Ohuruogu the Orient Express
Astonishing late surge powers controversial Briton to Olympic 400m gold
Wednesday 20 August 2008
Christine Ohuruogu stood on top of the rostrum here last night as Commonwealth, world and Olympic 400 metres champion. She leapt up and down with delight, arms aloft, her face one gigantic smile. And, within seconds, her eyes were full of tears.
It was a fitting range of emotion for an athlete whose every triumph, following her one-year ban for failing to be at specified locations for random doping tests on three occasions, generates conflicting reaction. For some, this monumental victory in the steamy heat of Beijing was cause for celebration. For others it was a provocation.
The arguments concerning her appearance here have been well rehearsed and had been a year ago after she returned from her suspension to win the world title in Osaka with a similar late charge to the one which saw her prevail yesterday against the flagging American favourite Sanya Richards, having been only fifth turning into the final straight. Richards, who claimed she felt her hamstring cramp up 80 metres from the finish, said before the Games got under way that Ohuruogu was "fortunate" to be here, having won her appeal to the British Olympic Association against the life ban from the Games it imposes on those who have served doping suspensions.
But Ohuruogu is not alone in that respect. Two other Britons preceded her in winning BOA appeals – judo's Peter Cousins, and the triathlete Tim Don, who appeared in his Olympic final here on the same day amid little fuss. The distinction the BOA has made in allowing these three to return to the Olympic fold but keeping a sprinter such as Dwain Chambers out is that the latter has tested positive.
Within seconds of crossing the finish line Ohuruogu sprawled back on the track and stared up at the oval of darkening sky above the stadium. As the photographers and cameramen scuttled towards her, and with the arena still alive with acclaim, she was stunned. This 24-year-old linguistics graduate from Stratford, London, had come a long way from the hesitant figure who ventured into the press room in Manchester after surprising everybody by winning the 2004 Olympic trials. If she thought that was daunting, she could never have imagined what greater exposure lay in store for her.
The preparation fashioned with her coach Lloyd Cowan – concentrating on running 200m races early in the season to add speed to her formidable strength – worked, but what told here, as in Osaka, was her ferocious will. As then, she got stronger through the rounds, starting off with a time of 51sec, then moving to 50.14 before reaching last night's high point. That said, her winning time of 49.62sec was the slowest to win an Olympic 400m since 1972.
"Lloyd told me the race would be won in the final 15 metres, and that's what I kept thinking about," she said. "As far as I'm concerned you train for the three days of a major championships. You don't train for grand prix events or one-off races. If you can't prepare yourself for those three days, then what are you wasting your time training for?"
For Richards, earning a bronze in 49.93, with Jamaica's Shericka Williams taking silver in 49.69, was a bitter experience. For the last three years she has topped the world rankings without winning any major medals. She missed the 400m at last year's world championships, having failed to qualify in the trials. Now, with 21 of her friends and family there to watch in the stadium, the moment for tangible reward appeared to have come, but in the end it seemed more like ruptured credibility rather than a cramping hamstring that hindered her. "Christine had an awesome finish and I just couldn't hold her off," she said.
By the time Ohuruogu came to her press conference her tone was guarded in anticipation of the inevitable questions about her doping infraction. "I don't really care what people think or say," she responded. "As far as I'm concerned I'm here and I've won a gold medal. I'm happy with what I've done."
Asked about the 2012 Olympics that will take place five minutes away from where she was brought up, she responded in measured fashion. "Yes, it's something I've given thought to but it's a long way away. It will be great if I can say I'll be there, but I'll take each year as it comes and deal with it when I get there."
Caution is now ingrained in her psyche, but it is the psyche of a great athlete.
God, German and netball: the story of Britain's golden swot
A bookworm who studies German in her spare time, and whose first sport was not athletics but netball... Christine Ohuruogu is an atypical Olympic gold medallist, even by the eccentric standards of her podium-topping peers.
Born 17 May 1984, the second of eight children, she grew up in the Stratford, east London house of her God-fearing Nigerian parents, Jonathan and Patience.
Alongside their daughter's obvious and precocious sporting talent – she played Under-17 and Under-19 netball for England – Mr and Mrs Ohuruogu demanded academic success. Christine obliged, securing the four A levels required to gain entry to University College London. There she wrote her thesis on the etymology of swear words while studying for a degree in linguistics. She graduated with a 2:1.
She only began to run competitively at the age of 16, as a distraction from her favourite pastime of reading. She confesses to being a "swot", ravages a book a week (more outside the athletics season), ranging from fiction to the latest heavy political tome.
A practising Christian, she still learns German in her spare time. "You have to realise language is alive, it's constantly developing," she says.
Clever, then, but, by her own admission, "scatterbrained". Her gold medal run yesterday in the women's 400m final might never have happened. Ohuruogu missed three drugs tests between October 2005 and July 2006 and was banned for one year from British athletics.
Relentlessly training through her 12 months off, she marked the expiry of her ban in style. The Newham and Essex Beagles runner won the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, but it was not until November last year, when the Sports Dispute Resolution Panel overturned the Olympic ban, that the 24 year-old was cleared to compete in Beijing and – crucially – London 2012.
Her ascent to Olympic champion has, therefore, not been without hindrances. But the deeper irony is that, through much of her career, the 24-year-old, who was born within a stone's throw of London's 2012 Olympic stadium, has been a natural outsider.
Amol Rajan and Rebecca Evans
Highs and lows of one-lap queen
Born: 17 May, 1984, London
400m gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 400m and 4x400m relay gold at the 2007 World Championships. 400m gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. 4x400m relay gold at the 2005 World Championships.
Received a one-year ban after missing three out-of-competition drug tests, two in June 2006 and one in October the previous year. The British Olympic Association in turn banned Ohuruogu from competing for Great Britain at future Olympic Games. An appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport was upheld, although an appeal against her Olympic ban was overturned last November. She threatened to leave Britain and compete for another country if her appeal was unsuccessful. Ohuruogu was also part of the 4x400m relay team at the Commonwealth Games who were disqualified after receiving the baton in the wrong order.
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