The Power Of 10: Can a Sydney sprinter triumph at next month's Olympics? Or will he fall victim to a nation's craving for stars--and the color of his skin?
By Daniel Williams
It was to have been a breakthrough trip for Australian Matt Shirvington: six races in Europe in 33 days, shoulder to shoulder with the world's fastest men--a chance to remind them (not with words, but with speed) that he would be lining up against them again soon--in the Olympic 100-m final next month. The breakthrough might yet come, but on the 12th day he sat restlessly in a London hotel room, wincing at the memory of his opening two races. What were those times again? 10:33 sec. in Zagreb and 10:37 in Carole, Italy? Great. Run them in Sydney and he might finish in time to watch the final on TV.
There come times for sprinters when their best run isn't good enough. Such a time is closing on the Sydney-born Shirvington, who in 1998 announced himself as perhaps the most exciting prospect in athletics, his 10:03 at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur making him the fastest 19-year-old in history. The problem is, he's still only a prospect. He hasn't beaten that time in the two years since, though his supporters take comfort in the knowledge that only one 21-year-old before him has ever run faster, and his name is Carl Lewis.
Media and corporate interest in Shirvington has edged ahead of his achievements. For now he's thriving on the promise of speed. What do Leonard Myles-Mills, Fredi Mayola and Greg Saddler have in common? They're all ranked among the top 15 100-m sprinters in the world, yet are largely unknown. Seventeenth-ranked Shirvington, on the other hand, has car and clothes sponsorships, is under contract to an Australian television network and News Ltd., and has had more ink devoted to his deeds than even Australia's all-conquering Hockeyroos.
One explanation is that Australia craves stellar athletes to complement its world-beaters in the pool. The host nation will have Cathy Freeman in the women's 400 m, but few other medal prospects in the big arena. In the men's 100 m, its record is dismal: only four times since 1896 has an Australian made the Olympic final, the last time 44 years ago.
Another factor is that Shirvington is white. It's been 32 years since the black American Jim Hines, the son of an Oakland construction worker, became the first man to break 10 sec.--and only black men have done it since. In the next two months, Shirvington is more likely than anyone else to become the first white member of this exclusive club, and his Olympic ambitions depend on him doing it.
His trip culminates this week in London, where his Russian coach had hoped Shirvington would be ready to break 10 sec. "He has never had a body like this," Michael Khmel said before flying out of Sydney in late June. "Physically he is ready. Psychologically he is ready. It will happen." Neither coach nor athlete had expected much in the first two outings, but 10:33 and 10:37 were "pretty horrible," says Shirvington. He isn't despairing, however. The breakthrough still feels close.
To go under 10 sec., Shirvington will need to be special indeed. Even if the barrier in front of him is psychological rather than genetic, he'll need a cocktail of qualities unmatched in any white sprinter of recent times. Ideally, he will have Jesse Owens' natural talent, Harold Abrahams' controlled rage, Ben Johnson's panther-like start, Charley Paddock's flying finish.
The key is talent: as coaches are fond of saying, "You can't put in what God's left out." Both of Shirvington's older sisters were state-level runners, though neither pursued athletics past adolescence. When it was seven-year-old Matt's turn to join Little Athletics, his schoolteacher parents drooped. The driving, the commitment--"We were over it," says his mother Jenny. He did it for just a year, then dabbled in rugby, baseball, water polo and surfing for the next six, in the meantime setting sprint records at his primary school that still stand. He returned to athletics at 14, and when he broke a state hurdling record--without, says Jenny, "a trace of style or technique"--his parents sensed he had a gift worth nurturing.
