Falling apples, politics of language and lessons from ‘Mondo’ Duplantis

Armand Duplantis

Sweden's Armand Duplantis celebrates after winning and breaking the new world indoor record in the men's pole vault final during The World Athletics Indoor Championships 2022 at the Stark Arena, in Belgrade, on March 20, 2022.

Photo credit: Andrej Isakovic | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The occasion (US Olympic trials) for Griffith-Joyner’s world record over 100m should remind our athletics administrators to hold our trials to world-class standards.
  • We don’t want politics of sub-standard equipment to come in the way of a possible world record on Kenyan soil.

If it is satisfying to be the holder of the longest standing world record in athletics, breaking your own world record with regularity that defies human ability must create a feeling of ecstasy.

When you wake up the following morning and remember it, you have to pinch yourself to believe it.

I have in mind retired middle distance runner Jarmila Kratochvilova from the Czech Republic and American Florence Griffith-Joyner on one hand, and pole vaulter Armand Gustav “Mondo” Duplantis from Sweden on the other, with great lessons for Kenyans.

Kratochvilova, 72, from the Czech Republic holds the oldest record in athletics, a blistering one minute and 53.28 seconds at an athletics meet in Munich.

The late Griffith-Joyner holds world records in women’s 100m and 200m of 10.49sec and 21.34 respectively. Duplantis, 22, broke his world pole vault record for the sixth time, last month.

Kratochvilova’s record turns 40 this year. Running for the former Czechoslovakia on July 26 in 1983 at the Olympic Stadium in Germany, the athlete, aged 32 at the time, ran the two-lap race in pace which was at the time as unforeseeable as the split of her own country into Czech Republic and Slovakia, which would come 10 years later.

What is more, Kratochvilova went to the meet holding the 400m world record of 49.59 which she had set in Milan on March 7, 1982. Dutch runner Femke Bol broke the record last month.

In years that followed her performance in Munich, questions would be raised as to whether Kratochvilova’s heavily muscled body and speed were achieved naturally or augmented through use of illicit anabolic steroids.

Like Kratochvilova, Griffith-Joyner also faced accusations of doping, especially after adding women’s 200m record of 21.34sec from the 1988 Seoul Olympics to her 100m record, all in a year.

But as Kratochvilova’s record turned 34 in 2017, something else happened that threatened to turn Kratochvilova’s world upside down. European Athletics, the body that runs athletics in Europe, proposed that all records set before 2005 be declared null and void at a time the global athletics body was just starting to store blood and urine samples for more sophisticated drug screening.

Had World Athletics (then International Association of Athletics Federations) accepted the proposal, a whopping 45 outdoor records, including those of Kratochvilova and Griffith-Joyner, would have been struck off the roster.

But IAAF decided that in order to be officially recognised as a world record, results would have to be achieved in competitions conducted according to the global athletics body’s rules and regulations in force, and the IAAF or one of its Area Associations or Member Federations must have officially ratified the results. IAAF also spelled out special conditions for validity of performances in field events, track and road races.

Last month, American-born Swedish pole vaulter Duplantis broke his world record for the sixth time.

At the young age of 22, Duplantis has won just about everything there is to be won in his specialty.

He is the Olympic, world and European champion, and the reigning World Athlete of the Year, a title he also won in 2020.

On February 25, he vaulted 6.22 metres to break the pole vault word record for the sixth time at the 2023 All Star Perche event in Clermont-Ferrand, France, adding a centimeter to his world record of 2.1m which he had set at the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Oregon.

Duplantis first broke the world record when he surpassed Renaud Lavillenie’s world record of 6.17m which the Frenchman had set in 2014, in February 2020.

In the next two years, he went on to break his own record four more times before last month’s achievement, first improving the record to 6.18m in Glasgow on February 15.

Duplantis then cleared 6.19m at the Belgrade Indoor Meeting on March 7, 2022, and 13 days later (on March 20), improved again to 6.20m in the same venue, when winning gold at the World Athletics Indoor Championships. He has now achieved 60 clearances of six metres or more in his career.

There are many lessons for Kenyan athletes from Griffith-Joyner and Duplantis. First, an apple does not fall too far from the tree.

Duplantis’s American father Greg Duplantis is a former pole vaulter, while his Swedish mother Helena is a former heptathlete and volleyball player. His two elder brothers and his younger sister were all athletes, highlighting the positive influence from their parents.

Secondly, it is okay for Kenyan athletes to field questions in mother tongue during global championships because no language is superior to another.

Duplantis grew up in an English-speaking household but learnt Swedish as his second language. He took up lessons online to improve and when he made up his mind to represent Sweden rather than USA, he fielded questions from the media in Swedish.

The occasion (US Olympic trials) for Griffith-Joyner’s world record over 100m should remind our athletics administrators to hold our trials to world-class standards.

We don’t want politics of sub-standard equipment to come in the way of a possible world record on Kenyan soil.