There were so many excellent events which occured in the athletics world in 2006 - from Asafa Powell twice equalling his 9,77-second 100m WR to finally meeting two of my favourite athletes - including Stefan Holm - while they were competing here in Göteborg. This week was single-handily the most spectacular week I have ever had in athletics, trumping any and all of my favourite races and events in which I have participated as an athlete and a spectator.
I was around and about Göteborg during the one-week European Championships, and would like to give you an idea of what occured behind the cameras.
- Drugs tests:
Some surprise, out-of-competition drugs tests sprung on folks at odd hours (during breakfast, for example). Have gone to two different hotels this week, and surprised a soon-to-be medalist during breakfast. Took blood (the second time during a six-day period we'd done that, apparently) from this person, and headed to the next hotel with the same goal. Went on the field during competitions, and shadowed athletes like a hall monitor does when kids are supposed to get out of the corridors after the bell rings. Fun stuff, and only one athlete who turned out to be rather cranky about the process. Most prestigious place? Mixed Zone where they get interviewed. We took a blood sample on the out-of-competition tests, and if those tests showed abnormalities, we took a urine test (which toolk 8-9 days to get back from the lab in Norway).
- Athlete warm-up area:
For those fans who truly want to get a close-up look at the stars and competitors of these games, this is the place to hang out. Not much one can do prior to the events, but afterward, the athletes walk from the back of the stadium down a small service road, and back to the warm-up track. It is there that autograph-seekers have hung out since Monday. It is well-guarded, but the scrutiny applied to credentials differs from one official checker to the next. I:ve used my credentials once to walk in off duty with an athlete with whom I was having a conversation, but foto taking was not allowed. Most of the fotos you have seen this week have been in this general area.
The most accomodating athlete in terms of autograph signing and picture taking both before and after their competition thus far has been André Silnov. Second must go to Jaroslav Rybakov. Conversely, other Russians - even coaches - have held a long, straight arm out against any foto-taking or name signing.Speaking of Russians: None of them have used any VIP status to get to the stadium by any means other than walking on their own two feet. Spotted Yelena Isinbayeva the other day as she walked down the service road well ahead of every one of her competitors, and snapped her foto. She tried being inconspicuous, but her drawn-down hat over her face gave her away. All of the Russians - after their events - have been ecstatic, elated and willing to pose with everyone.
Prior to the competitions? Olga Kotlyarova had been most unwilling to even crack a simple smile; she stayed focused. Had a chance to talk to a prominent woman athlete on the Russian team for an extended period of time both on Day 2, and again on Day 4. She provided me astounding info on the team. She competes in a high profile event, but knows absolutely zero about one of her main team competitors - a woman who has struck it big on the world scene; all she knows of this person is what she sees on tv. Though exaggerated, the Russians seem to have one coach per athlete, and all of them continue to remain silent about their roles.
Apropos VIP status: Even Carolina Klüft has been seen jogging on the road between stadiums on her warm-ups and warm-downs, and I got a chance to snap a photo of Christian Olsson on Day 4 while he was walking up the service road presumably back to the hotel. The only Swede who has been iffy about any photo-taking had been Jenny Kallur, who got a bit snippy when I approached her while she was playing with her mother's dog. She didn't know me from the next guy, and had no idea where the photos would end up. Understood.
Britons were excellent ambassadors during the championships. Every single one of them have been great to speak with, and have taken opportunities between races to pose for photos. Rebecca Lyne was the only one who was most pressed for time, but even so, she took a photo before her Round 1 warmup. Dwain Chambers and Mark Lewis-Francis had been two gold mines during the Euro Champs. They had spoken to me much about everything, and seemed genuinely interested in my being able to comprehend what they are saying on the magnitude to which they are saying.
