What’s the most underrated non-annual sporting event of all time? Here’s a contender: the 1991 World Athletics Championships, too often boiled down to Mike Powell v Carl Lewis in an astonishing long jump, and Liz McColgan reducing a 10,000m field to puddles amid harrowing heat and humidity in Tokyo.
Plus: the top six in the men’s 100m all went under 10 seconds. Marie-José Peréc and Michael Johnson stormed to their first global titles, while Finland’s Kimmo Kinnunen flashed in the pan furiously with a 90-metre javelin effort. It was a time, too, before relays became a vehicle to help performance directors meet medal targets. The men’s 4x400m, the final event at Japan’s National Stadium, had everything.
With Britain’s Roger Black finishing just five hundredths of a second behind the USA’s Antonio Pettigrew in the individual event, the hope was that the underdogs could keep the favourites honest.
Despite Derek Redmond holding the British record, the in-form Black was the presumptive anchor attraction. So when word circulated that not only was Black on the first leg, with John Regis – who had run in the 4x100m final just 90 minutes earlier – also down to run, it sounded duff.
And yet Black, groomed like a Chariots of Fire extra, was lead-off. Redmond, a prodigious talent rendered sporadic due to thighs seemingly strung with cheese rather than ham, was up second. Regis would seek to melt minds with a keg-chested third-leg presence, before Kriss Akabusi – the Timmy Mallett of track and field – took on Pettigrew.
Some thought had gone into this. Regis had an overlooked flying lap to his name as part of a rampant 4x400m victory at the 1990 European championships, unofficially timed at 43.93sec – Iwan Thomas’s 23-year-old British record is 44.36. Still, Andrew Valmon, Quincy Watts, Danny Everett and Pettigrew were markedly superior regardless of the order. Adding up the best marks each runner would ever achieve individually, the USA were three and a half seconds quicker.
Black was undeniably a strong kick-off for British hopes, but Valmon, fifth in the individual final, fought gamely from the gun. As the track’s stagger unwound, the two handed over more or less simultaneously. Britain needed Redmond to find form.
He steamed away from 21-year-old Watts, who was enjoying a barnstorming debut season in the event. But though not yet the athlete who would blister the Barcelona straight in 1992, Watts was a cool head, cruising past his increasingly ragged rival. “Has the British gamble failed?” pondered David Coleman.
Yet Regis clung doggedly to his man, even hinting at an attack. Honours ended up even, though the smooth-striding Everett glided round as if on castors, while the solidly carved sprint specialist noticeably sagged in his final strides. For this reason, Regis released Akabusi early in the changeover zone after a fine “390m” in the words of his anchor runner.
Akabusi adopted a lean-shoe stance – almost exaggeratedly attentive to his rival’s movements. And though the American looked comfortable, Akabusi cornered wide to apply pressure that immediately told. Pettigrew’s rolling style became a flail, his desperation to reclaim the lead depriving him of all rhythm. Though the slowest of the four British legs, every one of Akabusi’s glorious, unthinkable 410m provided plenty for his latterday motivational speaking career.
Within the year normality was restored, with Valmon and Watts among the USA quartet that savaged the world record at the Olympics. Black and Regis had Olympic and world silvers in their future respectively; awaiting Akabusi was Barcelona bronze and replacing Roy Castle as host of Record Breakers.
Derek Redmond’s Olympic ambitions memorably crumpled in a heap halfway round his 1992 semi-final, overshadowing Everett’s final bow at Games level in the race that immediately followed as the American’s foot gave way. No Nike ad for him; he did get a time for crossing the line unaided though.
The fact that Pettigrew admitted EPO doping had featured in the latter end of his career undeniably makes everything before that taste a little different. It’s stranger and more complex still in light of his 2010 suicide.
For that one day 19 years earlier, however, see it as compelling statistics bested by eccentricity and imagination. “The gamble paid off,” concluded Coleman. And how.