This has been the summer when the real context of sport, as measured against life, has been amply demonstrated. The dark, Glaswegian humour of Bill Shankly - the man who once said that football wasn't a matter of life or death, it was more important than that - has run out of laughs.
When Ludmila Engqvist won "only" the bronze medal in the 100m hurdles at the World Championships last weekend, it was not regarded as a "tragedy" or a "disaster", the usual cliches which accompany sporting defeat. It was, for once, just a race. The Swedish Olympic gold medallist's most important contest this year has been against breast cancer. The bronze in Seville was rightly seen as a remarkable celebration of Engqvist's life.
And today's men's sprint hurdles race at the CGU Challenge will be as much a tribute to a lost talent as it will be a celebration of Colin Jackson's world title, or of the European junior title won by Chris Baillie.
The British athletics team has spent the whole summer first in a state of shock, then of mourning for the death of one of their promising young team-mates, Ross Baillie. Tipped by Jackson, his training partner, to be his natural successor as Britain's leading high hurdler, Ross Baillie was only 21 when he died in June after a severe allergic reaction to peanuts in a lunchtime chicken sandwich. Black ribbons have been worn on British vests ever since.
Ross was Chris Baillie's older brother. That Baillie has continued to race at all this summer, let alone go on to win the European Junior Championships in Riga, Latvia, last month, is an achievement of some fortitude.
In the midst of this true tragedy, Chris was sitting for his Scottish Highers exams as well as building up for his first important international championship, a combination which, in itself, has proved more than enough of a challenge for many promising youngsters. But Chris won his gold medal and has now left Clydebank High School with a B and C in Maths and English respectively. He has not yet made any plans for his further education. "I'm going to take next year out," he said on Thursday, "to concentrate on my athletics, aiming at the World Junior Championships."
Those that know Chris, or who saw him competing in Riga, describe him as a quiet, shy teenager. To win the European Junior gold, though, Baillie showed himself to be a fighter, too. Leading into the last barrier, the Scot clipped the top of it, lost his balance, and had a desperate sprint for the line.
The photo-finish equipment could not split Baillie and the Spaniard, Felipe Vivancos. Both were credited with 13.92sec and both were awarded a gold medal. Baillie had achieved what neither his older brother, nor Jackson, the world record-holder and twice world champion, had managed.
The report of the race in Athletics Weekly spoke of Baillie's anger with himself for a less-than-perfect performance. "I hit the second hurdle hard and made it difficult for myself," Baillie said. "I thought that if I could get out well and run a clean race then I'd win easily. I'm angry with myself really. But I won, which is the main thing." There were no effusive tributes to his older brother, no tears. According to one reporter in Riga, "When we asked about Ross, he said, `I wasn't really thinking about it. I just blocked it out'. He seemed to think it was a daft question to ask."
Bob Summerville, who had coached both Baillie boys at their club, Victoria Park Harriers, was more ready to talk of the additional pressures faced by Chris. "My first thought on hearing the result," Summerville said, "was of Chris, then of his mum and dad.
"We knew Chris had a gold medal chance, but under the circumstances this summer, it put a lot of pressure on him. It's a cliche, but Chris has come of age in the last few months."
Originally, Baillie was to have run in today's race as a guest, but injuries to Andy Tulloch and then Damien Greaves have seen him promoted to his first senior British vest. He will line up alongside Jackson and the American bronze medallist from Seville, Duaine Ross.
"I went training with both of them in Athens earlier this summer," Chris said, "so I've had a bit of experience running alongside them. They taught me small bits about the start and told me how I was hurdling. But it will be quite different in a race." And more difficult, no doubt, because also training with them in Athens earlier this year was Ross Baillie. Today's race is certain to be redolent of memories for the youngster.
"I'm trying to put everything out of my mind," he said, "trying to concentrate on my own race and nothing else. I'm OK with it all if I put everything out of my head before I run, then I can cope with it."
Coping with the grief is something that has been nearly impossible for Jackson this summer. After Ross's death, Jackson moved out of the flat that they shared in Bath, he stopped training for several weeks in mid- season, and he nearly quit the sport altogether. "I'm still not over it," Jackson, his second World Championship gold medal in his hand, said in Seville last week. "We were like a family together. Ross's death affected every aspect of our lives. Nothing's been the same since."
Tears tracked down Jackson's face after his golden run in Seville, tears of sorrow mingling with tears of joy. For Chris Baillie, the memories may be the biggest hurdle facing him today.Reuse content