1992: My first Paralympics, part V

When it came round to the 400 relay we were pleased to find out that there were to be no heats. Only four teams had eventually entered, so we really did fancy our chances. However, we still had to decide what the make up of the team was to be. The usual rules applied to team selections (no fewer than one B1, no more than one B3) but which B1 and which B3 was to be used? The team management, and the rest of the relay squad, were satisfied that I had proved my fitness, and as the fastest 400m B1 runner I was chosen. However, our fastest B3 runner, SB, had failed to finish his 400m final, pulling out after only 120m with a torn hamstring. The relays were also his only chance of a medal, so we were all a bit skeptical about his claims that there was nothing wrong with his hamstring. A meeting was called to air our feelings.

The rest of the team turned up at the meeting wanting AH to take SB’s place in the team. He wasn’t quite as fast, but he wasn’t injured either. It was a very tense meeting, was it better to ensure the virtual baton got around even if a bit slower, or to really go for it and risk the virtual baton not getting round at all?

We all had our say (even JW tried to vocalise his thoughts on the subject). The athletes who were assured of their places, namely myself, NT and MW, knew that if the baton got round we would win silver at least, and possibly gold. We didn’t want our chances ruining by SB if he said he was fit when in fact he wasn’t.

We all had our own ideas about what was going on inside his mind. SB had come to the championships as the favourite to win the 400m, but he had bombed out in that, so this was his only realistic chance of returning home with a gold medal. He had pulled out apparently with a hamstring tear. Some of the team suspected that it may be possible that the injury wasn’t as bad as he had made out, and wondered whether he had pulled out because he didn’t think he was going to win and opted instead to save himself for this shot at gold instead. If that was the case and he had admitted it I’m sure the team would have understood, We might have thought a bit less of him, but we would have had no concerns about putting him in the team. But SB wasn’t stating that. He stated his muscle had torn, but that he was now better. We found this difficult to accept but as SB was prepared for a fight he had gathered medical opinion and advice to support his case. The other problem was that we all knew that SB sometimes had greater belief in his abilities than was actually the case, which isn’t a bad thing for an elite athlete, so what he said had to be taken with a pinch of salt. The one nagging doubt was that he had nothing to lose, and there was a possibility that he was too proud to admit that he wasn’t up to it. More frighteningly, we thought he was being reckless in risking our medal shot. In the end, after a very uncomfortable hour or so, we had to accept that it was his dream and not ours alone, and so, begrudgingly, he was in. We just prayed he was right in his confidence.

When the race came round we all warmed up together as a team. MW’s warm up consisted largely of sitting around and theorising, SB’s involved looking cool, NT’s involved jogging around a lot but doing nothing really at speed, whilst mine involved getting psyched up to such an extent that NT was scared by my race face, never mind the opponents.

We had concerns about the changeovers before the race. The problem was that the changeover zone was 20m long, which meant that with all the noise of the partisan crowd it would be impossible for the incoming runner to make himself heard by the outgoing runner when he hit the changeover zone. Therefore, KA had decided he would stand on the infield and provide the calls that were necessary. There certainly would be no chance of 70,000 Spaniards drowning KA’s shouts out.

I was to run the first leg, and despite mild fears surrounding my injury I did a reasonable job. I had set off a little bit more conservatively than usual, and despite fading somewhat in the home straight, I handed over to MW only 5 metres behind the Spanish. However, as he left the changeover box we were more than 10 metres behind them.

MW ran a stormer and closed to only a couple of metres behind the Spanish athlete at the end of his leg. However, despite us executing the changeover perfectly the Spanish team again exited the zone with a 10m lead.

SB’s hamstring held out well and he also ran a screamer, again closing up on the Spanish athlete, giving NT a real chance on the last leg. But surprise, surprise, the Spanish team left the box with another massive lead on NT. Despite his best efforts he couldn’t close enough. The Spanish went crazy, and we went mad. We immediately placed an appeal with the judges asking them to check the changeovers. I don’t know why we bothered though. Almost immediately the judges came back to us saying that the video tape had been lost, so we were stuffed. In the end we had to settle for a silver when we deserved gold. It was suggested by some that KA must have got the calls wrong, but as anyone will testify who knows KA, KA doesn’t get things wrong. To coin a phrase, we was robbed.

4X400 scoreboard Barca 1992

4X400 podium Barca 1992

After spending a joyful half hour with my parents and JW, the team, guides and coaches returned to the village and planned our celebrations. Being the party animals that myself and JW were, we escaped down to the Pizza Hut that was just outside the village on the beach and drank ourselves silly – well, we had half a lager, but everything is relevant – and stuffed our faces with a whole pizza each. JW really went for it though after he had escorted me back to my bed. When we returned to the village he found RL wondering around in the mood for partying. They decided to go into Barcelona for a drink or two. They had every intention of getting a taxi into the centre of the city, but decided instead to accept a lift in a van with a group of Spanish Rastafarians. They couldn’t speak any English, but they understood the lads were looking to party. They took them to a club in the city. JW said that when they got into the club they were greeted by full size stuffed lions and other such jungle accompaniments. He soon realised that he and RL were the only English people in the club, and for that matter, they were the only white people in the club. All eyes were trained on them as they drank exotic drinks, danced exotic dances choreographed mainly in Liverpool, and smelled exotic plant based smells. A great time was had by them if the state they returned in was anything to go by, and I was content just cuddling my silver medal whilst tucked up safely in my bed. I still had another race to do, then I would party.

