Athletics: Sadistic pleasure to be gained from AAA tradition of tears and traumas

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The Independent Online

Over the years the AAA Championships - which are taking place in Birmingham this weekend - have offered innumerable examples of athletic excellence. But whenever I recall those displays I have witnessed in the last 15 years or so, I find myself thinking about all those negative things that athletes strive so hard to avoid; frustration, tears, rage. In short, the bits that don't get "visualised".

Over the years the AAA Championships - which are taking place in Birmingham this weekend - have offered innumerable examples of athletic excellence. But whenever I recall those displays I have witnessed in the last 15 years or so, I find myself thinking about all those negative things that athletes strive so hard to avoid; frustration, tears, rage. In short, the bits that don't get "visualised".

Trauma is one of the unheralded draws of this event, particularly since it became linked with first or second-past-the-post trials for major summer championships. Not that a Championship which began in 1886 has been unable to generate trouble and strife all by itself.

Judging by a report from the time in Athletics Weekly, the 1946 version of the AAA Championships, held at White City, managed to produce discord aplenty.

"There were adverse comments by some Press Correspondents after these championships, some justified, some not," the reporter wrote.

One of the problems related to the fact that the sprinters had to wait for the start of the 100 metres while the tug-of-war - yes, that old showground attraction - was in progress. ( Can you imagine? "Sorry Linford, you'll just have to hang about. It's the best of three.")

"It is not fair to keep men in a high state of tension waiting about for some minutes and it should be possible to arrange the programme so that this does not happen," the observer wrote.

Just in case you were wondering, McDonald Bailey's predictable victory was delayed by a mighty contest in the 100-stones category tug-of-war which eventually saw REME No 1 Central Workshop beat Cranleigh and District British Legion by 2 pulls to 0.

Our man-on-the-spot also highlighted another troublesome organisational feature: "Many people in the stadium failed to notice the leaders in the marathon. Squire Yarrow and McNab Robertson came into the arena together while the steeplechase was in progress, and mingled with the competitors of that event.

"I understand... that the marathon men were far from satisfied with arrangements made outside the stadium. It was certainly unfortunate that the leading men had to get mixed up with competitors and hurdles when they did arrive..."

In more recent years, competitor stress has more usually been brought about through the frustration of being left out of the main event.

In 1983, the reigning Olympic 800m champion Steve Ovett lost his chance of representing Britain over two laps at the inaugural World Championships when he was spiked in the final at Crystal Palace and eventually pulled up with 180 metres to go, clutching the back of his thigh.

Six years later there was further angst for Ovett as he broke down and cried after finishing well down the field at the AAAs in a race also containing his perennial rival, Sebastian Coe. Amid the tears, there were mysterious references to the fact that all was not well in the sport. He claimed later that he was upset over being offered an alleged payment of £20,000 by the British Amateur Athletic Board's promotions officer, Andy Norman, to run head-to-head with Coe in what was an amateur event.

There is, let's face it, a certain sadistic satisfaction to be had from athletics trials. A year earlier, Ovett's rival had created perhaps the biggest upset in AAA history when he failed to progress from the 1500m heats, thus losing his chance to seek a third consecutive Olympic title at the distance.

The year after Ovett's waterworks, Birmingham witnessed a far more explicable - but far less excusable - upset as 1500m runner Tony Morrell set about a fellow competitor after a collision put them both out of the running in the final. For a few moments it seemed as if the bell at the finish line might be employed for a different sporting use, but the fisticuffs never got beyond a farcical scuffle. And Morrell never got to that summer's European Championships.

The 1990s provided other choice examples of discord and controversy. In 1995, Linford Christie, then at the zenith of his powers, argued himself back into the 100m final - as a guest - after misjudging his semi-final finish.

A year later, after Roger Black had won the 400m in a British record of 44.39sec, his rival Du'Aine Ladejo bet him £1,000 that he would be national record holder by the end of the season. Black, Olympic silver medallist just over a month later, won the bet - and spent the lot on a slap-up meal for his mates, toasting Ladejo between every course.

But in 1998 Black's feelings as he left the Alexander Stadium were the polar opposite after being forced out of the first three by an astonishing run from Solomon Wariso, a 200m specialist. Black's intended last hurrah - at that year's European Championships - had died in his throat.

So this weekend in Birmingham, someone, somewhere, is headed for a similar shock. Just stay tuned.

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