Why We Should All Love Athletics: A Metaphor for the Human Spirit

For the avoidance of doubt in this blog post ‘Athletics’ means ‘competitive running, jumping, throwing, and walking.’

So it is the end of a year of ups and downs for athletics – a fantastic IAAF world championships in Beijing and a new chairperson to head the IAAF, but doping sits among these achievements like 20 uninvited ex-girlfriends frowning in the front row at the wedding reception. However, I still believe we should all love athletics. My arguments will be swift and to the point [ahem!]

Athletics is the biggest sport in the world: The IAAF [International Association of Athletics Federations] has 213 member nations. The United Nations has 193 member states and a handful of observer states. This means that the IAAF is the most representative international organisation in the world. [The International Olympic Committee has 133 members in total]

Athletics is the oldest and purest sport in the world. I remember my Phys. Ed. teacher in school [USS], Mr Aina, once described a day in the life of a caveman…. Mr Caveman wakes up in the morning, and goes to look for his breakfast. Remember, of course that he is a hunter-gatherer. So taking up his spear [javelin] he jogs out into the bush. He spies the backside of a sleeping antelope. He stealthily creeps up behind it, till he is quite close… then he HURLS HIS SPEAR!!! Alas, it was not an antelope, but a lion. Mr Caveman FLEES! The lion follows in hot pursuit. To stay alive, Mr C has to outrun the lion. The lion is gaining on him, but the caveman picks up speed. You can hear the heavy, padded footfalls of Leo the Lion. Mr Caveman jumps over a small bush at top flight. The lion demolishes the bush! The caveman tries to outwit the lion by flinging himself maniacally over a large pit he had previously dug as a hunting trap. The lion speeds around it. Mr Caveman is thinking about who will inherit his bone collection, but refrains from such morbid thoughts when he sees the smoke arising from the settlement. He screams ‘NANTS INGONYAMA BAGITHI!!![1]’ at the top of his voice, as the villagers rush to close the gates. Mr Caveman vaults with the aid of his spear as a fulcrum to the ground, launches himself over the 5-foot wall – an Olympic all-rounder!

More than any other sport athletics teaches perseverance. The world today suffers from a surfeit of perseverance. Most athletes are in the game for the experience, because compared to other sports the rewards are measly. But they keep coming back…. In the running, the jumping, the throwing – you feel truly alive.

There are some great characters in athletics. I will not dwell on Usain Bolt, though he seems to poster boy for athletics. [Sorry Usain!] I believe the weight placed on him is too much for one person. There other names that should symbolise the spirit of athletics.

Julius Yego: Kenyan javelinist, who realised he was too slow to keep up with the distance runners and moved to the field event. He is mostly known for watching videos of athletes such as Jan Zelezny and Andreas Thorkildsen on YouTube to help with his technique. At the 2015 World Championships he won the gold medal with a throw of 92.72m, becoming the first Kenyan to win a World Championships gold medal in a field event. Who have to find what you are good at, you may have to look for unconventional means to get better, try everything.

Blanka Vlašić: Croatian high jumper. Once had an unbeaten streak of 34 competitions. While she is not the world record holder, she has successfully cleared 2 m more times than anyone in her event. Prior to the 2015 World Champs, she had to walk with the aid of crutches, but still won a silver medal at the World Championships. She was so delighted with it. She is an example of perseverance, if you want something, there is just one guarantee – if you do not try, you will not get what you want.

Wayde van Niekerk: South African 200m and 400m. One of my favourites. He has the fastest non-American time for the 400m. His place in this piece was cemented by his performance in the 400m finals at the 2015 World Championships. Prior to the final the focus had been on former world champion LaShawn Merritt and reigning Olympic champion Kirani James. I had seen van Niekerk run a blistering 300m earlier in the year, and I thought if he could hold on he would get a medal in the 400m World Champs finals. He went two better and got the gold. Merrit and James could just not catch him! He had to be taken away on a stretcher following his exertions. I do not think I need to expand too much on the lessons here, but – leave everything on the field of play, you cannot be rewarded for what has not been put into play.

Valerie Adams is a shot putter from New Zealand. She is a four-time World champion, three time World Indoor champion and two-time Olympic and three-time Commonwealth champion, and currently holds the New Zealand, Oceanian, Commonwealth and equal World Championship records. Her complete international medal collection will transform the finances of many small and medium state economies [19 gold, 5 silver]. If you are good at something, keep doing, focus on your strengths, not on what the world likes to see.

Hicham El Gerrouj: Moroccan middle-distance runner. He is the current holder of the 1500 metres, mile and outdoor 2000 metres world records, as well as a double Olympic gold medallist. I have taught classes on perseverance with this man’s CV. In 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics, he was tipped to feature prominently in the 1500m final but fell down with about 400m to go. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000 he finished 2nd in the 1500m final to the person who acted as pacemaker for his world record. In 2004, knowing that he was almost at the end of his abilities, he was billed to run both the 1500m and 5000m at Athens. A huge ask for someone who had twice failed to win an Olympic gold and had a relatively poor start to his 2004 season. In the 1500m El Guerrouj narrowly beat Lagat by 0.12 seconds to win gold! 0.12 second win in the 1500m!!! Four days later El Guerrouj won the 5,000 m beating the great Kenenisa Bekele to 2nd place. Keep fighting for what you want, do not give up till you have laid hands on all you possibly can.

I hope I have convinced you that athletics is not all about doping, it is not just about the 100m – the decathlon has TEN track and field events! Athletics is about human character, it is a showcase for the human spirit, a display of perseverance, determination and speed. Athletics is about making the mind the master of the body. Athletics is a microcosm of humanity. We should all love athletics, because we should all love humanity.

[1] Here comes a lion. This is about the first thing you hear in the Lion King [1995]

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2 thoughts on “Why We Should All Love Athletics: A Metaphor for the Human Spirit

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  1. It seems to me utterly pointless to argue the MERITS of different types of athletic competitions. You can find examples of wonderful perseverance in any sport. It's purely a matter of personal preference. Having said that, I do love athletics more than any other sport.
    Cheers, Alan Shank, Woodland, CA, USA

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