His father Phillip began coaching him, but neither was committed and sessions became irregular. Shirvington Sr. worked the phone until Matt, then 16, linked up with Khmel, who missed out on sprinting for the Soviet Union at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics because of the boycott, but responded by switching to bobsleigh and competed at the Winter Olympics in Calgary four years later. Khmel met Shirvington in 1995, three years after he arrived in Australia with no English and a master's degree from the prestigious Moscow Sports Academy. His first impressions of the boy's running? Lousy; rarely had he seen such tension and untidiness. But a little cleaning up worked wonders, and Shirvington's times went into free-fall--from 11:01 in 1995, to 10:65 in '96, to 10:29 in '97. In '98, shortly before his heroics at the Commonwealth Games, Shirvington scorched into the record books as Australia's fastest runner ever, smashing Damien Marsh's mark with a 10:07 in Johannesburg.
Almost as vital as talent are white-hot competitive instincts. Shirvington has these, though they weren't born of hardship or prolonged exposure to eccentricity, for he was raised in middle-class suburbia by a kind mother and a father who has none of the obsessiveness of an Earl Woods or the volatility of a Damir Dokic. Phillip predicts his son will continue to surprise people, "but it won't happen at the expense of relationships. You can't point to anyone in his circle who's been sacrificed for his purpose." Does an athlete who aspires to be an Olympic champion need a ruthless streak? "I don't subscribe to that," Phillip says. "If it's meant to be...now that can sound very trite, but there's an enormous sense of liberation in that way of thinking." Shirvington's exams and social life meant nothing to Khmel, and it took time for the pair to compromise on the issue of sacrifice.
By all accounts, Shirvington has turned out as his parents hoped. According to friends, he's the same unpretentious fellow they knew at school, who had little interest in study and pulled beers in an RSL club for pocket money. His parents say he has no taste for the athletics scene, just a love of running, and the only change they've observed is that he's toughened up. Polite and engaging, Shirvington has had the same girlfriend since high school, Jess Pagent. "You can't go out there [on the track] and be the nice guy that you are," she told him recently. "You've got to be a bit of a bastard sometimes."
A 100-m race is run on nerve, adrenaline and ego; runners are separated by tiny fractions of a second. If Shirvington ever suspects he is out of his depth, the race is already lost. "I've always seen the black sprinters as superior, but only because of their results and this confidence they have that they're better than anyone else," Shirvington says. "You don't get a white guy with that sort of confidence. But I don't get on the track and think, 'Well, I'm going to come fifth in this race because there are four black guys in it.'" He agrees with a comment by 1992 Olympic 100-m champion Linford Christie, who said testily last year: "What's all the fuss about Shirvington being the world's fastest white man? He ought to be trying to become the world's fastest man."
But for some people, the question of color is supremely relevant. The thesis that, compared to blacks, Shirvington and other white sprinters are operating under an evolutionary handicap has been argued recently by American Jon Entine, in his book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid To Talk About It. Coincidence or not, here are some observations Shirvington shouldn't dwell on at bedtime:
A SPORTS ILLUSTRATED report in December 1997 referred to "generally accepted research" showing Afro-American children tend to be better made for running fast--denser bones, narrower hips, less fat--than white children, and to the work of Yale geneticist Kenneth Kidd, who proposed that the DNA of a higher than expected percentage of black Africans--and their descendants in the Americas--contained rare genetic combinations that would endow them with exceptional athletic talent.
Yet it's been only 40 years, a tick of the evolutionary clock, since a white sprinter, Germany's Armin Hary, became the first man to clock 10:00 in the 100 m, and less than 30 years since the blond Ukrainian Valery Borzov was undisputed as the fastest on the planet. Clearly, there are no definitive answers here, only circumstantial evidence and inconclusive research.
One who's convinced the 10-sec. barrier exists purely in the mind is Dr. Jeff Simons, who as a sports psychologist with Athletics Australia has worked briefly with Shirvington. According to Simons, Shirvington can approach the barrier in two ways: either he decides that he's "special" and capable of something never before achieved by a white man, or he changes his "reference point"--from being a white sprinter to being, simply, a sprinter, part of a brotherhood from which 26 men have broken 10 sec. (never mind, in other words, that all 26 have been black). Does Shirvington believe he will one day be the fastest in the world? "I wouldn't train for six hours a day if I didn't," he says. "People say I won't be running my best until I'm 28. But I'm not going to wait for it."
