Monday, July 9, 2007

Paul's September adventures on the European track circuit...

NOTE: This was an article originally written for Northwest Runner, but never published last November on the final two major meets in Europe, the IAAF World Athletics Final in Stuttgart, and the IAAF World Cup in Athens. With the 2007 European track and field circuit well underway, I thought I'd give you a personal perspective of the traveling circus and the nomadic lifestyle that the athletes, agents, coaches, families, and media go through. Please enjoy!

As mentioned in the October 2006 Northwest Runner, I promised to give you a taste of life touring the European track and field circuit.

Writing a diary was the best way to communicate the highlights of my trip from Seattle to Stuttgart, Germany for the IAAF World Athletics Final on September 9-10, and to Athens, Greece the following weekend for the IAAF World Cup.

September 6th-7th (Leaving Seattle)—When it comes to packing, I use the Boy Scouts motto—be prepared. Unfortunately, that conflicts with local resident and world travel expert Rick Steves’ motto of ‘travel light’.

After trying to stuff everything, including running gear, and business casual wear (sportcoat, dress shirt, dress shoes, etc.) in one bag, I end up checking in two bags, one of which is full of gifts for my host family in Athens

I carry on my backpack, which has my laptop and office supplies, and a rolling overhead bag which contains two cameras, an iPod, two big track and field research books, a tape recorder, blank CDs, European electrical socket plugs, two unlocked cell phones, and two days’ worth of clothes, including running gear, in case the airline loses my bags.

The trip to Athens from Seattle via Atlanta was uneventful, other than the fact I intentionally stayed awake the night before leaving to get my body used to European time, and to sleep on the plane. I did get some rest, and felt good as I landed in Athens close to lunchtime on the 7th.

My first day in Athens was spent hanging out with members of Team USA’s support staff at the President Hotel, as we scouted venues for the athletes to check out when they begin arriving on the 11th. We find a Starbucks within a few blocks that has wi-fi at a reasonable price for the athletes who wish to log online.

I take a cab from the President Hotel to the home of Maya Barlos and her husband Dimitris Stagakis in the Pagrati district. I first met Maya nine years ago while covering the World Championships when she helped me with an internet connection issue with my laptop in the press room that needed translation from English to Greek. Ever since, she and I have been friends, and I’ve stayed at their home every time I’ve visited Athens, including the 2004 Olympics.

After the hugs and unpacking of gifts for them and their two children, Stefanos and Mirsinni, I am greeted with a shot of ouzo, a potent and clear licorice-tasting Greek alcoholic drink. After dinner with our mutual friend Julie, a few sips of ouzo, plus a long 1 1/2 days of travel contribute to an early evening, with a 3 am wakeup call.

September 8—Just as quickly as I arrive in Greece, it’s time to go to Stuttgart for the World Athletics Final. I pre-packed in Seattle everything I need for the German leg of the trip, and leave what I don’t need in Athens.

I am still groggy from the last two days, and sleep from Athens to Frankfurt. On the connecting flight from Frankfurt to Stuttgart, I am seated next to Renaldo Nehemiah, the former world record holder in the 110 hurdles, and now a prominent track agent, whose most visible client is Olympic 100 meter champion Justin Gatlin, who faces a suspension for excessive testosterone.

In between my questions about Gatlin, the business end of the sport, and Renaldo’s revelation that former Rainier Beach HS standout Ginnie Powell is now a Nehemiah client, I asked him how he was holding up with the intense scrutiny and media attention. “As well as I can,” he said.

After checking into my hotel and waiting for my roommate, photojournalist Randy Miyazaki from trackandfieldphoto.com, to check in, it’s time to go to work. We go to the Gottlieb Daimlerstadion to pick up credentials, check out the venue, listen in to the pre-meet press conference, check out the internet connection in the media workroom, and network with other journalists.

As one of the few American reporters covering the World Athletics Final, the questions about Marion Jones began, with the announcement a few days earlier that her ‘B’ sample for EPO tested negative, and that she was eligible to compete. My answer to those who asked about Marion was, “You know as much as I do from reading online.”

