Christian Obrist was the biggest surprise of Italian athletics in the 2008 season. The 27-year-old athlete from Bressanone became only the fifth Italian 1500 metres middle distance runner in history to reach the Olympic final at this distance.
Before Obrist only four other Italian male athletes had managed to run the 1500 Olympic final. They were Arturo Porro (seventh in Antwerp 1920), middle-distance legend Luigi Beccali (gold medal in Los Angeles 1932 and bronze in Berlin 1936), Vittorio Fontanella (fifth in Moscow 1980) and Riccardo Materazzi (eleventh in Los Angeles 1984).
Before reaching Bejing, Obrist’s career had seen him competing in two continental 1500m championship finals, Munich 2002 and Gothenburg 2006, finishing seventh in both races. He had also run 2005 European Indoor final in Madrid, where he was ninth, while last year he made the World Championships semifinals in Osaka.
It was a big surprise to see Obrist in the Olympic final considering that he travelled to Beijing as the 38th fastest in the entry list thanks to his 3:35.32 PB which he had set in the Rieti IAAF Grand Prix in 2007. However in the 2008 season his leading time before Beijing Obrist was only a 3:38.01 run in Milan.
Making the Olympic final was my gold medal
His Olympic dream began to come true on 15 August when he reached the semi-finals finishing fourth in his heat in 3:35.91, his fastest time of the year and the fifth best time among the qualifiers. This time was also the fourth fastest time in Obrist’s entire career. The race was won by Olympic champion Rachid Ramzi in an impressive 3:32.89.
“At the beginning of the year my goal was to take part in the Olympic Games,” confirmed Obrist. “Then I suffered from allergy problems and as a consequence I struggled to reach the qualifying standard. When I arrived in Beijing my first goal was to get through the first round. It was a fantastic feeling to qualify for the semifinal coming close to my PB.”
In the first semifinal Obrist ran the best tactical race of his career, finishing fourth and qualified for the final with the fifth fastest time (3:37.47).
“Before the race my coach Ruggero Grassi told me: Live your dream.”
“I cannot believe it. I have no words to describe what I feel. For me the Olympic final was my gold medal”, said Obrist in Beijing.
“When I saw the Olympic flame in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, I was thrilled. I want to thank Ruggero Grassi for what he did for me in the last few years. He was happier than me”, said Obrist.
Grassi, a young coach from Vipiteno, watched the races of his pupil on television in Italy, and said after the semi-final: “I don’t know how many jumps I did to express my joy. Christian was fantastic. He ran a perfect race.”
Obrist finished the final in twelfth position but for him the Olympic Games will remain in his memory for a very long time. The fast pace set during the final and the efforts to qualify first for the semifinal and then for the final proved to be too much for Obrist.
“I am very happy to take part in the final. The other runners ran at another level. I did not fully recover from the efforts after the semifinal. But it was the best experience in my life”, said Obrist.
Electric beginnings and fast finishing
Christian Obrist was born on 20 November 1980 in Bressanone, the venue for next year’s IAAF World Youth Championships. He began with football and worked as electrician until he joined the Carabinieri Bologna athletics military team.
He trains in Vipiteno with his training partner Silvia Weissteiner, the 2007 European Indoor bronze medallist in the 3000m and 2007 World Championships finalist in the 5000m, under the guidance of lifetime coach Grassi.
“We are great friends. He has been coaching me for 15 years. He was not in Beijing but we frequently kept in touch via e-mail. He gave me confidence that I could achieve my goal,” explains Obrist.
He emerged in 2002 when he finished seventh at the European Championships in Munich and later in the summer he ran a very good 3:35.74 in an under-23 race in the famous Zürich Weltklasse meeting which remained his PB until 2007.
In Beijing Obrist reconfirmed his reputation as a fast-finisher when he ran the last lap of his semifinal in 51.8, the second fastest in the last 400 metres among the semifinalists in his race after the eventual Olympic silver medallist Asbel Kiprop who clocked 51.4.
In the Beijing final he was one of four European middle-distance runners, the others being European champion Mehdi Baala from France, Andrew Baddeley from Great Britain and World Indoor bronze medallist Juan Carlos Higuero from Spain. This raises hopes for Italian fans that Obrist could be a major contender at the 2009 European Indoor Championships in Turin (6 to 8 March 2009).
“I started training at the beginning of October to be in my best shape in Turin”, said Obrist.
Perhaps the Italian’s dream is not yet over.
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF