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Sport 14: Autumn 1995

John Downie — A Short History of the Men’s 400 Metres

page 140

John Downie

A Short History of the Men’s 400 Metres

A single lap of the track. Nothing, you would think, could be more straightforward.

And yet, though it seems barely credible to say it, so frequently were near misses recorded in the final decade of the century, that the forty-four second barrier was long thought to represent an absolute limit to the event. Then on the sunny July the Fourth afternoon of the year Two Thousand, at the recently renovated University of Maryland McLair Stadium, out of the blue as it were, Aaron Bryceland Carter arrived to scotch that rumour entirely. Carter, a spontaneous athlete competing in an event which was becoming even then the most rigorously unspontaneous, was to trouble the record book, as it turned out, on only this single occasion. A young colossus with an intimidating stride, Carter had been hauled from an inauspicious high school by the already discredited Van Ost programme, and the rapidity of his rise would be matched only by the abruptness of his return to mid-western obscurity. Admittedly, a month later, at the precocious age of nineteen, he was able to claim the Olympic title, though in a negligible winning time. But the financial windfalls which tumbled over his young shoulders in the golden months of that Fall helped him not towards the destiny so loquaciously invoked by his coach, Baccanario, but more, it would seem, towards existential distress, a sudden dependency on narcotics, and to charges of rape from several individuals, not all of them women. And it was less than two years on that his mutilated corpse, minus tongue and testicles, would be found in a parking lot in Concordia, Kansas. One or two more astute commentators wryly observed at the time that this rise and fall of the event’s last North American champion might stand as a kind of anticipatory symbol for the diminishing status of the United States as a world power in track and field in those early years of the new century, an inevitable consequence of the social disintegration which was beginning to blow that continent apart.

And while it blew, other parts of the world healed. As Africa’s new countries settled into their accelerating paths, their runners were amongst the many who celebrated. On banked tartan tracks in Addis Ababa, Kampala, Bujumbura and Nairobi (the Finnish engineering company Pori- page 141 Pudisjarvi playing a major developmental role here as elsewhere), it seemed almost as if a new race of humans had supplanted the old. Ismaile Dodoma, ‘the man with the withered hand’, pierced Carter’s record with impeccable casualness, and five times in a single year chipped away further fragments. Ever-smiling ‘Curly’ Kiero, in a brief interruption to his command of insurgents on the central plateau, appeared in Lusaka on a rain-soaked Thursday night to dance a circuit in something less than forty-two seconds; a time the international body were hesitant to validate, given the circumstances. There could be no such doubt, however, at Beijing’s glistening Olympics, when Kiero’s toothy grin impressed itself on the viewing billions. Was it pleasure or pain which maintained it so ambiguously there, from gun to finish in under forty-one seconds? And yet, before that incredible year was out, Valentine Bozoum, a man whose accredited age could oscillate wildly between fourteen and forty, with a physically brutal style dismembering the space through which he tore, had moved to within a hair’s breadth of the now emblematic target of forty seconds dead.

We could have been forgiven for barely noticing little Peter Nolioth, the mathematics teacher from Shinkolobwe, in that race, a mere metre back in Bozoum’s brutish shadow, according to Sky-Z’s archives of the inaugural night inside Bujumbura’s National Bowl. His single reason for running that night, he told the one journalist who seemed to show interest, was ‘because it helps me to work on problems which I cannot bear to when sitting down’. His intricate stride, a precise chronometer, would consume all the subsequent patience of scientists as they began to get serious with the subtle algebrae of biochemistry and time. When the diaphanous mountain men came south for the first African World Championships, in Pretoria the following year, they denied the Europeans and the North Americans so much as a single place in the final of the event. Effortlessly, Kiero and Nolioth flitted through the light, a species of gazelle surely, while Bozoum, eyes aflame, was a ragged, muscled lion in their train. All three went through the gate. The Seiko timer that spun through the numbers on giant electronic screens had failed to reach forty seconds (there was a sudden, explosive, collective realisation at the import of this), and Nolioth’s winning time, flashed continuously over his struggles with a vast Zambian flag on the victory circuit, rested at two hundredths under thirty-nine seconds. Few who were not inside that stadium (and the estimated viewing audience of four and a half billion who witnessed the event worldwide were not) will now recall how blood-red was the setting sun behind the diamond collar of page 142 the floodlights, how intoxicating the chanting air, in this last great contest to be held open to the elements.

As the century hauled itself up into the light, it was becoming apparent that, world-wide, hardly a single area of social and economic aspiration was not constrained by the sheer materiality of the human body. For Track and Field this had always been the prime issue. In this regard, for research purposes, the single lap race was paradigmatic. Amongst the permanently assembled teams in Phoenix, Nagasaki, or Zurich (to name only three of the centres whose programmes were to prove exemplary), amongst that plethora of tracksuited personel so intimately familiar with the links between aerobic and anaerobic mechanisms, whose sharp eye could possibly separate out coaches from public relations and sponsorship executives, scientists from guinea pigs? While other parts of the globe struggled to come to terms with oceans bereft of fish, naked ranges holding neither forest nor topsoil, plague clouds of deceitfully resilient insects, and furious human populations that paid no heed to borderlines, within these glass Xanadus the single kind of question asked was how exactly adenosine triphosphate could best be broken down incrementally to maximise available carbon-rich fuel and minimise lactic waste. Perhaps it was here, under Zurich’s ever-complacent domes, that Endo Picchu, the Peruvian with the most melancholic of moustachios, followed up his startlingly unshackled thirty-six second lap in front of a public at Osaka’s Videodrome with a host of even more explosive feats in private, all the while harnessed to a single spot deep within that maze of laboratories, his every organ speaking calibrated volumes.

Such biochemical tinkerings were reinforced by research into both genetic and psychological realms. It had become progressively obvious that champions were both born and made. The Nagasaki centre was the first to provide professional and financial incentives for athletes to enter selective breeding programmes. Just which athlete had paired with which became the hot subject of many a gossip-page, even though, scientifically, the outcomes were just as likely to be in vitro as in utero. Foetus, new-born, and infant were subject to the most rigorous statistical regimens, the most measured diets, the most calculated educations. Because records only existed to be broken, research centres stressed elitism as a basic philosophy; that it was the offspring of athletes who were the most significant to physiological evolution, irrespective of race or ethnicity. On the other hand, it was obvious that psychological patterning was not as amenable to biochemistry and calibration as were muscle biopsy and leg-trunk proportion. Performance on the page 143 track could be deemed a direct expression of an athlete’s personal life experience, above and beyond inherited abilities and the technical consciousness nurtured by coaches. ‘Need for Achievement’ factors therefore became urgent components within the constructed social environments of young athletes. Subtly engineered within peer-groups, desire was sublimated beyond the private murk of bodily appetites and disturbing dreams, and out towards crisp, competitive communality and hygienic simplicity, as nourishing and uncontaminating to the spirit as vitamin-rich diets are to the blood. And who could deny the fruition this brought forth? Olaf Stephanopoulis, a creature whose moulded musculature was worthy of Praxiteles, sped across the line in a single soaring swoop, at under thirty-three seconds. And through a succession of pulsating championships, it was inconceivable that Carlos Jiminez, reportedly a cloistered child of decathletes Wendy Jiminez and Wolfgang Zappa Carlos, would continue to tease the attendant multitudes again and again by the tight fractions of time which he progressively chipped from his own world marks. He ran like the wind, like some elemental gust of flesh. Wasn’t it at Rio that his daemonic green eyes once, beneath the jet-black shock of hair, glared up towards us in a kind of saintly disbelief at the colossal clock’s blunt refusal to pass the half-minute mark?

And exactly who, by now, were we?

This is not such an easy question to answer. Sure, we were to be found wherever the best meets were being offered, downline; but how they happened, and what we made of them, was by now open to our own curious devisings. After all, if privilege was deemed still to persist in these egalitarian times, then its certain place of residence could only be with the customer. Once locked into our laptops, the choices were many. The most popular was provided by the minute camera technology placed in the centre of an athlete’s forehead, riding on a gimbel so refined that all semblance of his violent movements, up and down, side to side, was removed. The potentials for direct participation proceded, to coin a phrase, in leaps and bounds. In such a way did we run with Vincente Barbarossa, feeling the acceleration that only he could apply on the back straight, marvelling at the way he swept up inside Ziggy Omai on the bend, and exulting with the Spaniard as his single quick turn of the head to the right allowed both him and us to see that Mbingu Okwobe on the outside lane was likewise hopelessly out of contention. This was exactly the kind of race on which we, as spectators, could dwell, repeating the experience from every conceivable viewpoint page 144 once the prime material was ours, even taking on board the point of view of Omai as Barbarossa burned past his left shoulder, or that of the struggling Okwobe, realising his cause was so hopelessly lost. Of course, even then, we had simulation options that allowed us to stretch our, so to speak, legs even longer than that phenomenal Spaniard, so the race, already viewed, would take on a suddenness that tore the breath away, the final sprint sucking our senses towards the line. On the other hand, every inflection of that race could be revisited, enhanced, while an inserted counter broke down everything to hundredths of a second. The single blink and glance to the left by which Omai registered his surprise could be stretched through an ever extending choreography of facial contortions. And then all possible viewpoints, both the most subjective and the most distanced, the best visual moments implacably constituted by the tone-perfect vigour of the pixels, could be re-assembled, so that a multiplicity of eyes soaked up the experience anew, and time itself pulsated to accommodate each re-simulation. So it was most palpably that Barbarossa’s victory lap was ours as much as his. Simultaneously, as we perceived that boastful snarl break through the sensual lips (and each one of us, we possessed those lips, we snarled that snarl), that shake of both fists held out in front of him (how we shook our own), so we saw also, from the immediacy of the champion’s perspective, those terraces of celebrants, as they swayed in adulation. Wasn’t it ourselves who were being acclaimed? Wasn’t that myself? We are the champions! The stadium, as always packed to the brim (we were inside it! we were at its very core!) was a galaxy of lights, a vortex of noise. Oh yes, we had been torn yet again from our inertia, and our lives blest with the sort of meaning that only a time of twenty-seven point nine eight three seconds could confer. It was enough to keep us happy for days.

