This week’s trick question? What do I have in common with Isaac Makwala? Nothing at all, you would instantly say, as must be obvious. After all, Makwala last week became, for a short space of time, the most famous man in the world after the very frightening Donald Trump – mercifully for very different reasons!
But let’s run too fast if you will kindly forgive the expression. Makwala was all over the British press last week with his photo appearing on the front page of the Guardian. And that’s where I come in. Because the last time that Botswana was so featured was with my photo of the pocket-sized ‘Elvis’, which I took in Mochudi.
This photo was published on the front page of the then Manchester Guardian in April 1966 with the caption, ‘Freedom Song ...from a boy in Mochudi, Bechuanaland, which is to become Independent later this year.’ It has to be said, however, that in the intervening 52 years, this country has only rarely got a mention in the press abroad. It has been frankly regarded as boring with no multiple deaths because of drought and famine, no revolutions, no coup d’etats – only Seretse and Ruth, the San and 50 or so years of relative peace!
Now all of a sudden, a Motswana athlete is rocketed to overnight stardom, not as a result of any particular achievement, ill-behaviour or doping, but because of the refusal of the IAAF to let him run his 200 metres heat.
The two contrasting versions about the state of his health which brought about this refusal, have been well publicised.
The outcome, as we all know, was that the IAAF implicitly backed down by allowing Makwala the opportunity to qualify for the semi-finals by competing alone and in a race against the clock. The result was farcical theatre, and I much doubt that anything as ridiculous has previously occurred in any Olympics or World Championships. In a way, it was humiliating to make Makwala run this solo race and in the circumstances it was heartening that the capacity crowd gave him such a great, sympathetic reception.
The humiliation was however much greater for the IAAF, which by allowing Makwala to run, implicitly admitted that its own medicos had got it all wrong. Those who now favour conspiracy theories, always an attractive idea, will need to come up with credible theories about the IAAF’s motivation.
And that is bound to be tricky. Brian Egner, who was invariably right about just about everything, used to maintain that if it was a choice between conspiracy and an administrative cock up, the latter would
I will take a bet that no conspiracy was involved and that the decision to block Makwala from competing was a truly massive administrative blunder.
For most people here, this explanation will probably never be regarded as convincing. Indeed it is hard to believe that an organisation such as the IAAF could have been so incompetent. But we have only to look at FIFA to understand how easily everything can go so wrong at the very top. Of course, a proper fairytale should have ended with Makwala defeating van Niekerk and holding up his gold medal.
Instead, the build up with its anger, disappointment and frustration simply fizzled out and the chance of drama was replaced by anti-climax with a drained, sad Makwala coming in sixth. But now allow me a slight shift of topic to note that Jamaica with a small population and little money continues to churn out an almost endless supply of would class sports men and women in so different areas. With Trinidad not so far behind.
Everyone today knows of Usain Bolt, and rightly so. But it is now only old codgers such as myself who have memories, albeit thin, of the way that two Jamaican athletes brought light to war-shattered London in the 1948 Olympics.
Arthur Wint won Jamaica’s first ever-gold medal when he won the 400 metres and silver for the 800 metres whilst Herb Mckenley took the silver in the 400 metres.
And since then the list has been endless, Merlene Ottey, Veronica Campell-Brown, Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake, Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce, and the cricketers Michael Holding, Chris Gayle and Courtney Walsh. How do they do it?
The nearest equivalents would be, I suppose, the USA which with a big population and big money, has won just about everything at the summer Olympics since 1896, Brazil and Germany dominant in football, Kenya and Ethiopia commanding track events and New Zealand’s pre-eminence in rugby.
I have long wondered also what might explain the brief eruption of sporting excellence achieved by Hungary (1950s football), Finland (athletics), Britain (the Cram, Coe, Ovett era), Australia and US tennis in the 1950s and 1960s and the domination of field events by middle European countries. Is there an explanation?