Vyacheslav Yevstratov took one look at his ward’s eyes and went wild with rage. He felt a hot stab in his abdomen – similar to the anxiety of a new mother multiplied hundredfold on seeing her baby in distress
“Get back and start your warm up !!” he yelled.
One look at ‘Yura’s’ eyes and Vyacheslav knew that his athlete was severely short of sleep – the fatigue toxins would kick in sooner than later and he could kiss goodbye to his medal prospects. The lad had drifted all around Sydney before realizing it was perilously close to reporting time. He had pretty much shot himself in the foot – the Olympics take place only once in four years and even with a formidable line up in the 800 m final such as Andre Bucher the European champion, Glody Dube and Nils Schuman, Yuriy Borzakovskiy (nickname Yura) was the European 800 m Indoor champion and had the potential to cause an upset.
Oh and there was also another chappie in the final line up, the world record holder, Wilson Kipketer of Denmark who had emigrated from Kenya to Denmark when in college but had never won an Olympic medal having missed the prior Olympics in Atlanta, 1996 as he was not a full Danish citizen and hence debarred by the International Olympic Committee.
After his anger subsided, Vyacheslav the coach, sighed and resigned himself to planning for the next Olympics in Athens. Yura went through the more than hour long pre-race routine designed by Yevstratov for his middle distance athletes which began with a super slow 3 km jog, a dynamic stretch routine ending with iron crosses on the grass floor, progressive ladder repeats from 100 m to 300 m to ensure the muscles wouldn’t lock fast when making the excruciating transition from static to kinetic energy.
The warm up routine ended with repeating incantations drawn from various faiths across the world while at the starting block so that the athlete would go into a pseudo meditative state just before the starting gun went off.
Glody Dube from Botswana was in lane 1 he had done well for his fledgling country to come this far and exhaled a blast of air to control his nervousness. In lane 3 was Wilson Kipketer slowly rotating and stretching the muscles around the neck and shoulder blades, eyes fiercely closed in total concentration, wanting to shut out the world till the call to the starting blocks.
In lane 4 was Andre Bucher, the World 800 m champion at the Edmonton games. In lane 2 was Nils Schuman, the German, who had made the finals of the World Championship prior to this Olympics and a major threat but who had never won a big one.
In lane 8 (the outer most lane) was Yuriy Borzakovskiy (Yura)
Would Schuman push Kipketer to an Olympic record ?
Would Bucher take it out ?
Would Wilson Kipketer , the world record holder, finally… FINALLY win the 800 m Olympic Gold medal ?
The gun went off and after the initial 100 m dash within their respective lanes the athletes jockeyed for positions. At the 200 metre mark it became clear that no one wanted to dictate the pace – it wasnt going to be a fast race but a tactical one.
Trailing a good 15 m behind the others was Yuriy Borzakovskiy. He always ran a level split race which meant that the time for the 2nd half would be the same as the first half unlike the others who would run a negative split, meaning a faster first half and a more torturous but slower second half trusting the adrenaline to kick in after their hamstrings had kicked out.
“Nobody wants to dictate the pace ! Dear Oh Dear! Are they playing into the hands of the young Russian !” waxed the commentator.
On hearing this Vyacheslav, inspite of his disappointment, allowed himself a sardonic smile. “Playing into the hands of the young Russian, my foot” he sniggered to himself.
Yura liked to run well away from the pack not due to tactical reasons but due to a hangover from his younger days – he wanted to avoid getting jabbed in the ribs or tripped by violent competitors.
The genesis of this lay in his first inter school 600m contest where he was kicked and fell hard on the track with blood spurting from his nose. He responded in the next edition of the meet by creating a record for the event at 1m 53 s in the Under 11 year old category.
Junior athletics was a brutal introduction to life with much jabbing, shoving and kicking – no quarter given and no mercy.
Borzakovskiy decided that this was how he was going to handle the grim stuff. He was a good enough 400 m runner, good enough to represent the country in the 4 X 400 Relay and relied on his tremendous kick towards the end to make up for sandbagging the first half.
Vyacheslav’s thoughts darted violently back to the race – all the runners descended into the home stretch bunched up together, including Borzakovskiy who had made splendid ground from the 550 m mark.
Ultimately in the last 50 metres, it was Nils Schuman who pipped the world record holder, Wilson Kipketer, to the post and took the gold.
Kipketer looked at the replay on the stadium’s large LCD screen , the humongous agony writ large on his face, unable to accept what had just taken place. For him, it was a missed chance to win the Olympic Holy Grail and he wasn’t getting any younger.
It was a slow race – all the athletes ran slower times in the final than they did in the heats and semi finals.
Kipketer wasn’t the only one who was hurting.
The result left a deep scar on Yura too and he swore that starting from this day, he would focus all his energies to winning the gold at the next Olympics even if it meant missing out on the Athletic World Championship held at Edmonton.
And on the NEXT occasion he would make it to the starting gate ON TIME for the warm up.
