Wednesday, 23 July 2014

1986 Commonwealth Games: Clash of the Rivals

The 1986 Commonwealth Games may have been hit by a widespread boycott - for more information on this see my blog last week - but at least there were still a couple of rivalries that were able to flourish during the championships. Coe, Ovett and Cram were kept apart for various reasons (illness in Coe's case, and Ovett running the 5000 metres didn't help either), yet in the field two British women were able to go head-to-head once more, and the pool would see the renewal of a battle that had begun at Brisbane in 1982.

This week I am taking a look back at the Moorhouse-Davis rivalry in the pool, and the Sanderson-Whitbread clash in the javelin at Edinburgh 1986. Duels that would see a few upsets along the way, and the beginning of an unlikely beautiful friendship.

Adrian Moorhouse v Victor Davis

A key sporting rivalry of the 1980s, Englishman Moorhouse and Canadian Davis were like chalk and cheese. Whereas Moorhouse was seen as calm and thoughtful, Davis would be loud and brash, often thumping the maple leaf tattoo on his chest before races to psyche himself up and to intimidate his opponents. The 1982 Commonwealth Games had seen the pair clash in Brisbane, with a 17-year-old Moorhouse winning the 100m breaststroke and Davis taking the 200m title. The battle lines had been drawn.

Moorhouse admitted that the pair did not share a word between 1982 and 1986, a time in which Davis excelled at the 1984 Olympics, claiming another 200m gold and the silver in the 100m event. For his part, Moorhouse finished in a disappointing 4th in the 100m and 6th in the 200m, and although he could perhaps point to an excuse in the fact that he had suffered from tonsillitis before the Games, Moorhouse was at an all-time low. "I was devastated," admitted Moorhouse. "After the Games I convinced myself that I had no talent and that I was never going to win again. I didn’t want anything to do with swimming".

Luckily Moorhouse got through the hard times and worked on the mental side of his approach to the sport, so much so that a year later he was the European champion and looking forward to the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. But just when he thought he had taken all that could be thrown at him, Moorhouse had to suffer the agony of defeat in the 100m, supposedly his stronger event. And to make matters worse, Davis was not exactly humble in celebrating his win.

"My first goal is to win, and I don't know why it was slower this evening," declared Davis when comparing the final to his heat. "I knew it was slow because Moorhouse was up with me," he added, in a none too subtle dig at his great rival, as Moorhouse sat next to him in the press conference. Davis' comments annoyed Moorhouse greatly, and he vowed to take revenge, but to beat Davis in the Canadian's specialist event of the 200m would take some doing. Davis had never been beaten at this distance in an international event, and the chances of some redemption for Moorhouse looked unlikely.

For a rivalry that had been compared to Coe and Ovett, Moorhouse's subsequent win in the 200m was rather appropriate, meaning both men had won the other man's event, as had happened with the middle distance runners at Moscow in 1980. Moorhouse started the race well, only for Davis to come back during the second length, and from 100 metres on the two were stroke for stroke. At 150 metres, Moorhouse recalls the thoughts that were going through his head: "Anyway I remember really hurting and thinking 'I've got to do another length of this, how on earth am I going to do it?' but then realising that Victor didn’t seem to be that strong and I was a little bit ahead of him, so I decided I could still beat him. It was probably the most painful race of my life but I held him off and won by about half a second".

Initially Davis did not take the defeat very well, punching the water and throwing his swimming cap away. But the shock defeat seemed to change Davis' attitude towards Moorhouse, as it dawned on the Canadian that Moorhouse was a competitor to be respected. Even the Queen was a benefactor of the newly mellowed Davis, as he presented his Frisbee - a toy given to every Canadian medal winner - to Her Majesty after the medal ceremony. Davis may not have been a very gracious winner at times, but in Edinburgh he showed that he was at least a good loser.

Often billed as the Friendly Games, the Commonwealth Games helped cement an unlikely bond between Moorhouse and Davis. From that point on they would often go out for a drink, discussing swimming naturally, and becoming such firm friends that after Davis' tragic death in 1989 - Davis was struck by a car after an argument with the driver and never regained consciousness - Moorhouse would be on the boat when Davis' ashes were scattered at sea during the 1990 Commonwealth Games.

The rivalry may have been intense, and for four years the pair didn't speak to each other, but Edinburgh 1986, and the dramatic races that took place, smoothed things over between Moorhouse and Davis, and after the sad events that were to follow, at least we have this to be thankful for.

Tessa Sanderson v Fatima Whitbread

If the Moorhouse-Davis rivalry was intense, then the same could be said about the battle going on between two British women in the javelin. Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread were never the best of friends, something that both openly admitted to during their various confrontations. "My rivalry with Fatima Whitbread was one of the toughest I’ve ever known in track and field," stated Sanderson in this Sport Magazine article. "I’m glad it was like that because I needed that to give me the aggression and strength to say: 'I want it just as much as she does'".

Whitbread spoke about her tussles with Sanderson prior to the Games, and whilst she noted that some things could be said in the heat of the moment, and that the pair were never likely to go out for a night together, she also revealed that their rivalry was a key factor in improving their performances. "It means that we are always striving for something better and never settle for moderation. As long as the rivalry does not bring the sport into disrepute, there's nothing like trying to beat somebody from your own country".

Sanderson was very much the golden girl of British track and field, winning both the Commonwealth title in 1978, and Olympic gold in 1984. Whitbread had been less fortunate, denied gold at the 1983 World Championships right at the death by Tiina Lillak, and having to settle for bronze whilst Sanderson took the glory at Los Angeles. But post-Olympics it seemed that the worm had turned, Whitbread defeating her foe in seven consecutive meetings before Edinburgh, and seemingly in a perfect position to end her championship drought.

As the competition progressed all looked rosy for Whitbread, each of her throws exceeding 60 metres in the first three rounds, with her third round effort of 68.54 metres looking too good for anyone else in the field. Conversely Sanderson was struggling, not even managing to reach 60 metres at her first attempt. Whitbread appeared more and more confident as each round ticked over, until Sanderson stepped up in round five to break her heart once more.

Sanderson's throw of 69.80 metres could not be matched by a shell shocked Whitbread, who slumped visibly as her arch enemy celebrated joyously. It was understandably one punch too many for Whitbread to take, her agony clear for the whole world to see, and evident in her press conference quotes. "I honestly don't believe any of my opponents are in the same league as me," proclaimed Whitbread. "The one time I needed a bit of luck I didn't get it. The gods of sport were smiling on the wrong lady".

The 1986 Commonwealth Games proved to be a glorious swansong for Sanderson in her battles with her fellow Brit. And although it was another low for Whitbread, she would finally break her duck at the European Championships in Stuttgart that followed shortly afterwards, and famously won the 1987 World Championships on her way to claiming the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. All of this must have seemed a million miles away though as she sat disconsolately on the Meadowbank Stadium track, Sanderson once more crushing her golden aspirations.

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