News08 Aug 2000

Zürich Weltklasse - IAAF Golden League - The Olympics in One Day


Zürich Weltklasse IAAF Golden LeagueThe Olympics in One Day

9 August 2000 - Since 1928 the Weltklasse has been at the head of Europe's leading athletics meetings.The 2000 edition of the renowned Zürich Weltklasse is the fourth leg of the IAAF Golden League and takes place on Friday 11 August. With some difficulty, Dieter Ringhofer selects three highlights from the long, eventful history of the Weltklasse Meeting in Zürich.

The story of athletics in Zürich began 72 years ago, when the "Nurmi Meeting" first took place. Organised by the Zürich Athletics Club, the event took its current name "Weltklasse in Zürich" just in time for its first world record, achieved by the German Martin Lauer in 1959. But the meeting has really gained its reputation over the last 28 years, since Andreas Brügger (73) has been Meeting Director. In this period the budget has increased from 160,000 to almost 6 million Swiss Francs ($3.5 million), a sign also of the general development of athletics.

For the "Weltklasse 2000," Brügger hands over the baton to the younger generation and Hansjörg Wirz, IAAF Council Member and President of the European Athletics Association (EAA), is ready to take over.

1959 - 20% discount on a Swiss watch

Those were the days! "For setting two world records I received a voucher for a 20% discount on a Swiss watch," recalls Martin Lauer, 40 years later.

At the time athletes were officially (and rigidly) amateurs. Lauer, a 22 year-old mechanical engineering student from Cologne, had to hurry to make use of his vouchers because he had to be in Munich for a lecture the day after his record breaking runs. As he slipped, slightly late, into the lecture hall the professor looked quickly at him and said: "Let’s hope you know as much about electrical current technology as you do about hurdling."

In fact, Lauer went on not only to record a hit single, but also to become an expert on Sodium cooling in nuclear reactors and later the director of a public company.

But on 7 July 1959, Lauer laid the foundations of the reputation of the Letzigrund’s "magic track", which at the time was still cinders.

"It was a warm Californian summer-like evening", remembers Lauer clearly, with a 1.9 m/sec following wind and a starter, "who always fired on the ‘t’ of the set". All in all – perfect conditions that combined to aid his magnificent run over 110m hurdles.

All three stopwatches showed 13.2 and Lauer had improved the world record, held by three Americans, by two 10ths of a second.

At Lauer’s request a 16th event was added to the programme, a 200m hurdles, where he also ran a world record of 22.5. This event is no longer included in the official record lists.

Only 10,842 spectators were in the Letzigrund Stadium to witness these first two world records and the event closed with a loss, even though the whole thing had cost a very modest 43,968 Swiss francs to organise.

One year later and Lauer’s career was already over. He was treated for an injury to his touch-down leg at the Rome Olympics, and an infected syringe led to blood poisoning. The joint's mobility was affected and he was no longer able to race. Nevertheless, he still comes to Zürich often as a spectator.

1981 - Two World Records in 25 minutes

On 19 August 1981 we journalists were all writing about a "star-studded night of athletics."

In less than 25 minutes Renaldo Nehemiah (USA) and Sebastian Coe (GBR) set two superb world records, and the young Carl Lewis jumped 8.52 – the furthest ever at sea-level.

24,451 spectators packed the Letzigrund to the rafters and provided an Olympic-like atmosphere that night.

The 22 year-old Nehemiah became the first man to duck under 13 seconds for the high hurdles, then, moments later, Coe ran a world record for the classic Mile event. Nehemiah stopped the clock at 12.93 after a duel with his countryman Greg Foster (13.03) who never ran as fast again.

It was an epic combat, and a light following wind helped to establish Zürich’s fourth hurdles world record. Afterwards, Nehemiah spoke of further improvements: but they never happened. He later signed a professional contract as an American Football player. He couldn’t have known at the time, but just a year later the earning potential of athletes would be greatly improved thanks to the efforts of the recently elected IAAF President, Primo Nebiolo.

