Beijing, ChinaTwo gold medallists, same question, opposite answers.
When the Czech Republic’s Barbora Spotakova was asked last night what she planned to do next, her uncertainty was certain. “I don’t have any plans,” the women’s Javelin gold medallist said. “The dream is here, I don’t dream any more, I need time to think.” But Cuba’s Dayron Robles has done his thinking.
At the tender age of 21 Robles had just become the Olympic men’s 110m Hurdles champion. It’s his first Olympics – his first of four, perhaps five, he hopes.
“Being an Olympic champion is a dream but another thing is how long you can be at the top,” Robles said. “You have to live alongside other athletes from other countries and I would be happy to live as long as possible in this kind of world.
“I am 21 and I would like to live there until I am 36 or 37 years of age, like Colin Jackson and Allen Johnson in my event. That is one of my dreams.”
Robles was sitting in the post-race Press Conference winner’s chair that the whole of China had hoped would be occupied by their defending Olympic champion, Liu Xiang. Or non defending champion as events turned out. Liu pulled up lame at the start of his heat.
Would a fit Liu have won? The question has no definitive answer but, in a country known for its philosophy, Robles at times sounded more like a lecturer in the subject than an athlete.
Why, he was asked, is hurdling so popular in Cuba? “Cuban athletes are considered to be strong athletes who always try to procure the best possible technique,” he said. “We have seen that down the years and we have always had very good trainers. That is probably the reason.”
I could not drop my guard
Next Robles was asked to expand on his opening comment in which he had said that he was “not euphoric by any means” at his victory.
“It’s hard to explain,” Robles said, in philosophical fashion. “I don’t have words to describe it. This has involved a tremendous sacrifice and you suffer along the way, like in Osaka (2007 World Championships) and Valencia (2008 World Indoor Championships).
“The 110m Hurdles is a really competitive event. You never know when you are going to win. I know from the past hurdlers who have clipped the last hurdle and have lost the race. I knew I was in good shape coming into this but I also knew my opponents were good and that I could not drop my guard, so I was never over-confident.”
Such a fate had befallen hot favourite Lolo Jones, of the United States, in the women’s sprint hurdles final.
“You ask if I was affected by the Lolo Jones incident,” Robles said. “I try not to force things. You know that if you slip up in the hurdles you can end up on the ground very easily. Think of Gail Devers as well.”
“These things really impact on you and I was very clear that the 110m Hurdles is a very difficult event. You have to go so fast that, before you realise it, the hurdle is in front of you and you can easily end up on the floor.”
After the exploits of Usain Bolt in the flat sprints, eyes were upon Robles for an improvement to his World record of 12.87. But, if there was a measure of consolation for China, it was that the man who has taken Liu’s World record and his Olympic title did not manage to erase his Olympic record.
Best wishes for a speedy recovery for Liu Xiang
Robles clocked 12.93 while Liu’s Olympic record is 12.91. Was the Cuban not disappointed with his time?
“I was very happy with my time,” Robles said. “I didn’t try to achieve a given time. It’s not an indoor race, or a Grand Prix race, its an Olympic final, totally different. I didn’t push myself too hard because the track was wet.”
And, finally, had the Cuban’s gold medal been devalued by Liu’s absence and had it diluted the atmosphere in the National Stadium?
“I am not just speaking on my own behalf but on everyone’s behalf,” Robles began. “He has always been a great competitor and you can feel it when he is there on the track with you. I didn’t feel great when he withdrew. It was not a good feeling because I know what he represented for the Chinese people.
“He is a hero here in China and I wish to extend my best wishes to him. Injuries are normal but I would like to send him my best wishes for a speedy recovery.”
I learned many things from Valencia
How quickly Robles has progressed. In the last Olympic year, 2004, his stage was the World Junior Championships, in Grosseto, Italy, where he finished second, winning Cuba’s only medal. As recently as 2005, he was last in his semi-final of the World Championships, in Helsinki.
However, in 2006, Robles began to lay down the marker for his future. Second in the World Indoor Championships in Moscow, outdoors he was victorious at the Central American and Caribbean Games, placed second at the World Athletics Final and finished third in the World Cup.
In the race in Lausanne in which Liu erased Jackson’s 13-year-old World record, clocking 12.88, Robles placed fourth.
During 2007, Robles won gold at the Pan-American Games and clocked 12.92 to win at the World Athletics Final in Stuttgart.
In 2007, between winning at the Pan-American Games, in Rio de Janeiro, and the World Athletics Final, in Stuttgart, with 12.92, he was fourth in Osaka. But the harshest lesson in never taking medals for granted came for him at the World Indoor Championships, in Valencia, this year.
After a good indoor campaign, Robles made a beginner’s mistake and stopped running his heat believing there to have been a false start. It was a false assumption and he failed to qualify for the semi-finals.
“I learned many things from Valencia,” Robles said. “I learned that every race needs very good, if not a perfect, concentration. Here I was very calm. Since the Games began I have been trying to be as relaxed as possible and I managed to do that. I am not excited by any means yet.”
Give him time. He’s got another 15 years.
David Powell for the IAAF