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Pat Butcher pays tribute to those sportsmen and women who have ventured far beyond the pain barrier in pursuit of their dream.

The bravest athletes in the world

There is some intangible element that separates the n champion from the also-ran. Doubtless the geneticists will be able to isolate it one day and implant it, but for the time being, we can only marvel at the men and women who win whatever the odds. Like double Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson, who would train on Christmas Day strengthened, he said, by the knowledge that none of his competitors would be doing the same. Thompson would also try to reproduce the pressure of competition by deliberately doing poorly in the first two attempts at one of his disciplines (the shot put, for example) in order to force himself to throw the best on the third attempt, since that's how many chances he would get in proper competition. And indeed Thompson would regularly pull out a winner in exactly those circumstances, when all seemed lost.

But more remarkable still are those champions who overcome injury, tragedy, war and oppression to get to the top.

Al Oerter stands in the front rank. On the face of it, Oerter's four successive Olympic gold medals in the discus mark him out as a man who transcended competition. Yet Oerter had to face setbacks which would have defied any ordinary athlete to even get to two of those Games.

Oerter lived on the East Coast of the USA, a continent away from the Californian sunshine under which the majority of his competitors trained. But that was a minor inconvenience compared with the almost fatal car crash he survived between his surprise' Olympic gold at the age of 20 in Melbourne 1956 and his " incredible triumph in Rome four years later, where he won again.

But his victory in Tokyo in 1964 after a series of grave physical injuries was the sort of comeback which is normally associated with a visit to Lourdes*. After Rome, Oerter began to suffer from a chronic cervical disc injury; which required him to wear a neck brace. Undaunted, he continued to train and compete. If that wasn't bad enough, a week before Tokyo he tore a cartilage in his lower rib.

Doctors advised six weeks' rest, but after a shot of Novocaine, and with an ice pack taped to his side (and his neck brace on), Oerter went out and set an Olympic record in qualifying. But in the final, he faced Ludvik Danek, who hadn't lost in 45 competitions. Oerter told a colleague, 'If I don't do it on the first throw, I won't be able to do it all.' He didn't do it on his first throw. Out of the medals after four attempts, he gave it everything he'd got on his fifth. Oerter was probably the only person in the stadium not watching the discus as it winged its way to another Olympic record -he was doubled up with pain. But he had won again as he did, albeit in less heroic circumstances, in the next Olympics.

Multiple world record holder Ron Clarke of Australia was another great athlete who suffered excruciating pain in the pursuit of his goal in the Olympic 10,000 metres in Mexico in 1968. Athletes had been warned that the thin air at altitude could affect them badly; there were even fears for their lives. The Australian team doctor was moved to agree when Clarke collapsed in his arms after finishing as first non-altitude runner in fifth place, and had to be administered oxygen while unconscious for ten minutes.



It wasn't the first time that Clarke had been forced to withstand extreme pain in the pursuit of glory When the Olympics were in Melbourne in 1956, Clarke, then the world's leading junior miler, was chosen to light the Olympic flame. But the torch had been overloaded with magnesium, and inextinguishable burning matter fell on the youngster's arm as he mounted the steps. Uncomplaining, he continued and duly lit the cauldron. He spent the rest of the ceremony having medical treatment.

In Mexico, Clarke returned later in the week to contest his other distance, the 5,000 metres. But the Aussie is convinced that the heart condition which he now suffers so badly that he can barely jog three kilometres without stopping is a direct result of pushing himself to the limit.

But the Grand Prix for courage in the face of overwhelming adversity must go to Ana Quirot. World 800 metres silver medallist in 1991 and Olympic bronze medallist the following year, Quirot was at home in Cuba a few months later, preparing to give birth to her first child when she was victim of a horrific domestic accident.

Because soap powder can be difficult to get, clothes are often boiled in an alcoholic spirit. Quirot's wash literally exploded on the stove and into her face and body. She suffered third degree burns to much of her skin, lost her child and almost died. She spent months in hospital, followed by years of skin grafts, and the odds against her returning to athletics, let alone winning anything, seemed astronomical.

There was surprise when she resumed her training in early 1994, amazement when she turned out for the Pan-American Games later that year, and incredulity when she won the silver medal.

We ran out of superlatives the following year when Quirot not only returned to the highest level of competition, but won the World 800 metres title in Goteborg, in the fastest time of the year. Quirot was already a much admired athlete. But she has won many more fans, not simply by her comeback after such adversity, nor for her victories, but by the manner in which she has comported herself. Her willingness to face up to the camera with pride and defiance has been a source of inspiration to everyone who has encountered her.

.Lourdes: a small town in SW France considered by Roman Catholics to be a holy place. Many sick people go there to be cured.

 


Date: 2015-12-18; view: 1152


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