Two years ago in the IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Usain Bolt destroyed his opposition with the kind of disdain usually reserved for spotty blokes in guitar shops on being told that you don‘t really know what gauge strings you usually use. Berlin was electrified. Courtesy of Nike, his pictures adorned every building in the city.
He appeared in all the newspapers for a week, and was so feted everywhere he went that the city presented him with a slab of original Berlin Wall (possibly as a very clever way of reminding him of the sporting barriers he had smashed, but more likely just that it was cheap – we‘ve got a Schloss to pay for, after all). He even turned up at Yaam for an all hours lash up to prove how easy all of this really was to him.
Berlin declared its love for the lightning fast Jamaican. He was said to be the true successor to Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics were tainted by the stench of Hitler’s snub. It seemed to me that in the processions of “the great and good” desperate to be seen with Bolt, many years later, there was almost a belated apology for the actions of people generations before in the face of greatness of the wrong skin colour.
But Owens was actually pretty well received in Berlin, much to the Führer’s disappointment. And he was certainly treated by normal people in the city better than he was by his own Olympic Association who was more than happy to send him out into the wilderness for having the temerity to try and earn some money out of his record-breaking legs.
Berlin’s reception to Usain Bolt was simply do to the fact that this city just loves to be in the spotlight. To bask in some reflected glory, having put on a great show. It‘s what Berlin does best. Not for nothing are there still huge murals depicting Ronaldo and Ronaldinho visible from the 2006 World Cup.
They could have painted Marco Materazzi (who did more to win that World Cup than anybody else by having a quiet word with Zinedine Zidane), or even Arne Friedrich for that matter. But the Brazilians were staying in Berlin, and everyone believed the (Nike) adverts that they played football the way it exists only in our stereotyped imaginations.
I presumed that everybody would be getting as excited about this year’s World Championships in Daegu, Korea. It was a Monday, and although there wasn‘t much local interest, Malte Mohr had a decent shout in the men’s pole vault and Nadine Kleinert was in the women’s discus. It was better than nothing
Kleinert was struggling to hit the form that had got her an Olympic silver medal in 2004, but the New Zealander Valerie Adams looked unstoppable anyway. It ended in tears, for Kleinert. I was touched.
And this is why I love these championships. As the main characters are entirely new to most of us, there are an unforgettable moments of human drama.
In the Beijing Olympics, as the girls floor gymnastics came to a head, a little-Miss-Alabama-clad nightmare called Shawn Johnson had been leading throughout the whole thing, to the obvious consternation of the commentator. As the last little girl came to twirl away weirdly for a medal the TV guys had given up and were morosely waiting for the end.
But there was an upset. The Romanian, Sandra Izbasa had blazed through her routine like a prepubescent Daley Thompson in a leotard and stole first place. To this day I don’t know exactly what the commentator said, but as he practically bounded out of the TV set, it sounded a lot like: “Fuck you, Shawn Johnson.“ If the commentator’s job is to sum up the emotions we are all feeling at a certain time, then he had hit the nail squarely on the head with that one. It was brilliant.
The pride in Kleinert’s bear of a coach was unfakeable. He was made up. She was tired and emotional. Glad that she‘d pulled the waterproof mascara out, but gutted at not getting to wear it on the podium.
For what it‘s worth Malte Mohr only came fifth in a fascinating competition, but I had overestimated German TV‘s love of men jumping over impossibly high bars. He got knocked out when he failed in his third attempt to top 5.85m.
Two Poles, a Frenchman and a Cuban were still there ahead of him but ARD had got bored already. They cut the transmission immediately, it was the last event of the day and apparently nobody else cared about seeing the denouement to the pole vault competition. Not enough reflected glory you see.