PARIS 2011 - European Athletics Indoor Championships
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Monday, March 07, 2011

Sprint champion Obikwelu still having fun on the track

For much of his life Francis Obikwelu has made a habit of overcoming adversity. Whether that be defecting to Portugal aged 15 from his native Nigeria. Giving up the sport for 18 months to work as a labourer to support himself or even overcoming a knee injury and being told by a doctor 11 years ago he could never compete any longer as an elite sprinter.

Well, now aged 32 Obikwelu can look back on a rich and storied career in which he holds the European 100m record of 9.86, an Olympic 100m silver medal, three European outdoor sprint titles and now to add to his collection a European indoor 60m crown.

Francis Obikwelu - Portugal

His latest achievement at the Palais Omnisports de Paris Bercy has also been an unlikely success. After a series of injuries and a disappointing showing at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in which he was exited from the 100m semi-finals he planned to retire from the sport after the 2009 season. However, he was convinced to continue and aim for a hat-trick of European 100m titles in Barcelona last summer.

Obikwelu was unsuccessful in his quest, finishing fourth in the 100m final behind French sprint sensation Christophe Lemaitre, however he was buoyed by his performance and decided not to hang up his spikes just yet.

His indoor season had been low key prior to the European Athletics Indoor Championships. Rather than compete on the European circuit he had three domestic competitions  none of which really pointed to a spectacular performance in the French capital.

“To be honest I just come here to enjoy myself,” said Obikwelu, who has a charitable foundation in Portugal in which he teaches athletics to kids. “I was preparing for the outdoors and my coach said let’s run the 60m.  The standard to run here was 6.70 and I had run 6.69 and 6.68 and at the trials I ran 6.70. I finished second behind Arnaldo Abrantes who ran 6.65, so I thought I would just come here and enjoy myself. In the heats I just had fun and the only thing I said was,’ get to the final and anything can happen’ and that’s what I did.”

His relaxed approach paid dividends and in the first round heats he hinted at his gold medal-winning ability by cruising to victory in 6.61 while easing down. He repeated this time in the semi-final while in the final the powerfully-built Portuguese athlete was happy for Lemaitre to assume the role as favourite.

While the French athlete struggled out of the blocks Obikwelu made a bullet start and he edged his old rival Dwain Chambers by 0.01 stopping the clock in a new national record of 6.53.

The European Indoor 60m champion, though, has a very simple explanation for his success.

“I was running more relaxed than others,” he said. “Others were trying to run too fast and I was just trying to be cool.”

Obikwelu, who stands at 1.95m tall, is a big unit. His large frame appears unsuited to the demands of indoor running and prior to yesterday’s success he has had mixed results on the boards.

The Portuguese laughs when he is quizzed about previous remarks he has made about his unsuitability to running indoors, but he says training alongside Olympic triple jump champion Nelson Evora has had its benefits.

“Yes, my coach (Joao Ganco) said my right knee was not moving quickly from the blocks,” he explained. “He also does some work with Nelson Evora, so he’s put me through some jumps , long jumps and all that kind of stuff to get my leg stronger for indoor running.”

The next step for Obikwelu is a little unclear, but after running to his quickest ever 60m time his performance bodes well for the outdoor campaign and the World Championships in Daegu, Korea, later this summer. A possible crack at a fifth Olympic Games next year is not out of the question, although he was a little coy on the future.

“You know I can retire anytime”, he added. “I enjoy athletics and I’m 32 years old. I enjoy it you know and I’m just having fun. Some people treat it like war, but athletics is fun.”

And hopefully we’ll have some more fun with Francis Obikwelu for a quite a few more years to come.

 

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