Coe’s sporting hero of 2008: Christine Ohuruogu

LORD COE, in the Daily Telegraph, picks his sporting hero of 2008
By proposing Christine Ohuruogu as our sporting hero of the year, I realise it’s not just the days but the years that are passing before my eyes.

Ohuruogu was born three months before I defended the Olympic 1,500 metres in Los Angeles in 1984.

This is a particularly difficult assignment even though Ohuruogu was the first Briton to win Olympic gold at 400m since Eric Liddell in Paris in 1924 (women didn’t compete in athletics at the Games until four years later in Amsterdam) because the process of picking out any of our Olympic or Paralympic gold medallists from our history-making haul this summer in Beijing is a bit like glugging your way through a quart of cream.

My responsibility over the next four years is of course to deliver a great Games for every Olympic and Paralympic sport. You can take the man out of track and field but you’ll never take track and field out of the man. So here goes.

It was New York writer Damon Runyon, who insipired the musical Guys and Dolls, who once wrote “the race might not always go to the swiftest but that is the way to bet”. Ohuruogu has on the two biggest stages available to any athlete demonstrably driven a coach and horses through the Runyon instinct.

Although her winning time in Beijing was the fastest anyone had run during the year, her next best times found her in 19th and 70th places on the ranking list. The difference between the good and the great in athletics is underlined by those statistics. Ohuruogu has the most precious quality coveted by so many. She doesn’t win the warm up or the warm down. She wins when it matters. She is the consummate championship runner.

She did pretty much the same to snatch the world title in Osaka a year earlier within 0.01sec of her Beijing time. She is only the eighth British woman to win a track and field Olympic gold, a trail set by Ann Packer in 1964 in Tokyo and a list that includes Mary Peters, Sally Gunnell and of course Kelly Holmes.

She cites “hard work and God” as the factors behind her Olympic win and in beating the incredibly talented Sanya Richards, of the United States, over one lap in Beijing she could also cite a touch of luck.

Richards allowed her nerves to horribly dictate her suicidal tactics of going out too hard over the first half of the race. Ohuruogu remained calm as the American opened a jaw-dropping gap over the rest of the field. As the great Michael Johnson observed at the time, Ohuruogu cares little about what anyone else is doing in the race. Her strategy is simple: I’ll run my race and see where the chips fall.

In Beijing the chips began to fall for Richards shortly after reaching the halfway point. Even then Ohuruogu chose not to overreact but to slowly reel the field in so that by the time rigor mortis was setting in for Richards barely strides into the finishing straight, you just knew the strength of Ohuruogu would be enough.

This has always been in international terms a strong event. Some crops are better than others but the best the Americans, the Jamaicans and the Russians have to offer always makes it competitive. By its very scale and the 220 federations that make up an Olympic or world championship, medals are always going to be tougher to come by than other sports.

In Beijing, 46 countries are now celebrating Olympic medallists. I had the great privilege of being involved in Ohuruogu’s medal ceremony in the Bird’s Nest on that extraordinary evening. She was calm and collected – even though the medal ceremony had to be delayed because her Great Britain tracksuit failed to turn up – right up to the moment the medal was placed around her neck and her relief and excitement became visible. Richards, who looked shocked and bemused, was to her eternal credit gracious to a fault in her defeat.

In 2006, the gold rush for Ohuruogu began with her 400m Commonwealth gold in Melbourne. Three missed drugs tests later rightly sidelined her for a year. This was a difficult time for her and of her own admission she could have handled those events more adroitly. She knows mistakes were made but the girl who grew up one of seven children within 15 minutes of the Olympic Park in Newham and graduated in linguistics in 2005 now sits comfortably as one of our Great British Olympians.

After her thundering performance in Beijing, she said: “The Olympics are going to be in my town. Hopefully I will be able to view it as the Olympics and not some local meeting. Literally I won’t have to go anywhere.”

The biggest service Christine Ohuruogu has given to the fellow residents and their children of east London is that they won’t have to go anywhere either to witness this extraordinary talent.

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