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Soup of This Day #229: Cries On Every Tune

August 10, 2012

Hill Ten, Kenya
Hill Ten, a contraction of which yields the name of nearby Iten, a town in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya. Its altitude, combined with the local St. Patrick’s High School and a hunger for success, has made Iten a rich source of world-class distance runners – Photo: Toby Tanser, 2012. Toby Tanser is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

Every now and then I get the desire to label 1 of these posts as a wildly optimistic Soup of This Day #3,482. This would be a win-win situation – It would make me look like I’d been doing this writing thing for a lot longer than I have and it would give you, the reader, confidence in me as a writer such that you could feel relaxed and comfortable with the subject matter.

Of course I have only written 229 of these posts so I’ve gone and destroyed the illusion for you pretty much right after I proposed its creation. Not that 229 posts is to be sniffed at.

Unless you have a cold or hay fever in which case you might sniff at lots of things, although I’m not sure it’s wise. I’m not a doctor but I think you’re best off blowing your nose – Better out than in.

Which funnily enough is my theory of writing. If I don’t get these thoughts out they rattle around inside my head like mental shrapnel.

Nothing ends well that involves shrapnel.

So I write and this is my 229th attempt at coalescing my thoughts into a post about sport. I have for this effort been mulling over the Olympics. Despite saying around 7 posts ago that I wasn’t really going to write about the London Games because I couldn’t tap into the Olympic spirit.

I then proceeded to write the better part of 5,000 words about the Olympics.

The problem is that even though I wasn’t aiming to be caught up in these London Games I have been lured in, like a moth to a bug-zapper. I’m a habitual sports fan, a slave to the minutiae that makes up such a global event. It’s in the detail…

Like getting up at precisely 4:50am, Australian Western Standard Time (AWST) this morning to watch the men’s 200m final with Usain Bolt running against… Well, mostly the clock if we’re honest. Unfortunately I was also running against the clock and I lost.

By 55 minutes.

You see, the final actually started 55 minutes earlier at 3:55am AWST. Of more import, the final had finished 54 minutes and 40.68s before I got up. Which was annoying for me but great for Jamaican Usain Bolt (19.32s), Jamaican Yohan Blake (19.44s) and Jamaican Warren Weir (19.84s).

You might have noticed a pattern or many there?

Yep, they all ran ridiculously fast.

And they’re Jamaican.

And their times are all Olympic years, or would have been but for World War 2 – 1932 was Los Angeles, 1944 was not held but would have been in London and 1984 was Los Angeles again. There’s some roundness in those numbers that makes them strangely satisfying.

That 19.32s is of further interest too because Bolt didn’t try to push for a fast time, dialing it back in the last 50m. After the race he explained why:

‘I could feel the strain on my back a little bit so all I did was try to keep my form, run home and when I saw where I was going I stopped running because I knew it wasn’t going to be a world record.’

Which is some situational awareness when you’re hurtling around the track, trying to stay in your lane while running a world-beating time. So quick in fact that, even with the foot easing off the pedal down the home-stretch, Bolt’s time was still good enough for equal 4th-fastest in history.

When I feel the strain in my back I like to have some ibuprofen and a lie down.

To be fair, Usain Bolt and his Jamaican posse still have a run-off for gold in the men’s 4x100m relay so any form of back twinge is something for The Fastest Man In The World to manage carefully. For Bolt and co and indeed a lot of athletes it’s not really about setting World Records or even quick times – It’s about winning medals.

Which might sound counter to Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s mission statement when he got the modern Olympics up and running in 1896. The good Baron advocated that:

‘The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.’

And that’s a nice sentiment to be sure – Not everyone can win a medal, but for many, just taking part is an accomplishment of sorts. Baron de Coubertin also espoused that:

‘…contact with women’s athletics is bad for [male athletes], and that [women's] athletics should be excluded from the Olympic program.’

So to summarise: The important thing is not to win but to take part, unless you are a woman with girlie ways designed to entrap noble men, in which case you shouldn’t win or take part, except to perhaps sparingly serve cucumber sandwiches. Otherwise get away, you saucy temptresses.

