Aug 30



The Ghanaian Times 30th August, 2011


Ok, sports events are often littered with anti-climactic moments.

Like Ben Johnson being exposed as a drug-cheat at a press conference at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, after wowing the world with a 100-metres time of 9.79 seconds.

When Johnson ran 9.79 in Seoul, it looked like the natural progression to be expected of a supremely talented sprinter who had done very well previously. But then came the anti-climax: Johnson had been cheating all the time, and —had been caught in Seoul.

In boxing, the anti-climaxes are even more stunning sometimes: Max Schmeling knocking out the “undefeatable” Joe Louis in Round 12 at Yankee Stadium on June 19, 1936; Rocky Marciano defeating Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952; and, perhaps, the most astounding anti-climax of all, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) causing the “ ugly bear”, Sonny Liston, to fail to answer the bell for the seventh round of their world heavyweight championship fight in Miami, Florida, on 25 February 1964.

On 28 August 2011, the most-awaited sports event in the world was the 100 metres which was due to take place in Daegu, South Korea. The world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, had waltzed through the two heats of the race as somnolently as he usually does. In each heat, he stopped running at about 50 metres, and then just coasted home.

One couldn’t help asking oneself: if he has stopped running at 50 metres and yet comfortably won the race, what will happen when he continues running as fast as he can, for the whole of the 100 metres?

The way Bolt looked when he ran in the two heats at Daegu convinced me that he might be able to approach 9.45 seconds in the final. I base this time on the way he turned his head away from the finish-line when he ran 9.58 seconds at the world championships in Berlin in 2009.

A year earlier, in the Peking Olympic, he had done 9.69 seconds, again without being too serious about the race. What will happen when he focuses totally on a race and also dips at the end of the race, as good professional runners are taught to do? I say 9.45, or at worst, 9.48.

I was “sympathetically” more tense at the beginning of the 100-metres race on Sunday than I suppose  most other spectators were. I ran the 100m [100 yards] as a kid, and the event always takes me back in time! So I became disconcerted when Usain began to display his crowd-pleasing antics as usual. He did stop and he got into the blocks. There was no tension in his countenance, and I was sure he would deliver a very good race.
Then they were told to “set”. Next, the pistol popped, pah!

Then the runners were stopped.

Usain Bolt grimaced, took his top off and threw it on the ground. He glanced at the heavens and looked as if he was going to cry. Without waiting for any official to tell him anything, he went to the blue canvas behind the running area and began to pound it with his fists.

Usain Bolt had made a false start. He was out of the race. My time of 9.45 seconds wasn’t going to happen!

Everyone was completely stunned – except perhaps the runners competing against Bolt. They lined up again, got set, heard the pistol and took off. Without Usain Bolt. They ran their best. But Usain Bolt had taken the spirit of the race away with him and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Poor field of athletes! To train so hard and yet have your efforts devalued because one competitor was out of the race. Yohan Blake, Bolt’s Jamaican compatriot, won the race in 9.92 seconds. But who will ever remember that?

Well, there is still a chance that Usain Bolt can rescue something from Daegu. He runs in the 200 metres on Friday, 2 September 2011. The current record for that race, which was set by Bolt in the world championships in Berlin in 2009, is 19.19 seconds. Can Bolt compensate for his 100-metres disqualification by bringing it down to, say, 19.10?

It isn’t unlikely. Between 2008 and 2009, Bolt ripped through the 200m record, reducing it from 19.30 seconds to 19.19 seconds. To achieve 19.10 seconds, the margin of reduction he needs is lower than what he clocked between 2008 and 2009. And on Friday, he will be angry paa and “meaning” the record – i.e. he will be running his hardest to make up for the earlier disqualification.

I have a feeling that he will cock a snook at the IAAF officials and the whole world by telling them on the track: “If you think that one race will take Usain Bolt out of the equation of world athletic reckoning, I am afraid you are badly mistaken.”

Bolt’s disqualification has led to a world-wide scrutiny of the “one false start and you’re disqualified” rule. The general consensus seems to be that the IAAF, by adopting the rule, has shot itself in the foot. For the rule, far from being adopted for athletic reasons, was in fact taken after pressure from the television stations which either sponsor athletics or pay huge fees to cover athletics events.

The TV stations conveyed a message to the IAAF that the delays caused by disqualifications at events were throwing the schedules of TV stations into disarray, and that such disruptions, especially when they affected scheduled advertisement insertions, were looked upon with disfavour by the advertise4rs. And the IAAF — which is made up of sports bureaucrats — instead of telling the TV stations, “We are bringing you a unique actuality, not a packaged thrill, and so you’d better be flexible when you’re covering athletics events”, immediately caved in and said, “The TV stations are threatening to withdraw? That would mean an end to our privileges (such as accommodation in luxurious hotels) when we’re on IAAF business. No, that’s not on!”

And they implemented the rule. Did they ask the athletes what they thought? I doubt it. For far too often, officials and sports politicians come to regard performers as “commodities” that can be used to achieve objectives conceived by the sports bureaucrats. They don’t look on athletes as stars with special needs.

One report I read even suggested that the “one false start” rule was enacted to stop athletes from “showboating” at events. Now, I have no doubt that some athletes are up to all sorts of tricks. But I don’t think a supremely self-confident Usain Bolt is interested in “showboating” for its own sake. What happens to him and others is that in the few moments before a race is run, enormous stress descends on them. Physically, adrenalin is pumped in huge quantities into their bodies. This puts their nerves into overdrive.

The person who exhibited the worst nerves, as far as I can remember, was the 100-metre runner, Maurice Green of the USA, who used to prance around the running area just before a race, his tongue almost hanging out – like a race-horse on a leash. Marion Jones too used to drop her head down before a race, almost in a religious gesture, and one could tell that she was escaping to an ecstatic place, as she visualised herself, at the end of the race, receiving a gold medal.

I am sure Usain Bolt also suffers from nerves: will he remember what his coach has been emphasising to him every day for months? Will be get a quick or a slow start from the blocks? And so he tries to ‘auto-distract’ these thoughts away by shooting arrows or engaging in other forms of clowning to amuse the spectators and the TV audience.

It is for the IAAF officials to find ways of reducing the stress the athletes endure, not increase it. Of course, if the athletes were clever enough, they would unite strongly in their pressure group to make their point of view heard. Certainly, they cannot entrust their welfare to sports politicians.

Meanwhile, let’s see what bolts of lightning will be unleashed at Degau, in the few remaining days of the 2011 world championships.


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