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 should we minimise 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. 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 my friend Michelle 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

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