After a lengthy break Nehemiah attempted a comeback – without any success. Today he travels the world as an Athletes’ Representative.

Coe had set himself a special target of setting world records for 1500m and the Mile in the same race. The fact that, in the meantime, his arch-rival, Steve Ovett, had broken both these records only increased his motivation. But in the end, his attempt was only half successful.

This was partly because the pacemaker, Tom Byers, was too slow, but also because Coe was weakened by an infection and not in as good shape as he had been in 1979 when he broke his first world record in Zürich (at 1500m).

His 3:33.27 was slower than the 1500m record but he beat the ‘softer’ mile record with 3:48.53. The crowd had run the race with Coe, urging him on with standing ovations, and so had Mike Boit (KEN) and Britain’s Steve Cram who pushed him hard the whole way.

Nine days later, Coe ran 3:47.33 in Brussels, but no-one would have guessed that this eighth world record would be his last.

Coe celebrated five victories in Zürich and finished second in his final appearance in 1989. This was his last major race before he entered Parliament representing the Conservative Party. Since then he has continued to make an impact in politics - both British and sports.

1997 - Kipketer I, Kipketer II, and Haile Gebreselassie

Zürich had never witnessed such a night – Three world records and two European records in one evening.

Just three days after the closing ceremony of the 1997 World Championships, Wilson Kipketer, Wilson Boit Kipketer, Haile Gebreselassie, Dieter Baumann and Fermin Cacho joined forces to provide a one-off spectacle. The only unhappy spectator was the Finance Director: - $50 000 and 1 kg of gold was on offer for a new world record.

Wilson Boit Kipketer, a 23 year-old Kenyan, was the first to race. 700 metres from the finish, he was waved into the lead by world record holder Moses Kiptanui, who had been leading up to that point. Boit Kipketer took the task in hand, kept the pace fast and neither Kiptanui nor Bernard Barmasai had a chance in the final sprint. His time of 7:59.08 knocked 1/10th of a second off Kiptanui’s world record.

"It is getting harder and harder for me", said Kiptanui ambiguously after the race. Following health problems and some technical errors he had lost both his World Championship title and his world record in a matter of days.

After Kipketer II, as he is sometimes known, came Kipketer I, the 800m World Champion.

In July he had equalled Sebastian Coe’s 16 year-old world record of 1:41.73. In Zürich he finally improved the record by 0.49 seconds. Kenya’s Joseph Tengelei set a startling pace from the start. He went through 400m in 48.10, yet Kipketer showed phenomenal strength and proved to be a man of unbelievable capability.

"It was an ideal pace"; he declared afterwards, "this is just a temporary mark". He was right. 11days later the record was already obsolete…

World record number 3, the 23rd in 28 years at the Letzigrund, came about in a revenge match between World Champion Haile Gebrselassie and Kenya’s Daniel Komen.

In 1996 Komen had scored a surprising victory over Gebrselassie and broken the latter’s 5000m world record in the process. This time the race was like a dream. The protagonists seemed to float around the track even though they were on world record pace from the gun. Now, with 300 metres to go, the Ethiopian kicked as conclusively as Komen had the year before. Gebrselassie improved his world record by 2.71 seconds to record 12.41.86. Komen achieved a Kenyan record of 12.44.90 and complained that his rival had not shared the pacemaking duties. In fifth place, Dieter Baumann became the first European to break 13 minutes.

The Zürich crowd had taken Gebrselassie into their hearts. He ran two laps of honour enveloped in a sea of billowing green, yellow and red flags. He, and the other Ethiopians, were beside themselves with joy. A few minutes later the little man reached for some bath slippers. His feet were hurting him and he suddenly felt tired. The party was abruptly over – Haile had reached his limit.

Dieter Ringhofer is the athletics correspondent of the Zürich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger



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