September 9—My morning starts with a three-mile run. I realize how much of a slug I am as I witness a group of female Russian middle distance runners zip by like I was standing still.

As I walk from our hotel to the athlete’s hotel to catch the bus to the stadium, I am pleasantly surprised at the 20 or so fans gathered outside the entrance hoping to gather autographs from their favorite stars. The fans in Europe certainly have a greater appreciation of the sport and its stars.

In addition to writing the story that published in the October issue, I am also helping USA Track & Field by gathering quotes for their web site and news releases, and shooting photos for Club Northwest member Becca Gillespy’s web site, polevaultpower.com.

Seattle’s Brad Walker picked a bad day to have a bad day. Brad finished seventh, jumping 18-6 1/2. To compound matters, Paul Burgess’ victory at the WAF leapfrogs the Aussie into number one on the IAAF’s world rankings list, a position Walker occupied for more than a year.

Jarred Rome, the 6-4, 300-pound discus behemoth from Marysville, managed a smile after finishing fifth, throwing 206-0, behind winner Virgiljus Alekna of Lithuania (225-2), and training partner and former WSU Cougar Ian Waltz, who placed one spot ahead of Rome at 206-6.

“To get fifth today is something I'm happy about. I really wanted to get on the podium. That was really my goal today-to get third here. The guys who were first and second are so far ahead of the rest of the world. I can't be too disappointed about getting fifth place against the best in the world. This has been the best year of my life.”

“I can’t wait to go home to Seattle and see my family and friends and go watch some football,” he confided after the end of the interview.

Just for pure fan reaction, the top event today was Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang’s victory in a stunning time of 12.93, coming close to his world record of 12.88. I could’ve sworn there were at least 1000 Chinese folks in the stands among the 30000 today! And, it was a madhouse in the mixed zone, with the media and fans waiting to talk to and get a glimpse of the Olympic champion, who is the second most popular athlete in his country next to basketball star Yao Ming.

September 10—After my early morning run, where I see a group of Kenyan runners make a shakedown run at 6-minute pace look so effortless, I catch the subway to have breakfast with my friend and Stuttgart resident Silvia Reischl, whom I met thirteen years ago when covering the 1993 World Championships.

We caught up on each other’s lives, and took a walk through the middle of Stuttgart’s town square, when a 5-k road race broke out.

The WAF host committee organized a road race from the town square to the Daimlerstadion with free attendance to the meet for all entrants. From quickly eyeballing the crowd, there were about a thousand or so runners enjoying the sunshine while running through the streets of Stuttgart.

The normally cheery Aretha Thurmond from Federal Way finished fifth in the discus, throwing a sub-par 198-10. Her only comment to me as she left the track was a short “it sucked”. We ended up having a pleasant conversation afterwards at the post-meet party after things calmed down.

Tyson Gay’s performance over 200 meters was the highlight of the meet, where he powered to a time of 19.68, making him one of the world’s top combination 100-200 meter sprinters.

While gathering quotes from Tyson in the press area, I was informed by another journalist of Canadian 5000-meter runner Emilie Mondor’s death the day before in a car accident. Needless to say, I worked the rest of the meet in a bit of a funk.


The Marion Jones saga reared its ugly head while I interviewed former WSU star Bernard Lagat (above) after his second place finish in the 1500. After talking to him about his race, a French reporter asked for his reaction to the news that Jones had been exonerated in the same manner that Lagat did in late 2003 for EPO. As politely as he could, he answered with a no comment.

Even world-class runners lose their lunch after a hard race. While waiting to interview 400 hurdler Bershawn Jackson, I witnessed at least three other runners go behind the curtain separating the athletes from the mixed zone to throw up.

At any IAAF event, there’s always a post race dinner, followed by dancing that the local organizing committee hosts for the athletes, media, officials and volunteers. Don’t try a backflip on the dance floor after a few drinks, like an African sprinter attempted. The poor guy ended up hitting his head, and left the dance floor bleeding.

Before I go to bed, I call my friend Heather in Seattle to find out what happened to the Seattle Seahawks in the season opener against the Detroit Lions, and also get early NFL scores. The Seahawks won in Detroit, but it was ugly!

