Almanac Olympics – Track and Field: Why history said it was a big ask for Bol


Peter Bol may or may not be a student of Australian track and field history at the Olympics but he would have been well aware that he was the first man since Ralph Doubell in 1968 to make the final of the 800m.


He could hardly not know, and nor could any of the rest of us, because it has been the default reference point for the media from the moment he won his semi-final in national record time a couple of nights earlier.


There’s a good reason for that – it’s just so rare, and always has been.


Statistically and historically the odds were stacked heavily against him.


He did, however, have one thing going for him – he wasn’t required to pursue a gold medal in tennis on the morning of the race, as Edwin Flack did in Athens in 1896.


The original Olympic pioneer’s racquet work got him nowhere – having been quickly bundled out of the singles while he was resting from his track exertions the day before, he and an English mate George Robertson were beaten by a couple of Greeks in the doubles in what seems to have been little more than a picnic event, the results of which are not even recorded in the now defunct Olympic ‘bible’, David Wallenchinsky’s The Complete Book of the Olympics.


But he did win the 800m in the afternoon, becoming Australia’s first Olympic champion. He also won the 1500m, as well as running the marathon.


It took another 64 years for either of those triumphs to be replicated, Herb Elliott winning the metric mile at Rome in 1960, and eight more for Doubell to make his mark in Mexico City, both in world record time. Neither have been done since. It hasn’t exactly been what you would call a gold rush.


Other than this trio, only three men have won silver and just six have contributed bronze to a total of 15 track medals in 125 years of competition, the most recent being Rick Mitchell’s 400m silver in Moscow in 1980, and even that was in a Games boycotted by the Americans and their always powerful squad of runners over all distances.


It is an underwhelming record, one that Doubell, now 76, does not hesitate to zero in on whenever he is asked, as he inevitably has been as the Bole story has come into sharp focus.


All of which is to put into context the magnitude of the task confronting Bol when he contested the final of the two lap gut-buster in Tokyo, and which will also be the case for new middle-distance star Stewart McSweyn in the 1500m final, if he gets that far.


The Bol build-up had been so optimistic – he was on the front page of the Herald Sun just for being in the race, not for having won a medal in it – that the expectation levels had begun to outpace the realities, perhaps unfairly.


None of that was surprising because he was such a good story on a much more important level than simply a single race, even at the Olympic Games. It had social and cultural overtones that resonated well beyond sport, and which scarcely need spelling out here, but which hopefully have provided a major injection of positivity.


The fairytale ending eluded him and everyone else who was on his case, when he finished fourth – out of the medals – behind two Kenyans and a Polish runner, but it was a gallant fourth because he refused to allow the chasing pack to swallow him up when he might easily have just surrendered to an empty tank.


He was disappointed, of course – fourth is often described as the loneliest and least satisfying outcome for any athlete in any sport –  and he made no attempt to hide it. But he was still proud that he had provided his adopted country with a reason to sit up and take notice.


The result wasn’t what he or anyone else wanted, especially the numerous family members watching on TV in Perth,  but it was, it’s fair to suggest, one of those occasions when not winning is not failure, and little is lost in terms of pride, respect and honour.


Nor is the Peter Bol story over. He is 27 and now has two Olympic experiences from which to build, and should still be going strong and perhaps even more focused come Paris in three years’ time.


The race was quinellaed by the Kenyans, Emmanuel Korir and Ferguson Rotich, which was predictable because African runners are always such a dominant force in middle and long distance running.


There is no ignoring, of course, that Bol is also African, born in South Sudan, so it is no great surprise that he is now the best 800m runner in the country, having taken over that status from Joseph Deng, originally from Kenya, who broke Doubell’s 49 year old national record a couple of years ago, which Bol twice lowered again in Tokyo – but not in the final.


It would be drawing a long bow to suggest that this is the new face of Australian athletics but the African influence is certainly a welcome development, and is likely to only become more pronounced because that’s the way it is in Australia these days – and a good thing, too.


Too much cultural diversity is rarely enough, as has been well and truly proven by the impact indigenous footballers have had on the AFL, not to mention the likes of Cathy Freeman, Patty Mills and a multitude of others across most of the sporting landscape.


History always suggested that Bol’s moment of truth was going to be a big ask, and so it proved, but old Teddy Flack – who, not that it matters at all 126 years later, won his Olympic championship in a time about 26 seconds slower – would have nodded in approval from his grave.


Bol is not the first sportsman to prove that you don’t necessarily have to win to have been inspirational to others, but he has joined the club.



To read more from Ron Reed click here.



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