August 2014 in Zurich. The occasion is the European Championships 800m final, and France’s Pierre-Ambroise Bosse has the lead with 200m to go. He is the man in form, the favourite for gold. Only a month earlier he clocked a national record of 1:42.53. This is to be the moment where his considerable talent is realised with a first major title.
But then it all went wrong. Athletes start to pass him entering the home straight. One by one he is picked off, and he falls through the field like a pebble sinking through water. He finished last.
Since then, he has developed the reputation of an underachiever, somebody who couldn’t get the job done in championship finals. This assertion was backed up by a fifth-place finish at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, where he allowed himself to get boxed in on the inside lane in the closing stages, and again at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last year, where he was passed in the final few metres by USA’s Clayton Murphy, and finished outside the medals in fourth.
“It was terrible,” he said. “But the thing is, it’s only sport. I have had a lot of disappointments in my life. Not just with athletics, but even some first dates that didn’t work well. You just have to forget it and try to improve. Eventually you find the real woman for you. I just had to forget all the disappointments.”
Magician at work
His undoubted potential was finally realised at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 on Tuesday night as Bosse claimed gold with a clocking of 1:44.67, holding off the challenge of Poland’s Adam Kszczot and Kenya’s Kipyegon Bett in the men's 800m final. In the process, he became the first French man to win a world track title since Ladji Doucoure won the 110m hurdles in Helsinki in 2005.
He made his move with 250m remaining, but unlike Zurich, the field didn’t come back to him this time.
“I’m a bit of a gambler and today I gambled. I put everything on red,” he said. “It felt like a dream. Like when you are having a nightmare and somebody is trying to catch you, only they never catch you.”
“When I realised that nobody was overtaking me, I was wondering were they having a cat fight behind me or something. The others killed themselves and they were already dead in the last 100m. I was like a witch casting a spell on them.”
After his disappointment in Rio, Bosse felt he needed to make a coaching change, and in late 2016, on the advice of a friend, he opted to link up with Alain Lignier. They have developed a close relationship, which the 25-year-old believes has made a big difference with his enjoyment of the sport.
“When I met him it was fireworks,” he said. “I felt I needed a change. I have met not only a great coach but a great guy and a good friend, and maybe that has changed things for me. He plays chess very well. I have never won against him. I may have a gold medal today but I still have something to do with him.”
The friendship the two have developed away from the track is something which Lignier agrees has changed Bosse’s entire mindset regarding his approach to the sport, and major championships in particular.
“He told me before the race that he is going to show me a magic wand in the final,” said Lignier. “It was magical. It demonstrates now that he is able to deal with the pressure of finals. He’s more confident.”
Preparations for Bosse leading into London were far from ideal, however. An achilles tendon injury kept him out of training for much of the winter, and some of the spring too. He didn’t run his first race of the season until the end of June as a result, and even now he admits it is still causing him a lot of discomfort.
“It kills me every day,” he said. “It’s painful every step. It’s the reason I haven’t been great in training this year. I was in a lot of pain in the final.”
Having finally fulfilled his potential on the global stage, the charismatic Frenchman intends to celebrate in style, hoping to achieve another important target in the process.
“I am going to try to beat my record for sculling a beer. My best is three and a half seconds and my objective is to go lower than three. It’s a great goal, and I know that I can do it. It’s my day after all.”
Probed for further insight into what else was in store for the night ahead, Bosse remained tight-lipped.
“You don’t want to know that. Trust me you don’t.”
James Sullivan for the IAAF