Our last race was the 4 x 100m relay. I was really excited. I had won the medal that I had longed for, and now my leg was starting to get so much better that I didn’t even think about it now. The warm up was still the same routine of strapping up and extensive massage, but I didn’t have any doubts about my ability to finish the race, and I was even able to do some flat out sprints in my warm up. We found out fairly early on again that there would only be four teams entered, so we had a great chance of getting another medal. We knew that the Spanish were going to be nearly impossible to beat, but we were not sure about the others. The Italians and the Americans were a bit of a mixture of really outstanding sprinters and outstanding athletes who weren’t necessarily outstanding sprinters, so it could just be possible, despite the diverse nature of our team, that we might snatch some more hardware.
JW was very excited as well, but not for the same reasons. KR, an experienced part of the management team, had repeatedly told JW about the famous guide runner relays which always traditionally occurred at the end of each championships. JW had at every opportunity asked the guides from the other countries how fast they could do the 400m. He really did think he was the fastest athlete there and just couldn’t wait for the opportunity to prove it. He had decided that he was going to do the last leg for the GB guides team, and I think he was secretly hoping to take the baton in an unpromising position before snatching victory from the jaws of defeat with a scintillating final leg. I’m sure when he visualised this he could hear 70,000 people cheering his super-human feat as he crossed the line, arms aloft soaking up the plaudits. He would have to wait though until after our 100m relay which was the last official track event of the championship.

When we arrived at the warm up track we headed for the drinks tent to fill our bags up with the free drinks as it was very warm and dehydration was always an issue. I chose several bottles of water and a couple of the branded sports drinks. We took our booty off to the side of the track and laid back in the shade until it was time to start warming up. I took out a bottle of sports drink and was just about to break the seal on it and drain the contents when JW shouted out “stop”. I wasn’t sure what JW was on about, but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but I chose to stop anyway. JW grabbed the bottle and held it up to his face. He burst out laughing and everybody gathered round to see what he was looking at. The sight which had grabbed his attention was a small lizard which was floating in it, as if pickled in a laboratory. The younger Andy thought what a good job it was that he hadn’t opened the bottle and drank it, but the older Andy now thinks what an opportunity missed – probably one of the biggest brands in the world’s products with such a foreign body in it. It would make the Donahue v Stevenson case (the famous snail in a ginger beer bottle which laid down the modern law of negligence) look like a storm in a tea cup.

It was the sort of thing which increased the sense of fun within the team, and as we took up our positions on the track, anticipation of what might be started to rise in my stomach. Whatever happened on the track, we only had a couple of hours to wait until we would party like never before. We had been drawn in lane 1, and I wasn’t looking forward to trying to cope with the tight bend, dodgy hamstring or no dodgy hamstring. The crowd was buzzing, they were well aware that it was the last race and the home team were the favourites to win. It had been a great championship, especially for the Spanish, and they were going to enjoy this last race. Random people kept calling out from the stands, “come on Curtis, give it some welly” in a broad Yorkshire accent and “go for it Andy” in an Aussie voice were just a couple of the calls I heard on my way to our starting position. I couldn’t wait to blast around that bend.

BR ran the first leg, and from the little bit of commentary JW could manage before we had to take up our position he thought he was doing alright, we certainly weren’t leading, but we weren’t completely out of contention either. The second leg runner was RL. He had been in and out of the medical room all the championship, but now came his chance to bring home the bacon. He had damaged his hamstring at the start of the championships, but had recovered from that, only to suffer from one of his usual self inflicted injuries. This had happened in the long jump. RL would take up his position on the run way and his caller would stand behind the pit and call him towards the pit by means of a mega phone. RL would set off sprinting, arms and legs flailing in different directions, a vision of ginger frenzy, trying his best to keep count of how many strides he had taken. The only problem with this was that RL insisted on counting every single stride. I had always counted every second stride on my left leg whenever I ran so that I would know exactly where I was on the track, but RL was too old a dog to be taught new tricks. The result was that RL often miscounted. Take off at the right time and, as long as he got the direction right, he would land in the pit with a good distance. Take off too late and he would have already reached the pit, maybe even trip over as his feet lost traction in the sand. However, RL’s default take off position was two strides before the take off board. This would result in RL flying through the air with all the grace he could summon up before executing the perfect landing on the hard run way. Scraped and burnt arse cheeks were the order of the day on such occasions, and Barcelona was one such occasion.

However, his cheeks had recovered to such an extent so as to allow him to take his place in the team. I no longer felt sorry for him, it was his guide that I now felt sorry for. One of the staff, a scot attached to the cerebral palsy team, had been drafted in to guide RL. RL was a law unto himself when it came to guiding. The usual practice is to try and run as one, to be perfectly synchronised so as to increase bio-mechanical efficiency. But RL always used to run as if tied to a prison officer from whom he was trying to escape. That was the case on that night, but despite his best efforts his guide managed to keep him in his two allotted lanes and eventually, after what seemed like an age I heard the call which set me on my way.