This precise issue of point of view became even more baffling, however, at roughly the same time as the first athletes began to appear from the Hovsgo Nuur training compound. Throughout the century, with methodologies that both intrigued and appalled their co-competitors, the Chinese had asserted an unparalleled ascendancy in Track and Field. By now, only the sprint events remained elusive to them. The Hovsgo Nuur initiative, the creation of a ‘sports city’ in the newly annexed lands of Northern Mongolia, north-west of Ulan Bator, established a breeding regime amongst the local tribes in those mountains, one furthermore nourished by the extraordinarily sophisticated root and herbal foods which, in the main, even now defy precise categorisation. The very innocence of their vegetable ingredients page 145 seemed to proclaim the perfect legality of such substances—so unlike the guilt worn on every face during the black decades when beta-blockers had confused and calumnised all competitive sports with their false chemistries. In retrospect, the political aim of Hovsgo Nuur can now be seen as nothing less than an attempt, in accordance with the sublime wishes of the current regime of Go Sing and his One Thousand Electors, to capture the gold medal in every single event in that year when the Olympic Games would return once more to Beijing. Out of that remote city a new shape of athlete had emerged, tall and yet with leg to trunk proportion exquisitely suited to the explosive events, and a physique which (a fact the World Authority was eventually able to prise loose) seemed able to metabolise a singular aerobic process, conjuring excesses of glycogen at will, rather in the manner by which players of wind instruments develop the technique of circular breathing. These athletes could breathe, and combust, and when they did, from our vantage points at least, they hardly seemed so much as to touch the ground beneath them. And they came in teams, in squads, in swathes. Their faces, impassive mixtures of total innocence and deep knowing, carried less information than the numbers blazoned on their vests front and back. Both faces and names we hardly had time to commit to memory before they might be replaced by others, new sets of numbers, even more precisely tuned to their peak, within the week. For those of us still aficionados of the traditional events, didn’t we feel we were witnessing, to all intents, the arrival of a tribe of Supermen?

These remote warriors, themselves, individually, did they actually feel pain? The single lap race after all was still sentimentally known as the ‘killer event’, a fact emphasised and re-emphasised by the bewildering multitude of sponsors it continued to attract. For some time, exquisitely placed sensors around the anatomies of the competitors had given direct access to their immediate bodily sensations. When they flung themselves across the line, and collapsed to their knees, in times so consistently startling, so too, it has to be imagined, did many witnesses to their exertions, world-wide. But in that era of digitalised sensation, when every appetite could be stimulated and assuaged, when altogether more violent and more sensual experiences could be both shared and personally enhanced, it was still good to know that there remained many advocates, purists, defending the ‘classical’ status of this event above all others. Even when things moved on, as they must, because of the ever-increasing sophistications in the interface between athlete and spectator, the question of pain, and its ethical implications, page 146 could never satisfactorily be gauged. Isn’t there a cruel, self-punishing streak to be found in all physical and mental endeavour? The greater the demands made, the sweeter the agony? In the extreme privacy of a cool and focused gaze, in their own total immersion in the event, ever-repeatable, ever-refinable, who can tell how each spectator might respond to such exertion? Could such a spectator be judged truly culpable if, in the final strides, an athlete could be seen to twist and fall headlong, muscles tearing, the spasm of a useless limb, the throat wide, the lips stretched, the eyes popping, the chest expanding until it might simply split, the track splattering with gore, the carcass writhing through a cacophony of screams neither actual nor synthetic, those few tormented inches just short of the victory line? No, surely these were imagined terrors, pixellated dreams. Wasn’t there a terrible monotony, after all, in the ways in which splendid and near naked anatomies could be seen to spontaneously erupt and destroy themselves, could feel the sudden searing heat of self-immolation? All aspects of virtuality could have their downsides. These images, these experiences, these swirling laps of barely perceptible motion, of course could neither be completely nor consistently real. Besides, great athletes would always triumph whatever the odds, once the target was set, once the strategy was made plain; hadn’t we learnt that lesson completely by then, in the arenas of life? That achievement could never have limits set upon it? Oh yes, the matter of pain, surely, was all in the mind of the beholder. As for the athletes themselves; well, didn’t Mikhail O’Hara Santos, like most lucky men, have a wife and a child, enjoy carpentry, travel, and the music of Lee Needleheim? Han Woo Luc, here, right before our eyes, so stylishly dressed, so relaxed and humorously fluent in several languages, so wealthy and sexually liberated, despite shattering the fifteen second barrier, wasn’t he also a cordon bleu chef? And as the cover feature in Time magazine or the ambassadorial roles he fulfilled for the Network clearly illustrated, there was more than just athletics in the life of Emil el Laat, the first ten second man; pain, it would seem, could never restrain the sparkle that poured from his eyes. The public promotion of its champions was only one of a host of intimate technologies at which Hovsgo Nuur was non pareil.

