Charmaine Crooks interviews Frank Fredericks at the IAF Gala (© Getty Images)
After a farewell tour last month that spanned half the globe, the athletics world finally bid adieu to one of the most respected and talented athletes it had the pleasure of knowing: Namibian sprinter Frank Fredericks.
From his first, of what would be numerous silver medal winning performances, which took place in the 200 metres at the 1991 World Championships to his final appearance on the grand stage in Athens in August, the personable and wildly popular Fredericks would spend the greater part of a decade-and-a-half at the pinnacle of his craft, a record for longevity nearly unprecedented in the sprints. And if the laps of honour over the past several weeks in Athens, Brussels, Berlin and Monaco, celebrated by standing ovations, were any indication, he will be greatly missed.
Skills honed in Utah – NCAA double
Fredericks began running at 13 and had a passion for football, but when a scholarship opportunity to Brigham Young University (BYU) came his way, his attention, when not on his studies, focused specifically on athletics. While his country, at the time part of South Africa, was unable to compete internationally, Fredericks honed his skills at the Utah university, and left fully prepared when Namibia, which gained its independence in 1991, was allowed back into international competition.
After bests of 10.32 and 20.57 during his first year at BYU, he was a double NCAA sprint finalist in his remaining three years. In 1989 he was sixth (10.20w) and third (20.42), improved to third (10.23w) and second (20.32) the following year before capping his collegiate career with a double 10.03w/19.90w win in 1991 to become the first non-American to capture the demanding NCAA sprint double. He also won the indoor 200 crown that year.
2001 World silver – African double
Upon his competitive departure from Provo, his international impact was immediate. He completed another double that season, sweeping the sprints at the African Championships, having already struck silver in the 200 at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo after finishing fifth in one of the finest 100 metre races ever, clocking 9.95.
Namibian Olympic first and World gold
In 1992, he was a double silver medallist at the Barcelona Olympics, claiming the first Olympic honours for the newly independent Namibia. It was an achievement he would duplicate four years later in Atlanta.
He continued to blossom in 1993, winning 11 of his 14 finals over 200 metres, capped by a world-leading 19.85 to win the World title in Stuttgart. His knack for medal collecting continued the following year with his first Commonwealth title in the 200, a bronze in the short dash, and a World Cup win in the 100 as well. In 1995, he again won silver in the World Championships 200 after a fourth place finish in the 100.
19.68 in Johnson’s wake
1996 would be his finest year. In a six-day period in February, he set world records in the indoor 100 (10.05) and 200 (19.92) metres in Tampere and Lievin respectively; both records still stand. He prepped for the Olympics with a 9.86 win in Lausanne, at the time the third fastest performance ever. In Oslo, he ended Michael Johnson’s two-year win streak in the 200. With a 9.89, he was nearly as fast in Atlanta, where it took Donovan Bailey’s 9.84 World record to relegate him to second. A similar scenario played out in the 200, where again he struck silver, and again finishing behind a World record. This time, it Michael Johnson’s legendary 19.32; Fredericks’ 19.68 still ranks him as the second fastest ever over the distance. He ended his season with nine sub-20 second clockings, more than any other athlete has produced in a single season.
The medal collecting continued. The following year he collected another silver medal in the 200 at the World Championships, ran bests of 9.90 and 19.81, and ran nine legal sub-10s, also a record. In 1998 he added a Commonwealth silver in the 100, and gold and bronze in the 100 and 200 at the World Cup. The following year he added another World title to his credit with a win in the 200 at the World Indoor Championships.
Injury ruins two seasons
While still in top form, Injury restricted him to just one race in 2000, sidelining his Olympic gold aspirations. He came back in 2002 to win another Commonwealth 200 title before ending his season with a silver medal in the World Cup half lap. He finally showed signs of slowing in 2003, but still managed an early season best of 10.00 in Durban, and qualified for the World Championships final in the 200 in Paris where he finished seventh.
This year in Athens, the American trio of Shawn Crawford, Bernard Williams and Justin Gatlin proved too mighty a force for Fredericks, who would celebrate his 37th birthday on October 2. He finished a distant fourth, but his big stage swan song may be most remembered for his calming demeanor, a rare trait for the emotionally charged and explosive sprint events. When the otherwise celebratory crowd in Olympic Stadium disrupted the start of 200 metre final for several minutes, it was the image of Fredericks, projected onto the giant video screen in the stadium that eventually calmed them.
He spoke briefly with reporters after the race, fighting back the emotion of his final Olympic moment. "It is quite emotional," he said. "I always wanted to go out with a medal, but sometimes in life you don't get everything you want."
He later acknowledged that time had eventually caught up. “For me to get a medal, I would have had to run nearly as well as I did eight years ago. At this point,” he said, “that’s asking a lot.”
A commitment to race a lot
But over his career, Fredericks gave a lot. He competed often, both indoors and out. It was, he believed, an important part of his job.
"Many athletes sacrifice the indoor championships in the interest of the Olympics,” he said prior to the World Indoor Championships in Budapest this year, “but I think we can't do this to our fans and sponsors. I'll have time to worry about the Olympics later."
In all, he produced 27 legal sub-10 performances in the 100, and a record 25 sub-20 second clockings in the 200. His 1996 PBs, 9.86 and 19.68, still stand as African Records.
His pursuits off the track, beginning with his degrees in computer science and his Masters in Business Administration in 1994, have been no less inspiring. His volunteer efforts and patronage at home over the past decade led to the formation of the Frank Fredericks Foundation in 1999. The foundation, aimed at developing young athletes while at the same time affording them the opportunity to complete and further their education, was launched by then Namibian Prime Minister Hage Geingob in Fredericks’ hometown of Windhoek.
“It is a very emotional event for me,” Geingob said, “partly because we are so proud of Frank’s achievements on the sports field and partly because of his humility as well as his commitment, and dedication to his country and its people. I know well that people with the kind of extraordinary talent that Frank has,” Geingob continued, “are very often tempted to stay in the West for financial reasons or for the state of the art facilities. But, Frank chose to come back home to impart to the young people of his country his skills.”
Fredericks is also a patron of the Katatura Youth Enterprise Center (KAYEC), an organization that teaches entrepreneurial skills to young men and women.
“It’s now time to give back”
He’s also worked diligently over the years on behalf of his fellow athletes, as a member of the IAAF’s Athletes’ Commission, as the African Athletics Confederation (AAC) Athletes’ Commission Chairman, and as the Namibian National Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission Chairman.
While he’ll no longer be competing, he won’t be far away. His fellow athletes honoured him in Athens by electing him to the Athlete’s Commission of the IOC. The IOC in turn put him right to work, making him a member of the evaluation committee for the 2012 Olympic site selection, with work beginning in February.
“The sport’s given me a lot,” he said. “It’s now time to give back.”
He’s leaving many options open, but there’s one road he refuses travel –that of politics. “No way,” Fredericks said, laughing. “Switching to politics would be foolish for me, because I would like to stay popular.”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF
with thanks to E. Garry Hill.