Tag Archives: 2004 Athens Olympics

Toby Stevenson speaks to Flotrack

Toby Stevenson is unique because of his ever-present helmet. In some places in the United States, a helmets are required equipment for the pole vault for safety reasons. Stevenson, in fact, is the only top tier vaulter who wore a helmet in competition. Naturally, this made him standout.

Stevenson’s best year came in 2004, where he joined the elite 6.00 meter club. At the Olympic Games in Athens, Stevenson came in 2nd (5.90m) behind the ageless Tim Mack for an American 1-2 finish. The Texas-born athlete never did replicate the successes of his 2004 season. Stevenson missed the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A year later at the Berlin World Championships, the American finished 12th in qualifying (5.40m).

The U.S. athletics website, Flotrack, offers an in-depth glimpse into track & field. In the interview below, the now retired Stevenson talks about life as an elite athlete and life after it. The way he describes living 50m from the track and free services like physio made me drool with envy! You don’t get that by reading IAAF articles or watching Youtube clips. The Flotrack interviews have an intimate, friendly feel.

What struck me the most was how passionately Stevenson told of the sacrifices he had to made. Career, family and friends took a backseat in the years he spent among the pole vault elite. He lived a life that epitomizes living, eating and breathing everything athletics. His parting words are poignant:

I’ve been feeling quite down the past few days. Despite the steady progress I’ve achieved in training, the balancing act is becoming increasingly harder to bear. Sometimes, really, I’m tempted to just quit the sport and live out a normal life. But compared to the struggles faced by great athletes like Stevenson, my life’s hurdles seem grossly minute. I draw inspiration from the lives of others, and channel it into my own.

The 4x100m relay: Where Underdogs Thrive

Track & field is an individual sport. There is some measure of teamwork in the distance events, where packs of runners can stay together throughout the entire race (like Flying Finns of the olden days) or follow a designated pace maker for particular stretches. But in the end, an athlete’s result for a particular event is credited only to the effort of one. The team aspect of the relays sets it aside from the other disciplines. Passing the baton from one sprinter to the other makes for an exciting spectacle. The speed involved makes little room for error, where the slightest mistake in timing and release could spell the difference between triumph and defeat.

Perhaps that is why the relays are traditionally held at the latter parts of an athletics competition. It is a fitting finale to the showcase of speed, strength and endurance that is track & field.

It is in the explosive 4x100m relay where an underrated quartet can overcome a faster set of opponents through slick passing. Unlike its longer counterpart, the 4x400m relay, the underdog squad can overcome glaring differences in aggregate speed at the shorter race. Whereas in the longer relay, the most dominant force in the quarter-mile, the Americans, almost always reign supreme.

2008 Beijing Olympics

My favorite relay race of all is the 2008 Beijing Olympics 4x100m relay, where the indefatigable Nobuharo Asahara anchored the Japanese team to an unprecedented bronze (38.15s).

Japan has always been a consistent qualifier to the 400m relay finals (4th – 2004, 6th – 2000, 6th – 1992, 5th – 1932); it was about time the Japanese won something big on the Olympic athletics stage. This proves that Asians, with the proper combination of fortunate circumstances and great teamwork, can distinguish themselves in the elite sprinting ranks.

And yeah, need I say more about the Usain Bolt-led Jamaican relay world record?

2002 Busan Asian Games

Thailand’s 2002 Busan Asian Games 4x100m victory is another favorite. The smooth-passing of the Thais (38.82s) overcame the advantage of the Japanese team (38.90s) in terms of aggregate speed. It’s important to note that Thailand’s fastest sprinter at that time was Reeanchai “Ultraman” Seeharwong at 10.23s. The other members weren’t as impressive:

The Japanese, in contrast, had near 10-flat sprinters in Asahara (10.02) and Shingo Suetsugo (10.05s in 2002, 10.03s lifetime best). The other two members have faster personal bests than the Thais:

On paper, the Japanese squad was the favorite. However, an underrated Thai team overcame the stark differences in aggregate speed with their flawless baton exchanges.

2004 Athens Olympics

The formidable American quartet of Shawn Crawford (9.88 – 2004), Justin Gatlin (9.85s – 2004), Coby Miller (9.98s – 2002) and Maurice Greene (9.79s – 1999) lost to the British by a hair’s breadth, thanks to the former’s faulty baton passing – a fixture in American relay races. On paper, the Brits were a lot slower than the Americans.

With a generous splattering of Olympic gold medalists and former/current/future century dash record holders in the American lineup, the gold medal was theirs to lose. And they lost it by the infinitesimal of margins, with Lewis-Francis edging out the fast-finishing Greene, 38.07s to 38.08s.

Among the aforesaid underdog feats, the most impressive (Asian bias aside!) in terms of performance, glamor and glitter would have to be the Great Britain’s 2004 upset win. Whereas the 2008 Japanese relay quartet won bronze with both the American and British teams disqualified prior to the final, the 2004 British quartet overcame a loaded U.S. squad composed of 3 Olympic gold medalists and marquee names in sprinting.

A decent enough aggregate speed and slick baton passing is imperative for a world-beating relay team. Although the traditional sprinting powerhouse, the United States, is well-endowed with prolific sprinters, baton passing has been an eternal thorn since American sprinters are a diverse group of athletes, spread among a vast country. As Shawn Crawford said during an interview, practicing baton exchanges becomes a difficult in light of the varying schedules and locales.

A much smaller country like Britain, Japan and Thailand could muster more frequent training sessions. From what I’ve heard, the Thailand team practically lived together as a team. The Japanese team, similarly, are a tightly bonded lot, as exhibited by the emotional farewell they gave to their long-time ace sprinter, Asahara.

The current Philippine national record stands at 40.55s, set during the 2005 Manila Southeast Asian Games where Philippine 100m/200m dash record holder Ralph Soguilon (10.45s), Albert Salcedo, Long Jump record holder Henry Dagmil and decathlete Arnold Villarube won silver. If the Philippines can assemble a formidable array of mid- to low-10 second sprinters and perfect the baton exchange, surely, a sub-40 clocking is a possibility.

Athens 2004: Fani Halkia’s Golden Lap

One of my most indelible memories of the 2004 Athens Olympics is Fani Halkia‘s gold medal-winning performance in the 400m low hurdles. With the suspension of Greece’s best medal hopes, Kostas Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou, for faking a motorcycle accident to miss a drug test, Halkia’s golden lap was a welcome change from all the controversy. Never mind that Halkia failed a doping test in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, her victory in front of tens of thousands of Greeks is truly priceless.

I had goosebumps just listening to the cheers of “Hellas (Greece)! Hellas! Hellas!”

It’s remarkable to note that the Australian hurdler, Jana Pittman-Rawlinson, finished a respectable 3rd place despite having knee surgery weeks before the Olympics.

Additional links:

IAAF write-up

BBC News article on Halkia’s failed drug test

Photo credits:


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