Daily Trust (Abuja)

23 September 2012

Nigeria: Lee Evans - a Missing Name in the Athletics Hall of Fame!

opinion

This week I had settled down to write about the commencement of the new football season in Europe that has been marked by some truly terrific football matches when I read about the establishment by the International Amateur Athletics Federation, the IAAF, of an Athletics Hall of Fame to honour track and field athletes that had excelled through the decades at the highest levels. It was a welcome development, long overdue.

Anything to honour and celebrate men and women that have entertained the world with their talent and skills by extending the limits of human capacity and endurance is most welcome.

My first reaction was to wonder why it took so long in coming. My second was to wonder what criteria would be used in selecting the most truly deserving athletes in a world that is tainted by the struggle between drug users and those racing to stop them. Track and field athletics has become so infested with drugs that there is now more talk about who is winning the race between the laboratories creating them and those inventing advanced technology to stop them than about the actual races between the athletes themselves.

So bad has the situation become that these days every new world record set is punctuated with the big question mark of authenticity after it! In the past few years, there have been more records and medals withdrawn, and athletes banned or suspended, than ever before in the history of track and field.

The infestation is not subsiding just as hundreds of athletes in all countries continue to be subjected to the necessary indignity of being routinely and regularly tested all over the world!

So, I read about the IAAF Hall of Fame and I temporarily dump my intended football analysis for an excursion into the world of athletics.

I love track and filed athletics. I wondering what the criteria for selection would be and who the inaugural recipients would be. I have been an avid lover and follower of athletics throughout my life to the extent of managing two Olympic Silver and Gold medalists in my short career as an athletes representative and agent!

The criteria set for awardees by the IAAF is stringent but simple enough - the athlete must have won at least two Gold medals at the Olympics and set a World record! Both must be clean, that is, devoid of controversy and untainted by drugs!

My mind races back through time and the epic races and athletes I have watched. Names keep coming in torrents particularly of those who ran when drugs in sports did not exist in our consciousness and even weight training for athletes was unknown. Athletes just ran and jumped freely, in their magnificent innocence and purity. Mirus Yifter, Kipchoge Keino, Bob Beamon, Carl Smith, Jesse Owens, Edwin Moses, Sebastian Coe, Jonathan Edwards, Carl Lewis, and so on. The list is long and impressive.

The Hall of Fame awardees help to bring back those great memories. According to the reports on the IAAF website the first recipients are 24 in number. I run through the list. It go up to 22 and it stops like a held breath. Something is missing here - a particular name. You cannot be mentioning the names of Seb Coe, Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson of latter years without mentioning the absolute greats in the years before them.

It is so conspicuously missing that it rings in my head. Could it be one of the last two names not listed yet? Perhaps my reaction is because I know him personally? I think about it again. No, something is wrong.

Let me admit straightaway that I have no authority to be a good and unbiased judge on this matter, but what is obvious is obvious. You cannot miss the exploits of Lee Evans from the crowd of athletics achievements of the early days till the watershed of Munich in 1972 when sports assumed a new dimension in the world!

Lee easily meets the two criteria set by the IAAF.

In 1968, in the rarified atmosphere of Mexico, he ran like no one had ever done before him in the longest of the sprints events - the 400 metres. Many years later when I finally met him he told me that running was like dancing to him. It was that easy and natural. He also told me about how comfortable and confident he was about winning every race he ran in at the time that at the end of one of those races, even in his completely exhaustive state, trying hard to stay on his feet and catch his breath, he would still find time to 'glide' around, dragging his feet in a show-off shuffle that became his signature! Lee Evans left a mark everywhere he ran.

At the Mexico Olympics he not only won the Olympic Gold medal in the 400 metres event in a new world record time, he also anchored the USA 4 X 400 relay quartet to win another Gold medal and set a second new world record time! So phenomenal was his performance that he was the first human to run the 400 metres below 44 seconds, and his 43.86 seconds (I hope I am right) record remained one of the longest unbroken in track and field history. It took 20 years to find another human being that would touch it. That honour belongs to Michael Johnson who is listed in the Hall of Fame!

I have had the privilege of watching several of Lee's races in recorded film and television and I have been amazed by the poetry of his running style, swinging head from side to side on his lean lanky body that dips with both hands flung backwards at the finish line.

He confessed to me that his dipping technic, new at the time, won him many a race during his career. Lee Evans was at two Olympic games, won two Olympic Gold medals and set two world records. These are rare feats at any time in the history of mankind! So, whats the problem?

Since retiring from track and field as an athlete Lee Evans has remained on the track, a journeyman of athletics, travelling around the world, particularly in Africa, teaching young people how to run.

Those who know him attest that he has been one of the best track and field coaches in the world! He has worked extensively in the USA for several universities, in East Africa, in the Middle East, and mostly in West Africa, including Nigeria!

Lee Evans has been a great ambassador of sport and a 'silent' worker for track and field.

I know not why he is not in the inaugural list of awardees for the Athletics Hall of Fame, but I know for sure that he deserves to be there even now. One day soon, he will surely be remembered and accorded his rightful place and honour in the world of track and field athletics!

Lee Evans is presently in Nigeria, recruited recently by the Lagos State government to reinforce its re-birth of the athletics tradition in the State.

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