Hungary has named its capital’s airport after virtuoso pianist and composer Ferenc Liszt, but if you are a fan of track and field, there’s another soundtrack that’s music to your ears.
It’s the background score of feet rapidly smacking the ground. Coach Bobby George grins ear to ear, like a gear head at a Formula 1 race, when he hears that beat on the practice track next to Budapest’s National Stadium, a day before the start of the World Athletics Championships 2023.
“If you love athletics, there’s nothing like this sound,” he says.
If you go to athletics competitions in India, the action of spike striking the track produces a dull thud. That same movement here in Budapest, when women’s long jumper Tara Davis-Woodhall practises her runway approach, sounds like a Tommy gun firing off a series of shots.
“Speed comes from power you are putting into the ground. The sound is perhaps a bit more intense because they are using a really hard Mondo track (the same synthetic surface that resulted in a bunch of world records at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021), but it’s also because of technique. Just look at how high their knees go and from where they bring it down. That’s mechanically so great to listen to. That’s just an incredible amount of power,” he gushes.
Bobby is telling this to Shaili Singh who he coaches. The 18-year-old is competing on Saturday in the qualification round alongside Davis-Woodhall.
Shaili has competed in international competitions earlier. She won silver at the junior world championships in Kenya, and participated in tournaments in Europe, and the senior Asian Championships in Bangkok last month.
But on her first day at the training ground separated from the National stadium by a bridge over the Danube, Shaili spends a good 20 minutes just sitting in the stands amid the sounds of the world’s elite gunning their engines before the real show begins. Later, as she heads down for her own warm-up, her eyes are wide open. She’s soaking it all in. It’s like nothing else she has experienced before.
Track and field royalty adorns this practice field. Apart from the percussion of feet on the synthetic track, there is a multitude of speakers playing music in as several languages across the venue — Soca from the Jamaican section, and R&B from the part of the ground where the Americans are training.
It takes a while before you stop whiplashing your head each time an Olympic medallist whizzes past and the ubiquitous presence of the who’s who of athletics stops taking you by surprise. Kenya’s Ferdinand Omanyala – the ninth fastest man of all time (9.77s in the 100m) – strolls past and high-fives a friend.
Feng Bin, China’s world champion in the women’s discus throw, takes a selfie on the bridge over the Danube on which flags of the countries taking part in the World Championships have been put up.
American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson – potentially the second coming of Florence Griffith Joyner (both in terms of the sprint speed and the ultra-long nails) chats with a teammate, probably discussing what she will do once she wins the 100m race.
She is among the favorites. Dutch track star Femke Bol, the indoor world record holder in the 400m and the favourite for the gold in the 400m hurdles in Budapest, stops by the triple jump pit.
Shaili’s eyes are on Davis-Woodhall, who has already jumped 7.11m this season, and is one of the favourites in the women’s long jump. It’s the first time the Indian is seeing the American in person. Shaili is among Davis-Woodhall’s 408,000 followers on Instagram. “ Uske baal dekho. Ekdum ghode jaise hain (Look at her hair. It’s just like a horse’s),” she sighs, looking at Woodhall’s braids.
Bobby tells Shaili to pay attention to other stuff Davis-Woodhall is doing as well. After practising her strides, Woodhall makes a note in a little notebook. “You need to be doing this as well,” Bobby tells Shaili.
It’s not Bobby’s first time at the Worlds. He travelled to his first in 2003 as coach of wife Anju Bobby George, who created history as the first Indian to win a world medal. Two years later, she missed bronze by a couple of centimeters. Budapest is his first world competition since the 2007 Worlds at London.
It’s as good a venue as any to return. “This is a country that gets sports,” says Bobby as a local woman, who he initially assumes is a coach but who turns out to be a security person, makes an accurate observation about Shaili’s technique.
Hungary is indeed a nation with a rich sporting heritage, as 511 Olympic medals including 40 in track and field would indicate. Numbers have fallen in recent times though. The country has two real medal contenders in Bence Halasz, who was 5th in the hammer throw at last year’s world championships, and Anita Marton, a former world indoor champion in the shot put.
That hasn’t stopped the population from getting behind the World Championships ‘23.
The country built the Nezmet Atletikai Kozpont (National Athletics Center) specifically for these World Championships from scratch on the banks of the Danube.
“Athletics is not as popular as football, but this is a major competition. We did host the European Championships (in 2020) but only a few matches were held here. The Athletics World Championships are supposed to be the third biggest tournament in the world and the entire of it is being held in Budapest,” says Sylvia Toth, one of 2,700 volunteers at the World Championships.
The event’s posters are all over the city, including on the sides of trams — that are part of one of the largest in the world — and buses. There is even a race track painted on the floor of the airport to get you into the mood for athletics, while a poster on the door to the immigration counter encourages you to ‘Break records in Budapest.’
It doesn’t hurt that the Worlds coincides with the St. Stephen’s Day on August 20, a major national holiday. “The capacity of the stadium is about 36,000 and we have sold over 300,000 tickets for the nine days of the competition. The morning might be half capacity, but the evening sessions will likely be full,” says Viktor Balasz, who heads media operations here.
The scale of the event is something that Bobby says he’s still getting used to.
“This is my fourth world championships. When I last went to one, there wasn’t as much as in terms of facilities. You didn’t have WiFi everywhere unlike now. But what has not changed is the quality of the athletes themselves. Athletics is a real world event. It’s a real celebration of global youth. There’s nothing like it in sports, apart from maybe football,” he says.
Bobby shares another change he notices. “When I went for the first time, I remember how most of the Indian team was just happy they were there. They were overawed by the other athletes. There is stuff you learn from going to these events, of course, but that old fear isn’t there now,” he says.
That’s at least the hope from the Indian team. Of the 28-member contingent, there are many who are expected to make the final and a few genuine potential medallists – including Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra, and long jumpers Jeswin Aldrin and Murali Sreeshankar. The two Indian long jumpers are ranked 1 and 2 in the world’s top lists for the season.
Conditions are near perfect too. The weather is not unlike Bangalore’s — about 28 degrees in the morning session and about 18 degrees in the evening session. It’s expected to stay the same for the duration of the tournament (August 19 - August 27).
If the spectators can appreciate sound on track, Indians can hope for another sound – potentially the first national anthem to be heard at the World Championships.
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