The Magic Track: my trip to Oslo for the Bislett Games

Pour une version française, visitez la site de la Fédération Québecoise d’Athlétisme.

What does it take to be world class? I travelled to Oslo, Norway, for the Bislett Games, track and field’s most prestigious non-championship meet. The history of the meet is legendary. The Dream Miles, the 100m showdowns, and 69 world records have all contributed to Bislett Stadium’s reputation as a “magic track.” Even since it was rebuilt in 2004 the performances have continued. So what sets this meet above the rest?

First there is the crowd: a full stadium of track fans from around the world makes a lot of noise. The Ethiopeans have their own section, from which they rowdily roar their heros, the Bekele brothers, and other distance machines. When Norweigian 100m runner Ezinne Okparaebo won her event, the stands shook as if Thor had crashed his hammer down upon the track. The appreciation, not just for Bolt and Powell, the main attractions, but for all the great performances, showed a crowd not only enthusiastic, but knowledgable. Notable, too, is that many in the crowd were children: they teach them young.

The stadium itself is a wonder for the athlete. The 800m two lane warm-up track that circles beneath the stands includes a sprint area, jump pit, and room for trainer’s tables. Every effort is made to ensure great performances: the focus of the meet is on the athletes. The officials, managers and coaches are all there to serve. This attitude is “what can we do for you?” It’s no wonder great performances are achieved here.

But there are similarities, too, in the athletes. The great Kenenisa Bekele, moments before the 5000m, waved his arms back and forth with the same nervous energy any of us would before a local road race. Up close, in their eyes, these athletes are scared, too; some of them are steeled, closed and focused; others casual. Just like you and I. They are human. Not even super-human. Fast, though. So fast.

What is their secret then? I think I know. It’s not talent, though they have it. It’s not genetics, but that helps. There’s no special workout that they all do. It’s two things, above all else: patience and consistency. It takes a long time, doing the same stuff over and over again, to get to this level. Staying healthy so you can get the training in is almost more crucial than what the workouts end up being. Obviously the training has to be tough enough to make you progress, but not so hard that you break down. This group of some of the best athletes in the world have run that gauntlet. They’ve survived over the long haul. Even the sprint is a marathon.

The Bislett Games have been around in some form since 1966. This meet, too, has patience and consistency. They’ve learned, adapted, changed over the years. That adaptability is the key to their success. The meet is also consistent in that it runs strictly on time. The tradition of good performances puts pressure on the organizers to do it right. The tight schedule also helps the athletes perform: they know exactly when their heat will go off; there is no guessing. And those great performances encourage the crowd: the tight schedule and smart hosting means spectators can follow what’s going on, and appreciate the greatness of it. The meet announcer has every bit of knowledge he needs at his fingertips. And after he interviews every winner, the athletes will do a victory lap around this beautiful, world class stadium, high-fiving and waving to kids who can aspire to follow in their footsteps around the “magic track.”