First tough decision about traveling to the land down under is to fill in your running diary. What do you do if you run on Sunday, the 10th in Los Angeles, then get on a plane that evening at 10:00 p.m. and fly for 12 hours to Auckland, running again soon after you get off the plane? Did you take a day off? See when you land it is Tuesday the 12th, and Monday the 11th has vanished. My watch understands because I reset it, but my laptop still thinks it is Monday. My body has no idea. So what do I do about my running diary, type DNR or pretend it is still the 11th where I am? How about a new category called “crossed the international date line?”
Today (Sept. 26) was an off day from the track and field events in Sydney and a good time to capture a few thoughts on the first half of the T & F events. First, the stadium here is absolutely beautiful, but not a great venue for watching track and field. Perhaps it is because of the size (112,000+ attended Monday night) or maybe the design (I think they intend to convert the stadium to Australian rules football venue after the Olympics) which put even the best seats far away from the infield or maybe it is the fact that our seats require us to use oxygen masks to get enough air. The bus and train systems have been wonderful for getting around, and the Aussies really seemed to have done a great job with crowd control. They have been great hosts in general even if they are quite vocal supporters of their athletes. The Olympic Park is a great place. In addition to the Olympic Stadium for track, the aquatic center, baseball field, field hockey stadium and much more are located there. There are lots of open spaces between the venues for partying, eating and shopping, including an area of woodchips just right for napping, listening to music or enjoying a beverage. There is a Super Store, an expo, lots of food and drink, a giant screen and a band. Since the morning sessions start at 10:00 a.m. and the night sessions end well after 10:00 p.m., I have adopted it all as a new home. Like the Americans before Atlanta, the Australians were slow to warm up to the idea of hosting the Olympics and many left the area to get away from the crowd. But a couple of weeks before the games began, most of them caught the fever and by the time Kathy Freeman lit the flame the Olympic spirit had taken over. Everywhere you go the Games dominate – the non-Olympic world seems to have come to a stop. The Olympic spirit has been fanned by a record number of medals for Australia and by the country’s love affair with an event and an athlete.
The event is the 1500 meter freestyle swim. The Australians are crazy about it. Grant Hackett was the man to answer the call and win the gold for the home nation. The swim was broadcast everywhere – on radio and TV – and the Olympic Park came to a virtual standstill as everyone held their breath for most of the 14 minutes and 48 seconds it took Hackett to win the gold. Australians have a special relationship with this event and Hackett came through in a big way. Swimming is big here and the 1500 meter swim is THE swimming event. An enormous cheer rang out all over the Park as his victory was announced on TV and radio.
But that was just a warm up for the Cathy Freeman show. An entire nation, including an Olympic record crowd of 112, 524, spent 49.11 agonizing seconds watching “our Cathy,” as she is known, run one lap around the track to win a gold medal. An incredible relationship has developed between the entire nation and this Aboriginal woman. Australia has a very dark history in how it treated the Aboriginal people, not unlike our own treatment of North American Indians. The Aboriginal people had survived on this continent for over 40,000 years before the Europeans arrived. Since then they were almost completely annihilated and their culture decimated. The country is in the process of try to work through a reconciliation that has been very difficult. Cathy has somehow become a symbol of that reconciliation. She is far more than “just” an athlete to this nation, especially the Aboriginal people, and has had to carry pressures and expectations far beyond what any other athlete in these games has had to endure. She has handled it with a style and grace that has simply won the nation’s heart. So when she crossed the finish line first Monday night an entire nation erupted in joy, while she sat frozen on the track letting the reality that she had met those expectations slowly sink in while the enormous pressure finally eased out. The next day the Sydney Morning Herald’s front page headlines screamed, “Pride of the land” next to a huge photo of Freeman. In describing her gold medal race, the paper stated:
“Few Australians can ever forget it. This was the minute when the nation’s heart leapt in the breast and thudded against the rubs like a muffled drum, when the nation’s gut churned. There can never have been a minute quite like it, when so many people – millions at Homebush, in their homes and public places – focused their will and good wishes on a single young woman doing what she loves and does best.”
It was a magic moment that I will not soon forget either!
Tallahassee had its representatives here. First, Breeda Dennehy-Willis ran her 5000 meter heat on the 22nd. A lot of hard work and years of preparation got her here, but a bad cold left her at far less than her best for this race. Nevertheless, she lined up and went at it with a strong, smart effort. For four or five laps she ran with some of the world’s best women runners, churning out 75 second quarters, well within her ability when healthy but fast enough to have the PA announcer call her name. Her heat included at least four runners who had sub 15:00 minute bests, including the eventual gold medallist Gabriel Szabo. To advance she had to finish in the top four or have one of the top three times overall of the runners not in the top four of their heats. Fourth place in the heat was 15:09.45. The cold and the pace were more than Breeda could handle on this day, but her effort was plenty to make us all very proud. Hopefully, she will be able to bounce back for the 10K first round on 27th – that’s the 27th on this side of the date line. Others here who have done some training in Tallahassee that I know about include Kim Batten (eliminated in the second round of the 400 meter hurdles), Ken and Ian Harnden from Zimbabwe (eliminated in the first round of the 400 meter hurdles) and Jonathan Edwards from Great Britain (won gold medal in triple jump).
The best events I have watched so far (other than the women’s 400 meter race) are the women’s pole vault, the women’s 5K and the men’s 10K. Stacy Dragila (USA) had a great battle with Tatiana Grigorieva (Australia, by way of Russia) and Vala Flosadottir (Iceland – first medal for that country since 1956). Dragila jumped 4.60 meters (15-1 feet) to win the gold and just missed a world record when she was unable to clear 4.65 meters. She was captivating when she spoke to our group at tonight’s tour dinner. Gabriele Szabo and Sonia O’ Sullivan waged an incredible war on the last lap of the women’s 5000 meter race. It took an Olympic record 14:40.79 and a 59 0r 60 second last 400 meters for Szabo to grab the gold over O’ Sullivan who seemed poised to sprint past Szabo for the win. She could not quite get there though and finished less than half a second back in 14:41.02. Twelve women broke 15 minutes and ran faster than the existing Olympic record of 14:59.88.
The men’s 10K was even closer as long time rivals Haile Gebreselassie (Ethiopia) and Paul Tergat (Kenya) went at each other like two prize fighters. The strategy and tactics in this race were incredible. The pace varied from a closing 400 run in 54 seconds to a slow lap of almost 74 seconds. In between was everything from 61’s to 66’s. Haile wanted to rely on his withering kick over the last 100 meters to win. Other than that he was determined to sit right behind the leader and wait. The pace did not matter. Tergat rejected the expected strategy of trying to take Gebreselassie’s kick away with a fast pace and seemed to play right in to the Ethiopian’s strength. But he used the element of surprise to almost take the gold away from the world record holder, bolting to the lead with less than 200 meters to go. The strategy might just have worked to if he had not gotten his feet tangled briefly with another runner as he was making his move. Of course there is also the size of Haile’s heart – much bigger than his small frame would ever let on. Despite missing almost three months to injury he found some way to fight back. The two greats finished in dead sprint crossing the finish line with less time between them than there was between Maurice Green and Ato Bolden in the 100 meter race – 27:18.20 to 27:18.29. Two Americans (Abdihakim Abdirahman and Mebrahtom Keflezighi) made it to the final and ran well (27:46.17 PB and 27:53.63). All three American men (Michael Stember, Gabe Jennings and Jason Pyrah) advanced to the semifinals of the 1500.
Can’t wait to get back to the woodchips and part two of a wonderful Olympic experience!