In case you’ve not been paying attention, this year brings the 40th anniversary of the first world championships in Helsinki.
You wouldn’t say Helsinki ’83 is flavour of the month yet. Well, you could; but you would be wrong. But if you’ve been on the World Athletics homepage, you would have seen the announcement of a fan competition to name the 10 best moments of the championships. If you missed that, Athletics Australia – and, I assume, other national federations – have passed the message on.
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The first world championships were regarded with tremendous affection back then. And still are. Not only did they satisfy a long desire by athletics fans for their sport to have world championships of its own. Up until then, Olympic champions also had the honorary title of world champion bestowed upon them, but very few knew about it then and I’d wager hardly anyone knows about it now unless they came across it, like I did, while researching something else.
The choice of venue was ideal, too. Finland with its great tradition of distance running – Paavo Nurmi and the Flying Finns – and in field events, specifically the javelin throw. Helsinki was to have staged the 1940 Olympic Games which were cancelled due to the world war, and did stage the first post-war Games in 1952, the Games of Zatopek’s treble.
The stadium built for those Games paid tribute to the javelin tradition. The height of the distinct tower (which now houses an Olympic museum) is 72.71 metres, the precise distance thrown by Matti Jarvinen to win the gold medal at the Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games.
The 1952 Opening Ceremony, too, honoured the distance tradition, with prominent roles for both Nurmi and his predecessor, the first of the Flying Finns, Hannes Kolehmainen.
Nurmi carried the Olympic torch to the base of the tower. There, he handed it over to the first of four young runners who carried it up the tower to the top, where Kolehmainen lit the Olympic cauldron.
The 1983 championships also came following a succession of blighted Olympics which culminated in the US-led partial boycott of the Moscow 1980 Games. There was the long battle to expel apartheid South Africa through the 1960s, the shooting of demonstrators in Mexico City in 1968, the terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972 and the African boycott of Montreal 1976 over continued sporting contacts with South Africa.
Athletics might be a global sport by the first world championships were the only truly global and peaceful gathering of the world’s athletes in over a decade and took place in the knowledge that a tit-for-tat boycott of the following year’s Los Angeles Olympics by the USSR and its eastern bloc satellites would diminish those Games as well. It did.
It was also a sentimental occasion for your columnist. Having been to the Montreal Games and missed Moscow (finances, not a boycott!), I was determined to get to Helsinki. By that time I was establishing myself as a regular contributor to The Age, so I wondered whether I might get some support there. My regular contact, sportswriter Geoff Slattery, suggested I pitch the idea to the sports editor, Neil Mitchell, then a rising star at The Age, now Melbourne’s best-known morning radio presenter.
To my astonishment, Mitchell offered me a daily gig through the championships. Wondering how I might approach this role, Slattery advised me to write each day about something that caught my eye. I would be paid per article, payment guaranteed whether it was published or not
What’s not to like about that sort of assignment. Equipped with a reverse charge card which would allow me to send my reports back to Melbourne via telex – no internet back then; not even a fax machine, I’d type my story up, take it to the telex operators and – hey, presto – the paper tape would be fed through the machine and transmitted.
My enthusiasm was sorely tested by a long trip from Melbourne to London via Sydney, Perth – it took seven hours to clear Australian waters! – Singapore and Muscat. Nor was this journey from hell over once I had arrived. The airport bus from Heathrow to Victorian Station was a 2-hour journey through grid-locked London traffic.
The championships were all that you would want championships to be. Carl Lewis introduced himself to the world with three gold medals – the 100 metres, the long jump and as a member of the world-record setting US 4×100 relay. Mary Decker won a distance double in the 1500 and 3000 metres. Jarmila Kratochvilova won the 400 and 800. Tiina Lillak produced a clutch last-throw winner to take the gold medal in the women’s javelin, a performance which brought the home crowd to a state of noisy rapture.
And then there was ‘Deek’, Francois Robert de Castella as he is known to hardly anyone. On the final day, in the marathon, de Castella bided his time until the closing stages. Attacking on two hills, he first split up the leading pack, then dropped his final rival, Kebede Balcha of Ethiopia, on another sharp uphill to go to a glorious victory. He ran the toughest five kilometres of the course, from 36 to 41km, in 14:57 to clinch the gold.
This triumph had seemed possible from the moment went to Fukuoka two years earlier and won the prestigious Japanese marathon in a world best 2:08:18.
In a preview I wrote: “A few of us dared to hope he might be one of the possible winners at Fukuoka. This Sunday, we dare to hope that he might become the world champion.”
And he did. He bloody well did. There were other events decided on this final day of the first world championships, but none as memorable as the men’s marathon.