The 100 Metres has long been regarded as the most watched and eagerly anticipated event at the Olympic Games and it also finds a home as my favourite sporting memory, amongst many, from the pinnacle of athletic endeavour.
In 1980 the games were held in Moscow against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan and the subsequent protest withdrawal of some 65 countries, (not all for the same reason, a few withdrew for economic reasons) headed by the United States team on the orders of American President Jimmy Carter.
Some might say that the achievements of Edinburgh born Allan Wells in 1980 were overshadowed by these events. The fact that he won gold that year was not a fair representation of the world of athletics that year as teams from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, West Germany and many others were not there to challenge Wells in his moment of glory.
I was nine years old when Allan Wells took the gold in Moscow. It was the first time I could remember watching a particular event during the Olympics. The fascination of seeing the games staged in the near mystical eastern block for the first times not only grabbed the attention of young lad in Selly Park, Birmingham but seemingly everyone I spoke to or overheard talking to my mother. The excitement and the sheer volume of news that came through the television sets would make it required watching. Of course I didn’t watch it all, there was football to play down the old potato fields, but it was the athletics really caught my young imagination.
The near clash of the titans in the 800 and 1500 metres between man of the people Steve Ovett and Loughborough University educated Sebastian Coe were races that captivated the nation and the emergence of Daley Thompson as the world’s best decathlete, a feat he would repeat four years later in Los Angeles, would come close to stealing my heart. However the sight of Allan Wells sprinting his heart out through the heats alongside fellow British 100 metre runner Cameron Sharp that ultimately is my greatest over-riding memory of the Olympic Games.
Allan Wells easily won both early heats, the qualifier and the quarter finals, in times that may look pedestrian-like today but at the time were outstanding. Cameron Sharp would go out of the games at the semi-final stage whilst Allan Wells would make the final coming first in his heat but also in a better time than the man thought to be his real rival for the gold, the outstanding Cuban, Silvio Leonard.
I had almost forgotten the final was on the day of the 25th July, after all I was nine and had the attention span of a squirrel. However, as if by good fortune, my best mate and I had gone over the road to the local shop ran by Mrs Marriott to buy ice cream. The hot summer’s British day seemed a million miles away, both physically and politically. As we piled into the shop, Mrs Marriot was watching her small ten inch black and white television with an eagerness I had never ever seen her display whilst serving our age group with ice cream. Her gruff voice informed us we would have to wait for a few minutes and despite our protests she continued to watch the screen. My friend hit me and reminded me it was the final of the 100 metres. I don’t remember too much of the build-up to the race, I’m not even sure it had been sunny. All time had been lost in the time it takes to read a sentence in a book.
What I remember most is as the two men had both virtually destroyed the opposing field but were seemingly unable to shake each other off. All of a sudden Allan Wells leaned as he neared the finishing line. In an act of sheer brilliance he had won the Olympic 100 metre final, not by the matter of milliseconds, not because he was the most outstanding participant, (although arguably he was) but because in a world that was always on the verge of nuclear destruction, he had for want of a better term, used his head. In the record books it says both men finished in an impressive 10.25 seconds, for everyone watching television in Britain and those fortunate enough to be in the Grand Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium, he won by three inches. The closest final ever and one that still gives me chills when I think back to it.
Other sporting achievements and controversies have held my attention in the Games since then. The disgrace of Canadian Ben Johnson caught cheating in 1988, the magnificent Carl Lewis breaking record after record, Mary Decker and Zola Budd clashing in the 3000 metre final in 1984, the sight of brave Derek Redmond being helped to the finish line in Barcelona and although I am not a fan of boxing, the sight of
Muhammad Ali fighting back tears and pride as he held the Olympic flame aloft in 1996 have all proved to me that the Olympics are worth preserving and worth keeping clean.
All these other sights would have not meant the same thing if I hadn’t seen Alan Wells use his head to win gold, a true great of the Olympics and is up there with Eric Liddell as the greats of Scottish athletics.
Ian D. Hall