Le Douleur Exquise

There’s an episode of Sex and The City – bear with me – where Carrie learns that Big is moving to Paris for a year. After an initial hissy fit, Carrie stocks up on French miscellany (mostly a beret and French fries) and decides to accompany Big to Paris, only to find that he is entirely ambivalent as to whether she comes to France or not. She realises that their future will never be, and she describes the pain she feels as “Le Douleur Exquise”.

For those who don’t obtain their cultural references from 90s TV boxsets, “le douleur exquise” is the French expression that describes the heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can’t have. And those who have watched Kevin Mayer’s tears in 2018 as he sought to express himself 100% might have thought his pursuit of greatness would lead him to le douleur exquise.

Our reactions to Kevin’s experience at the European Championships in Berlin spanned confusion, frustration and heartbreak. But as I write this, exactly one week after I sat in sunny Talence watching Kevin’s sensational world record unfold in front of me, joy replaces all of those emotions.

To live through a Kevin Mayer decathlon is to live a thousand decathlons.

I learned this week of Kevin’s nickname “Kéké La Braise” and I asked my French-speaking athletico chums what it meant. Twitter pal @Monkeycat57 explained that he is “like an ember” – la braise – bursting into flame and bringing his best in big competitions. And we know that a Mayer decathlon, or indeed heptathlon, is full of fire and emotion and pain and so much drama.

But, the curious thing about Kevin’s performance in Talence is that – relatively speaking – there was very little drama.

    100m, a wee 10.55 PB, no biggie.
    Long Jump, another PB, but this one at 7.80 was a long time coming.
    Shot put, the usual bam out to 16m.
    High jump, a solid 2.05.
    400m, steady 48.42.
    110mH, just outside his 2018 PB with 13.75.
    Discus, quality 50.54
    Pole Vault, Twitter athletico Robyn Brailey put it best: “Over 5 metres first time #phew #nodrama”
    Javelin: nearly 72m and my only individual FFS moment of the weekend (which you can enjoy here).
    1500m: a perfectly acceptable 4:36, when you’ve already scored 8421 from 9 events.

What was so jawdropping about this world record was how it was so…effortless. Not for a minute am I minimising the monumental physical and mental effort that goes into the decathlon, or this performance in particular. But remember Ashton Eaton in Beijing.

Remember Ashton reaching so deep for every one of those 6 points that took him past his previous score, and how utterly shattered he was physically in that 1500m, and emotionally at the end. Remember every rueful grin from Roman Sebrle in 2001 as he heaved himself to his 9026 world record in Gotzis, not quite believing that he was breaking new boundaries. In comparison, Kevin’s performance seemed so easy.

Unremarkable, if it were not so utterly remarkable. And while I’ll leave the stats for another day, he scored exactly 4563 points on each day. EVEN POINTS. Trey Hardee summed it up:

“9126, in what was beyond the most balanced decathlon in history. First time in history there were no flaws”.

No drama, but still so much drama. This moment feels like it has been coming forever. But Kevin is only 26. It’s only been 4 years since he entered this territory, as Hans Van Alphen remembers:

“In 2012 I remember Kevin Mayer shaking like a leaf entering the London Olympic Stadium and not performing well because of this. In 2016 I saw you excel scoring a huge PB, finishing second just after the amazing Ashton Eaton at the Rio Olympics. And look at you now…world record holder with a dazzling 9126 points.”

This record was France’s as much as it was Kevin’s. And while I’m sure it would have come somewhere else if not Talence, what a privilege it was to join the home crowd to watch this extraordinary moment in history unfold. One of the first on the scene to hug Kevin was Nicole Durand, who runs the Decastar event, and his brother made an emotional speech on the infield. Throughout the two days, coach Bertrand Valcin was never far from the track.

The other French decathletes set up the event for Kevin beautifully.  Florian Geffrouais, ever the clown, warmed up the crowd with his antics. Jeremy Lelievre, with his brisk 4:21 1500 PB, stayed a pace or two ahead of Kevin all the way around in the last event, giving him someone to hang onto and roaring him on as he kicked on the final lap. Bastien Auzeil proudly carried Kevin aloft on his shoulders when the effort was over. Teenage girls ran after Kevin, screaming, as he was driven around the track, standing tall through the sunroof of a Renault. And yes, I got a Mayer high-five on his victory lap.

We talked about this moment coming on the Trackcastic podcast, like many others, but never could have imagined that Ashton’s 9045 would recede so far into the sunset, and so soon. As recently as May 2016, I commented that Kevin was really wee for a decathlete, compared to the likes of Karpov, Helcelet and those other decathletes whose shoulders can be seen from the moon. I was quickly put right by Michelle Sammet who, having interviewed Kevin in an ice bath in 2014 in Ratingen, confirmed that he was no weakling.

