On many levels, Thursday’s final of the 200 metres was certainly not the farewell race that Frank Fredericks had envisioned.
The 36-year-old Namibian finished a distant fourth behind an American podium sweep, clocking a season’s best 20.14, in a race overshadowed by the disruptive shouts, boos and whistles of protests by the capacity crowd at the Olympic Stadium. While his presence did not ultimately affect the race for the podium, it did, like so many times during his illustrious career, nonetheless make a significant impact.
Befitting one of the most popular and respected athletes the world has known over the last two decades, it was the Namibian who ultimately helped quiet the vocally upset Olympic stadium crowd. That universal and widely-acknowledged is the respect for the four-time Olympic medallist.
“It was very difficult for me to hear the starter because I was so close to the crowd,” said Fredericks, who was lined up in lane eight. He motioned to the crowd, asking them to quiet down. With his calming presence slowly spreading through the stadium, his pleas were heeded.
“I can understand that they were upset,” he said. “But it was not the fault of the athletes getting ready to run the race. I was glad they finally quieted.”
Fredericks, whose 19.68 silver medal-winning dash behind Michael Johnson’s legendary 19.32 ranks him as the second fastest ever over the distance, said he didn’t find the situation upsetting, but admitted it was draining. “I just used too much energy -- Especially in an Olympic final-- trying to concentrate and to stay focused.”
But ultimately, the 36-year-old just didn’t have the energy to compete against the new generation of sprinters, led by Shawn Crawford’s 19.79 world leading performance.
“Of course I was hoping for a medal,” he said. “I knew Shawn and Justin [Gatlin] were going to be tough. The question was Bernard [Williams]. He was up and down this season, but he just ran great.”
Williams won the silver in 20.01, just ahead of Gatlin’s 20.03.
Fredericks acknowledged that time had eventually caught up. “For me to get a medal, I would have had to run nearly as well as I did eight years ago. At this point,” he said, “that’s asking a lot.”
He certainly came to Athens prepared for a standout showing. In the opening round of the 100 metres, he ran an extremely comfortable 10.12 win in his heat, the fastest short dash he produced in more than a year. He cruised to a 10.17 in the second round, but just missed advancing to the semi finals. He bounced right back in the half lap with a 20.20 season’s best in the second round and an easy 20.43 win in his semi, before finishing just out of the medals in the final.
Fans around the world will certainly miss him, and the performances that led to back-to-back sprint double silver medal Olympic performances in 1992 and 1996, four World Championships silver medals, Commonwealth and World indoor championship titles. But it was more than just medal winning performances and competitive statistics - many formidable - that added to the Fredericks aura. Simply put, he was the international “gentleman” of the sport, setting the bar that others after him are trying to achieve very high indeed. Athletes will miss him too.
“He was always a man I admired and looked up to,” Crawford said. Silver medallist Bernard Williams said he hugged him after the race, and thanked him for everything he had contributed to the sport. Athens double sprint medallist Justin Gatlin said, “I was honoured to be in the same race Olympic race with him.”
Though he’s finally going to leave the rigours of training behind, he’s not by any means leaving the sport. Already a member of the IAAF Athletes Commission, his election to the IOC Athletes Commission this week will keep him very active in the sport that gave him to the world, from his humble beginnings in southern Africa.
“I hope to represent and voice athlete’s concerns,” he said. “The work with the IOC just provides another channel for me to do so.”
At an event announcing Mizuno’s new partnership with the IAAF, Fredericks made a point of thanking the Japanese company, the first and only sponsor of his career, for their assistance over the years.
“I was from a small country, and they didn’t look at the financial aspects of helping,” he said. “They took an athlete who they saw with potential, who they could foster and develop.”
“I just want to spend more time with my family now,” he continued, adding that his volunteer project in Namibia will occupy a great deal of time. But he’s also eagerly looking forward to starting his new role with the IOC.
“The sport’s given me a lot. It’s now time to give back.”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF