How long will they waggle their backsides?

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The Independent Online
PAVEL JANUSZEWSKI lay prostrate on the track at the Nepstadion on Thursday night, having won the European Championship 400 metres hurdles title in a Polish record time. Not a bad performance from a man who had died the previous year.

That is, according to reports at the time in the Polish newspapers which were wrong in one very important respect.

As the trackside photographers, with their bids and bulky jackets, sensed their opportunity, the collapsed Pole was suddenly surrounded. His sky grew dark as they crowded over him. Then one broke away to get a shot from a low angle, leaning back on his elbow with a knee raised, like one of the figures in Dejeuner sur l'Herbe.

Frantically, others followed suit, breaking from their positions to take up this novel perspective. Whereupon the photographer who had originally broken ranks got up and started to take pictures of the men taking pictures....

It is one of the particular fascinations of watching athletics to see how each individual competitor behaves in the moment of triumph or adversity. Januszewski's reaction after crossing the line appeared to be out of the Charlie George school of flat-on-his-back celebration, but as his expression showed when he eventually found enough space to stand up, it was borne partly of exhaustion and partly from a sudden realisation of what he had done.

The Pole had taken nearly a second off his best time to earn a title he subsequently said he had never believed he could win - that is, until he held off the Russian favourite over the last hurdle.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this kind of reaction to success came in the thin air at the Mexico Olympics of 1968, when Bob Beamon produced a long jump that was so far in advance of anything either he or any of his competitors had ever done - the record stood for 23 years - that he was completely overcome by his achievement, and suffered a cataleptic seizure.

For others, victory is simply sweet. Back in the late 70s Steve Ovett's superiority over his rivals at 800 and 1500 metres allowed him to celebrate early. After moving clear of the mere mortals around the final bend, he would earn himself 80 metres of clear track in which to wave to the crowd or, if the mood took him, trace out the initial letters of a message to his girlfriend, Rachael.

The message was usually ILY - I Love You. But such was Ovett's pre-eminence in those heady days of British middle distance running that, in retrospect, he wasted many opportunities. There was time to deliver so many other greetings or instructions, had he only thought about it. PTKO, perhaps - Put The Kettle On - or even NORWICH.

Ovett's cheek gave rise to a succession of imitators. His method was not without risk, however, as he discovered himself during one meeting at Crystal Palace when his premature celebrations were interrupted by the sudden appearance of a rival beating him to the line.

Perhaps the most savage satisfaction I have ever witnessed on an athletics tracks came at the 1992 Olympic Games, where Algeria's Hassiba Boulmerka became Hassiba Berserker after winning the 1500 metres title, snatching up a national flag and brandishing it at the watching world.

It was an act of vindication, rather than celebration, from a woman who had endured a prolonged campaign of criticism from extremist Muslims in her own country, who believed it was unseemly for females to take part in sporting competition.

But there doesn't have to be high drama for the process of watching finishers to be fascinating. It occurs in its most exquisite form with walkers, those exponents of what must surely be the world's most frustrating sport.

The fundamental rule - one or other foot to be in contact with the ground at all times - checks the fundamental instinct of wanting to hurry up. Competitive walkers are like men running in manacles.

But, as a result of this strange contradiction, there is always plenty of time to wonder, as the leading figures enter the stadium and begin the double circuit that winds them to the sanctuary of the line, how they will cope with the transformation back to normal, if wobbly, pedestrians.

Will they cross themselves? Before or after finishing? Will they wave their arms in the air? How long will they carry on waggling their backsides and swinging their arms before they come to a halt?

The spectacle has the same compulsion as train spotting. Or what I imagine to be the same compulsion as train spotting, as that is not something I have ever done.

However, you'll have to excuse me now. The 50 kilometres walkers are about to enter the stadium.

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