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Living to run

THE WEDNESDAY COLUMN

2001-04-11

by Heinz Florian Oertel (73), more than 40 years sport correspondent for East German TV and radio, reporter at 17 Olympic Games, 8 Football World Championships and other big sporting events

Living to run? Yes! Because running means living. And quite honestly, running is a method of survival! Anyone who thinks that is going a bit too far only needs to take the advice of some important people from the past. To name just two: Goethes theory in "Reineke Fuchs", that "Running is better than being lazy", and Herder in his "Palmenblättern", more than 200 years ago: "Somebody who never runs will never reach his goal".

As a lifelong admirer of long-distance running, it is not difficult for me to quote such principles. Of course, I am not prejudiced in any way, more "enlightened", since I came to these conclusions the long way round - from ardent admirer, though purely platonically, to realist. Kolehmainen, Nurmi, Zatopek and many others helped me on my way. And this is a way of thanking them.

In 1952 I was sitting in the stands at the Olympics in Helsinki. I was numbed by everything I saw. But it was the long-distance running that really shook me. I will never forget Emil Zatopeks triple victory. As a reporter, I tried to describe the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races, and then his glorious victory in the marathon. Later, whenever I heard my commentary, I was ashamed. Compared to the fighting spirit and skills of Zatopek, Mimoun, Chataway, Schade, Anufriew ... my words seemed lamentable. Later still I heard that even a reporter like Rolf Warnicke, who was commentator at the 1936 Olympic Games, had problems to describe what he was seeing. Oh well.

I have never forgotten the experience of Helsinki. Nor the interviews I had with the Finns Hannes Kolehmainen and Paovo Nurmi. Both of them were chosen to light the Olympic Flame in the stadium and that encouraged me to recapitulate on their experiences in long-distance running. Kolehmainen was a competitor already at the Stockholm Games in 1912 where he won a medal, and he was still there - or back again - in 1920 in Antwerp, when Nurmi began his fantastic career. Enough - I could fill a whole article just with their story.

I saw Emil Zatopek again in Melbourne in 1956. But the new long-distance star dominating those games was Wladimir Kuz. He had learnt from Emils torturous training programme and will to win, and he gave other great names such as Pirie and Kovacs no chance. Emils 6th place in the marathon marked the end of ten magnificent years in competitive sport. I often saw him again later - in Prague, his home town, in Berlin, at various other races here and there, where he was constantly at the start as guest of honour and fascinated so many people with his love of life and very special humour, right up until his death in 2000. It is to him, above all, that I owe the step I took from passive admirer to participant. At school I hated any races longer than one lap of the stadium: 1,000 metres was obligatory, and I ran it in about 3.20 min., which was really not a fantastic time for a 16-year-old. And later, during the dreadful wartime, I once had to run 3,000 m. In the barracks I learnt to cheat. Every time half the company had turned the curve, four or five of us dropped out exhausted and waited behind a bush to join in again the next lap. In this way I managed just about 2,000 metres, but in a surprisingly good time ... but thats all in the past.

Emils gasps, Schades relative elegance, Piries ascetic style, and ..... all of these helped me much later to finally attempt long-distance running myself. From commentator to active participant. That gave me a different perspective as reporter, and finally also a new and better quality of life. Consequently I owe my luck to all the "matadors" I was lucky enough to get to know.

One of those who helped me was Hans Grodotzki. Born in Thüringen, he has lived the past 45 years in Potsdam, and on 4.4.2001 celebrated his 65th birthday - reason enough to congratulate him and to say thank-you. His silver medals in Rome in 1960, where he was second to Halberg over 5,000 m and to Bolotnikow over 10,000 m, drove me as a reporter into ecstasy! Hans achieved the best result ever for a German long-distance runner, after Schades third place in Helsinki. His style was exemplary. Best of all, he has always remained modest.

I could name many more. From Bikila Abebe and Lasse Viren to Waldemar Cierpinski, Katrin Dörre and Jörg Peter. I admire them all. And now, before the next BERLIN-MARATHON is the right time to tell this story. Because it has been proved over and over again: The BERLIN-MARATHON has become one of the best running events in the world. Even though the world of runners has changed - not always for the best - in past years since Helsinki, Melbourne and Rome. Money has become the top drug and doping a suicidal disease. But sport as a whole and long-distance running will survive. Events like Berlin prove this.

Every running event brings people closer together and will hopefully always continue to do so. In 1990 after the Wall came down, there was a record-breaking field in Berlin. I was lucky enough to be part of this experience, in a joint radio transmission by SFB and Berliner Rundfunk who I worked for for more than 40 years. This was one of the most unforgettable moments in my private and running life.

Dr. Heinz Florian Oertel


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