06 AUG 2012 Feature London, UK

Tears for the Second Coming of Sanchez

Tears of Joy for the newly crowned Olympic champion Felix Sanchez (Getty Images)Tears of Joy for the newly crowned Olympic champion Felix Sanchez (Getty Images) © Copyright
London, UKWe, and Felix Sanchez have been here before; in more ways than one. The US-born and based Sanchez, who competes for the Dominican Republic was one of the world’s most dominant athletes in the early years of the century. It was no surprise when he won 400 metres Hurdles gold in Athens 2004 – the first for his country - since he had not been beaten for three years.

Sanchez hasn’t exactly been the forgotten man since then - he has been an ever present at the IAAF World Championships since 1999 - but a series of injuries over the past half dozen years have obscured those early achievements.

Well, Day Four of Athletics at London 2012 saw the Second Coming of Sanchez. Not only did he win his second Olympic gold, eight years after his first (emulating Glenn Davis, Ed Moses, and Angelo Taylor of the US, who finished fourth this time), but Sanchez ran exactly the same time in London as in Athens - 47.63.

Sanchez, 35 at the end of the month could not conceal his emotions at the victory ceremony shortly after his win. He dissolved into tears even before he stepped onto the rostrum. And he couldn’t stop sobbing, while receiving his medal and flowers, and while listening to the anthem.

But there was a special reason for those tears. Sanchez was brought up by his Spanish-speaking grandmother, Lilian Morcelo, and was very close to her. The day before his semi-final at the Olympic Games in Beijing four years ago, he got a message to say she had died aged 72.

"I cried all day," said Sanchez at the press conference (where he fielded questions in both Spanish and English). He admits he was far from fit; but on the start line, he raised his hand and had to compose himself before the race could start. He ran outside 50 seconds and was nowhere near qualifying for the Olympic final.

"But I made a promise that day, that if I could get fit again, I would win another medal before I retired. The closest I got was last year (World Champs), when I finished fourth. It was always my dream to get another medal; and it was gold.

"I dominated for so long, I was so dominant I felt invincible. And the guys who came afterwards, first there’d be one then another, but no one dominated, there was nobody like me. So I said to myself that if could overcome all the injuries and get fit again, I could run with those guys, and I could win again.

"When you’re a winner, you don’t want to come back and be average; it’s like Bolt, but then, if Bolt was in my event, I’d probably have retired by now. I was training hard, I knew I was training hard enough to run with these guys. I knew that if f I could just stay healthy, I could win again.

"I was surprised at my time in the semi, after that I knew I could win a medal. I’ve run a lot of races in 14 years, and I thought my time was around 48.2, so I couldn’t believe 47.7. I wasn’t happy with my lane draw, because after the semi, I wasn’t flying under the radar. I didn’t think 47.60 would win it, I was thinking more forty of fifty (47.40, 47.50), then to do the same time as in Athens seemed impossible.

"I had 'Abuela’ (grandmother in Spanish) written on my spikes, and I pinned my grandmother’s photo inside my number. They were tears of joy, after all the struggle to come back over eight years".

After the victory, Sanchez fell to his knees, took the photo from inside his number, laid it on the track and kissed it.

Sanchez brightened up athletics in his earlier heyday. During his 43-race winning streak, from 2001 to 2004, he ran wearing a red flashing wristband, a souvenir from the 2000 Olympics which, he said served as a motivation for him after failing to advance to the final in Sydney.

After winning the Olympic gold medal in Athens 2004, Sánchez gave the wristband to the IAAF for auction and the profits were donated to charity. In his first race after the Olympics - and his first race without the wristband - Sanchez injured his leg and had to abandon the race halfway through.

Well, he ran with another token tonight, his grandma’s picture and her name on his spikes. She brightened his life, and he burnished her memory.

After Sanchez won his first of two World titles (2001/3), the authorities back home in the Dominican Republic, where he splits his time between the family home and his US base of Los Angeles, named the road in from the airport at Santo Domingo 'Felix Sanchez Highway’. There is also Felix Sanchez Stadium.

After his second Olympic gold, they could always rename the capital city!

Pat Butcher for the IAAF