For some time I’ve been wondering who Armand Duplantis – freshly established pole vault world record holder at the age of 20 - reminds me of. And it’s just occurred to me. Michael Owen. A young Michael Owen that is.
The common denominator is a truly extraordinary sporting talent allied to a level of natural composure that is almost spooky. For both, their achievements appear absolutely something they have long envisaged and expected, and have merely to concentrate sufficiently to deliver.
The memory of how the Great British Press tried to back an 18-year-old Owen into a corner and get him to pass comment on the uninhibited behaviour of an elder England football team-mate still makes me feel a bit ashamed more than 20 years on.
Elder Teddy Sheringham might have been, but, judging by the nightclub pictures on the front page of the tabloids that morning in June 1998, he certainly wasn’t wiser than the teenager who had recently become a member of the national team.
When Owen received his first cap on February 11, 1998, midway through a first full Premier League season in which he finished as joint top-scorer for his club with 18 goals, he became, at 18 years and 59 days old, the youngest player to represent England in the 20th century.
Asked his view on the behaviour of his 32-year-old fellow forward, Owen – whose press appearance was intended to publicise a personal sponsorship deal - replied calmly that he hadn’t heard what had gone on. Obligingly a wilier member of the Fourth Estate then slapped down a copy of The Sun on the table where the 18-year-old was sitting.
Owen took in the details impassively before nudging the paper back towards its thoughtful provider with a hard stare. "Where's that?" he asked, with a ghost of a smile.
What more could a sponsor ask than this tanned, self-contained, super talented teenager standing on the cusp of his own greatness, a more certain bet for the future than the Millennium Dome dominating the sky line outside the press conference venue?
Owen had arrived for the event in a helicopter. Shortly before emerging from its cockpit he appeared to have been folding up a newspaper…
He was so fearfully young, so awesomely composed. And later in that very same month he would score the wonder-goal against Argentina at the World Cup finals in France which, while it was not enough to secure England’s progression, is still revered as one of the great moments in the national team’s history.
Thankfully Duplantis – who has long revelled in the perfectly apt nickname of Mondo - has not been called upon to account for wayward behaviour by his elder pole vault brethren. Nor is he likely to have to do so.
Renaud Lavillenie, whose 2014 world record of 6.16m Duplantis bettered by one centimetre on Friday evening, is a family man who in recent years has been an increasingly high-profile figure supporting the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
As for the vaulter who retained his world title in Doha last October, Sam Kendricks, he is also a sponsor’s delight, articulate, finely attuned to the sport’s followers, and – when back in the United States – a diligent and God-fearing first lieutenant in the US Army Reserve.
The nearest thing to awkwardness with which Duplantis has had to deal so far in his already stellar career was criticism from some quarters when his clearance of 6.05m to win the 2018 European title became the United States record.
Duplantis was born in the United States, to an American father - and former 5.80m pole vaulter - Greg and a Swedish mother, Helena – a former heptathlete and volleyball player.
Although he lives in the United States, Duplantis has chosen to represent Sweden internationally, which was why he was eligible for the European Championships.
But the US rules at the time – they have since been re-worded – deemed that his effort counted as a national record.
Sitting alongside an equally diplomatic Kendricks when the matter was raised at a press conference, Duplantis answered questions about the issue calmly, with good sense and a touch of humour.
Thankfully for all concerned, Kendricks soon rendered the question irrelevant as he made the US record in 2019 with a clearance of 6.06m.
At a press conference earlier in 2018, Kendricks had been asked to assess the 18-year-old Swede sitting to his right who had recently beaten him and every other pole vaulter of note on his home ground of Stockholm.
“Am I impressed with Armand?” said the man from Mississippi. “I’ve been following him for probably the last decade. I’m one of his biggest fans. The whole thing about Mondo is everyone saw him coming. I don’t know if he was ever a dark horse.”
In July 2018 I interviewed the then 18-year-old Duplantis in Lausanne after he had competed in an outdoor competition next to Lake Leman on the day before the main Diamond League meeting.
My brief was, primarily, to get his comments on the impending International Association of Athletics Federations World Under-20 Championships in Tampere, where he would be seeking a gold medal having won the bronze two years earlier.
I was struck in general by his thoughtfulness and composure. At one point, as the noise levels behind me suddenly rose, he reached across for my recorder and held it closer to his mouth. It was a small act of practical thoughtfulness, but no other interlocutor I have spoken to down the years has ever acted in the same way.
He was, meanwhile, speaking fluently and with authority. The flow only halted, momentarily, when I asked this young man who had already beaten every leading pole vaulter about his likely under-20 rivals in Tampere.
“Rivals?” he asked. “I don’t know if there are any obvious rivals because there’s a big group at the 5.50-5.60 range. So I don’t know what you consider a rival. You would have to define rival for me.
“It’s a championship meet so anybody could pop off a big bar. It’s kind of how those things work.”
If those words appear to issue from a position of arrogance then that appearance is entirely false. Duplantis was simply responding with honesty. Within a fortnight he had added gold to his earlier bronze.
Part of the reason for Duplantis’s unusual maturity is that, even though he is young, he is not young in terms of his event, which he first tried as a four-year-old at the family home in Lafeyetteville, Louisiana and set an age group world best at seven.
“Ever since I was three years old, four years old, this was the goal,” he told World Athletics in the wake of his landmark effort at the fourth stop of the world governing body’s Indoor Tour at Torun in Poland.
“I wanted to break the world record. I wanted to win all the gold medals there are to win, but one of the biggest goals, maybe the biggest, was breaking the world record.
“How do you explain a dream that's been a dream since you were three years old? It's a big dream, too. It's not a little dream.
“And it's a whole process building up to that moment. I can't really get my head around it. Everything that has happened has built up to this. The little things, the big things. The bad things, the good things.”
In spite of a hamstring injury that eventually took the lightning edge off his speed, Owen had a long, rich and honour-laden career. Duplantis, meanwhile, is set to become one of the main faces of athletics for a decade or more. His vaulting ambition knows no limits…