On Sunday 20 November, more than 3500 runners took part in the annual Kondius Berliner Marathon-Staffel, a marathon relay competition run mainly on woodland paths, an event staged by SCC-Running who are also responsible for the Berlin Marathon.
Nothing remarkable in that you might think, except that standing on the top of the medal podium after anchoring his ‘Team 2008’ to victory was a 48-year-old man, who 27 years previously had taken a sensational triumph on the track at the 1978 European Championships in Prague.
Olaf Beyer is still running strong two years away from his 50th birthday. The former East German caused a major upset in 1978 beating both the English middle distance greats Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe to the continental championship 800 metres final.
Middle distance prospects
There were another couple of remarkable facts about Beyer’s winning marathon relay team last month. None of the other four runners who belong to his training group based in Potsdam near Berlin are long distance runners either, all concentrating like the former European champion on the middle distances. Additionally among them was a woman, their squad competing against ‘men only’ teams which took the next places. Steffen Berger (12km), Sascha Stephan (10km), Juliane Becker (5km), Patrick Schulz (10km) and Olaf Beyer (5.195km) covered the marathon distance on trails of a Berlin forest in 2:22:51 hours. Beyer clocked 17:33 minutes for the final part of the race.
Since Beyer’s athletes run for different clubs, the name of the squad is ‘Team 2008’ (www.team2008.de). “When Steffen Berger and Juliane Becker joined recently I thought we could go for the relay,” confirmed Beyer. He put in some quality training himself, “because I wanted to be on the top of the podium again. It was ten years ago when I was last running in a winning team here. That was when I competed for SCC Berlin.” In 1995 his team of SCC Berlin broke the course record of the event. Their 2:12:22 performance still stands as a record today.
“It is no coincidence that 2008 is involved in our team’s name today. Looking at the ages of my athletes the Olympics in 2008 would suit them, we will give it a try!”
A fit family too
Among Beyer’s team of seven athletes is his son Stefan, who in contrast to the others is a 400m runner. The 23-year-old has a personal best of 47.02, and has already won a couple of regional championships on junior level. “I am sure that he can improve otherwise I would not recommend him investing so much time in training”, said Beyer. His daughter used to do pole vaulting but since she started studying medicine there was not enough time left for the sport.
Reminiscences of Prague
Looking back to 1978 it is interesting to hear what Beyer’s former coach Bernd Dießner says: “Olaf was in superb form that year, he was a great talent. Before Prague we were training in high altitude at the Belmekken in Bulgaria. There he had run 600m in 75.4 seconds and after a break of 15 minutes he ran another 400 m in 47.6. I knew if he would run tactically clever he would have a chance to win.”
“I had expected that Coe and Ovett would somehow tear each other apart in that final so I told him to stay behind them. And Olaf was a tactically very clever runner. It was all happening as expected.”
“Right after the race Olaf simply went out through the tunnel, which I did not understand, but it was typically of Olaf. He is a very shy person and he would never have liked the idea of being celebrated. So he simply went through that tunnel and I later asked him: Why did you do this, why did you not run a lap of honour – you should have done so.”
“Sebastian Coe was an idol for me. I would never have imagined that I would be able to beat him,” Beyer says. He much regrets that there was never a chance to speak to Seb Coe or to Steve Ovett. It was not allowed for athletes of the GDR to make contact to western athletes. “Additionally I could not speak English.” But somehow until today there was no opportunity for a meeting.
Injury and then a teaching career
It was soon after Prague,that Beyer ruined his career by playing football and picking up a foot injury. Elite athletes in the GDR were not allowed to play football for such reasons. So he tried to hide the injury. It was autumn and Bernd Dießner was away for a seminar. “Finally he had to have an operation in January 1979 because of a laceration of a capsule – but it was far too late. The cartilage was damaged. Because of that we were never able to have training sessions as intense as before Prague again. It was a pity because of his huge talent,” Dießner recalls.
In 1985 Olaf Beyer ended his career and concentrated on his studies. Today he is a teacher of mathematics, physics and computer science at a grammar school in Potsdam. But he could not imagine a life without running. The sport belongs to his daily life. It is similar with his father. “My father, who was a middle distance runner himself, had brought me to the sport. Today he is in his seventies and still running every day.”
Still competing on the track
Beyer still competes regularly for his club Potsdamer LC. Two years ago he had a season’s best of 2:50 minutes at 1000 metres. And he did not get slower in the last few years. In contrast in the past season Olaf Beyer covered the distance in 2:44 minutes. Only very few of his pupils will ever achieve such a time.
Jörg Wenig for the IAAF