‘The illusion of effortlessness’: Why athlete Femke Bol could be the sublime star of the Paris Olympics

    In the lead-up to every Olympics a handful of athletes become the focus of expectant attention. From this handful one emerges or is selected as the “face” of the Games. In London in 2012 it was Jessica Ennis, who as a heptathlete embodied all-round Olympian excellence. This visibility is not solely a question of athletic ability; Ennis fulfilled the host nation’s hopes by winning gold and by being incredibly nice, all the time. Usain Bolt’s face and long limbs dominated multiple championships because he was the fastest, one of the most likable and – as a result – the most heavily sponsored track athlete in the world. Every time his image appeared somewhere – ie everywhere – it promoted an associative bundle comprising his running shoes (Puma), Visa, Gatorade, Jamaica, the Olympic ideal and, by a kind of meta extension, the value of sponsorship itself.

    But whereas 90% of the footballers at this year’s Euros will already be familiar to most people watching them on TV, in athletics this figure is probably reversed. The best-known athletes to emerge from a given championship might be people the majority of viewers had scarcely even heard of before. This would be true of Josh Kerr – identified, paradoxically, by his identity-obscuring Oakley shades – who surged to fame by beating Jakob Ingebrigtsen in the 1500m at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest last year, only to fade back into (temporary) obscurity when, outrageously, he was not even shortlisted for the BBC’s increasingly irrelevant Sports Personality of the Year.

    I was only vaguely conscious of Femke Bol before the Budapest championships. For those as ignorant now as I was then, she is a 24-year-old Dutch 400m hurdler and sprinter whose Budapest experience began disastrously. In an innovative and welcome event, the 400m mixed relay, she was neck and neck with the American Alexis Holmes until she stumbled and fell a few metres short of the line, spilling the baton, disqualifying herself and her team but thankfully – since the fall looked horrendous – avoiding injury. Five days later, as anticipated, she won the 400m hurdles, an awkward and exhausting event but not so riddled with jeopardy as the 110 (which meant that Colin Jackson, the former world-record holder, never clinched Olympic gold).

    Then came the traditional close of the championships in the form of the 4×400 relays: first the men and then the women. The 4×400 is very different to the explosive, serial excitement of the 100m relay, in which batons are routinely dropped and hand-overs fumbled. Even when the race has been clearly won there follows a period of uncertainty as footage is scrutinised to see if any change-overs took place fractionally outside the box and so on. Deciding who should be awarded which medals often takes substantially longer than the race itself.

    Such infringements also happen in the less frenetic and more spacious 4×400. The first leg is run in lanes before the second batch of runners head for the inside lanes midway through their lap. Subsequent hand-overs are characterised by a crowding-round-the-bar, desperately-waving-a-tenner-to-catch-the-bartender’s-eye-at-last-orders jostle, which can cause the wheels to come off even a well-drilled team. The much-fancied American quartet did not make the final, having been disqualified in the heats.

    That left the Dutch, Canadians and Jamaicans as favourites, and the British with an improved chance of a place on the podium. After a long hold on the blocks the race began. Colin Jackson, commentating for the BBC, is always good at conveying the excitement of big races and, not for the first time, this excitement got the better of him to the extent that much of what he said turned into enthusiastic gibberish. Femke Bol was running the anchor leg (how I love that expression!) and at the last hand-over was in third place, way behind Nicole Yeargin of Britain and Stacey-Ann Williams of Jamaica, who was in the lead.

    In the aftermath of a change-over, each leg tends to subside into a gentler phase. By any normal standards they’re going hell for leather, of course, but this is not the sharply competitive part of the race as the athletes concentrate on settling into the cadence of their running. On this occasion, though, Williams went powering out as though the end might already be in sight. As she glanced up at the screen the immediate threat seemed to come from Yeargin. Bol was trailing in their wake, part of the event, obviously (in bronze medal position), but so far adrift that Jackson’s co-commentator, Steve Cram, said she was not even going for gold. What happened next is best conveyed by the closing words of WH Auden’s poem The Fall of Rome: Bol started shrinking that distance, “silently and very fast”.