September 11—Write the story for the October issue in the Stuttgart airport after an unsuccessful attempt to switch my ticket for an earlier flight back to Athens, and catch up on e-mail, and football scores. Today’s celebrity sighting on my connecting flight from Stuttgart to Munich is 2004 Olympic hammer gold medalist Koji Murafushi from Japan.

I sleep for most of the flight from Munich to Athens, then crash into bed at Maya’s house just past midnight.

September 12—Planned to take it easy after my trip to Germany; however, I placed a phone call shortly before noon to the Athens local organizing committee to ask about the status of my credentials for this weekend’s World Cup.

Marianna Grigoraki, who’s handling credentials, answers with a “We’re having a press conference with Greek stars Fani Halkia (400 hurdles Olympic gold medalist) and Periklis Iakovakis (400 hurdles) in 15 minutes at the Divani Caravel Hotel. Can you make it?"

As the Divani Caravel is a 20-minute walk from the house, I hoof it with laptop and camera in my backpack. Walk into a crowded room where I listened to the two athletes promote the meet, not understanding a single word.

Once again, the Marion Jones saga crept in, as several Greek reporters (my USA Track & Field backpack gave me away, not to mention that I was the only foreigner attending the press conference) asked me about her. They all got the same answer I gave in Stuttgart.

After the press conference, I use the hotel’s wi-fi, then went home and ran to the Panathinaiko Stadium (site of the 1896 Olympics and finish of the marathon), through the national garden, and on to Syntagma Square (which I describe in the October 2004 issue). Despite the narrow roads, smog, and runner-unfriendly traffic, it’s still one of my all-time favorite runs. My only disappointment is that the stadium track is now closed to the public.

September 13—Time to play tourist! Walk from the house, through the national garden and the Parliament Building, through Syntagma Square and the Plaka, up the hill to the Acropolis (after a stop at Starbuck’s, where I run into a University of Washington student studying in Athens). While walking, I really gained an appreciation for the culture and the pulse of the city.



I’ve visited Athens six times, and never get tired of touring the grounds of the Acropolis. End up tagging along with several members of Team USA, including 5000-meter runner Lauren Fleshman, a former winner of the Seattle Open Cross Country Classic. I had my photo taken with my lucky football, which always travels with me overseas.

It was my intent to walk back home from the Acropolis. However, a few wrong turns on some side streets changed everything, and I ended up taking the subway and bus home.

September 14—With the meet only two days away, it’s time to slowly get into work mode, but not after a stroll around Omonia Square and some window shopping after ordering a latte at Starbuck’s.

One of the legacies of the Olympics is the city’s subway system, which I’ve found to be among the most efficient. I use the subway to go from Omonia Square to Iraklio station, the stop for Olympic Stadium. I feel like I’ve never left Athens after the Olympics.

After getting my credential photo taken, I walk around the stadium and check out the work area, and the mixed zone, where most post-race interviews are conducted. The wireless internet system used during the Olympics is still in place…no complaints!

Walk from the Olympic Stadium to OTE, the Greek telecommunications company’s headquarters, where I meet Maya for lunch. The rest of the day is uneventful, as I skip my run, feeling sore from all the walking the day before.

September 15—Back at the stadium to do some work, and to meet Ken Nakamura, a Bay Area writer who specializes in the marathon. We check out the practice track adjacent to the stadium. We run into Ginnie Powell, the former Rainier Beach standout, who’s finishing up practice, along with her father, Lester. We then return to the stadium through the tunnel connecting the practice track. I imagined what the heroes of the 2004 Olympics thought as they made that final walk from the warmup track to the stadium.

I run into Club Northwest founder Bill Roe, who is attending the meet in his role as USATF president, and ex-Washington State coach John Chaplin at the pre-meet press conference at the Divani Caravel. After the press conference, Marianna hands me a few tickets for the meet.

A few hours later, Bill and I reconvene at the Divani Caravel and take a cab to Team USA’s hotel for a team meeting, where Aretha Thurmond was named women’s team captain. After the meeting, Bill helps me get more tickets to the meet for my host family from the team staff, and we walk back to his hotel. With the way I’ve talked to him about my six trips to Greece in nine years, he said, “Greece is to you what New Zealand is to me.” He’s dead on with that observation!

