Track and field legends from the past made the global governing body’s 100th anniversary event in Barcelona a huge treat
If Usain Bolt attempted to take a stroll down Barcelona’s most famous street, La Rambla, it would no doubt start as a ramble and soon turn into a flat-out run to escape autograph hunters. Along with Allyson Felix, Bolt was named world athlete of the year by the International Association of Athletics Federations in the Catalan capital on Saturday. The Jamaican sprinter has never been more famous and he has been the main attraction at the centenary gala of the global governing body this week.
Yet while Bolt and Felix are truly magnificent, to me the real stars at the IAAF’s 100th birthday bash are the athletes of yesteryear who made the pilgrimage to Spain to join in the celebrations. The IAAF has taken the opportunity to induct 24 of them into an inaugural hall of fame, but in total around 150 past and present greats have turned the Vila Olímpica area of the city into a surreal sight where Olympic champions and world record-holders spotted at every turn.
Ralph Boston, for example, is one of six Olympic long jump champions in Barcelona this weekend. Despite being well-known for soaring into the pit to win the 1960 title in Rome, ironically he is not fond of flying in an aircraft and this was the first time he had taken a flight for 30 years. Nevertheless, he has not forgotten the world’s only weekly track and field magazine and when I was introduced to him as the man from Athletics Weekly he beamed immediately, saying: “Ah, AW!”
The IAAF Gala also provided the chance for decathlon legend Dan O’Brien to take a gentle jog down memory lane. The 46-year-old was involved in an IAAF kids’ exhibition at the Arc de Triomf in Barcelona on Saturday and you could tell he has moved into coaching by the extent to which he was genuinely getting stuck in.
“When I competed in the Nineties, I thought if I put the world record above 9000 points then it would never be beaten,” he said, looking back on a career that saw him win the 1996 Olympic title and three IAAF world championship golds. “But now two athletes have done it and I wish I’d competed in the Roman Sebrle era or against Ashton Eaton.”
Kevin Young, the world record-holder for 400m hurdles, also lit up the weekend with his banter. After first poking some friendly fun at the IAAF for not having invited him to one of their events for 20 years, he urged the current generation of athletes to become students of their sport and also challenged the media to do more to keep history alive.
“We’re here!” he said, pointing to himself and other 400m hurdles legends Ed Moses and Harald Schmid (pictured). “You should ask us about our events while we’re still alive. Because if people don’t talk about us and our sport, they’ll talk about something else instead.”
Young even said he loaded his own vintage races on YouTube so the next generation could pick up a few tricks. Later, he would have been heartened to hear one of the young athletes at the IAAF Gala, British sprinter Adam Gemili, say that he has spent some time looking for old 100m finals on YouTube in order to learn his trade.
Elsewhere, champions of the past mixed with current stars. David Rudisha, the 800m world record-holder, brushed shoulders with Seb Coe, Alberto Juantorena, Wilson Kipketer and Peter Snell. In sprint hurdles, Aries Merritt met Colin Jackson, Renaldo Nehemiah and Harrison Dillard.
Wandering up to the Montjuic area of Barcelona and it was also possible to draw inspiration from some legends who are no longer with us. There, in the city’s Olympic museum, the racing spikes of Emil Zatopek, Jesse Owens and Fanny Blankers-Koen, among others, are currently on temporary display. It is a tremendous collection to mark the IAAF’s centenary and an athletics paradise for any track and field fan.
Naturally, Bolt’s vest and spikes are also on show in the museum. But alongside such gems as Bob Beamon’s world record-breaking take-off shoe and the singlets worn by Coe and Ovett at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, they are not the No.1 attraction.
Usain Bolt second best? On this weekend, I’m afraid so. Even the reigning Olympic 100m and 200m champion is no match for the combined might of so many legends of track and field.
» More on the IAAF Gala in the November 29 issue of Athletics Weekly