Mehdi Baala of France wins silver in the 1500m (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Paris, France

Frenzied arena boosts local hopes

There is no greater excitement in athletics when the champion or the favourite or the World record holder is challenged for his crown. Let alone when the runner making that attempt comes from the home country.

The Stade de France is a glorious place to watch track and field. A huge arena, a feel of a special place, and on Wednesday night the most noise that this state of the art stadium had heard since...the evening before!

Prior to that, you probably had to go back five years to the World Cup finals. Such has been the decibel levels created by the home crowd, when first Marc Raquil won a bronze medal in the final of the 400m and then Mehdi Baala took silver in the 1500m.

Celebration time for France and its athletes that could hardly have been matched had they both finished first. Baala even questioned whether Zinedine Zidane, the hero of France´s 1998 World Cup football triumph, was in the arena because of the noise.

Prior to a championship, the hope from the hosts is always that their athletes will deliver. They have had their answer here in two of the best events, and races, of the week. How interesting that both Raquil and Baala have praised the crowd - that has been in excess of 50,000 - because their screaming encouragement must have played a part in their success.

Raquil has a style of running that is almost unique. With 20 metres left of the 400m, both in the semi-final and the final, you would not have expected him to have finished in the first five. At almost the same moment he put lowered his head of blonde hair down to find one last challenge, and the Stade de France turned into a frenzied arena.

You could almost hear every spectator – French or not – willing him on because it was athletics at its finest. Could he do it? Yes, no…yes. Cue even greater noise as he made it across the line to earn a place in the final by winning his semi and then repeating the act in the final itself when he finished third.

But with even more drama.

Americans Jerome Young and Tyree Washington had taken the first two places and the crowd suddenly became hushed to see if Raquil had scrapped the bronze. He had – and what followed was another cacophony of delirium when the scoreboard flashed up his name.

Twenty-four hours later, it was the turn of Baala. Would he produce the upset of this and many another championship by beating the triple 1500m champion Hicham El Guerrouj?

From the gun, the Stade de France was rocking. When Baala moved closer to the World record holder, there was an even greater sense of anticipation and though he could not pass him, his silver was celebrated with a standing ovation.

Arguably, there has never been a better example of home support than on the night Cathy Freeman won her 400m gold at the Olympic Games in Sydney, while who could forget Spain´s Fermín Cacho winning the 1500m at the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 or German Lars Riedel winning the second of his five Discus gold medals at the World Championships of 1993 in Stuttgart, or Finn Tiina Lillak beating Britain's Fatima Whitbread with her last throw in 1983?

An athlete can train as much as they need, they can hope to perform on the day and they can be on the look-out for a bit of luck. Combine all that with a G-force of 50,000 supporters and no wonder France keeps appearing on the podium.