Mike Rowbottom: When sporting certainties stand on shaky ground

Thursday, 10 January 2013
Mike Rowbottom50It may have been a coincidence, but I imagine it was the earthquake that woke me. Not that I recognised it immediately. For a while, I lay in my bed observing the curious movement of the lightshade hanging from the ceiling, which swung back and forth, back and forth, as if someone had set it mischievously in motion. Had I done that? News to me if I had. Then again, night before, some drink taken...

A dim memory made me rise and stand in the doorframe, supposedly the strongest part of any building caught up in what I now realised it was being caught up in. I am happy to report that the media village at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano stood firm. My shade became a shade less lively and, eventually, motionless. I went downstairs for breakfast.

News reports soon informed us that we had experienced a magnitude 5.3 earthquake.

The devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011The devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011

Earlier this week Tsunekazu Takeda, President of Tokyo's bid for the 2020 Olympics and of the Japanese Olympic Committee, insisted that no one had reason to feel unsafe in his country. "No one can predict when and where a quake will strike," he said, almost two years after the devastating damage caused to Japan's eastern coast by a tsunami triggered by an oceanic earthquake measured at 9.03 on the scale.

"It can happen anywhere in the world," added Takeda, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member. "The important thing as a nation is to be ready as you can be if and when it does occur. In Japan's case, architectural standards are very strict and the sports facilities that will exist seven, eight years down the road will certainly meet them."

Pointing out that Tokyo's buildings withstood the March 2011 earthquake, Takeda concluded: "We've been saying the facilities in Tokyo will hold up, and the Metropolitan Government is very aware how quake-proof they must be. The city will be sturdier than ever in 2020."

Takeda's words about unpredictability been borne out by experience. Two months before the Japanese tsunami, Christchurch, the second biggest city in New Zealand, was hit by an earthquake that measured at 6.3 which left 185 people dead.

Queen Elizabeth II Stadium new zealand post earthquakeThe Queen Elizabeth II Stadium was damaged beyond repair by the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake

A month earlier in Christchurch my colleague Tom Degun had had a similarly alarming wake-up call to the one I experienced in Japan while he was covering the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Athletics Championships, as quakes of 5.1, 3.4 and 4.0 shook the city. The event – most notable for a rare 100 metres defeat for Oscar Pistorius by United States sprinter Jerome Singleton – concluded without incident in the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium built to host the 1974 British Commonwealth Games, which was to be damaged beyond repair just a few weeks later.

For the athletes taking part in those Championships, the thought of what so nearly befell them will doubtless cause a shudder.

Four years before the Nagano Games, I spoke on the phone to three British athletes – John Regis, Tony Jarrett and Gary Cadogan – who had been caught up in the terrifying earthquake which hit Los Angeles and left 57 dead. The three sprinters were on a training trip funded by the British Athletic Federation and living in Sherman Oaks, less than 10 miles from the epicentre of the quake.

When phone lines were restored to the area, they described how they had woken in darkness and confusion as the hillside house which they share was caught up in a quake which registered 6.6 on the Richter scale and was felt 275 miles away in Las Vegas.

Northridge earthquakeThe 1994 Los Angeles earthquake left 57 dead

"It went on for about 45 seconds," said Jarrett, who had won a World Championship silver medal in the 110 metres hurdles the previous year. "Everything was moving. It was really scary."

The first reaction of Cadogan, Britain's leading 400m hurdler of the time, was that a bomb had gone off. "It was like someone picking up the house and shaking it. I stayed frozen in my bed. When it stopped, there was silence. None of us screamed or shouted. We were all too scared to say anything.

"Everything was pitch black, which made it even more scary. We saw fires, and then something blew up and it was like a firework display.

"We just stood there talking, not knowing what was going on. After a while, we put on our trainers and ran out to the car.

"When we went out it was still dark, but one of the neighbours lent us a flashlight. We stayed awake for the rest of the day because we were too scared to go to sleep. We didn't have anything to eat for 12 to 15 hours. The power came back on, but we couldn't have water at first because the fire service needed the water pressure. Then we could only drink water that we had boiled.

"Two people got killed about a mile down the road from us when their house just slid off the mountain. There is a place called Van Nuys about a mile away which is devastated. There are walls hanging off everywhere, and shop windows broken. It's like a war zone."

Sochi escaped undamaged following a minor earthquake which hit the Black Sea coast in December 2012Sochi escaped undamaged when a minor earthquake hit the Black Sea coast in December 2012

As I write this, checks are still underway on the massive construction site that is Sochi, the Black Sea resort which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The checks have been instigated by the Russian President and sometime Sochi holidayer Vladimir Putin in the wake of the earthquakes which shook the region last month.

Sochi 2014 represents a monumental demonstration of ambition involving, uniquely, the construction of an entire Olympic venue from scratch. As such, it is a manifestation of the willpower of Putin - and by extension, Russia - in the field of sporting endeavour.

It is another feather in the cap for a nation that will host this summer's World Athletics Championships, and the 2018 World Cup finals, the forthcoming swimming and ice hockey World Championships, not to mention a new Russian Grand Prix extension to the Formula One programme which will run around the coastal cluster of indoor venues once the Sochi 2014 Games are over.

But the seismic activity in and around the Black Sea has sounded a warning that even the highest of human endeavours sometimes have to cede to nature. Let's hope those inspections, and those building specifications, are thorough...

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian.
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