"Any hammer thrower you could recommend?" I asked Malcolm. "I don't know, bit of a character maybe?"
"Er, Smithy's bound to win it. I mean, he usually does, Dave does. But the one you really want is Mick Jones. He's a real character. And his coach, Alan Bircham. He's the same. Alan Bircham trained me, actually. Both of them are real characters."
Malcolm told me the hammer followers always sat in the same seats in the stand behind the hammer cage. There wouldn't be many of them. Once I got there, I'd probably recognise Alan Bircham straight away. He'd be the balding man, wearing a brightly coloured shirt no doubt, shouting louder than anyone else and cracking jokes. And Mick Jones, well, you couldn't miss him. After the event was over, they'd go and sit in the stand with the hammer followers. They always did. They liked to stick together.
A pleasant light breeze fluttered the pages of stats lying around the press room. Mick Jones, personal best 72.10 metres. And that wasn't this year. The Olympic qualifying standard was 74. Dave Smith had done 75.10. Paul Head had gone farther than Mick Jones, too. He'd done 74.02, but that was some time ago. It looked as though the Olympic place was all but Dave Smith's already.
The athletics writers were just unpacking their gear, chatting idly. Only the hammer was going on. The big events weren't on for two or three hours. Did you hear about Linford yesterday? Paid a visit to the press room, apparently. It looked like war, but it ended in handshakes. Unbelievable. Typical Linford. You should have been there. Du'aine Ladejo? He's talking it up a bit, isn't he? You've got to fancy Roger for the 400.
They were an affable bunch, really looking forward to the big races with the residual enthusiasm of fanhood. Not like some of the football writers with their I-could-be-a-manager Umbro puffa jackets. Yeah, saw him down at Scribes last night, didn't I. You wonder why Christie gets so het up about the athletics writers. They weren't the ones who wrote the lunchbox stuff.
I walked around the stadium towards the hammer followers' stand. Outside, the fans were arriving and picnicking on the grass before they went in: middle-aged white couples with "I support British athletics" T-shirts, carrying little Union Jacks, the ones you've always seen on television in some distant foreign stadium through the years, waving their flags at Daley, Seb, Sally, Linford, picnicking in the sun next to black guys in sunglasses, and schoolchildren of all colours scampering about with autograph books. A gentle, idyllic courteousness infused the air. Oh gosh, I'm not taking up all your shade am I? No, man, you carry on, everything's sweet. It must be the only unmanufactured, one-nation British sport, athletics.
Things were slightly different in the hammer followers' stand, however. In fact, it looked like a convention for Security Personnel International. Scanning around for Alan Bircham, I couldn't tell who was balding or not because they all seemed to be sporting close crops and baseball caps. They were all peering grimly out at the hammer cage from under the peaks of the caps. The muscles on these men were incredible, pecs like melons, sides of beef for shoulders. And they were only the supporters. No one was discernably cracking jokes. There was just the staccato murmur of stats. "When was it Paul Head did the 74.02? '94 was it?"
I spotted Mick Jones immediately. Number 11, prowling around by the cage some 30 yards away. Only the photographers and the elderly officials were allowed around the cage, apart from the hammer throwers themselves. Jones was an amiable-looking giant of a man with carrot-coloured suede-head crop. He looked like how you imagined Lenny from Of Mice and Men would look, with a touch of Gordon Ferris, the former British heavyweight champ from Ulster, thrown in.
Jones was bigger than the other throwers, but with the suspicion of a belly. Between throws, he wandered up and down the grass strip by the cage, wincing and talking to himself. He was a man who wore his emotions on his sleeve. Dave Smith was almost as big but trimmer. He was clearly following some psychological battle-plan. He had a synchronised warm-up routine and put his baseball cap on between throws. He was already in the lead, 72.58. Ahead, but not safe. Paul Head was smaller and swarthier. He eschewed both the meticulous psychological build-up of Smith and the emotionalism of Jones. He just hung around between throws and then got on with it.
Time was running out to catch Smith. They were on their fourth throws out of five. Head and Jones went after Smith, so at least they knew what they had to throw. Most of the hammer followers wanted Jones to win, you could tell. The murmuring reached a mini-crescendo when he swung round on the grass strip to face the cage and take his turn, and it was interspersed with a sort of affectionate semi-chortling, hoping he'd come good, like England football fans watching Gazza, on a microscopic scale. "Mick's got to go past his PB, y'know - 72.10. Come on, Mick."