- Ullevi Stadium:
The stadium atmosphere has been electric. There is a tie between the two best crowd-pleasing moments: when Klüft was presented the gold medal by Kronprincessen Victoria, and the national anthem was sung; and when Johan Wissman snuck up for the silver in an =PB, =NR in the 200m - our first sprint medal on the men:s side in 44 years. Athletes, themselves, have stated to me both during duty and privately, that the atmosphere here is inspiring; we know our stuff when it comes to who:s who, and can appreciate good performances and great duels.Then there is the stadium's history. Michael Johnson - who was in attendance as a BBC reporter - was the first to win the 200m/400m double in a major championships. Inessa Kravets and Jonathan Edwards set WRs in the triple jump the last time we held any major event here (save Finnkampen).
I briefly touched on this above with the athletes. Most everyone is an arm-length:s distance from the regular folk, and this nearness to those elite athletes has inspired many a fan to continue having hope in this sport. So many kids have run wildly around the back of the stadium in search of an autograph - anyone:s autograph. Fans from specific countries have had their clothes signed by their national team members on the way to the warm-up track, and those types of memories for those kids will last a life-time.
Göteborgs-Posten has been prepared for this since 1995. More than 11 years of waiting has payed of for the newspaper. We are treated to so much information - overkill in some senses. Fans - no matter what language they speak - are provided stats and information - fotos - on the key players in this EC competion.
- Nordic Nice:
Spoke with both Lívia Tóth (9.31,50 steepler) and her trainer on 2006-August-11 while printing out select fotos from an Epson centre. Her trainer stated that all the Nordic countries have been exceptional, with Sweden topping the list in terms of living accomodations, spare time activities and quality of meetings. Tóth didn:t qualify for the steeple final after injuring herself near the line in qualifying.
Asked Silnov about Sweden, and he stated he really enjoyed it here - and it had nothing to do with his having won the EC high jump medal. Polis had been out in extra full force, but nothing about their presence is threatening. As a matter of fact, two of them posed with Ukrainian 1.500m athletes Tetyana Holovchenko and Nataliya Tobias on Day 4 in a photo which had the cops on their knees, and the two 1.500m athletes jumping over the cops heads! I'd spoken to a few cops, and they are very happy to be here for the possible historic evening which is tonight (Kajsa Bergqvist attempt at the WR). They were here from all over Sverige, and had become better colleagues as a result of the true teamwork involved with working with different (sometimes far away, like Malmö) districts.
They make this championship truly historic. I was outside the stadium when Francis Obikwelu won the 200m final, and Wissman tied his newly-set 200m record (20,38) by placing 2nd. The noice was deafening some 200m from the stadium. Kids make up a great deal of the fans here. Athletes have been more than willing to ensure the kids have something by which to remember these games. Fans have clapped for - and cheered on - rivals to the Swedes, and embraced every athlete as their own. Great performance has been justly rewarded from the people paying the tickets to be a part of that atmosphere.
More on the athletes...
- Yelena Isinbayeva:
Yelena Isinbayeva is, in my opinion, very generous with her time, and appreciates fan support - and interest in - not only her jumping, but the pole vault itself. Snapped some fotos of her in the mixed zone after the vault, and she stood in front of the reporters for 30 minutes answering questions in russian and english. This was after her tv interviews, and prior to her one-on-one tv special interview. Her smile was golden - not because she had added the trifecta (World, Olympic, Euro title) to her medal count, but because she put forth a good performance in a season of adjustments.
Isinbayeva, like one other Russian (Olga Kotlyarova) during the week, avoided fan contact at nearly every venture. Isinbayeva tried being inconspicous during her walk from the hotel to the warm-up track (500m around a bend and down the service road) prior to the prelims, having drawn down her Nike team hat over her face, and looking down at the ground. She avoided looking up in the tunnel between the warm-up track and the private area where athletes were escorted to the track via a 300m athlete-only service road.
However, once the final was contested, and she had given her all - for the fans, she stated in the interviews, she was relaxed, down-to-earth, and happy her competition was finally over. Isinbayeva demonstrated a certain flair and grace in the Mixed Zone yesterday - one which is difficult to articulate without short-changing her.
She was asked some tough questions, and she answered each one without hesitating - or thinking of a pc way to talk about her 1-year WR drought.