This was no ordinary track. Its six-lane circuit was part of an amphitheatre. A Roman amphitheatre, filled with spectators.
One of the stick-like figures had broken away and holding on to his slender advantage went on to become the first Olympic champion to make a lasting impact on the child.
The athlete was Herb Elliot, the child was me, the year was 1960 and the Olympic Games were in full swing.
In times of Zen-like calm, flicking through life’s back pages, I can still instantly recall any amount of Olympic images.
These are magical enduring images that resonate down the decades; of athletes who are at their peak of fitness and conditioning who strain to leave their mark in the pursuit of glory and their own Olympic dream; super-humans who would leave a legacy for their children and their children’s children and for all of the youth of the world.
I can remember homebred athletes like Fergus Murray who ran in the Tokyo 10,000 metres. And who can ever forget Liz McColgan’s exhausting silver medal in Seoul. Not me. Especially since both were fellow Dundonians from the Hawkhill Harriers club. I too have pulled on that distinctive blue and white quarter club vest. Go Hawks!
Moscow in 1980 saw Allan Wells win the 100 metres with Taurean determination. (I think I may have beaten Alan once in his first ever race. Gasping for air as he entered this world, I convince myself, regularly, that I beat him by a short head on that special day. Yes, we share the same birthday, May 3 1952! He struck gold but, in a way, we share the glory or at least some astrological birthday cake.)
In the theatrical surrounds of Reagan’s Rocket-man stadium in Los Angeles, Decker and Budd, locked together, performing their own Shakespearean tragedy, with years of preparation ending in a tangle of legs by the side of the track.
Other powerful images are of those who went beyond the endeavours of the contest. Avery Brundage, chairman of the International Olympic Committee instructing mankind that the Games must go on in the face of terror in the Munich Olympic Village. That day the world lost brave innocent sportsmen. That day the world regained its purpose and dignity in the name of sport, the great unifier.
There was universal shock, amazement and some admiration for Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the winners’ podium in Mexico, raising a gloved fist to their brothers and sisters.
Muhammad Ali, as a great champion, exemplified fitness and dedication, floating like a butterfly with superfast fists and reflexes. That familiar figure wracked with illness lighting the Atlanta flame must go down as the most moving of tributes to the human spirit and how it can rise to embrace the Olympic dream. It was a truly brave act by a very special man.
And then, there was Australia’s Cathy Freeman, carrying the conscience of a nation’s history during the Millenium Games. This is my all-time favourite Olympic jewel.
Clad in an aerodynamic bodysuit, she exploded out of the 400 metre blocks, each emphatic winning stride stamping on centuries of prejudice against her people, forcing her Aboriginal will upon others in that dark Sydney night.
For me, this race represented something higher, something deeper. This was an athlete in the zonal serenity of Van Gogh’s Sunflower Field. Here was an athlete finding the correct tempo like Bobby Fischer hunched ready to pounce with some complex gambit.
This was an athlete displaying a self-belief and psychological depth similar to the great Brazilian football teams. Here was an athlete primed to make fine calculations with her body as if some pilgrim searching for the key to Fermat’s Last Theorem.
This was sport, elevated to an existential plateau. And I was with her all the way. Go Cathy! Go Cathy!! GO CATHY!!!
As she burst through the winning tape, I burst into tears. Well you would, wouldn’t you? That’s what the Games mean to me.
At that moment, if anyone had asked for a leg to be part of this dream, I would have offered both, plus an arm or two, maybe even more.
I was then 48 years old with a family and living on an island, but it was to be another five years before I spotted an opportunity to be part of the Olympic dream.
Whispers were already in the public domain. London was going to bid for 2012.
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