Jones wiped the sweat from his forehead, then whirled round and let out a curdling yell as he released the hammer. It glided up and away into the blue above the stadium stands, but already Jones was shaking his head. He didn't like it. He shook his head and stamped off. He was still third, behind Head and Smith. This time he took an extended walk up the grass strip. He must have gone 70 yards. He went as far as a photographer who was perched there. You could see Jones talking, but from that range it wasn't clear whether he was talking to the photographer or to himself.
Smith took his last throw. He went through his warm-up but still looked tense. He wanted a throw that would put him safe. The hammer arched purposefully but then fell away. Smith was bent double in disappointment. Now they could still catch him. But then Head threw and was gruffly tearing off the number from his vest before the hammer had landed.
Only Jones was left. A matronly figure with grey hair in a white dress handed Jones the silver orb. Jones dangled its chain from his huge fingers like a yo-yo. He took up a position 40 yards from the cage and stared at it intently. For how many endless hours had Jones and Alan Bircham prepared for just such a moment? He walked back towards it with his shoulders thrown back. The hammer exploded out from the cage. Jones liked it. The glare from the sun meant you couldn't see exactly where it had gone, but Jones had a good feeling. He punched the air and up the grassy strip his gait acquired a swagger. Jones raised his arms to the almost completely unreceptive crowd. At least the hammer followers knew what was going on. Jones, what a showman.
We waited for the MC to announce the result of the throw over the tannoy - 71.22. An improvement, but not enough for Atlanta. For a second, a hollow look crossed Jones's face. But then he shrugged and gave a rueful smile. Jones, Head and Smith exchanged Mafioso-style handshakes. The MC interviewed Smith over the tannoy. Smith said he was "quietly confident" of reaching the final in Atlanta. "Good for you, Smithy, good for you," one of the baseball caps said sympathetically, as if Smith had just confessed to believing in a strange religious faith.
I waited for Jones to amble over to the hammer followers seats, but he didn't. He was ushered into a stadium tunnel by the officials. Malcolm said this must be because it was finals day, when I got back round to the press room. No problem, Malcolm said, we'd call Jones over the tannoy. "Did you see Alan Bircham?" Malcolm said. "No," I said. Malcolm said: "Oh, that's a shame. He's a real character, Alan, like Mick is."
After about 20 minutes, Dave Smith suddenly appeared with another official. Smith stood there holding his winner's cup and beaming at the athletics writers. But they were looking at the track. The track stars were limbering up and the big races would soon be on. "Someone here looking for one of the hammer throwers?" the official said. Yes, I said, but not Dave Smith, it was Mick Jones. "Mick who?" the official said.
I went down to the changing-rooms and asked the doorman. "Oi, Mick!" he shouted. "Someone wants you!" But then a diminutive figure in a blazer shuffled out. He must have been about 50. "Sorry, mate," the doorman said. "I don't know any Mick Joneses apart from Mick here."
By now about an hour had passed. The stadium was packed. People were massed on the grassy verge opposite the stands, waiting to see Christie, Gunnell, Black and Ladejo. All the bodies blocked out the breeze. You had to stand on the steps outside the press room to get any air. Mick Jones's name had been on the tannoy four times. As well as Malcolm, the other two three A's press officers were engaged in the search for Jones.
Some of the athletics writers were starting to get suspicious. What exactly did I want with this hammer thrower? "Perhaps he's at doping control?" one said quizzically. No, I said, it was nothing like that. I just wanted a chat. "What was his name again?" another asked.
I told Malcolm and the other press officers to call off the search. It wasn't fair on them. They looked relieved. I decided to walk round the stadium one last time. Maybe I'd run into him. Well, you couldn't miss him. The deserted hammer cage loomed at one end of the stadium, a monstrous anachronism blotting out the track stars with its steel struts. I wonder if they've ever considered putting a sheet over it for decorum's sake.
The hammer followers were still there, discussing hammer technique while the 3,000m steeplechase sped past. "I kept telling him to push it in," one of them was saying, grinding his heel into the floor of the stand as if it were a hammer circle. "Push it in, I told him. But he didn't, the lad." Maybe he was Alan Bircham? But no. Well, anyway, did he know where Mick Jones had gone?
"Ah, now Mick," he said warmly. "Knowing Mick, he's probably gone home. Mick's the sort of bloke who could actually just do that."Reuse content