Ronald Pognon (FRA) (AFP/Getty Images) © Copyright
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Pognon – professionally learning to cope with new found fame

Ronald Pognon, 22, is undoubtedly one of the main athletic sensations to emerge during the current indoor season. Having started to train seriously this winter and managing to erase his injury problems, the French 60m sprinter has lowered his 60m best from 6.65 to 6.45, breaking the European Indoor Record and placing 4th on the all-time lists.

Promising debut in Martinique

Ronald Pognon, born in 1982 in Martinique (French West Indies), practiced every kind of sport at school, but his passion for football was eclipsed after watching the 100m final of the Atlanta Olympics on TV.

Discovered by his first coach Jean-Claude Berquier, the teenager steadily improved his times: 17.50w at 150m in 1997, 11.13 and 22.50 at 100 and 200m in 1998, 11.07/22.09 in 1999, 10.50/21.25 in 2000, 10.52/20.80 in 2001, 10.24/20.77 in 2002, 10.13/20.54 in 2003 and won European Junior 200m and  European 100m sub-23 titles as he progressed.

Pognon then started training in Metropole under the direction of Guy Ontanon (who coaches Christine Arron and Muriel Hurtis), and found all the conditions he needed to prepare for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. His acclimatisation to his new coaching regime went better than expected last year. He improved his 100m best to 10.11 (in the rain and when pulling up short 10m before the line - Castres, 5 Aug) and went on to reach the Olympic semi-finals in Athens. At 200m a late season clocking of 20.49 (5 Sep, Rieti) established a new PB.

An incredible breakthrough onto the world scene

The 1.85m/75kg thin sprinter started a heavier training programme in the autumn of 2004. The highlight of this winter work was his training camp in Martinique.

“Taking profit from the great conditions, we worked during 1 month, 24h/24h, it was wonderful. I broke all my personal bests in practice and, with my coach, the idea of breaking the 60m national record became the objective,” recalls Pognon.

Two days after this training camp (29 Jan), he ran the 60m in Mondeville in 6.59, but his terrible start that day showed that the national record (6.53) could be smashed soon. After another warm-up in 6.57 in Eaubonne (4 Feb), he finally realised his objective by clocking 6.51 in Gent, just two days later.

European record

Forging ahead like a rocket, Pognon - who overcame a minor car accident during the week prior to the meeting in Karlsruhe, Germany (13 Feb) - in the heats on the super-fast Germany track first equalled his best (6.51), and then sensationally in final, improved by 0.01 the European record of 6.46 held by Britain’s Jason Gardener, approaching by a small 0.06 margin Maurice Greene’s World record.

Since then, Pognon has competed in two important meets, the National Championships and the IAAF permit Gaz de France meeting, both held in Liévin, but was not able to run faster than 6.55.

Nervous fatigue, flu and sudden media interest have brought trouble for the new French star - “At the Nationals, the most difficult thing was to run with the pressure.”

Unchallenged, he easily won his first French senior title. A week later, the Liévin meeting was the occasion to meet Maurice Greene and Leonard Scott.  Pognon then warned: “This meeting is the most important race of my indoor season, even more than the European Indoor Champs. Greene is a legend, and Scott helped me to break the European Record and I was happy about his performances this winter. Not all US sprinters are as pleasant as him.”

To become a professional

Before the race at the Liévin meeting, Ronald tapped his calves and hamstrings, a signal which his coach interpreted as signs of a cramp (confirmed after the race by the athlete himself). After a poor start followed by a desperate acceleration, Pognon saw Scott win in 6.46 but he nearly caught Greene on the line in 6.56.

Often prone to cramps, the sprinter had been the victim of them during the National Championships last summer. It was the last injury of a long series.

”At Nationals in 2002, I suffered from an allergy, at the 2003 edition, my quadriceps hurt, in 2004 my cramps cost me the victory… Since then, I’ve become more professionnal, thanks to working in the training group with Arron and Hurtis.”

”This training context led me to pay attention to every detail of my preparation, including recovery and therapy. Furthermore, this professional attitude helps me during meets to stay focused on my competition, because there are a lot of fans and media fussing around me.”

Bambuck’s heir

Indeed, France has good hopes to find in Pognon a successor to Roger Bambuck, World 100m record breaker and Olympic finalist in 1968. The pressure gets more and more palpable for the young prodigy, and the suddenly growing media interest worries his coach, who asks journalists not to conjure up dithyrambic titles for his protégée.

“Ronald needs to be protected from that and needs to find the self-confidence not to be afraid to win, to stay focused solely on what he is doing,“ confirms Guy Ontanon. Since Bambuck’s retirement, French sprinting has shined more thanks to female sprinters like Marie-José Pérec and Christine Arron, who have maintained tense relationships with the press during their careers. Maurice Greene, who trained with Pérec and Arron in USA some years ago, knows what’s in store for Pognon.

“He (Pognon) has great potential and will be very fast in the future. The main problem will come from his ability to face public and media pressure from a country where the attention is placed on rising athletes, while in USA athletes don’t receive attention until they have medals or records,” warned Greene.

Perspectives…

After Karlsruhe, there was much talk about the extrapolation of Pognon’s 6.45 time for 60m at 100m. Charles University of Prague after the 1988 Olympics published model tables where 9.92 at 100m requires an intermediate time at 60m in 6.46. Statistically, all the men who have run under 6.46 indoors, have gone sub-10 seconds during their careers.

Can Pognon become the 46th sprinter to break the still mythical 10 second barrier? Coach Ontanon believes Ronald Pognon can break the World 60m record if he manages to put everything together - a good start and his fantastic top speed. “This record is not at the level it should be.”

This idea is also present in Maurice Greene’s own words: “When I compete at 60m, I am actually going for a 100m. The difference is that I stop at 60m. I never ran a 60m like it should be run because I don’t want to interfere with my 100m race construction. Race construction is not the same for a 60m race and for a 100m races, I’ve always focused on the 100m, this is also why it’s hard to make predictions from a 60m race.”

In any case, Pognon will have the motivation to erase his Liévin failures at the European Indoor Championships in Madrid (4 – 6 March), where he will be the great favourite for the 60m, still chased by reigning double champion Jason Gardener and another newcomer Lukasz Chyla from Poland.

Pierre-Jean Vazel for the IAAF

MADRID on the IAAF WEBSITE

The IAAF website will be publishing end of session - AM & PM -   reports during the three days of competition in Madrid (4 - 6 March), offering along with our usual mixture of feature stories and general news, comprehensive coverage of every significant event that occurs at the 28th European Indoor Championships.

Chris Turner
IAAF Editorial Manager