Christine Ohuruogu is not the first athlete to return to these shores as an Olympic 400 metres champion. Back in 1924, after riding his chariot of fire to one-lap glory at the Stade Colombes in Paris, Eric Liddell was mobbed at Waverley Station and borne through the streets of Scotland's capital on the shoulders of his fellow students from Edinburgh University. He had been born in China and returned there to join his father as a Christian missionary. He died in a Japanese internment camp in Weifang in 1945.
For Ohuruogu, in this age of professional athletics, working life begins again tomorrow afternoon with the Aviva British Grand Prix meeting at Gateshead International Stadium. She will, of course, be the only domestic Olympic champion on show, having been the sole British winner on the track and field programme at the "Bird's Nest" Stadium in Beijing. Twelve days on from her stunning victory in the women's 400m final, when she powered down the home straight to claim gold ahead of Shericka Williams and Sanya Richards, the 24-year-old Londoner is still coming to terms with the magnitude of her achievement.
Ohuruogu was not aware, until it was pointed out to her, that she was following in Liddell's chariot-marks when she became the first British Olympic 400m champion since 1924. She has not even seen Chariots of Fire, David Puttnam's Oscar-winning film about the triumphs of Liddell and Harold Abrahams, in the 100m, at those Paris Olympics of 84 years ago. "No I haven't," she sheepishly confessed. "My mum's going to kill me because she bought it for me. I know the story vaguely. I'm more of a book person than a video person. I'd rather read than the book and just make my notes and stuff, as a student does."
It just so happens that a new biography of Liddell, Running the Race, is fresh on the bookshelves, written by John Keddie, who acted as an adviser to Colin Welland on the script for Puttnam's film. "Could you get hold of a copy for me?" Ohuruogu asked. "Would that be all right? That would be cool."
It would be rather fitting, too, if Britain's sole Olympic athletics champion were to take possession of a second-hand copy of Lillian, the tragic story of Lillian Board, who came so tantalisingly close to winning the women's 400m in Mexico City in 1968. She died of cancer in a Munich clinic in December 1970, 13 days past her 22nd birthday. "Someone told me about that recently, when I was at the team holding camp in Macau," Ohuruogu reflected. "I didn't know about it until then."
Ohuruogu has come a long way in the past 23 months to get where she will be tomorrow afternoon: stepping on to the Gateshead track to be introduced to the crowd as the reigning world and Olympic 400m champion. Back in September of 2006, after receiving a 12-month ban for missing three out-of-competition drug tests, she was facing an operation on both legs and pondering whether to hang up her spikes and pursue a different profession.
"There was a point when I thought that way," she confided. "Shortly after they announced the ban I had to have the operation and I thought, 'I'm not going to have it.' But then, when I had the operation, I still had to rehab my legs. Even if I wasn't going to run again, my legs had to get back to where they were before they operated on them.
"So I worked on getting them stronger, just day by day, and by December I had started running again. And obviously you progress and progress and then I thought, 'Hang on a minute; I can actually get fit in time for the World Championships.' And that's how it kind of ended up."
Less than a month after serving her suspension, Ohuruogu was standing on the top step of the rostrum in Osaka. Next to her, as the winner of the silver medal, was her British team-mate Nicola Sanders. Short of fitness in Beijing due to a persistent knee problem, Sanders failed to make the cut for the Olympic final, finishing fourth in her semi-final in 50.71sec, a season's best. The Buckinghamshire woman is likely to be Ohuruogu's principal rival at Gateshead tomorrow.
A year ago, after her World Championship win, Ohuruogu put herself and her new reputation straight on the line on the Golden League circuit at the Weltklasse meeting in Zurich. She was comprehensively beaten by Richards, who had contested only the 200m in Osaka, and was a notable absentee from the stellar gathering of Olympic champions at this year's meeting in the Letzigrund Stadium last night. "The training we do is not geared towards Golden Leagues or Grand Prix," Ohuruogu said. "It's geared towards the major championships."
And, with Commonwealth, world and Olympic titles in the bag, the young woman from east London is forging a reputation as a championship performer par excellence. It might have been different, though. Ohuruogu struggles to recall her very first race, but she remembers that she was not the fastest girl at her primary school in Stratford. "No, I was always battling to beat some girl," she said. "I don't want to bring her name up – she knows who she is – but she was really fast."
And tomorrow, when Ohuruogu takes the applause of the crowd on Tyneside, the mystery woman might well be thinking that she could have been a enjoying a homecoming as the Beijing Olympic champion.
3 questions for Tia Hellebaut
1. As Belgium's first Olympic track and field champion for 44 years, what were the celebrations like when you returned home after winning high jump gold in Beijing?
"I arrived at Brussels Airport at 6.30am on Tuesday and even at that time of the day it was packed with people. It took me three hours to get away. When I got home I had to go buy some bread because there was nothing in the house. It was good to go to the supermarket and get back to normal life very fast."
2. Why do you wear spectacles when you compete?
"I started to jump in my glasses when I had an eye infection in 2005. I feel very good with them. I can see much better with glasses than with contact lenses."
3. What do you read in your spare time?
"Just sports biographies – about Belgians, plus Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham. The Zidane book was better. He was the better player."
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