How Bol is settling icon’s bitter Olympic gripe
Australia’s last male Olympic individual gold medallist on the track, Ralph Doubell, has long bemoaned a defeatist attitude among the country’s men in athletics.
But what he’s seen of Peter Bol at the Tokyo Games en route to the men’s 800m final, set to be run just after 10pm (AEST) tomorrow, is renewing his faith.
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When Bol joins eight other men on the start line for the 800m final, the Sudanese-born athlete will strive to become Australia’s first male Olympic individual gold medallist on the track since Doubell clinched gold at the 1968 Mexico City Games.
Edwin Flack (1896), Herb Elliott (1960) and Doubell are the only Australian men who have won individual Olympic gold on the track.
And while Doubell is immensely proud of being a member of such an exclusive club, he believes it’s a terrible reflection of the state of Australian athletics.
Bol gave a rare glimmer of hope as he ran second in his opening-round 800m heat in Tokyo, in which he broke the Australian record, and again when he won his semi-final heat, lowering the national benchmark further to 1:44.11.
Doubell is strong in his stance that male Australian runners have long been satisfied with travelling the world to compete and qualifying for Commonwealth and Olympic Games, while failing to value winning.
Bol, in Doubell’s mind, is breaking the mould.
“We’ve spent a lot of money on track and field through Athletics Australia … so it’s about time people started performing well,” Doubell told Wide World of Sports.
“I think one of the interesting comments Bol made was he’s found the joy of winning as opposed to the joy of running fast. I always approached it you don’t worry about the time; you’ve just got a race to win. I never raced for a time … It’s time that people pull their finger out and start performing.
“We should have had a couple of others (win individual Olympic gold on the track). (Legendary Australian long-distance runner) Ron Clarke should have won probably two gold medals but he blew it in Tokyo in ’64. Mexico (in 1968), he didn’t have much of a chance but he should have won. I think others have been close.
“It’s a tough job, we’re only a small country and we’ve done a pretty good job in sport overall.
“We like to think that we’re good at middle distance, but the results on the track haven’t really supported that for the last 20-odd years.”
An Australian male hasn’t won an individual Olympic medal of any kind on the track since Rick Mitchell, who died at 66 in May, claimed silver in Moscow in 1980.
Australian women have carved out far greater success on the track than men in Olympic history, which the likes of 1500m stars Linden Hall and Jessica Hull are aiming to add to in Tokyo.
While just three Australian men have won individual Olympic gold on the track, seven women have tasted glory: Shirley Strickland, Marjorie Jackson, Betty Cuthbert, Maureen Caird, Debbie Flintoff-King, Cathy Freeman and Sally Pearson.
“The local coaches seem to think that getting athletes into the Olympic Games, into the Olympic team, is the achievement,” Doubell said.
“But that’s one step out of 10.
“The objective is to go out and win races.
“Too often it’s been the athletes’ objective to get into the Olympic team or get into four Olympic teams and say, ‘Well, I’m really special because I’ve been in four Olympic teams. I happened to fail in four of them, but I’ve been in four so I think I’m pretty special’.
“I only ran in one Olympic Games, but I think I did okay.
“People need to focus on winning and not just turning up for the opening ceremony.”
Doubell said Bol used to be a culprit of that but had developed a more daring mindset.
“I think he’s changed,” Doubell said.
“Previously he’s been running in Europe and running well but not winning all that many races.
“In Australia, he’s seemed to change and start going out to win and I think (on Sunday) in Tokyo he certainly went out to compete to win, as opposed to just trying to sneak through in qualifying.”
While Doubell’s focus was always fixed intently on winning, he did hold the Australian 800m record for 49 years.
The Victorian broke his own record in his gold-medal run at the 1968 Mexico City Games, registering 1:44.30 as he pipped Kenya’s Wilson Kiprugut.
It wasn’t until 49 years and 278 days later that one of Bol’s training buddies and close mates, Joseph Deng, broke Doubell’s record in Monaco at a Diamond League meet in July 2018.
A biography was released commemorating the 50th anniversary of Doubell’s incredible run, but the final chapter had to be rewritten because of Deng’s Monaco heroics.
Doubell’s 1968 performance also saw him equal the 800m world record of the time, the 1:44.30 set by New Zealand athletics icon Peter Snell.
However, as documented in Doubell’s biography, Michael Sharp’s Do not worry, it is only pain, the Australian’s response was brief when told he had equalled the world record, saying, “Well, that’s nice.”
“The main aim for Doubell was to cross the line first and win the gold medal, not to run a world-record time,” the biography reads.
“The honour is not competing; the honour is winning,” Doubell told Wide World of Sports.
And he said he would be “very pleased” to see Bol follow in his path in Tokyo.
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