Ostend relives the legends of cross country in the spirit of
Fayolle and Batty
22 March 2001 - Ostend The walls of the Wellington Hippodrome bear the lines that time and the elements have wrought upon them. Once there was a fort here Fort Wellington its name that defended Flanders from enemy landings, but as the fear of such incursions diminished, both the Duke (of Wellington) and the ruling family the Sachsen Coburgs decided that the time had come to turn this stronghold into a place of sport and relaxation, especially in the summer months.
More than a hundred and twenty years have passed since then and the hippodrome is still standing, majestically resisting the travails of the centuries and the unremitting daily aggression of the wind, salt air and cold. The horses kick up the divots on the course, their nostrils flaring towards the sea as they run parallel to the beach where the North Sea waves roll and die on the white sands.
In the coming days, much larger groups of men and women will run on the traces of the horses. And on Saturday and Sunday the hippodrome will be all theirs, two-legged thoroughbreds from around the globe: 897 athletes, according to the latest update, representing seventy countries. They are here to contest the 29th IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
It is not the first time that such an event has taken place in the Wellington Hippodrome in Ostend. The great tradition that Belgium has in this discipline is also, certainly, what has made it possible for the organisers to accomplish in three weeks something that normally takes two years: stepping in to replace Dublin as host to the championships following the foot and mouth epidemic that sidelined the Irish capital.
Tradition, experience and passion: that is what cross country is all about in Belgium, and more particularly in this region. For this is a place where the memory of the 1965 championships is renewed season after season and passed on by parents to strengthen the fearless spirit of their aspiring athlete children. For that was the year that Ostend hosted what was then known as "The Nations Cross", and which was to become in later years the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
It was truly a memorable race, spellbinding and breathtaking.
There were some great champions in competition: Tunisias Mohammed Gammoudi, Frances Michel Jazy, Englands Ronald Hill, another Frenchman, Michel Bernard, Moroocos El Ghazi and Belgiums Clerckx. But the battle at the end of the race was between those who had managed to escape getting caught in the mud and resisted the cutting frozen winds for 12 kilometres without a moments respite. The survivors were the English athlete Mel Batty, the Frenchman Jean Fayolle and Gammoudi.
Gammoudi had a killer kick: when they came into the finishing straight, the three elbow to elbow, everybody thought that victory would be his.
But no, the struggle was drawn out over 500 metres. Batty was the first to attempt a break, followed by Fayolle, as Gammoudi slowed, caught by the wind and the mud. The other two, well matched, continued to run alongside one another: the harder Batty pounded the track, the more Fayolle seemed to fly over the rotten ground and water-filled soil. The finishing line approached , just a few metres distant, but the two were still elbow to elbow with not a centimetre separating them.
At the close, it was Jean Fayolle who was awarded the victory, with Mel Batty given second place with the same time: 36:48, not a tenth of a second more. Gammoudi came third in 37:00. Fourth place went to Bernard, 8th to Jazy and 38th to El Ghazi, who the following year would become world champion in Rabat, in front of his home crowd.
On Saturday and Sunday, Fayolle and Batty will return to Ostend, to the site of that thrilling and exhausting encounter. They will mime their famous sprint for the joy of the youngsters in the hippodrome who will be able to see their parents heroes in the flesh. They were both great champions at a time when Europe still loved to run. Jean Fayolle, multiple French national champion with Robert Bogey and Vaillant in the 10,000 and 5000 metres, had only a short career but with some great results on the track. Mel Batty, one of the best athletes of his day, became the world record holder over 10 miles in 47:26.8, a record that would be beaten in that same year of 1965 by Ron Clarke, before another Englishman, Ronald Hill, took back to Britain that once prestigious and now nigh forgotten record.
Tomorrow, at 13H00, at the Hotel Andromeda in Ostend, IAAF President Lamine Diack, will meet journalists on the eve of the 29th IAAF World Cross Country Championships.