Ahora mismo me siento la persona más feliz del mundo. Ya puedo morir en paz. Gracias. Eskerrik asko.
“Right now I feel like the happiest person in the world. I can die in peace. Thank you. Thank you.”
A career at its zenith; a life-long passion distilled in a moment. But these words were not spluttered by some victorious athlete as they stepped euphorically from the ring, track or podium. They were, in fact, posted by the Spaniard Felix Sanchez Arrazola on his Instagram account, shortly after he won the award for Athletics Photograph of the Year at the IAAF Athletics Awards 2018.
His image of Selemon Barega winning the Cross Internacional Juan Muguerza in Elgoibar, Spain, was selected ahead of three other short-listed images as the best of the year at the event in Monaco in December. For Sanchez, 40, who hails from a village outside of Bilbao, in the Basque region of northern Spain, it was recognition in a field that has been a passion for life.
“I began running at the age of eight, after seeing that my older brother ran and did athletics,” he explains. “From that moment athletics became the sport that I was most passionate about.”
Besides competing, among his earliest athletics memories is watching the iconic 1500m final at the 1984 Olympics, “when Seb Coe beat Steve Cram and the Spanish runner Jose Manuel Abascal”.
As much as Sanchez would dream of replicating those heroics on the track, his path was altered by an injury to his foot, leaving him unable to train, compete and hang out with his athletics buddies. But he had an idea.
“I had always been interested in the photographs in the athletics magazines I bought when I was a kid, and I loved looking at the pictures," he says. "I had a bedroom full of pictures of my idols.
“In order to stay close to the sport from which the injury had separated me, I began taking photographs.”
Story in an image
As someone who understands the sport from a competitive perspective, Sanchez – a regular contributor to Runners World, Marca, As, El Mundo – aims to recreate the unique emotions athlete experience within the images he captures.
“For me, photographs which contain gestures of effort, delight, fatigue, or containing a story, are images that always have a lot of impact,” he explains.
“I always seek to capture the moments that, for the athletes, are part of their story.”
These qualities scream out from his muck-caked winning image, which he calls the “photograph of my career”.
“The reaction of Selemon was something that poured straight from his heart,” says Sanchez. “It was a moment special to cross country, plastered and covered in mud. To kneel down and give thanks to his god with his arms, it was a personal act, one that he has done all his life.”
Besides its visual impact, Sanchez’s photograph of Barega, a world U18 and U20 champion, was portentous. It was taken at the start of a year in which the Ethiopian would unveil his talent on the senior stage with devastating effect: following world indoor silver in March, the recently-turned 19-year-old won the 5000m at the IAAF Diamond League final, clocking a world U20 record of 12:43.02 and moving to fourth on the world all-time list.
This weekend Barega will line up in the senior men's race at the IAAF/Mikkeller World Cross Country Championships Aarhus 2019 where he will start as one of the favourites.
When Sanchez was revealed as the winner in Monaco, the heady moment was made more poignant, as Barega himself skipped on to the stage to embrace the man on the other side of the lens. With the announcement, his image went global.
“The reaction in Spain to this photo, and above all else to winning the IAAF prize, has been overwhelming. Since the day after the IAAF Awards the phone, social media, the press… it’s been a genuine frenzy,” he says.
“Dedicated photography media selected the image as one of the best of the year, and for me this is such an honour.
“I began in athletics age eight: this prize is the best I could received in my life; no prize will ever surpass the emotional significance of that which I experienced that night in Monaco.”
Thomas Byrne for the IAAF