Monday, 13 August 2012

Triple Olympic champion - no small feat

No athlete has ever won the same track event at three consecutive Olympics. It appears a feat beyond the parameters of human possibility. To be the fastest or to have the best endurance over a specific distance for the best part of a decade is yet to be crystallised in the form of Olympic domination.

Of course, it is much more complicated than that. Merely being the quickest in your discipline is no assurance of victory. Take Mo Farah in the 5,000m for example: this year ten other runners had posted faster times and seven boasted superior personal bests. 

But when it came to it, at the crucial point - in the final of the Olympic Games - Farah vanquished them all

In the run-up to the Games, Farah stressed how he had configured his training so that he peaked at London. Evidently, this worked wonders - while others were busy setting world-leading times, Farah was quietly timing his preparations to perfection. 

Hitting one's peak at the critical moment is a quality synonymous with
 the last of the 'Flying Finns' Lasse Viren. Viren is the only competitor to win both the 5,000m and 10,000m in consecutive Olympics, and he did so by drifting away from the athletics scene - when he worked as a policeman in his home country - and returning when it mattered most.

The sole athlete who had the chance to earn Olympic track immortality at this Games - in Farah's first conquest, the 10,000m - was Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia. This is a runner who has been so successful in his career that on the sparse occasion when he's taken anything but a gold medal, the immediate question to be asked is what went wrong for Bekele - not what went right for the winner.

Kenenisa Bekele leading the pack; by David Leah from Comisión Nacional de Cultura Física y Deporte

However, even for someone considered to be one of the all-time greats in long-distance running, a third Olympic title proved elusive. There were no excuses from Bekele as he finished in fourth place and out of the medals, and one must assume merely that the years had caught up with him. He has since declared that he will hang up his track boots in order to tackle the marathon, a progression many greats have made before him.

In the sprints, Carl Lewis was 100m champion in 1984 and 1988. Come Barcelona 1992, however, his dominance had waned and Lewis focused on the long jump. To further highlight the difficulties of staying at the top, on only one occasion has the 400m been won by the same man at consecutive Olympics – by ‘Superman’ Michael Johnson in 1996 and 2000.

Is there something about track running that makes the treble so hard to achieve? Rigorous training demands are one small matter as the athlete has a number of factors to contend with cometh the moment. In sprinting, one false start now equates to immediate disqualification and in the longer distances, tactics play a huge part as runners influence the way the race plays out by sticking with their fellow nationals and training partners.

Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the recently crowned double Olympic champions in men's and women's 100m, will each have a chance at Rio 2016 to do what no one has done before and become an Olympic triple track champion. Quite a mouthful, and quite a feat. In fact, as the double winner in the 200m, Bolt will have two opportunities. 

They will both be 29 when the opportunity arises, and age is unlikely to be their stumbling block. For 5"0' Fraser-Pryce, competing in one of the most loaded events, has twice denied the USA and has awakened their wrath. Then, Bolt: who knows where he will be in four years' time? In the world of cricket, motoring on to Wayne Rooney throughballs or tackling the longer sprint, the 400m?

Or maybe, just maybe, he will have stuck around long enough to achieve something that really will make Bolt a legend of athletics.

Usain Bolt after retaining his Olympic 100m crown at London 2012; by Mike Hilton

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