September 16—Finally, it’s time to see some racing! However, the first order of business is a return to the President Hotel to shoot the team photo.

The World Cup is the closest thing to the team competitions we’ve grown accustomed to in the United States. The United States, Russia, and Greece are the only countries with full men’s and women’s teams, while Poland (women), and France (men) have squads entered based on their finish at the European Cup earlier this summer. The rest of the nine teams in the World Cup are all-star teams representing Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. All events are finals, with each team allowed only one entrant per event.

Captain Aretha Thurmond got Team USA off to a good start with her second place finish in the discus, throwing 202-10. Afterwards, the former Husky told reporters, "I knew that I could throw farther because I felt really good today, but I had some problems with my technique. But, it is fine for me and I am very satisfied with my performance here in the World Cup. It was an amazing crowd!"

The performance of the first night belonged to Sanya Richards, who crushed the 22-year old American record in the 400 meters, running 48.70, eclipsing the mark of 48.83 set by Valerie Brisco-Hooks at the Los Angeles Olympics.

My personal highlight was getting a red vest issued to shoot photos from the infield, a first after covering international meets for this magazine since 1991. My efforts as a photographer are rewarded, as I shoot the men’s 5000 and 100, along with the women’s 400 and pole vault from inside the track (NOTE: My photo album from the World Cup can be accessed at paulmerca.shutterfly.com).

After my hour on the track, I help USATF communications director Jill Geer compile quotes from the mixed zone for her story. We are among the last to leave Olympic Stadium, and I end up riding on the last media shuttle home with The Running Network’s Larry Eder and veteran track writer Jim Dunaway, who’s covered this sport since the 1950s.

September 17—Before the meet started, I had a conversation with Thomas Tsilkos, a prominent Greek sports writer and radio/TV personality, whom I’ve affectionately called the ‘hardest working man in Greek track and field’. We talked about the legacy of the 2004 Olympics, and discussed why many of the venues from the Olympics have gone unused.

He explained that an organization to find usage for Olympic venues was set up late, a fact confirmed in a der Spiegel article published the week after the World Cup. He also explained that the costs of renting facilities was prohibitive for most local sports clubs.



In the first track event, Ginnie Powell, the Rainier Beach graduate, clipped a hurdle, and was unable to recover, finishing third in 12.90, well off her season best. It’s safe to say that the long college season’s finally caught up to her.

"I just didn't get that good of a start. The gun was very fast. I clipped a hurdle because I tried so hard to get back into the race."

The long season also caught up to Ian Waltz, as the ex-Cougar threw the discus 203-10 for a third place finish and seven points for Team USA. He expressed his disappointment, lamenting that he threw ten feet further at Olympic Stadium two months earlier.

Seattle’s Rob Minnitti, a last-minute addition to Team USA, finished seventh in the javelin, managing a throw of 240-10. Minnitti was upbeat, noting that 2006 was the first full season that he’s competed injury-free in the last three years.

Even while setting a World Cup record for most individual wins with eight, Team USA’s men’s squad finished second behind Europe 140-136, while the women finished fourth with 101.5 points.


Here I am at the farewell dinner with (from left) writer Javier Clavelo from Cuba, Anna Legnani from the IAAF staff, a guy behind me who I don't know, Marianna Grigoraki from the Athens LOC, and two others I don't know (hey, when you're in Greece, you go with the flow!)

Alas, all good things must come to an end. After the hugs and goodbyes to athletes, journalists, IAAF and local organizing committee staff and volunteers at the farewell dinner at the Divani Caravel, I shed a few tears as the DJ played the Greek folk song “Horos Tou Zorba (Zorba’s Dance)” from “Zorba the Greek”, and shed a few more on the walk from the hotel to Maya’s home.

The following morning, a bite of baklava coupled with Greek coffee on a sunny day in Athens made for a perfect ending to my European adventure and the conclusion of the 2006 elite track and field season.

No comments:

Blog Archive