Amazing staying power

History has innumerable instances of men and women exemplifying the extent of endurance in various spheres of life. Sport is no exception. There are many instances in the world of sport, particularly in the Olympics, of such heroic deeds. Some are incredible. It is difficult to calibrate them individually. There are several standout performances that have stood the test of time, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Endurance constitutes a key element in sport. It is an amalgam of natural gift and proficiency and enriches the quality of performance.

History has innumerable instances of men and women exemplifying the extent of endurance in various spheres of life. Sport is no exception.

There are many instances in the world of sport, particularly in the Olympics, of such heroic deeds. Some are incredible. It is difficult to calibrate them individually. There are several standout performances that have stood the test of time.

No chronicler of Olympic history can remain mute to the amazing show of resilience by the Finnish runner, Paavo Nurmi. What the “Phantom Finn” achieved in the period he ruled distance racing underlines the essence of endurance. At the Antwerp Games in 1920, Nurmi won the 10,000 metres and the cross country — individual and team — events.

However, Nurmi’s finest hour came four years later in Paris. In one afternoon he conquered time and distance in the 1500 metres and 5000 metres. Two days later, he won the 10,000 metres and cross country on the hottest day in Olympic history. And about 24 hours later, Nurmi anchored the gold, his fifth, in the 3000m team event. Six events in seven days! If this is not the zenith of endurance, what is?

Nurmi won the ninth gold medal of his Olympic career in 1928 in Amsterdam. At one point, he had 29 world records in events ranging from 1500 metres to 20,000 metres.

Nurmi’s legendary image was confirmed in 1952 when he was the torch bearer at the Opening Ceremony of the Helsinki Games. Competitors broke ranks to capture the moment when Nurmi emerged from the tunnel before handing over the torch for the final lap to another outstanding runner from Finland, Hannes Kolehmainen.

Then you have that rangy American, Al Oerter, who competed in four Olympics in a row since 1956. He gave a new dimension to the art of discus throwing. He broke the record at every Olympics, from 1956 (Melbourne) to 1968 (Mexico), and became the first thrower to cross the 60-metre mark at the Tokyo Games (1964). He threw 64.78m in Mexico for his fourth Olympic gold.

Having retired after the 1968 Olympics, Oerter returned to competition before the 1980 Moscow Games at the age of 43 and finished fourth in the U.S. trials. His dream of a fifth Olympics failed as the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games.

If Oerter was a phenomenon in men’s discus, his equivalent on the distaff side was the Romanian superstar Lia Manoliu. Her perseverance in staying in the race for five Olympic Games from 1952 is stamped as an epoch in the history of sport in Romania.

In a field dominated by the Soviets such as Nina Romaschkova and Tamara Press, the indefatigable Romanian finished sixth in Helsinki (1952), ninth in Melbourne (1956), third in Rome (1960) and third again in Tokyo (1964). In her fifth attempt, at the age of 36, Lia realised her dream of winning the gold with a record hurl of 58.28 metres in Mexico (1968).

Lia was one of the oldest woman track and field athlete to win a gold medal. She later had the honour of serving as the President of the Romanian Olympic Committee.

Another great athlete who epitomised endurance was the incomparable Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia. He became a unique competitor in the Olympics, winning back-to-back gold in marathon in 1960 and 1964, but failing in 1968 after completing 17 kilometres.

A gifted athlete, the unsophisticated, barefoot runner stunned the pundits in 1960 (Rome) by recording the world best time and repeated it four years later. In Mexico, his third Olympics, Bikila suffered a fracture after 17 kms and had to pull out. Small wonder, Bikila’s life and times not only serve as an inspiration to competitors from Ethiopia but the continent as well.

The extraordinary stories of endurance are not confined to track and field alone. In almost every discipline you have a plethora of instances where human ingenuity has stretched to incredible levels.

Vladimir Salnikov is a name to conjure in aquatics. If Johnny Weissmuller was the man to break the one-minute barrier in the 100m freestyle in Paris in 1924, Salnikov achieved the distinction of being the first to swim 1500 metres inside 15 minutes.

His time of 14:58.27s in Moscow in 1980 was a breathtaking performance. Unfortunately, Salnikov missed the next edition in Los Angeles owing to the boycott by the Eastern Bloc nations including the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Germany. However, Salnikov’s class was evident even at the age of 28 at the Seoul Games (1988). His endurance level can best be understood by the fact that between 1977 and 1986 Salnikov won 61 consecutive finals and broke the 15-minute barrier four times!

Another athlete who touched the pinnacle of endurance was Britain’s Steve Redgrave. Five gold medals in as many Olympics, from 1984 to 2000, is the ultimate in endurance. More importantly, Sir Steve Redgrave fought colitis, diabetes, back pain and fatigue to script a golden chapter for Britain in the Olympics.

Steve’s three gold medals in coxless pair in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney, apart from the earlier two in fours in Los Angeles (coxed) and Seoul (coxless), not leaving out the bronze in coxed pairs in 1988, make Steve Redgrave an outstanding oarsman, nay, sportsman, of the century.

The range of Olympians touched upon may not be exhaustive, but it definitely underpins the efficacy of endurance in sport.