Like the other boys of his age, Yuriy Borzakovskiy,(his first name was derived from the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin ( his last name means ‘greyhound’ in Russian) wanted to become a professional footballer but his talent was soon commandeered by the neighbourhood athletic club, a relationship which he maintains to this day. While in the Olympic team in a spontaneous gesture he once donated his spikes to a junior runner, a gesture which meant a lot to the greenhorn athlete.
He was good enough to make it to the 4X 400 Relay team but what set him apart was his capacity to run infinite miles, a legacy of the time spent in his native village of Zhukovskiy.
The unlikely combination of distance tolerance and the capacity to withstand the medieval torture called the 400m made him a natural for the 800m.
Going against the Russian stereotype he was not high spirited – more mellow and serious to the point of being religious – he didn’t touch a drop of alcohol after his coach forbade it.
His idol was Steve Ovett but he was more Sebastian Coe, in that once having bought in completely to his coach’ s training philosophy he remained steadfast in his adherence to it.
While in the Lviv State Academy of Physical Culture in the Ukraine he had a poster of Wilson Kipketer the then World record holder on the wall by his hostel bed, the man wth whom he was now competing for the 800 m Olympic title.
He’d never started out with the idea of becoming a professional athlete. A welder by profession he soon figured he had other things going for him.
After the Sydney Olympic misadventure, he won the World indoor 800 m World Championship title.
Thereafter in the year 2001, he dipped below the 1:43 mark for the 800 m recording a blistering time of 1:42.47 thereby becoming the tenth fastest man over that distance.
The Dave Wottle strategy
Dave Wottle of the U.S.A got married in 1972 and promptly broke his knees.
He scraped through the Olympic trials and barely made it to the U.S Olympic team.
He had two formulas for personal success.
One, wearing his golf cap – to keep his long, untidy hair in place.
Two, hanging back behind the pack and then relying on his tremendous kick in the home stretch to catch up with the leaders.
He used this in the 1972 Munich Olympics, to come from behind and take the Gold and caused an upset, beating his compatriot and the favourite, Yevgeny Argenev of Russia.
If Argeneve had won, he would have made history, becoming the first athlete from a non-English speaking country to win the 800 m men’s Olympic title.
Steve Ovett, a Borzhokovskiy idol, was highly skeptical of this strategy and made his views public.
“In a ‘1:45’ race, the tactic of hanging back may work. But in a fast race, like a ‘sub 1:44” it can be disastrous and suicidal”, he said.
Yuri Borzhakovskiy was an exponent of the Dave Wottle strategy, a dangerous one.
(Munich, 1972 – Dave Wottle edges out Yevgeny Argenev of Russia to win the Gold)
The 2004 Athens Olympics was a do or die for Wilson Kipketer – He was past thirty years of age and fading.
From the earlier edition in the year 2000, apart from Kipketer and Borzakovskiy, only Djabir Said-Geurni of Algeria remained,
This time Kipketer was in Lane 6 and Yura in Lane 4, a strong indication of how far the latter had come in the intervening period between Sydney, 2000 and Athens, 2004.
The first 100 m after the gun, Said-Guerni led the pack, running on the inside lane and Borzakovskiy ran behind the pack as usual.
As is his wont, Yura, noticing that the pace was slower than normal, made his move……. this time just before the finish of the first lap.
He went past Wilfred Bungei of Kenya at the 500 m mark and overtookg Said-Guerni at the 600 m mark.
At that point he was on the outer side of the leading pack of runners with Kipketer firmly in second place behind Mulaudzi of South Africa.
Borzhakovskiy made tremendous ground from the 500 m mark and was strategically placed on the outside lane but not too far out…..just on the periphery to go past the leaders.
At the home stretch, Kipketer was in front, oblivious of Borzhokovskiy’s accelerated snap and jerk behind him, his neck baying back and forth like a race horse, relentlessly closing out the lead between himself, Mulaudzi and Kipketer.
Kipketer had the finish line in sight and leaned forward in anxious anticipation to grab the Gold.
But Borzakovskliy like Dave Wottle before him in the Munich Olympics,, made up large ground, overtook Mulaudzi of South Africa, and in one final blast, neutralized Kipketer’s finish and breasted the tape to win Russia’s first and only Gold medal in the men’s 800 m event at the Olympics.
It is ironic that while Russia’s possible first 800 m (men’s) Olympic Gold was thwarted by an American, (Dave Wottle, in the 1972 Munich Olympics), a Russian (Borzakovskiy) used the same strategy – a gutsy and nail biting strategy, to win Russia’s first 800 m (men’s) Olympic Gold.
Poor Wilson Kipketer……he had the finish line in sight in the home stretch but Borzhokovskiy caught up with him…………………………and time.
The same year, Yuriy Borzakovskiy was named Russia’s sportsman of the year.
His last name means ‘Greyhound’ in Russian………………………he sure ran like one.
(Athens 2004 – Yuriy Borzakovskiy edges out Kipketer to win the Gold)
Next Week : The Coach who Ran The Extra Distance
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