I’ve done my share of dumb things in my life, but one thing I got right was that I married the perfect woman. She is beautiful and nice and very patient with me, and…I’m not going to say this is the most important thing, but…she has a brother who lives in southern Germany just across the border from Switzerland. He and his wife also rent an apartment in Winterthur, Switzerland, which is a 20-minute train ride from Zurich, which is where the 2014 European Athletics Championships were held this month…which I got to attend all because I married the right woman.
A fantastic week of competition at Letzigrund Stadium began on the morning of Tuesday, August 12th with the qualifying rounds of the men’s shotput.
Tuesday also marked the beginning of my never-ending quest for unobstructed sight lines from which to view the throws. I say this good-naturedly, as the folks in Zurich did an amazing job of hosting this meet. Inside the stadium there were dozens of volunteers, all dressed like this…
…and all utterly determined to be helpful. It didn’t matter that I only speak English. It didn’t matter that it took me about ten minutes to figure out which Swiss coins I needed to hand over every time I bought a brat. It didn’t matter that when I said “brat” it sounded like “brot,” the German word for bread. Everyone I dealt with at Letzigrund was cheerfully patient.
Actually, the volunteers did not know it, but the most helpful thing they did all week was to take public transportation to the stadium with the rest of us. Any time I got confused as to which tram or bus I should board, all I had to do was to find and follow members of the purple army.
I intend to write more later about the way the meet was managed because I think the organizers had some great ideas about how to engage the fans. And, as I discovered when I returned to the States, the television coverage of every event including the throws was astonishingly thorough, so they did a great job of engaging their viewers as well.
The one person they apparently were not worried about accommodating was the Handicam-wielding obsessive throws fan who shelled out 100 to 140 francs per day to see the likes of Robert Harting and David Storl compete and wanted to see the way they moved through the ring rather than just watching their heads bob up and down behind a barricade of television cameras and portable shelters for the athletes. In other words, me. Here, for example was my view of the men’s shot prelims:
They ran flights simultaneously in two rings, each of which was substantially hidden from view. Luckily, there was not much drama to the proceedings. Everybody knew that Germany’s David Storl was going to qualify on his first throw (I think the automatic mark was 20 meters) and then dominate that evening’s final.
There was even talk of him breaking the meet record of 22.22m held by the great Swiss putter Werner Gunthor.
What intrigued me about Storl was that he had been throwing with a fixed-feet finish this summer after winning the last two World Championships using a violently aggressive reverse. Apparently he knew what he was doing, because he tossed a PR of 21.97m a couple of weeks prior to the Euros using his new style, but I was dying to find out the reasoning behind the switch.
Storl did, in fact, dominate the competition that evening. You can find the results here:
But he did not look very comfortable, and after finishing one throw with an awkward looking semi-reverse, he limped from the ring and sprawled out on the ground for a couple of minutes.
As he held a half-meter lead over Spain’s Borja Vivas and Poland’s Tomasz Majewski at the time, I expected Storl to pass his final two attempts, but much to the delight of the crowd…
…he did not.
By the way, the view of the shot final was much improved over that of the prelims:
Here is the video that I took that night:
It certainly does not match the quality of the televised version, but I did include a brief clip of a cameraman pursuing the women’s 10,000 meter runners around the track on a Segway.
When the competition ended, I knew I was very unlikely to get anywhere near Storl to ask him why he had switched to a fixed-feet glide. There were about a million credentialed media members in the stadium who would get first crack at him. Here is a partial view of the temporary media offices erected next to Letzigrund to accommodate them all..
…and when I say “partial view” I mean it. This is less than half the total number of them.
Also, they were holding the medal ceremony that night, so I knew Storl was going to be tied up for quite some time.
I decided, therefore, that my best bet was to stalk his coach, who was sitting one section over from me. Unfortunately, every time I approached him he was either on the phone or in deep conversation with the guy sitting next to him and I didn’t want to interrupt. Okay, he got up to go to the bathroom once, but not even I am weird enough to approach a strange man in the men’s room and start questioning him about shot put technique.
Before long, the post competition festivities began…
…and I headed back to Winterthur without solving the mystery of the fixed-feet glide.
Fortunately, another possibility soon emerged. On the way out of the stadium, I got a look at a list of press conferences scheduled for the following morning. The German team was staying at the Hilton out near the airport, and were going to make athletes available to the media at 9:30am.
The efficient Swiss public transportation system made it quite easy to get to the airport. The Hilton operated a free shuttle every fifteen minutes. Long story short, at 9:25 the next morning I walked into the London Room of the Hilton Hotel and took a seat among half a dozen journalists. Sitting at the front of the room were three German athletes (I think they were heptathletes), a coach, and a media liaison.
Precisely at 9:30, they all began conversing in German.
Holy cow, did I feel like a fish out of water. I had no clue what anyone was saying, and after a few minutes was about ready to slink out of there when I heard the door open behind me and saw the media guy look up and smile. The person who entered uttered the word “morgen” in a deep but tired-sounding voice, and I knew it was Storl.
The man of the hour, he was ushered right up to the podium and began answering questions, once again all in German.
I was embarrassed as hell, because this was clearly a news conference meant for the German press, but no way was I getting this close without asking my question.
I raised my hand, and when they called on me I decided to take the humble approach.
“Pardon, may I speak English?”
I’ve never had six heads, so I can’t say for sure that’s how the media guy looked at me, but let’s just say he was plenty surprised.
Storl took it in stride, though, and I finally got my question answered. Why had he switched to a fixed-feet style? He had injured his knee shortly after the Glasgow Diamond League meet and had changed his technique to protect it until he could have surgery after the season.
I followed up by asking him if he was surprised by how far he had been able to throw without a reverse. Everybody in the room including Storl laughed when I asked him that, but he acknowledged that yes, he was pleasantly surprised by his success with his modified style.
And that was it. The reporters resumed pelting him with questions in German, and I walked out of there thinking that getting to talk to Storl had made the whole trip worth while. Little did I know that there was lots more excitement to come.