Track carves niche in Beijing legacy
BEIJING -- Running is a sport where relative success matters. A single group of striving runners can contain an individual for whom running at the pace of the pack is an act of utter laziness, and next to him or her, an individual for whom keeping up with that same pack is a heroic effort.
While Usain Bolt added an unforgettable chapter to the world's tradition of track and field, many other competitors who rewrote the track and field traditions of their home nations (listed below are all 85 national records set on the track and in the field) will largely be forgotten. Many of them, having made the Olympics through wild-card bids and not the qualifying standards, had no hope of advancing past the first round.
But as with the creation of any tradition, the first few unsure steps can be the most difficult, and the most formative. These men and women who performed at a higher level than any other person from their countries ever has, deserve mention as true Olympians.
Take, for example, Kirsten Nieuwendam, who turns 17 on Tuesday. Nieuwendam set the 200-meter mark (24.46) for Suriname, a mining country in South America. Nieuwendam started running two years ago when a group of people from the Netherlands, she says, donated money for a 130-meter straightaway near her home. After her Olympic race -- she did not advance past the preliminary heat -- Nieuwendam's mother Maureen, who saw the race on TV, called from Suriname to congratulate her emotional daughter. "She never misses a competition at home," Nieuwendam said, "but this is the first time she ever saw me run on a curve."
Three weeks prior to the Beijing Games, Nieuwendam moved to Ft. Lauderdale, where she will take advantage of a scholarship that was arranged for her because of her track potential to St. Thomas Aquinas High School, the alma mater of U.S. 400 bronze medalist Sanya Richards. The Aquinas track coach gave Nieuwendam a business card, usable for introducing herself to Richards at the Games, but thus far, Nieuwendam has not wanted to disturb Richards' focus. She really wants to meet Bolt, who she has seen dancing and playing music as he struts around the Olympic Village. "He's really cool,' Nieuwendam said. "He's really good, but he doesn't overreact about it. He's just normal."
And how about Ali Shareef, who now paces the Maldives in the 100, having run 11.11 to break a 10-year-old record. Through his coach, Ahemed Faail, whose day job is in customs, Shareef said that he trains late at night, after his work as a private in the Army, on a public track made of sand. "He has run on a synthetic track five times," said Faail. On Fridays, Shareef cannot train, because the day is holy in the Maldives, a nation of Sunni Muslims. Shareef has been out of his country nine times, all for track competitions, the first time for the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. Shareef's family lives in the south of the Maldives, and could not afford to come to Beijing, but, said Faail, "they were very excited when they heard about the record."
Gharid Ghrouf, 17, of Palestine, finally got to run her event on the world stage. Last year, Ghrouf was given an entry into the 2007 World Championships in Osaka. When she finally arrived in Japan, she mistakenly entered in the 800, as opposed to the 100 and 200, an event that has little in common with the short sprints beyond the obligatory placing of one foot in front of the other. "I was very afraid to the 800-meters," she said, "but I tried to do my best." Ghrouf was a good sport about an inexcusable mistake, and went and ran an event for the first time in a heat alongside Maria Mutola of Mozambique, a three-time world champion. She finished far in last at Worlds, but got her chance to run the 100 in Beijing, and set a national record of 13.07.
Maria Portilla, 36, set the Peruvian women's marathon record at 2:35.19. Not bad for a woman who couldn't partake in gym class in school because of a hernia operation she needed as a result of the backbreaking work she endured while taking care of her ill father. Portilla is from one of the poorest areas of the Peruvian Andes and only beginning running when she was 25.
It figured that Tuvalu's Asenate Manoa, 18, who ran a national record 14.07 in the 100, would at least run a personal best, given that, as she said, "this is my first time to use the starting blocks -- this is my first time on [a synthetic] track."
And then there was Churandy Martina, 24, who was a medal contender in the 100 and 200. Martina broke Netherlands Antillles' national 100 record three times over two days, first in the second round, then in the semi-final, and again in the final. Three days later, he set the national 200-meter record in the semi-final, and would have set it again in the final except he was disqualified for stepping on his lane line.