Mike Rowbottom: Priceless Ovett, Michael Johnson nightmares and the biggest athletics exhibition ever seen...

Saturday, 06 October 2012
Saturday, 06 October 2012

Mike RowbottomChris Turner, who works in the Communications Department of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), is not what you would describe as a flapper. His genial and very British presence has calmly and efficiently organised countless press events down the years.

Like a good footballer, Turner always appears to have time to spare. But right now even he is feeling just a little pressed. Understandably so, given that he is curating the largest exhibition of athletics memorabilia ever to be gathered together as part of the IAAF's Centenary Celebrations.

When the doors open at Barcelona's Museu Olimpic i de l'Esport Joan Antoni Samaranch – next to the 1992 Olympic stadium – on Saturday next (October 13) Turner could be forgiven for exhaling a large sigh of relief and ingesting an even larger gin-and-tonic.

"It's a great honour to be in this position," he told me. "But it is also a huge responsibility which weighs down heavily on your shoulders. I have had sleepless nights worrying about it. I do have the occasional panic attack.

"The other night I woke up thinking about the bibs Michael Johnson had given us from the 1996 Atlanta Games. I was thinking, what have I done with them? But of course they were actually locked up in a safe. Everything has been itemised and insured, but at times you realise the enormity of what you are dealing with.

"All the donations are free of charge. I've never had so much goodwill for any project in my life."

Michael Johnson_of_the_USAMichael Johnson of the USA has donated his bibs he wore when he claimed the gold in the men's 200m during the 1996 Olympic Games

If the goodwill has been unvarying, there has been a curious difference in approach from those who have donated to a collection that will span in time from 256BC to the present day.

For instance - a request to Steve Ovett, not normally someone who is keen to be roped into set-piece athletics celebrations - earned no response for a while. But after a few days the man who now resides in one of the finest properties on Australia's Gold Coast sent word that something was on its way. Specifically, the message passed on to Turner by Ovett's new partner Carolyn Schuwalow, was: "He won't tell you what he has sent but you will like it."

And Turner did like it. Oh yes. It was the Olympic 800 metres gold medal Ovett won at the 1980 Moscow Games, and the vest in which he did so, complete with its stitched-on cloth number – 279.

But the Curator was a little taken aback at the form in which it arrived. While the spikes and vest in which Ovett's great rival, Seb Coe – remember him? – won 1500m gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games had been documented every step of the way on their temporary journey from the Nike Museum, Ovett had simply bundled his priceless material gains into a big envelope and sent it via DHL without letting the IAAF know of its transit. And so it just turned up - pure Ovett gold.

Sebastian Coe__Steve_Ovett_in_the_1500_metres_at_the_1980_Olympic_Games_in_MoscowSteve Ovett's 279 vest, which he wore in the race against Sebastian Coe during the 1500 metres at the Olympic Games in Moscow, will be on display at the exhibition

Insouciance of the same kind, if not on the same scale, was displayed by the US long jumper Dwight Phillips, who carefully retained the iconic number in which he won his fourth world title in Daegu last year, 1111 – did somebody at the IAAF make a calculated gamble here? – but happily discarded his tatty and ripped bodysuit, telling his manager she could throw it away. She, however, chose to sew it back up and has now been able to offer it as one of the exhibits.

One of the first items to be gathered came from Cuba's IAAF Council member Alberto Juantorena, who has donated the spikes he wore when winning the 400 and 800m double at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

As visitors to the exhibition will see, they have at some point in the past been spray-painted gold, and a lot of it is now flaking off.

Spikes were also accrued from another Olympic champion of the 1976 Games, Jamaica's 200m winner Don Quarrie. These, however, have been preserved a little more thoroughly than Juantorena's footwear, having been dipped in bronze.

Don Quarrie_of_JamaicaJamaica's Don Quarrie 200m gold medal winner of the 1976 Olympic Games has donated his footwear

While the largest part of items has been donated by the IAAF's Brazilian Area Representative, Roberto Gesta de Melo, who owns his own athletics museum in the middle of the Amazonian jungle – true fact – there will be a fair temporarily loaned by Turner himself, who has been an avid collector of track and field memorabilia, with special emphasis on Finland, and extra special emphasis on the javelin, for more than 20 years.

One of his prize exhibits is a programme of the match at Iffley Road, Oxford where Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile on May 6, 1954, signed by pacemakers Chris Brasher, the 1956 Olympic 3000m steeplechase gold medallist and Chris Chataway, the 1954 European 3 miles champion, as well as the man who achieved the landmark timing of 3min 59.4sec.

How did Turner manage to get those three priceless monickers together, given that he is not old enough to have been there on the day in question? Well, Turner's godfather is Nick Stacey, better known as the social activist, the Reverend Nicolas Stacey, who was a 1952 Olympic sprinter and who was also, during the 1960s, Rector of Woolwich, where Turner's father -  Sir Colin Turner CBE, DFC - was the sitting MP for Woolwich West. Easy when you know who.

"I started with this project just before last year's World Championships in Daegu, and every day since we have new items arriving," Turner reflected. "We could have spent so much longer on it – the response has been so massive you have to wonder, what else is out there?"

Not to worry – there's plenty enough in there. Any athletics follower able to make the trip would be well advised to do so.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. 
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