I had already heard loads of shouting, some what seemed like an age earlier, which signified that all the other teams had set off ahead of me. I guessed we were quite a way behind in last place, but I also knew that two of the other three teams had put their slowest runners on the third leg. I also knew that those two teams had put their fastest runners on the last leg, so I really did have to run the leg of my life if MW, who was to run the last leg, was to have the slightest glimmer of hope.

As I charged around the bend it seemed that my arms and legs were moving faster than they had ever moved. I could feel JW struggling to move his arms as fast as mine, which encouraged me even more. If he couldn’t keep up with me I really must be flying. The crowd were getting louder and louder, presumably because the Spanish were winning, but I drew on this imagining that they were cheering for me, the best third leg they had ever seen. With the added confidence I flew around the bend. As I neared the changeover zone I could tell from the shouts around me that I had moved us into second place, ahead of the Yanks and the Italians.

As soon as JW had given MW the call he started to congratulate me on my leg. I slowed down a bit, but carried on running down the track after MW. I wanted to be there at the celebrations. I asked JW how we were doing. After what seemed like an age he replied that he couldn’t tell exactly, but he thought that we were definitely in second place, but his demeanour didn’t match this statement.

I didn’t care though, I had already started celebrating as we ran down the home straight. We crossed the line and JW took me to MW. I jumped on MW’s back shouting and cheering about another silver medal. He said that he wasn’t too sure, but I said that JW said we were definitely in second. But JW was busy staring up at the big screen. I was the only one celebrating. MW had joined JW asking him what he could see on the screen, but I was still cheering about winning another silver.

Eventually after 30 seconds or so they started to cheer “yes, silver!” I wondered what they were on about, I knew we’d won silver ages ago, so why the confusion? Apparently, JW, who never was that good at counting, had meant that we were definitely in third place, not second, being confused by the fact that the Spanish team were miles clear of everybody else (more than two seconds in fact). We had in the end managed to beat the USA team by 0.06 secs. MW had run a stormer to not only hold off the Americans, but also AM of Italy, the fastest blinky athlete at the champs, which was an amazing feat in itself.

I was still whooping and yelping like a demented idiot and grabbed JW and MW who had now started to get excited as well. As they had finished ages before everyone else, and didn’t have to wait for a photo finish, the Spanish athletes were nowhere to be seen (pardon the pun) so we were unable to congratulate them. We had deduced that the Spanish had already set off on their lap of honour. What a good idea I thought. Who cares that we had only finished second, it was the last race after all. By now BR and RL plus guide had joined us. The Spanish, if the cheers were anything to go by, were already down the back straight, so we wouldn’t be gate crashing their party. I suggested a lap of honour and they followed. I jumped on JW’s back and off we went piggy backing around the bend. The crowd were going crazy celebrating the Spanish gold but when we passed their clapping, which had died down as the Spanish disappeared around the track, started to increase again. They cheered us on, and my sense of achievement swelled to bursting point. By the time we entered the home straight we were all cheering and waving like we’ve never waved and cheered before, and the crowd were responding in a similar fashion. It wasn’t just polite applause, they seemed genuinely to be saluting us.

I decided to take the bull by the horns as I wasn’t likely to get such an opportunity to do this again for a while. I slowed down and waited for the others to catch up. I got them to line up in front of the packed main stand. When we were all lined up I counted down “three, two, one” and then we bowed to the cheering crowd. They cheered even louder and it really did make the championships for me. Although I couldn’t see the crowd, the sheer volume of their cheering and clapping was more than enough to cement the memory in my mind forever.

4X100 score 1992 Barca.jpeg

4X100 podium Barca 1992

We had the formality of the medal ceremony to get through before we could start to party. Never one to miss the opportunity to hum loudly along to the Spanish national anthem, I heartily joined in with the tune, which was fast becoming one of my favourites. During the ceremony, JW leant over to RL and told him that the person giving him the medal was a most attractive scantily clad glamour girl. RL did as expected and grabbed her for a kiss: he was soon spitting after kissing the bearded medal bearing dignitary on the lips.

As soon as we had exited stage left JW dumped me in order to go and pursue his dream in front of the over excited capacity crowd. However, things didn’t go exactly to plan. When they walked onto the track in their Great Britain kit JW and his fellow guide runners were not greeted by the applause that they were expecting, but instead all they heard was the sound of thousands of plastic seats slapping back into position and the footfall of thousands of hungry Spaniards. When the gun went it was clear that JW’s plan to receive the baton in an unpromising position was working, but unfortunately for JW it was working a bit too well. Instead of receiving the baton 30m or 40m behind his competitors JW ended up taking the baton 80m or 90m behind them. Although JW ran a really fast leg he still ended up trailing in last some 60m or so behind the others. I believe a couple of stragglers put their hands together in polite applause, but it wasn’t exactly the resounding ovation he was hoping for.

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