Double European sprint champion Francis Obikwelu was voted 2006 Waterford Crystal European Athlete of the Year today - a first for the Portuguese sensation.
Voting took place on the European Athletics Association website for five weeks ending 31 December from a shortlist of 25 men and 25 women. Included on the shortlist were each of the 41 individual European champions in addition to other athletes who were deemed to have performed exceptionally in 2006. The short list also included 16 leaders of the 2006 IAAF world rankings for their event.
“The award means the world to me and I am really honoured to have won it,” confirmed Obikwelu to the European Athletic Association.
“I’ve had a really good season in 2006 and this just tops it off.”
Carolina Klüft was awarded the female recipient on Monday (blog link), the second time she has been honoured with the award.
Obikwelu (four points) narrowly nabbed the award ahead of Lithuania’s Virgilijus Alekna, the Olympic champion, and Andreas Thorkildsen (nine points), the reigning European and Olympic javelin champion, finished third.
Alekna had a fantastic season, going unbeaten in 17 competitions in 2006, and winning the European Athletics Championships discus gold medal during a very wet competition down the road at Ullevi Stadium here in Göteborg.
Alekna, carrying the European team on his shoulders as captain, led Europe to the IAAF World Cup victory in Athens in September, winning the discus (67,19m) on the second day - a mark which was crucial to the men winning the World Cup. Team Europe beat the United States by four points, 140-136.
Obikwelu, 28, who won two golds here in Göteborg (100m - 9,99 Championship Record, and 200m - 20,01 National Record), finished fourth at the World Cup in the 200m in 20,36 after winning the event in Madrid in 2002 with a time of 20,18. However, his accumulated six points were still enough to maintain the four-point spread between Europe's victory and the USA's silver medal team competition.
Obikwelu defended the European 100m title he won four years in Munich, and capped off his brilliant European sprinting by twice bringing our 200m speedster, Johan Wissman, home to national records (twice running 20,38) during Obikwelu's dominating semi-final and final performances - the latter which notched his second gold medal.
Obikwelu's leading moments in time prior to his double victory in Göteborg were in earning a bronze medal in the 1997 IAAF World Indoor Championships (21,10) in Paris, collecting a silver medal in the 1999 IAAF World Championships 200m (20,11 NR), and an Olympic silver medal in the 100m (9,86 PB/NR) five years later in Athens.
Nigerian-born, Obikwelu is a good-spirited man, and somewhat of a miracle find when it comes to his current success, something the EAA covered very well in an in-depth story.
"I went to Lisbon for the World Junior Championships in 1994 where I ran the 400m for Nigeria. After the race I decided not to go back, I basically defected with some other friends on the team. We stayed and tried to make a living. It was tough, very shocking, because I couldn't understand the language and what people were saying. I had to stop running because I had to eat and I ended up working in construction for 18 months, moving cement and logs around.
"I couldn't move to any other country because I didn't have any documents, I was scared, I didn't want to get caught by the police and sent back home.
"Getting back into athletics a little later was a kind of a miracle. I decided to go back into school to learn the Portuguese language, I knew that was going to help me and at the school I met a lady from Britain. I was working during the day and studying at night; but sometimes I played football and rugby with her son.
"Nobody else knew me so he spoke to his mum and she called a big club in Portugal. My first coach in Portugal then said: ‘You're pretty fast, try the 100m and 200m.' Up until then I had always thought of myself as a 400m runner," reflected Obikwelu to the EAA during the summer (article).
Obikwelu left the European Athletics Championships in Munich four years ago with a gold medal and one silver medal - the latter which became a bitter disappointment for not winning both golds for his new home country, Portugal.
"My objective for the last four years has been to come here and win double gold," Obikwelu said to the EAA following his 200m victory at Ullevi Stadium.
"Winning the gold medals here means a lot to me. Last time I finished second twice and it was my goal to do better this time (six points), last year’s winner, who is the reigning European, World and two-time discus champion. Norway’s ."
In taking home two golds, Obikwelu etched himself on par with former Italian world-record holder Pietro Mennea as the last two men to have won the elusive double. Twenty-eight years and six championships had elapsed since Minnea (10,27/20,16) won his golds in Prague.
Obikwelu, who holds a 9,84-second 100m personal best and a 19,84 200m best, led all Europeans in 2006 with his 9,99 100m and 20,01 200m times.
Waterford Crystal European Male Athlete of the Year 2006:
1) Francis Obikwelu (POR), 4; 2) Virgilijus Alekna (LTU), 6; 3) Andreas Thorkildsen (NOR), 9; 4) Christian Olsson (SWE), 12; 5) Roman Sebrle (CZE), 17; 6) Periklis Iakovakis (GRE), 20; 7) Stefano Baldini (ITA), 25; 8) Bram Som (NED), 31; 9t) Francisco Fernandez (ESP), 34; 9t) Ivan Heshko (UKR), 34
Francis Obikwelu's Personal Bests (EAA):
- 50m indoor 5,79+ NR 4 Gaz Liévin 28 February 2004
- 60m indoor 6.54 NR 2 Cagigal Madrid 24 February 2005
- 100m outdoor 9,86 AR 0,6 2 OG Athens 22 August 2004
- 200m indoor 20,46 NR 2rA Gaz Liévin 21 February 1999
- 200m outdoor 19,84 NR 1,7 1s2 WC Seville 25 August 1999
- 400m 46,29 2 Nuñez Granada 3 June 1998
- 4 x 100 m 37,91 AR 3 WC Seville 29 August 1999 (NIG)
- 4 x 100 m 39.18 NR 1 ECp-1 Thessaloníki 17 June 2006 (Por)
2006 Seasonal Bests:
- 60 m Indoor 6,68 2h1 Valencia 11 February 2006
- 100 m 9,99 1,3 1 EC Göteborg 8 August 2006
- 200 m 20,01 NR 1.6 1 EC Göteborg 10 August 20064 x 100 m 39,18 NR 1 ECp-1 Thessaloníki 17 June 2006