Life in the fast lane, with no place as home

Pat Butcher talks to Frankie Fredericks, the quiet ambassador who has grown up with his native Namibia, about his emergence as a serious contender for the Olympic sprint double in Atlanta
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The Independent Online
It is not easy to catch up with Frankie Fredericks, as his opponents are learning with mounting alarm. The closer it gets to the Olympics, the faster the Namibian is running. One hundred metres in 9.87sec in a frigid Helsinki two weeks ago broke his personal best by almost a tenth of a second, a giant leap in sprinting terms. Then came a 9.86, the second fastest ever, in Lausanne a week ago. What is more, that was into a headwind, thus intrinsically faster than Leroy Burrell's 9.85 world record at the same venue two years ago.

To cap it all, he outleaned Michael Johnson in a 200 metres in a rainy Oslo last Friday evening, clocking 19.82sec to Johnson's 19.85 and denting the American's seeming imperviousness with a first defeat at the distance in two years, since the Rome Grand Prix in 1994 when Johnson lost to... Frankie Fredericks.

Fredericks did look to have got a "flier" in Oslo last week - which happens when a sprinter anticipates the starting gun so well that he is out of the blocks faster than the echo and steals a march on his opponents, rather than getting a false start.

But it will have given Johnson plenty to think about in his tentative run-up to that never achieved Olympic 200 and 400 double.

It has also given everyone else the opportunity to consider that Fredericks is in line for his own Olympic double, the 100 and 200 metres. So low- key is Fredericks that we tend to forget that he has already won two Olympic silvers at those events, in Barcelona 1992.

Catching up with Fredericks in the more prosaic sense of getting him to sit down and chat about all this for a while is equally difficult. Fredericks is a very private person, staying in the background at meetings, speaking quietly, fobbing off folks with "I let my feet do the talking for me," which is also the closest he gets to cliche.

He was spotted at the British Olympic trials in Birmingham, of all places. Not so unusual, on second thoughts, given that he has been training with Britain's Olympic sprint champion, Linford Christie, for the last six months. Fredericks was in Birmingham to lend support. And once cornered he was sweetness itself, and complimentary to a fault.

"When you train with someone like Linford, you are bound to get better. Working with him, you realise just what hard work is all about. I think it's beneficial for both of us. You need people at your level to train with. It's working out pretty well for me, and I hope it's working out for him".

It is easy to see why Namibia's first and best-known international personality, in sport or any other field, is also the country's best ambassador. Fredericks and Namibia grew up together, so to speak. The country has been independent of the old South Africa only since 1990, which just happens to be the year that Fredericks emerged on to the world stage as a top-class sprinter.

"I realised that by doing well I could also help my country become better known around the world. Every time Frankie Fredericks gets mentioned in the media, Namibia gets a mention too, which is great. I want to help my country all I can," he says. "I was fortunate that when they started to discuss independence for Namibia I was in my last year at college. So the transition from student to athlete was immediate, and I could also compete in the Olympic Games straightaway."

He had been South African 100 metres champion in 1987, the year he was sent by Rossing Uranium, part of the giant RTZ mining conglomerate, on a computer science scholarship to Brigham Young University in the United States. He was able to avoid the South Africa sports boycott, because the US college system is "closed". The additional advantage of the next few years was the world- class competition he could get against the likes of fellow students such as Michael Johnson, Leroy Burrell, and Andre Cason.

"The only really top people I'd never run against were Linford and Carl [Lewis], simply because they weren't in the American college system. So when I went to the World Championships in Tokyo in 1991 I wasn't overawed, because I'd already run against most of those guys."

Fredericks had, in fact become the first foreigner to win the NCAAA (US colleges) sprint double. And in Tokyo in 1991, his first international experience, he was fifth in the 100, and won silver in the 200 metres. Extraordinarily, up to that point, Fredericks had concentrated on his studies, which must have made him even more of an outsider in a US college system not noted for the academic qualities of its sports scholars.

"When I was at school, athletics in Namibia wasn't that big, and anyway it was the amateur era, nobody thought of a career in athletics.

"So I concentrated on my studies. I wanted to be somebody, do something with my life, and it seemed the only way to do that was through education".

Football was his first sporting love, and he played for national teams from the age of 13 through to a single appearance as centre-forward for the senior squad at the age of 21. "I wasn't bad, but I wasn't brilliant either." But it has left him with an enduring love for the game that had him scurrying for the TV set whenever Euro 96 was mentioned. For the record, he named Germany as the winners before the end of the first round.