The timings achieved by these men, like the day’s final trading figures from the fifteen international financial markets, were gratifyingly fixed points in an all too-turning world. A world in which, tragically, rumour was triumphantly prevailing over statistic. The rumour was this, the rumour was that; you could hardly catch your breath from ever-pursuing rumour. The page 147 rumour was of a mass exodus of peoples northwards on the highway west of the Cordillera through Colombia and into the bottleneck of Panama, so unrelenting were these years of the Amazonian dust-storms. The rumour was of the frequent birth of two-headed geniuses in the bleached-out industrial corridors of the Ukraine. The rumour was of an impenetrable ghetto in downtown Sydney entirely populated by blood-seeking tribes of cybo-sentient creatures which had escaped from customised virtualities. The rumour was that the Gulf of St Lawrence was awash with dead geese. The rumour was of contagious epidemics across the entire face of the moon’s plantations. The rumour was that a simple bone marrow graft, undergone every ten years or so, promised affordable individual life-spans in excess of a hundred and fifty years. The rumour was that the infant Princess Nasreen had not in fact been present when the English Royal family had been secretly executed, and was somewhat implausibly to be found, twenty years later, living as a celebrity kick-boxer in the arcades of Calcutta. The rumour was that even simulations were being simulated. The rumour was that education was pointless. The rumour was that the drug cartels controlled even the world’s weather systems. The rumour was that the size of the erect male member had no natural limit. The rumour was that a certain Rafaella Ousimbene, aged thirty-three and unmarried, until recently employed as a National Lotteries clerk in the city of Lourenco Marques in Mozambique but now suddenly to be witnessed at the forefront of the beguiling eloquence being spoken in much of post-tribal Southern Africa, was, at long last, returned, the Living Christ. Rumour bathed in these virtuous waters of perpetual elaboration; the truth, a matter of more mysterious disciplines, abjured comfort, and refined itself by persistent scientific reduction.

And if everything must, in the end, return to fact and truth, then no greater example of either is likely to be found than amongst those simplest of components; eight or ten superbly prepared young men, their skins slick with preparation, their eyes unblinkingly aimed towards impossible distance; the steeply banked circuit of polyresinated track; a giant scoreboard with a list of names unfolding beneath a digital clock poised at zeros; a crowd elbow to elbow around the tiered walls of the stadium, its excited attention gradually focusing down to a single suspended breath; above it, dazzling floodlights like tumbling galaxies. One by one, the runners sink, and fit themselves into their blocks. The slightest breeze ruffles the flags of nations. At the end of the looped corridor, the finish line shimmers impatiently into page 148 readiness. From inside an impossible equilibrium, the starter’s pistol levers itself aloft. A pair of enormous lips move themselves against each other. The athletes appear to take no heed. Outside, all around, the electric city hums and ha’s, unable to decide on its choice of jewellery. The lips move a second time. Reflexively, each athlete is instantly wound about by an intolerable spring. This untranslatable moment. These final slow expanding beats of time. Will we even now be able to recall the athletes in mid-stride? Is it possible that they will burst the tape before they have left their blocks? The gun cracks, and separates the heavens.

The concrete will be stained and fissured; all glass shattered; the plastic seating rotted into ribbons rattled by the wind; the alloys smeared through with dark rainbows; the circle of the track no more than lumpy dust, the home of ant and centipede; the centre oval ragged with weed and gnarled thorn; the floodlights sightless sockets; the flagpoles bent, leaning and uprooted; the crowd forever absent and the silence absolute; the giant scoreboard dulled and without significance, only now and then, as the circling sun will fill the dead quartz with snatched and oblique illuminations, momentarily resurrecting the legend: zero point zero point zero point zero point zero point …….