After finishing a disappointing fourth at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest, Cameroon’s Joseph Batangdon is now all set to take on the challenge of the elite 200m runners and perform at his top in Athens Olympics. By Carole Fuchs
An international medal, whatever one may say, does not carry the same weight depending on whether it has been won indoors or outdoors. The recent feats by Joseph Batangdon, who has finished second and fourth in the 200m of the past two World Indoor Championships, have had little impact on the everyday life of the young sprinter from Cameroon.
Although disappointed by the lack of recognition his efforts have brought him, Batangdon is determined to carry on fighting to be the best. During the past winter season he has set a new 200m national indoor record with a time of 20.47, a very encouraging breakthrough, after having run best outdoor times of 20.31 three years in a row (from 1999 to 2001).
Joseph Batangdon is always prompt to voice his passion for Track and Field: "I truly love athletics. Although I first took it up as a hobby, today I have become totally addicted. If I do not train for several days, I begin to feel something akin to withdrawal symptoms. There is so much that I enjoy – the atmosphere, the friendship of my team-mates… With them I never feel I am training hard. Athletics is part of my life - each minute of every day. It can of course be constraining at times, but it is also a fabulous way of living.”
When, encouraged by one of his school masters, he first took up the sport at 14, there was no certainty that he would persevere - he had already tried his hand at football, volleyball, basketball, judo…
The young man, now 26, explains: "I started with one session per week, mostly on the Tarmac track of the Leclerc High School in Yaoundé. I would alternate between 400m and 200m at first, but I soon found that the 400m sessions tended to asphyxiate my muscles. I have always felt more at ease over 200m, mainly because I have a tonic-style physique."
Exhausted by the sheer physical demands of training, he came close to giving up several times, but, encouraged by his progress, he gradually came to really enjoy the sport. At 17 he was running 48-second laps, and that was when he left Cameroon for France - where he has relatives - so as to be able to carry on training whilst studying. For the next three years he was coached by his compatriot, Samuel Edimo, in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre. He was running both the 200m and the 400m - succeeding in setting a new junior 400m national record in 1996 (46.50).
In 1999, he joined up with a group of sprinters led by the ex-long jumper from Senegal, Doudou Ndiaye, and gave up running 400 metre races to focus all his efforts on the 200m. His training schedules and rhythms changed and his times began to make people sit up and take notice. He finished second, in 20.37, behind Francis Obikwelu (20.06), at the All Africa Games in Johannesburg in 1999, and won a silver medal (20.31) behind Aziz Zakari (20.23) at the African Championships in Algiers the following year.
It is during this period that he began to get into the habit of preparing indoors, which would prove, in time, to be the launch pad for his career. It was at the French Championships in 2003 that he first starred, beating Leslie Djhone, the rising star of the French 400m, in a time of 20.47, the 3rd best performance in the world that winter. He then went on to prove that his feat had not been a one-off, finishing second to the British runner Marlon Devonish at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham.
Paradoxically, this first international honour was for the young runner a big disappointment. “To be honest, I was less unhappy about my fourth place in Budapest this year than about that silver medal in 2003. This year my preparation has been hindered by injury, but last year I really had the feeling that I was stronger than anybody. I was convinced I was the favourite to win, as I had run the third best time of the season and the holders of the two top times, John Capel and Frankie Fredericks, were not there. Unfortunately, I did not manage to seize my chance.”
In spite of a disappointing World Championships in Paris, where he was knocked out in the quarter finals, the Cameroon athlete refuses to be categorised as simply an indoor specialist. “Although I don’t seem that tall,” says the young man - who is 1.80m - “I have long legs, so my centre of gravity is not as low as people may think. It is true, however, that indoor races require more thought than outdoor ones. When you run indoors, you really must have a race strategy - as it is impossible to run each bend flat out, you must be sure when you need to kick.”
According to him however, the true reason of his success is to be found with his preparation. “The winter season is relatively short, and therefore far easier to manage,” says the man who only required four competitions to reach a world silver medal in Birmingham.
"The difficulty of the summer season is that it is far less structured and you have to hit your physical peak several times - for your club, and then for the national and international meets.”
Although he attempted an American-style preparation in 2003 - he trained in Dekalb (Georgia) with Nigerian coach, Innocent Egbunike, who has held the African 400m record since 1987 - Batangdon has chosen not to renew the experience this year. Amongst the reasons for his change of heart are the travelling required, the distances involved, and the time spent away from home and his two-year-old daughter. He has decided that this way of preparing was not for him, as he ended up lacking time for recovery and rest.
He has had an early start to this season, the beginning of April, so as to inaugurate the circuit of meetings of the African Confederation. He explains: "If we, as Africans, do not make the effort to come and take part in the meets organised on our own continent, who, then, will? My top priority, though, is to prepare properly for the Olympic Games.”
"I plan to train as much as possible until the end of May, and, from then on, to compete every week, or at least every ten days, so as to still have time for sessions. In the past I have had a tendency to stop them completely once the competitions were under way, but there came a time when my batteries went flat.”
"As far as my personal targets are concerned, I have no limits. My sole aim is to be able to train well. Thereafter, in the international competitions, anything can occur. My opponents are not super-human. There can be good days like there can be bad ones.”
"In Athens, I will look to qualify for the final, and then I will fight as hard as I can.”
We look forward to seeing this personable young man reach the summits.
Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 2 - 2004