Mark Chambers wanted to be a champion. From when he had put on his first pair of trainers he knew that he was going to be the fastest person alive. Countless people had told him he couldn’t do it and that he should concentrate on his studies, but he was determined to prove them all wrong.
His time was almost at hand now, he was going to the Olympic Games in Beijing, Britain’s only representative in the one hundred metres sprint. The pressure was on him to perform and he could feel it pressing on him like a vice. The tabloids and the BBC were already hanging the gold medal around his neck and the question now seemed more not if he would win but how much he would win by. But Mark still felt creeping doubts in his mind, he feared the Americans, imagining them as a pack of hungry dogs that could not be outrun. Unlike the dogs however, if the athletes caught him they would pass him and continue. All the ripping and tearing would be done on the podium and back home in London. Te pressure felt a bit like being stuck in quicksand, the more you struggled with it the further you would sink into the vicious spiral.
‘Wow!’, was the only word Mark could think of upon entering the Olympic Stadium of the Republic. It was huge, spectacular and empty, for the time being. The Chinese had gone to great efforts to shun their reputation of cruelty and their bad human rights record. Judging by the crowds milling around outside their work was certainly paying off. But no, he couldn’t concentrate on minor things like that, he had a race to run and he had to be in the perfect frame of mind for it. If anything else crept into his head on the night then he would choke.
The opening ceremony of the games went uneventfully enough, nothing like the fiasco in Athens four years previously, Mark even found himself being able to enjoy some of the early events. He was still worried though, every second one hundred different thoughts flicked through his mind like pages of a grand novel. It felt as though he was cross-examining his own beliefs and ideals. Would he get sick? Would injury strike? How hard was qualification going to be? As pole-vaulters flew over the nearby bar these questions hovered around Mark’s head.
One question was put to rest the next morning as Mark qualified comfortably for the final. It was only a temporary high though, he knew that the shadows of doubt would soon begin to form over his head again and the inner voice would begin to fire questions,
“Were you in an easy heat?”
“No! Maurice Montgomery, the world champion, was in it and I beat him.”
“Maybe he was cruising?”
“I was controlling it.”
“Were you pushing too hard then?”
“Hey, I felt fine and I was slowing at the end.”
“Can you do it again?”
“I, I, I don’t know.”
So it went on like this for the whole of the next day.
The final would be in the evening at eight o clock and Mark wanted to be alone on that day to collect and shuffle his thoughts. When he woke up on that day he immediately felt the butterflies in his stomach flap, flutter and fly. The night before he had prayed and prayed to be victorious and he had a strong religious belief, but this could all collapse in the stadium. For the duration of the morning Mark stayed in his bedroom meditating; he couldn’t bear to watch the television or listen to the radio for fear of a mention of one of his opponents or any athletics in general for that matter.
He didn’t want to think about all that now, he just wanted to focus on doing what he did best; winning races. By concentrating on the images of what he enjoyed feeling the most he could remove the whirlwind of questions from his head. The sensation of the warm sun on his shoulders, the touch of sand, the eyes of his girlfriend, all these images comforted him and reassured him.
By lunchtime Mark’s tension was to beginning to build up inside him, a pot of water being brought to the boil. But this was vital and he knew it. Tension induces adrenaline and this would give him the lightning reactions needed to judge the starter’s pistol. A simple meal was served to him and he ate it slowly, contemplating with every chew. Eat it with too much haste and he might be sick, eat it too slowly and it could precipitate a stitch.
It was five o clock when Mark decided to jog down to the stadium. Only three hours and ten seconds, he thought, and everything will be over. If he seemed unfriendly to the people greeting him as he made his way to the track then it was only because his mind had started to enter lock-down mode, shielding out everything that was not necessary to him winning the race. Several thoughts penetrated this barrier and struck Mark ringing blows. A picture flashed past his mind of an athlete like him falling on the line and losing, another sprang forth, like a mechanical glitch, of the same athlete making too many false starts. Several other images also bombarded him, seeming like the few boulders that precipitate a landslide.
They evoked sensations of embarrassment and loss deep inside him and clang on to the back of his mind like devilish little imps. Mark shuddered but flicked these thoughts and feelings aside, imaging he was a sprinting David throwing stones at a Goliath and banishing the demons to oblivion. It all seemed to much, he could still walk away from this he thought, but no that would be denying his whole life and his ambitions and he could never live with that.
“And now ladies and gentlemen, in lane four, is the British and European champion Mark Chambers.”
The voice of the announcer rang out across the Olympic Stadium and was greeted by a rapturous and sustained flow of clapping and cheering. The arena was packed with people of all ages and races, who, although differing diversely in culture and beliefs, all had one thing in common. They had all been drawn, under the starry night’s sky, to watch the final of the blue ribbon event of the Olympic Games, the be-all and end-all .
They wanted to feel the excitement and the tension the athletes went through and encourage them to do their best. Horns honked, whistles blew and cameras flashed all around, like a million bright sparks of light. Somewhere in the distance a band started to strike up a powerful tune and even further beyond echoes of the city’s busy highways could be heard. Back in the stadium the race officials were eyeing up the competitors and checking everything thing was accurate and exact. They were nodding at each other and waiting for the all-clear signal. As the starter began to load his pistol all of the non-essential personal drifted away from the track. A voice from the commentary box requested the spectators to quieten down for the start.
Mark didn’t notice any of this though, he couldn’t now, all he could think about was the race. He was breaking it down into the different stages and mentally rehearsing each one, just as a high jumper or even a formula one driver would do. Good start, good rise, extend the stride, dip through the line, that would be all he would need to be successful. His goal was a mere one hundred metres away, so near and easy to reach but so difficult and challenging to get to. He closed his eyes and visualised the race again, shifting his head to look straight down the track. They were open now and all he could see was a tunnel of light, a yellow brick road to the end of the rainbow. To him the rest of the world was still and quiet now, he was ready, it was time to race.
“Take your marks”, commanded the starter.
Mark knelt down, barely hearing the words, he flexed the tree trunks that were his quadriceps and placed the tips of his fingers on the thin white line, all that separated him from the edge. His world suddenly seemed to go into slow motion, he was aware of the starter saying ‘Set’ and felt himself rise with the other runners in a wave of seamless motion. The wait seemed to last forever, and then a sound, a loud sound, it was the bang. ‘Go, go, go’, screamed the voice in Mark’s head. He went. He felt nothing but the pattern of running, leaving his blocks perfectly and rising at forty metres out. ‘Let your legs come down further’, said the voice. ‘Pump those arms, force the knees through’.
With those words echoing around him Mark dipped through the line and it was over. He could still hear the bang in his head and then he felt the race and saw it fly through his mind all over again. Then the message finally broke through his armour, he had won it! Now the stadium was back in view again and his body finally gave in to the effects of all out anaerobic respiration. Panting hard, Mark acknowledged the crowd with a small wave and smiled for the cameras. But still inside him he could hear the voice, except this time it seemed more warm, friendly and assuring,
‘Where does the power come from to see the race through to its end; from within’.