‘Run with pride, Kiwis’ - and they did.
Jeremy Rees watches the NZ secondary school cross country team grab four 'podium' finishes at a beautiful but odd Paris venue for the world championships.
At the opening of the World Schools Cross Country championships in Paris, France's Minister of Sport and its most decorated female sportswoman, Laura Flessel-Colovic, explicitly linked the event to the Olympic Games coming to the same city in 2024.
"I hope that some of you sitting here today will be back to compete in Paris in 2024," she told the hundreds of school pupils from 34 countries, crammed into the Stadium Baron de Coubertin, named for the man who founded the Olympic movement.
Six years is a long time in athletics, and who knows if any of the assembled pupils can make it to the Games, but at least some of the New Zealand athletes in action overnight may have taken a first step.
In the four races of the latest biennial world championships, New Zealand athletes won a silver medal in the boys individual race, a creditable, close-run fourth and fifth in the girls individual race and were third-best girls team. In the school races, for six-person school teams, New Zealand excelled with a silver for Westlake Boys, a rising athletic power in the New Zealand schools running scene, and a bronze for perennially strong, St Cuthbert's College.
If there was one nation to beat, it was probably Morocco, which won both school races and picked up individual medals. The red jersey of Moroccan runners were prominent in every race, but it was a close run thing with the 24-strong Kiwi team pushing them close in every race.
The signs were there from the beginning. When running great, Hicham El Guerrouj, the world record-holder for 1500m, the mile and outdoors 2000ms and double Olympic medallist at the 2004 Athens Games, spoke at the opening, the Morrocan team cheered its national hero loud and long. But it was the New Zealand team who caught his eye. He stopped in front of the New Zealand athletes and told them, "Run with pride, Kiwis."
And they did. No-one exemplified it better than Sam Tanner, of Bethlehem College.
At the half-way mark of the individual boy's race, Tanner was seventh in a front pack dominated by Moroccan runners. As the 5km race entered the final lap through the Champs de Mars, beside the Eiffel Tower, Tanner and Algerian Cherrad Oussama ratcheted up the pace and the front group shattered. With 200m go, Oussama edged ahead but Tanner sprinted home, crossing the finish line just milliseconds behind. Another 20m and we could be celebrating a famous New Zealand victory but the line is the line.
Tanner, the deputy head boy of Bethlehem College, is carving out an impressive record in New Zealand schools cross country. He won the Senior title last year as a Year 12 on a hard fast and flat course in Christchurch. Picked for the New Zealand team to race against the Australians, he came third in the Under-18 race and in December ran second in the 1500m NZ schools champs, one of the glamour events.
Tanner, along with Liam Back (16), George Cory-Wright (34), Andres Hernandez (37), Logan Slee (42) and Dion Houston (54) were placed fifth team overall.
In many ways, the world schools cross country championship has its oddities. This event was dead flat except for two man-made ramps as runners ran through gardens near the Eiffel Tower, usually packed with tourists and those who prey upon them, tat-sellers, merchants and pickpockets. In 2016, this event was held amidst the flowerbeds and paths of the public gardens on St Margaret's Island, Budapest. Think a race through the botanic gardens. It is a far cry from the muddy fields and rolling hills of Manawatu or Otago in mid-winter where New Zealand athletes compete in national championships. The latter favour strength, the former speed.
Then there are the competing nations. The Europeans are here in force. So, following the example of El Guerrouj, are the Moroccans, Algerians and North African countries who are a power house now of running. Turkey, too, is strong, as are the Australians, English and Canadians. From Asia, there is China, Thailand, Singapore. But the Americans were missing; they prefer the dry precision of track and field (think of those Track teams in Hollywood movies). And there were no teams from sub-Saharan Africa, either in Paris or Budapest. But that should not diminish the fact these are the World Championships, the standard of international competition is very high and athletes are competing for world titles.
In the girls race, it was no surprise to see Hannah O'Connor, of Taranaki, go straight to the front of the 4.1km race. She has won every title in New Zealand schools middle distance running, cross country and road races. She was the New Zealand team's flag-bearer at the opening. When O'Connor is running at a school event, crowds stop to watch, whether they like middle distance or not. Last year, she was selected to run at the Commonwealth Youth Games. To give an indication of her prowess, check out her stats in the 3000m. The 10 minute mark in school girls' 3000m divides the very good runners from the elite. Go sub-10 and you are in the elite. Hannah ran 9.25 at the Taranaki Championships in Inglewood in February 2017. But injuries are the curse of runners and Hannah is coming back from injuries.
After the first lap, she was leading with fellow Kiwi Aimee Ferguson on her shoulder. But in the middle of the race, Ella Heeney of Australia and Meryeme Azrour of Morocco, stormed to the lead, and held it against the challenges of O'Connor and Ferguson with Francesca Brint of England. O'Connor and Ferguson were awarded the same time, just a second behind Brint who took the bronze but O'Connor was adjudged fourth.
The individual girls - O'Connor, Ferguson, Phoebe McKnight (11), Sofia Kennedy (29), Tessa Webb (34) and Tessa Hunt (40) - won the bronze for being the third fastest national team in the race, behind Australia and England.
The schools races saw rising stars, Westlake Boys, take silver, led by a fast race from Murdoch Mcintyre (5th). The team of Mcintyre, David Moore (10), Stuart Hofmeyr (13), Daniel Robertson (21), Zachary Keenan (28) and Blair Hill (47) have been one of the most visible teams on the athletics tracks of Auckland this summer as they trained for Paris
St Cuthbert's College, strong in recent years in middle distance with a succession of fine runners, was at the world championships for the second time in a row to try to improve on theith eighth placing in Budapest two years ago. They did. Led by a group of young Year 10 runners, Isabella Richardson with twins Chloe and Bella Browne, along with more senior runners, Emily Hacket-Pain, Claire Rees and Emma Hamilton, the team clinched the bronze behind a Moroccan and Australian school, just as the conditions deteriorated.
All in all, the New Zealand schools team returns with a total of four podium finishes - Tanner's silver, the girls' bronze, Westlake Boys' silver and St Cuthberts' bronze - plus a number of top 10 finishes, a very good haul.
As the team made its way back to the bus after all the presentations, the rain began but the team began to sing, many clutching medals and the flowers handed out by organisers. As the traffic of Paris buzzed past, they sang the New Zealand national anthem; E Ihowa Atua.
Who knows, as Laura Flessel-Colovic suggested, if any could be back in 2024 to run at the Olympics. But they had certainly listened to Hicham El Guerrouj. "Run with pride, Kiwis."