and 10,000m at the 1952 Games).


When Zatopek passed away in late 2000, he commanded large obituaries from newspapers worldwide, most of which centred on his status as one of the best loved sportspeople the world had ever seen. Always humble, he kept no trophies in his house, having given them all away to friends and fans. His generosity is perhaps best illustrated by his gift to Ron Clarke, who was heavily criticised in his native Australia for his Olympic performances and who Zatopek believed was a greater runner than his Olympic record suggested. Clarke broke 17 world records but his best Olympic result was a 10,000m bronze at the 1964 Games. In 1966 at an airport in Prague, Zatopek pressed a small package into Clarke’s hand and said “look after this, you deserve it”. When Clarke opened the package on the plane, he found Zatopek’s 10,000m Olympic gold medal from Helsinki.

Clarke said, “No-one cherishes any gift more than I do this: my only Olympic gold medal; and not because of what it is… but because of the man whose spirit it represents. His enthusiasm, his friendliness, his love of life, shone through every moment. There is no and never was a greater man than Emil Zatopek”.

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SIOM #10: Akhwarrior

This week’s tale centres on an event whose origins have, admittedly somewhat debatably, been traced back some two and a half millennia: the marathon. Aspects of the marathon’s history as an event will be the subject of a future instalment. For the purposes of this week’s journey, suffice it to say that the event was part of the first modern day Olympics in 1896 and has been a feature of every Games since, albeit with varying course lengths until 1921, when the International Amateur Athletic Federation standardised the distance at 26 miles and 385 yards (used to this day). The Games preceding this ruling  had seen seven different course lengths, ranging from 24.8 miles to 26.7 miles. The seemingly arbitrary distance matched that used at the 1908 Games in London, originally set at 26 miles but increased by 385 yards so that the finish line would be in front of the Royal Box at Windsor Castle, enabling the Princess of Wales and her children (six in all) to witness the spectacle’s culmination.

The marathon had, until 1960, been the preserve of predominantly European and British athletes. The 1960 Games in Rome heralded the rise of North African athletes as long distance specialists, initiated by Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia winning the marathon and Africa’s first Olympic gold medal, a feat that he repeated in Tokyo four years later. In 1968, with the African distance renaissance gathering momentum, and at the age of 36, he arrived in Mexico City seeking to achieve what no other runner had done before or has accomplished since – three gold medals in one event over three Games. More about him in a future instalment.

The focal figure of this week’s instalment is John Steven Akhwari, a Tanzanian athlete who sought to break Bikila’s (and Ethopia’s) dominance of the Olympic marathon. His responsibility was further intensified by the fact that this was only Tanzania’s second Games and he would thus necessarily act as a trailblazer for future Tanzanians. He was 30 years old.

As he lined up at the start, he faced some formidable competition. Aside from Bikila (who had set the marathon world record between his Olympic golds), he faced Derek Clayton of Australia, who followed a brutal training schedule (at times covering 160 miles a week) and who had the previous year become the first person to break the 2h10 marathon barrier. The conditions suited the North Africans, as the race set off in the early afternoon, in the face of stifling heat and at an altitude of almost 1.5 miles.

Bikila had broken his foot a few days previously and, with an injury to his right knee, pulled out at 10 miles. The heat and altitude were such that he would be joined by sixteen other non-finishers (almost a quarter of the field). Bikila’s reasons for abandoning his attempt were understandable. Akhwari too was handed a plausible and unfortunate excuse to quit. Relatively early on, he fell catastrophically, hitting his head, severely cutting his knee, dislocating his knee joint and, to compound his agony, enduring a trampling by fellow competitors who had been unable to avoid his fallen body.

The race was ultimately won by another Ethiopian, Mamo Wolde, in little over 2h20m (more than ten minutes slower than the then world record). 55 other athletes crossed the finish line, five of whom failed to break three hours, such were the appalling conditions. The closing ceremonies were wrapped up shortly after 7pm. The spectators and athletes who remained began collecting their belongings and preparing to leave the stadium.

The 1968 Games, however, had one last moment of magic in store. The announcer asked those present to remain in their seats. Many in the stadium could see a police motorcade on the street outside, encircling an athlete whose progress was unimaginably slow. They stayed and waited with baited breath. Given that Wolde had won over an hour earlier, and seventeen athletes had pulled out (thus reducing the stigma of doing so), it seemed unthinkable that anyone could still be out on the course.

Minutes later, his body broken but his indomitable spirit intact, Akhwari entered the stadium, his lap around the the 400m track thereafter widely considered as the most memorable last place finish in history. With his knee bandaged, and racked with exhaustion, his progress was slow but determined. The crowd were impressed, and they let him know as much. What began as a slow clap soon progressed into a crescendo of applause and a standing ovation. As inspiring and memorable as Akhwari’s effort was, it is the echo of his words, moreso than the image of his struggle, for which he is most remembered:

Back in Tanzania, Akhwari faced questions over the outcome of the race, but always replied calmly, never considering his failure to win a medal a cause for embarrassment. On the contrary, his family members praised his efforts, as he had acted on their advice, “If you start doing something, finish it. Otherwise, never start it.”

Akhwari competed for a decade after the 1968 Games, finishing fifth in the marathon at the 1970 Commonwealth Games. He continues as a coach at the John Stephen Akhwari Athletic Foundation, an organization which supports Tanzanian athletes training for the Olympic Games. He was invited to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and to Beijing as a goodwill ambassador ahead of the 2008 Games.

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