The exquisite pain that accompanies Kevin Mayer, and those watching him compete, is over for now.  The next challenge, whether that be Olympic Gold in Tokyo or putting that world record out of reach for a decade or more (for, while Kevin expressed himself 100% in Talence, I don’t think that we have yet seen 100% Kevin) will no doubt bring more drama.

I’ll finish with an image taken by James Rhodes, who joined me in Talence after seeing the momentum build on Day 1. This was the exact moment Kevin later described “A ce moment, j’ai su”. At this moment, I knew. An exquisite moment, indeed.

Words: Gabby Pieraccini @smokymozzarella

Pictures: James Rhodes @James_athletics

In Praise of the Shot Put

By Ray Minchew – @rayminchew

It has been a really exciting year for athletics, with new young talent coming to the fore in multiple events – Noah Lyles and Christian Coleman, the entire USC 400m team, Mondo Duplantis and Timur Morgunov, Shelby Houlihan, more than I can remember honestly. The sport is absolutely packed with incredibly talented young people. And a lot of excitement has been focused on the men’s pole vault.

I mean, we’ve spent a LOT of time talking about pole vault, have we not? It seemed like the event to see, with Renauld and Sam’s bromance, Mondo calmly breaking his own U20 record every 47 minutes, what a year for the event, right? Really exciting competitions, the Euro Championships seeing things never done before, it’s almost like a YEAR OF THE POLE VAULT.

And then after Zurich, I was looking at the men’s shot put, because I’ve developed a habit of seeing what the big guys are doing, and saw that Tomas Walsh had thrown a diamond league record that wasn’t even his best throw of the year, to beat Darrell Hill throwing a massive 22.40 SB that wasn’t even his PB, with Ryan Crouser throwing 22.18 for third…and I thought wait a minute. Haven’t they been doing this all year? They’ve been trading 22m throws the whole season. Is that normal?

Let’s find out together.

Men's shot put over 22mI ran the numbers, and in short, no. This is not normal. In fact, we are experiencing the greatest era of shot put dominance in history. Last year we had 17 throws over 22m by 5 guys, this year 16 by 4 guys. Over the last three years we’ve seen a total of 43 throws over 22m by 6 men. The only thing coming even close to this is 1986-1988, when there were 38 throws by 7 men, and that is a lot of syringes being tossed around, my friends (apologies to the great Werner Günthör).

This has gone a bit under the radar as Walsh went berserk this year, but we also have possibly the most consistently great shot putter in history right now in Ryan Crouser – he’s gone over 22m 21 times in these last three years. The only people close to him are Christian Cantwell (who led the only other era of big shots, from 2002-2011, with the Cantwell/Hoffa/Reese/Nelson group), a doped up Ulf Timmerman, and Walsh, with 16, 15, and 13 performances respectively.

22 meters is a rare benchmark, but we are now seeing that it won’t even win you competitions. And there are multiple guys knocking at the door – Darlan Romani (21.94 PB) wants in the club, David Storl, Ryan Whiting and Joe Kovacs want back in…I’m sorry, but how has this gone so under the radar?

Let’s crunch some more numbers and do a comparison, okay?

I used 5.95m as a measurement to compare men’s pole vault – not because it’s a particular benchmark, but because 6m is too small of a dataset, and 5.95 has been done 129 times, similar to the 151 for 22m. Ready for a report out on our big pole vault year? We had five vaults over 5.95, by four different athletes. That’s it. Last year there were 2, both by Sam. This isn’t even in sniffing distance of the best vaulting era, with Bubka being joined by 10 other guys jumping just as high for a 9 year span. We forget he wasn’t just blowing everyone out. It was competitive. We don’t remember most of those other 10 guys, but can you name 10 today that you think capable of going 5.95?

How about a table to express the difference?

  Pole Vault (5.95m) Shot Put (22m)
Avg annual performances 3.91 3.43
2018 performances 5 16
 
Avg annual performers 1.91 2
2018 performers 4 4

This is pretty stark. Men’s pole vault is absolutely exciting to watch right now – very exciting – but the number of big jumps is just slightly above average. The shot put? It’s filled with 25 year olds absolutely destroying the ring at historic levels, and the competitive balance is as high as any event in the sport. I don’t want to disparage the pole vault because I’m genuinely pumped about the young talent and what they might do, but the throws get such little attention (hi there, hammer throwers!) despite doing some things that have simply never been seen.

And from a human element they’re just as much fun to watch as the vaulters. Want a bromance? Watch these guys brohug after throws. They scream, they’re excited, they’re over the top, and they are the best show in the field right now. I, for one, plan to be a big shot put fan in 2019, because I think we could see six or seven men get over 22m, and I think 23m is in play by multiple throwers. The hardest working agent in athletics agrees with me. Show the shot put some love.