Fortunately de Coubertin’s views on women have been superseded – In fact women were able to participate in Paris in 1900 at the 2nd modern Olympics. Likewise the ideal of everyone being happy with just competing tends to be seen as nice but not realistic – Mostly because in order to have competition you kind of need a winner.

That’s not to say that everyone is motivated by a medal though. Kenyan marathon runners for instance seem to mostly compete as a way of escaping poverty. This in part explains why there are so many of them – By March 16 of this year a staggering 278 Kenyan men and 61 Kenyan women had achieved the ‘A’ qualifying standard for the Olympics. That’s a crop of top-drawer athletes to choose from the likes of which no other country can dream of matching.

This is in no small part down to the Kenyan system of training at altitude but it is also due to a desire to earn riches that can’t be matched domestically. Some top marathon runners can earn large appearance fees and bonuses in the world’s great foot-races. And make no mistake, when the athletics world talks ‘top’ marathon runners, Kenyans are well in the conversation. In 2011 the top 20 times in the men’s marathon were all set by Kenyans. Probably because every major marathon was won by them – London, Boston, New York, and so on. Even the World Champs was won by a Kenyan.

And the women did their bit too – Kenyan’s swept all 3 medals at the World Champs.

Which makes the following fact all the more astonishing:

Kenya has only ever won 1 gold medal for a marathon at the Olympics – Samuel Wanjiru in 2008 at the Beijing Games.

1 possible reason for that surprising dearth – You can’t eat an Olympic gold medal and they don’t pay appearance fees. Sometimes it’s not about winning or taking part – It’s about providing for your family back home. That’s some strong impetus to keep your legs churning.

US runner Manteo Mitchell has his own impetus in spades. He was running a leg in the semi’s of the men’s 4x400m overnight when he broke 1.

A leg that is.

His left 1 to be exact.

Halfway around the track, with 200m to go until he could hand over the baton, Mitchell’s left fibula, weakened by a fall earlier in the week, snapped. Said the American after the race:

‘I heard it. I even put out a little war cry, but the crowd was so loud you couldn’t hear it. I wanted to just lie down. It felt like somebody literally just snapped my leg in half.’

Yep, that will hurt and yes, wanting to lie down seems like a message that Manteo’s body might be sending him.

Except he wasn’t listening.

Manteo Mitchell kept running because he:

‘…didn’t want to let those three guys down, or the team down…’

And he didn’t let anybody down, running the lap out in around 45s. To put that into perspective, the 8th-placed finisher in the men’s individual 400m clocked 45.14s.

With 2 unbroken legs.

In fact, Mitchell and his team-mates dead-heated with the Bahamas in a time of 2:58.87 – The fastest ever time in the 1st round of an Olympic 4x400m relay.

That is some gutsy run and it would make Mitchell my stand-out from that relay but for 1 other competitor.

Oscar Pistorius.

Manteo Mitchell broke 1 of his legs. Pistorius had both of his legs amputated between the knees and the ankles when he was 11 months old. The South African now runs on specially made carbon fibre blades and, after a fairly intensive procedural battle, he competes alongside able-bodied athletes in the Olympics.

Tonight, Pistorius and his 3 team-mates will match off in the final against, amongst others, the powerful US outfit that will sadly be without Manteo Mitchell.

I don’t know who to cheer the loudest for.

My iPhone currently holds a bit over 2000 tunes. If I was asked to name my favourite of those then my head would explode – You see it’s not possible to single 1 out or to ascribe a value to any of them – A fair number of those songs have been my favourite. It’s just that they were my number 1 in a particular moment.

For me these London Games have been a bit like that playlist – Usain Bolt, the Kenyans who outrun poverty, Manteo Mitchell on his broken leg and Oscar Pistorius with no legs, are just a fraction of the tunes to consider.

There will be 906 medals awarded in London. Each has taken the very best of someone to win and for each there has been the very best of some people who haven’t won.

I think I found my way into the Olympic spirit.

Cries On Every Tune

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