That was not too difficult, and, by the same token, people have been bandying Michael Johnson's name around as the "certain" winner of the 200 and 400 double after achieving it at the Gothenburg World Championships last year. I wondered if this almost perpetual publicity for Johnson annoyed Fredericks. "Not really. I'm not doing this sport to be famous, I look at it as an opportunity to put my country on the map, and I'm doing this sport because I can give my family back home a better living than I would have if I had to work. So I look at it a different way.

"As far as Michael is concerned, what he did last year was marvellous, it was great for the sport, like it will be if he does it this year. But nobody can predict an Olympic 1-2-3. That's why we have competition. Otherwise, give the medals out now. The reason we go to the Games is to decide who is the best."

The "family" back home is just his mother, Rykie, who, he says, it took him a long time to realise was "the most important person in my life. I was born in Katatura, a suburb of Windhoek. In the past in South Africa, they used to have black neighbourhoods, white neighbourhoods, and then coloured neighbourhoods. We used to live in the black neighbourhood. I grew up there. At the time, I thought it was a normal life, I didn't know any better, I just thought this was how everybody grew up.

"Now, leaving and looking at it, I realise that my mother worked really hard, but I didn't understand what she was going through, how hard she worked just to put food on the table. I really appreciate that now."

Fredericks took his mother to Barcelona in 1992, the first time she had been outside Namibia, and he now says he tries to bring her on tour as much as possible, "so we don't lose contact", since he only spends about two months of the year back at home. Talking about his mother seemed an appropriate opportunity to ask about a girl-friend. That drew just about the only broad smile of the afternoon, but all he would say was: "Let's just say there is someone in my life."

He is still linked with Rossing Uranium, the company who paid for his studies and who now sponsor him. It suits him, he says, and it is difficult to imagine that Rossing do not feel they have mined one of their richest ever seams with Fredericks. And has that ore come to the surface at just the right time?

The Olympics always throws up the unexpected. Six months before Seoul, there was a superb 1500 metres in prospect, with the double champion Seb Coe against the world record holder Said Aouita, the world champion Abdi Bile, and the former world champion and record holder Steve Cram.

In the eventuality, only Cram ran, and he finished fourth, with Peter Rono taking the title and never winning a significant race again.

Until two weeks ago, and those two blistering 100 metres races, despite his Barcelona silver, Fredericks admits that people considered him more a 200 metres man. Now, he has two of the three fastest times ever at 100 metres. And that has deepened his quandary, because after finishing fourth in the World Championships 100 metres then second in the 200 metres last year he felt that he overdid it.

"I haven't decided whether I'm going to run both yet. Definitely, I'm going to do the 200, but I'll wait until 48 hours before to decide. Last year I got twinges after running so many rounds because you have to run hard every round nowadays. I just want to give it my best. I hope I get a PB [personal best] out of it, I've really given a lot up this year training-wise. I feel good, I feel strong. At this stage of my life, I'm in the best shape I've ever been. I just want to stay healthy and win gold."

Frankie Fredericks: A track record 1992-96

Against the clock

Best time World best

1992

100 metres 10.02sec (6th in world) 9.93 Mike Marsh (US)

200m 19.97 (3rd) 19.73 Mike Marsh

1993

100m 10.03 (8th) 9.87 Linford Christie (GB)

200m 19.85 (1st) 19.85

1994

100m 10.04 (=11th) 9.85 Leroy Burrell (US)

200m 19.97 (3rd) 19.87 John Regis (GB)

1995

100m 10.03 (=5th) 9.91 Donovan Bailey (Can)

200m 19.93 (2nd) 19.79 Michael Johnson (US)

1996

100m 9.86 (1st) 9.86

200m 19.82 (2nd) 19.66 Michael Johnson (US)

All-time

100m 9.86 (=2nd; Commonwealth record)

200m 19.82 (5th; Commonwealth record)

Against the best in championship finals

1992 Olympic Games Gold Silver Bronze

100m Silver Christie Fredericks Mitchell (US)

200m Silver Marsh (US) Fredericks Bates (US)

1993 World Championships

100m 6th Christie Cason (US) Mitchell

200m Gold Fredericks Regis (GB) Lewis (US)

1994 Commonwealth Games

100m Bronze Christie Green Fredericks

200m Gold Fredericks Regis Effiong (Nigeria)

1995 World Championships

100m 4th Bailey (Can) Surin (Can) Boldon (Trin)

200m Silver Johnson (US) Fredericks Williams (US)

Statistics: Stan Greenberg

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