London Eye: Mongolia marathon man makes great strides as adopted Geordie

 

Standing outside the Next store on the Team Valley Trading Estate in Gateshead, off to the right you can see the rusty outline of Antony Gormley's Angel of the North.

On the hill immediately opposite is Low Fell, which was home to Brendan Foster when he was a world record-breaking, Olympic medal-winning distance runner in the 1970s. It was also where Hughie Gallacher, the firebrand Scot whose goals won Newcastle United their last top-flight title back in 1927, flung himself to his death in front of the York to Edinburgh express train in 1957.

At the left end of the valley is Dunston, which gave the world one Paul Gascoigne. This is a patch steeped in Tyneside sporting history.

And yet mention of each name – Foster, Gallacher, Gazza even – meets with a blank expression as Ser-Od Bat-Ochir settles down with his family to a post-lunch coffee. The names mean nothing to him. "No," he says, politely, shaking his head.

By the same token, Bat-Ochir can walk the streets of Tyneside – where he has spent much of the past three years, acclimatising to the British weather and preparing himself for this summer's Olympic marathon – without turning heads in recognition. "Actually," his sister-in-law, Oktyabri McDonagh interjects, chuckling, "there was this one time...

"We went to the shops at the MetroCentre and there were some Mongolian people there. They were very excited to see 'Ziggy'. They came across and said: 'How are you? Can we take our picture with you?' They work in a restaurant here. When Ziggy races they come to watch him. In Mongolia he is very famous."

He is indeed. Ziggy, as Bat-Ochir has come to be known since his arrival on Tyneside ("It's easier for people to say than Ser-Od," he explains) is regarded as a national hero in his homeland. A tall, slender 30-year-old with an engagingly modest manner and an endearing smile, he is one of Mongolia's leading sporting stars, the country's only athlete of note. He has competed in the last two Olympic marathons and the last five World Championship marathons. He was the Asian marathon champion in 2010.

"At the end of last year he was given a special award in Mongolia like the MBE here," says John McDonagh, his English brother-in-law. Ziggy smiles. "Yes, the Mongolian president presented it to me at the Mongolian government palace," he says.

It is because of McDonagh that Ziggy has come to sprinkle a little stardust in the North-east of England, as the Mongolian marathon man running in the blue and white vest of Morpeth Harriers – the Northumberland club that was put on the map by Jim Alder, the 1966 Commonwealth marathon champion, 1968 Olympic marathon veteran and, amazingly, holder of the world two-hour record since 1964.

"My wife, Oktyabri, and Ziggy's wife, Oyuntuya, are sisters," McDonagh says. "I went out to Mongolia for a few years and met my wife there. As Ziggy has family here, he wanted to train and race in England as he worked towards the Olympic marathon in London."

And thus Bat-Ochir and his wife, a former sprinter who also happens to be his coach, have ventured farther than Genghis Khan and the great Mongolian Empire, 4,208 miles from their home in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Since the spring of 2009 they have spent six-month spells living with McDonagh and his wife in Gateshead, returning home while re-applying for further visas. "I like it here," Ziggy says. "I am used to the food and the training here now. It is fine for me in Gateshead. The weather is good. In Mongolia it is very cold – minus 38 sometimes in the winter. It is too cold to train there in the winter. Here the training is good all the time."

Bat-Ochir does most of his training on his own. He prefers the old comprehensive school gravel track located behind Blaydon swimming baths, just off the A1, to the synthetic track at Gateshead International Stadium. "The surface is very soft," he says. "I like it there. My country does not have any tracks at all."

Bat-Ochir made his Olympic marathon debut in Athens in 2004, finishing 75th. In Beijing in 2008 he was 52nd across the line. There have been signs of improvement since he started training on Tyneside. Last April Ziggy finished ninth in a world-class field in the Virgin London Marathon, clocking 2hr 11min 35sec. Last summer he finished 20th in the World Championship marathon in Daegu. In the Beppu Marathon in Japan in February he improved his personal best to 2:11:05.

"Things are going well for the London Olympics," he says. "I am doing hard training right now and next month I will run in the Brighton Marathon. My target for the London Olympics is the top 10 maybe."

As it happens, Ziggy is wearing a London Street T-shirt bearing a picture of the kind of road along which he will be running in the English capital on 12 August. It will be a home from home Olympic marathon for the Morpeth Harrier and adopted Geordie but he will be proudly wearing his Mongolian national vest.

Asked whether he might consider switching allegiance to Great Britain, he looks blank again. His sister-in-law has to explain the question. "No, never," he says. "I will always run for Mongolia."

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