Mike Rowbottom

Pandemic. Even the word is horrible, isn't it? The "dem" being silent.

Everywhere people are trying their best to cope, to rise above, to sink below. I keep on thinking of my old German pronoun drill: "In, auf, uber, unter, neben, hinter, zwischen, vor…"

I will probably get round to picking my all-time West Ham XI, my all-time England team, my all-time list of best goals scored, best 800 and 1,500 metres finishes, best 4x400m relay team (in other words, Phil Brown and three others), best tennis comeback, best piss-taker of Rafael Nadal's serve etc, etc...

But it's a marathon, not a sprint, eh? Too many people on social media are shooting their bolt too early, IMHO…

I saw a Tweet from Kelly Sotherton the other day – she'd run out of chocolate. For a world and Olympic heptathlon medallist – and the most harshly self-critical of Commonwealth champions – this was the equivalent of failing to register a long jump mark.

Message to Kelly Sotherton, world and Olympic heptathlon medallist – keep up your supplies of chocolate please ©Getty Images
Message to Kelly Sotherton, world and Olympic heptathlon medallist – keep up your supplies of chocolate please ©Getty Images

We all need our chocolate – or whatever else it may be – to smooth the progress of our days.

Personally I have been embracing regression. Those who know me will understand nothing has changed.

By my bed, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Barbara Pym, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin. An Englishman Abroad.

Sporting biographies of a certain age, into which I have dived with such joy for so many years, recirculate.

But in searching for other versions of a madeleine this weekend, I unearthed some treasure.

That said, I won't bore you with the details.

Joke. Of course I will bore you with the details. So at this point, if you have reached it, you may want to stop reading in order to concentrate on something more important and interesting. 

Have you left the hose running in the back garden? Where is that chocolate? Christ – where is the dog!

Still here? OK.

Back in 1972, the advent of the Munich Olympics provoked me to start a scrapbook. Sadly I didn't follow through during the Games themselves – very poor reporting – although I did return to the theme in other later scrapbooks. All of these I discovered in our loft.

Incidentally, using my lockdown time creatively, I also converted the loft into a joint language laboratory, recording studio and bijou kitchen for the making of novelty bread!

Not. It's still a dusty waste of boxes, old technology that we might but will never actually use, and the children's old schoolbooks and drawings. Among other things.

The Munich Games scrapbook contains some articles that look a little forlorn in the easy light of hindsight.

The Hindsight Games – a hopeful view of Dave Bedford's gold medal prospects at the 1972 Munich Olympics ©ITG
The Hindsight Games – a hopeful view of Dave Bedford's gold medal prospects at the 1972 Munich Olympics ©ITG

An Evening Standard piece by Walter Bartleman, headlined "Bedford's 'torture' will pay off" makes particularly melancholy reading. 

Bedford, my athletics idol at that time, had energised British running with his bold – some might say brash – personality, his anti-establishment aura, and a blazingly bright talent based on the dullest of dutiful mileage.

A year earlier at the European Championships in Helsinki, his high hopes of winning 5,000m gold were lowered by the late charge of home runner Juha Vaatainen and East Germany's Jurgen Haase, who took gold and silver while he finished a disconsolate sixth.

Bedford's weakness – the lack of a finishing kick – had been awfully exposed. In the intervening year, as Bartleman attests, the bad boy of the track had been very good at "allying speed to the 200 miles a week he has been pounding out over all sorts of terrain".

Citing Vaatainen's vow to match Bedford "centimetre for centimetre", Bartleman concludes: "I am reminded of a wintry Saturday afternoon at Parliament Hill Fields when, after winning the southern junior cross-country title, he quietly strolled over to the start of the senior event 20 minutes later and took it in his shambling, but devastating stride.

"That's Bedford – no pinnacle is too high for a man who is certainly the most fantastic figure in the history of British athletics.

"Bedford is still smouldering over what happened to him on that chilly evening in Helsinki. On the Munich track that smouldering will burst into a glorious golden blaze."

Alas, in Munich, Bedford finished sixth in the 10,000m and 12th in the 5,000m. A year later, however, at a virtually deserted Crystal Palace, he took eight seconds off the 10,000m world record of the double Olympic champion Lasse Viren as he clocked 27min 30.8sec.

Four years earlier, another Briton had earned an Olympic success that had been less proudly heralded. David Hemery had set a world record of 48.12sec in the thin air of Mexico as he won the 400m hurdles gold.

I vaguely remember watching on TV, although to be honest my strongest memory of the Mexico Games is of the obvious impact the blond, dashing and well-spoken Olympic champion and world record holder made upon my Mum.

A cutting which looks as if it has been taken from the Radio Times offers a first person account of Hemery's Mexico triumph, which is as gripping today as it was then.

Hemery, who had shifted between Britain and the United States during his preparations for the Mexico Olympics, recalls marching down the tunnel into the Olympic Stadium.

David Hemery won 400 metres hurdles gold at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 ©Getty Images
David Hemery won 400 metres hurdles gold at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 ©Getty Images

"It's like walking to the electric chair or into a maternity ward," he writes. "I just don't know how you can equate it to other experiences in life.

"All the time you are wishing you didn't have to go through with the event and asking yourself how you were mad enough to do this kind of thing. Your mouth is dry and you are taking short breaths involuntarily.

"Part of the apprehension is caused by not wanting to screw it up. That's not a very English expression, I'm afraid. Some shot putters tell me that they can work themselves up until they actually hate the other competitors, and then explode with a mighty effort.

"I can't do that. I have to rely on the fact that I'm just terrified of losing."

Turning to the race itself, he adds: "At the last hurdle you have only a slight peripheral awareness of your competitors. In Mexico I was waiting for the 'ooh' that comes when someone is overtaking you in the straight. But it never came….

"When you come first there's not a great explosive 'I've-won-the-Olympics' feeling. I felt more as if I had put the last piece in a great jigsaw."

When the great jigsaw of the Tokyo 2020 Games is put back together again – one hopes in the summer of next year – the feeling for many champions is likely to be very similar.

As for the scrapbooks – I'm put in mind of what Vladimir Nabokov once said: "The more you love a thing, the stronger and stranger it becomes."