I saw Tony Martin once, as the cyclist from Cottbus (who successfully defended his world title yesterday, thus ensuring his position in the pantheon of road time trialists) swooshed past me racing in the tour de Poland, bouncing along the cobbles at a real tick. His head was down and all of his movements were so fluid, so smooth and natural you knew that immediately that this guy was pretty special, even knowing nothing about cycling. And I saw Michael Ballack during his final season playing for Bayer Leverkusen. He raked his studs down the shin of Hertha’s Levan Kobiashvili and it was great in a way, because though I’d seen him do it do many times on the telly before, seeing this nasty bastard in action (he could also play, and played one of the most deliciously timed through-balls I have ever seen that day, but that came second to the stud rake) made it all the better and all the more real.
I once saw Ruud Gullit bring himself on as a substitute, where he sat as a sweeper and just pinged these 40 and 50 yard balls to anyone, anywhere he fancied. They would all land on the toe of whoever they were intended for. I was in awe, it was jaw dropping, and I felt privileged that I got to see it (even though the bastards beat us on penalties that evening).
And I met Gordon Greenidge and Malcolm Marshall, the beautiful and destructive West Indian cricketers, when I was about eight years old and my dad wanted their autographs. To this day we keep up the pretence that they were for me, but there is an unsaid acknowledgement that this is not the case. I intend to use my daughter for these purposes in the future too.
Up there with all of these, though, is the day Haile Gebrselassie ran past me on Brighton seafront. He was running the half marathon there on a cold and blustery Sunday morning (long distance running races are held, as a matter of course, on cold and blustery Sunday mornings, it is to try and make the crowd as miserable as the competitors), and the murmuring moved like a sonic boom in front of the great man’s loping gait. People turning to each other, with he’s coming, written all over their faces like so many cheap tattoos. And come he did, with a whoosh he flew by at huge pace – really, it is amazing to think how quickly that man flew by – with that famously cocked arm flipping out to the sides, the legacy of years spent running to school in Ethiopia carrying his books.
The murmuring continued for a bit and then died away as everyone realised that it was a cold and blustery Sunday morning on Brighton seafront, and we were just watching a load of guys run past now. Not legends, not Haile, but just some guys running. I left the crowd and filtered away, but I was still basking in the glimpse of a legend.
On Sunday morning I will have the opportunity to see Haile again, I will have the golden chance to see him swoop by in a second before I realise that I am up on Sunday morning just watching a load of guys running around. Sunday is, of course, the Berlin marathon, and Haile loves it here. In 2008 he smashed the world record as he burst down the Straße 17. Juni under blue skies with his yellow shirt flapping away in the breeze. It was his third win here in a row and the crowds around Brandenburger Tor went wild, they knew immediately that they had seen greatness in action, they had seen a remarkable man taking some remarkably quick steps under a monument that it took Napoleon’s troops hours to go under.
On Sunday Haile might not win, and he won’t break the world record, but it will be a privilege to see that arm cocked out to the side, to see the murmuring looks on all the faces as he comes along the street, everyone acknowledging that he is coming. It’s not often one gets to see a legend. Especially on a cold and blustery Sunday morning.