This impatience has made it hard for Shirvington to deal with the undeniable: his progress has stalled. He says he's received a "kick in the bum" from British sprinter Dwain Chambers, who's the same age as Shirvington and until recently had the same best time. But in Germany in June, Chambers ran a 9:99. You can remind Shirvington that his 10:03 in Kuala Lumpur was achieved into a slight headwind, and that if conditions had been better that day he'd have broken through then. But he's wearying of talk.
He's not the only one. Some believe Shirvington's a product of hype, a pretty boy who's been overrated by the local media, especially its female representatives. "In Kuala Lumpur, the non-Australians in the press pit were sickened by some of the copy being churned out about Shirvington," says Steven Downes, a British-based athletics journalist. "One woman in particular kept drooling about his blond hair, blue eyes and muscled torso, yet any dispassionate observer knew he'd get blown away by the likes of [Ato] Boldon and [Frankie] Fredericks." (In fact, he was beaten into fourth by Boldon, Fredericks and Obadele Thompson, but only by a stride.) Shirvington played second fiddle to countryman Patrick Johnson during the last Australian season and again in Italy last month. With a personal best of 10:15, Johnson is formidable, but he shouldn't be a benchmark for someone with Shirvington's ambition. As Johnson's coach, Esa Peltola, says: "They both need to run faster to challenge the world."
Two years may seem a long time stuck on the same P.B., but it's no reason for panic, says New South Wales Institute of Sport biomechanist Margy Galloway, who uses laser-gun technology to analyze Shirvington's technique and works closely with Khmel. "The thing about 100-m runners is that they have to work incredibly hard to make the tiniest gains, or often just to maintain their times," Galloway says. "Some don't improve for three or four years." Such was true of Fredericks, 32, who's broken 10 sec. more than 20 times--more often than anyone else--but who at Shirvington's age was trapped in the 10:20 to 10:30 range. Sprinting wisdom is that only the absolute elite don't have quiet seasons--and Shirvington is too young for that category. As well as talent, power, technique and competitiveness, potential sprint champions require patience.
The cream of men's sprinting generally isn't bothered about a rival until he's broken 10 sec. Shirvington says Boldon's public remarks about him have been complimentary, and that compatriot Cathy Freeman recently passed on comments from renowned American track coach John Smith, mentor to Maurice Greene, to the effect that he's been impressed by Shirvington--and his refusal to be intimidated by the likes of Greene. But is this mere condescension? The spat between two of the world's great sprinters, Greene and Michael Johnson (which ended with both seizing up in the 200 m at the U.S. trials in Sacramento last week), and before that between Johnson and Donovan Bailey, suggest that if you're not being taunted it's because you're not considered a threat.
While admitting to frustration, Shirvington sounds confident, pushing the paradox that he's a better runner than he was in Kuala Lumpur--it's just that his times are slower. In transition from a free spirit to a hardened athlete, he's waiting for his times to catch up, for his legs to absorb the punishment they've been subjected to in training this year so they might, in the last 25 m when every runner is slowing down--some more gracefully than others--carry him to the line fractionally faster. He's explosive out of the blocks, and tests at the N.S.W. Institute of Sport have shown he reaches a top speed in the vicinity of 11.8 m/sec., as fast as anyone. Shirvington's weakness is his finish, though he sees improvement as a matter of time. "I line up against guys who've run thousands of 100-m races, whereas you could almost have counted on one hand the number I'd done before K.L.," he says. "The more training you do, the harder the switch to competition. But it'll definitely come."
The big question remains: can the runner who was once the fastest teenager of all time become the fastest man in the world? When you line up everything that's in Shirvington's way, the color of his skin looks the least of his troubles.
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