Monday, March 05, 2007

Keep On Running

When I was a boy athletics was big. Of course back then it seemed that everything was big. In the 1980s, the golden age of televised sport, everything was on telly. Yes, I know, the summers were long and hot and people were nice to each other too, but really, before satellite television every dogfight or domino match of any significance was free on the box.

Not that Sky killed athletics, of course. When Des Lynam was handed a piece of paper during a live broadcast at the 1988 Seoul Olympics a couple of days after Ben Johnson had become the fastest man on earth, the sport took a mortal hit.

In the years that followed, when the Premiership and the Champions League football distended to dominate so much of the sporting imagination, a 'discredited' sport like athletics was in trouble.

Before that, though, those endless golden summers were incomplete without the captivation of a major athletics championship. The countless threads of narrative an athletics championship (or even a single Grand Prix) could provide made them a banquet for the viewer. The full scope of possible protagonists helped: both genders; tall, languid high jumpers; muscle-bound, highly-strung sprinters; monstrous, hairy throwers of heavy objects (again, both genders); mysterious, inscrutable distance runners. The stadium at a major meet became like the complete works of some sporting bard.

There were the great British middle distance rivals: Coe, Ovett, then the elegant Steve Cram, but who all bowed to the incredible Said Aouita. The men's 100 metres title replaced the heavyweight boxing crown as the ultimate imprimatur of the macho alpha male. Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson and Linford Christie preened and strutted like thoroughbred stallions.

Heike Dreschler and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jan Zelezny and Steve Backley, Lewis and Mike Powell in the long jump. Sergei Bubka and Ed Moses had no rivals, other than the record books.

The ancient nature of the disciplines is reflected in their simplicity. No need for the Victorian starched-shirt codification of the great ball games; in athletics you just went faster, further or higher.

Watching David Gillick pass Germany's Bastian Swillims on Saturday to win the 400m gold at the European Indoor Championships was yet another reminder of what a loss to those who love sport the lowly status of athletics (relative to previous generations) is.

The base courage of a runner scraping his reserves of strength and character to overtake his rival on the final bend and accelerate to the finish remains a powerful sight. It's a sequence of aesthetic events that I personally find more meaningful than when similarly carried out by a horse or a motor car.

Of course, the sport's constant struggles with performance enhancing drugs and the lack of space for 'other' sports in the football-dominated landscape mean that it's one that gets celebrated less than it undoubtedly should.



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