    Femke Bol celebrates winning the women’s 4x400m relay final at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, 2023. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty Images for World Athletics

    Sport is not a beauty contest and athletic excellence is not always easy on the eye. I can’t bear to watch Cameron Norrie; he has the ugliest forehand in tennis history. Every time he hits the ball it’s a punch in the face of elegance. Roger Federer had the most beautiful game of any male player. Beauty is currently in short supply in women’s tennis for the simple reason that the single-handed backhand is as extinct as a bird whose pleasing but fragile plumage has rendered it unfit, in evolutionary terms, to survive the WTA’s grinding schedule of constant global migration. Joe Frazier was a heroic boxer, throwing punches so hard that, in his own brutally beautiful formulation, “they’d of knocked a building down”; it was the person on the receiving end of that onslaught, Muhammad Ali, who was beautiful. Sprinter Ben Johnson erupted out of the blocks as if desperate to burst free of his body’s limitations in a way that was consistent with Saint-Just’s declaration: “I despise the dust of which I am compounded”; the speed of his detested rival Carl Lewis was contained by – and a sleek celebration of – the body. This kind of relationship is not simply one of hostility, or at least is enhanced by adversarial intensity. George Best looked more beautiful because of the lengths hard men such as Ron “Chopper” Harris were willing to go in order to make him less so.

    A characteristic of this beauty is the illusion of effortlessness and an abundance of grace. Gravity seems to press less heavily on some athletes than on others (hence “float like a butterfly”) and as a consequence – I’m conscious here of getting lost in the mysteries of physics – time expands.

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    Kerr beat Ingebrigtsen in a right old ding-dong. Interviewed after the race, Kerr said that at a certain point he knew he had “broken him” but to anyone watching it seemed possible that Ingebrigtsen might break him back. In the end he couldn’t, Kerr butched it out, kept pumping. There was no physical contact but the confrontational quality of the race lingered afterwards in Ingebrigtsen’s distinctly grudging and ungracious admission of defeat.

    It was very different in the closing stages of the women’s 4×400. Within broadly agreed ideas of biomechanically efficient technique, each athlete has a distinct style and rhythm. (Occasionally this is so distinct as to lie outside the consensual norm; Michael Johnson’s oddly formal, straight-backed style of propulsion suggests he turned to running after being rushed off his feet as a waiter in a fine-dining restaurant.) In Bol’s case it’s not just that she appears fully at ease running at high speed; the faster she runs the more at ease she looks.

    Commentators talk of athletes eating up the ground but that is too physical a metaphor. Athletics is about the body, but sometimes there’s a metaphysical dimension or radiance to it. While it didn’t seem physically possible for Bol to make up all the necessary ground, the duration of each second somehow expanded – even as the distance to the finishing line shrank – so that more and more could be accomplished within it. There was more time and space even as less of both remained! With her lengthy, easy, unforced stride – a stride that seemed to meet not with resistance but active encouragement each time a foot touched the track – Bol was clearly gaining on Yeargin. Might she even catch Williams? It was tactical, everything needed to be perfectly judged, but a sense of inevitability began to manifest itself: a feeling that wherever the line might be Bol would get there first. And she did, flowing past Williams with just 0.16 of a second between them.

    There was more to come. Having mis-called what was happening earlier, Cram made up for it by declaring “Femke Bol is AmAAAzing”. Anything less than this heartfelt outpouring of astonishment would have been a horrible understatement. She had won the race but it was a team victory. Her teammates left her with a great deal to do but they hadn’t left her with too much to do. She collapsed on the track, “spent” as Jackson rightly said, while her teammates swarmed all over her. Then came something especially lovely. The Dutch men’s team, who had not come close to a medal themselves, bounded on to the track and everyone was embracing. Watching these eight young people in a constantly shifting tangle of perfect arms and legs it seemed that, as an encore, we were being treated to a game of elite-level Twister. It was a world away from middle-aged Luis Rubiales, in a suit, baldly kissing the Spanish footballer Jenni Hermoso on the lips. This was more physical and less intrusive, an appropriate and shared expression of joy. And then the rival teams congratulated the Dutch. That was the most important thing of all. An intensely individual achievement had expanded to become more widely embraced and affirmed – and therefore a victory for sportsmanship.

    Since that ecstatic triumph Bol has gone on to break the world indoor 400m record. She is poised to become one of the stars – perhaps the star – of the Paris Games and, before then, at the European Championships in Rome. Conscious that this little essay has strayed from its journalistic lane and stepped into the lexicon of love I’ll end it in similar fashion: I’m counting the days till I see her (run) again.

    Geoff Dyer’s most recent book, The Last Days of Roger Federer, is published by Canongate; Homework, a memoir, will be published next year, also by Canongate

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