Tag Archives: marathon runner

Joschka Fischer; from Maoist to Marathoner to …

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As a socialist and a runner, I feel bereft of recent role models. I’ve blogged about Steve Ovett‘s red vest, the race and class politics of Chariots of Fire, and  of the Workers’ Olympics of the 1920s and 1930s. But these all belong to a history which is over. A decent case could be made for the radical politics of South Africa’s Comrades ultra-marathon which opens with an amplifed blast of Shosholoza (“we share”) and clearly taps into something deep in the transformed South African psyche. But two friends John and Anya have encouraged me to write about Germany’s best known politician of the 1968 generation, Joschka Fischer.

It is hard to be entirely sympathetic.

In the early years of the new Millennium, Fischer seemed better than most of his generation. In 2000, the German news magazine Stern ran a series of photograps of Fischer in a motorcycle helmet confronting a police officer during a 1973 demonstration, while the Greens were both untested by government and (at least in terms of their programme) far to the left of our own new Labour.

In 1985, while being sworn in as a member of regional government in Hesse, Fischer attended the state Parliament in white Nike running shoes.  (The shoes are now on display at the German museum in Bonn). The image was seen at the time as indicating Fischer’s iconoclasm. But when you compare it to, say, Tommy Sheridan’s clenched fist at Holyrood, it’s pretty clear that Fischer’s was the shallower transgression.

Fischer published in 2001 a first memoir, Mein langer Lauf zu mir selbst (“My long run towards myself”), describing how he had responded to press jibes that he was overweight by taking up marathon running and by sustained and intense dieting, a combination which enabled him to shed five and half stones. Fischer took part in the 1999 New York marathon, finishing in a little under 4 hours.

He was preparing himself, he invited his readers to conclude, for a bid for power.

Now, Fischer is best known as the Foreign Minister of the last SPD-Green coalition, and an advocate of military intervention in Afghanistan but not Iraq, to which Fischer’s government was ostensibly opposed (while allowing American military aircraft to fly over German airspace, using German soldiers to guard American installations, and sending armored reconnaissance vehicles to Kuwait etc). In recent years he has come over as a pretty average member of the Daniel Cohn-Bendit generation who slunk from Marxism to neo-liberalism: no worse, but certainly no better than his UK counterparts, Straw, Blunkett, Blair …

Like others of this generation (two well-known contributors to Observer and Vanity Fair spring to mind), Fischer added pounds while moving to the right. By the middle years he was rumoured to be a regular diner  at the happily-named Gargantua restaurant in Frankfurt, best known for its liver, beef and creamy soups. There haven’t been any reports for a while of Fischer taking part in marathons.

I don’t want to overdo the link between Fischer’s politics and his running: mere sporting participation by itself doesn’t make you a better person (just ask the part-time jogger Dave Cameron). On the other hand, it’s hard not to see anything in Fischer’s simultaneous political and physical degeneration in the middle years of the last decade.

Exiting with dignity

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I will always associate Vienna 2012 with the solidarity shown by those running in aid of Iranian workers. For the press, a different story was at stake, the staggered half marathon race between Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe, billed as the Emperor versus the Queen, which the Ethiopian runner won easily (too easily: he made up an eight minute deficit by15k).

Gebrselassie is by universal acclaim a fantastic athlete: a double Olympic gold winner over 10k, the winner of 4 world indoor and 4 world outdoor championships over a range of distances from 1500 metres up to 10k. He is also kind, courteous and genuinely modest. He was on Radio 5 a few months ago. None of the main presenters have even a passing knowledge of distance running, yet he charmed the entire studio. He remains an outstanding athlete; his time at Vienna was 60 minutes for a half marathon. He will not be competing at London 2012, simply because he has the misfortune to be competing against a brilliant generation of younger Ethiopian runners. In 2012, nineteen Ethiopian men have surpassed Gebrselassie’s best recent marathon time of 2 hours 8 minutes. (By comparison, the fastest UK finisher at the 2011 London marathon, Lee Merrien, came in at 2 hours 14).

Paula Radcliffe has run the three fastest three women’s marathon times in history. Her closest competitor Liliya Shobukhova has a best time of 2hr 18min 20; thirty-eight seconds slower than Radcliffe’s third-fastest time of 2hr 17min 42sec; and three minutes behind Radcliffe’s best ever time of 2hr 15min 25sec. She, Radcliffe Gebrselassie, will be at London. However, she seems to be 10 years past her peak. It is a long time since Radcliffe won a really top race, and few people seem to give her any real chance of winning at London. Her defeat at Vienna, where she had to be comforted by Gebrselassie is being taken as further evidence of her decline.

Radcliffe doesn’t seem to be a very popular athlete in Britain. You have to look right in the corners of the press coverage to see what the press think of her: a perfectionist, driven (too much so?), over-influence by her husband, who is also her coach. It is almost as if people have not forgiven her for her defeats at Athens, etc.

Both Radcliffe and Gebrselassie would be capable of competing as veterans should they so choose. Twenty years ago, most athletes -irrespective of their sport – seemed to peak at 26 or so and then decline rapidly thereafter (certainly neither McEnroe nor Borg got far past that milestone), and if better nutrition and sports science have pushed that milestone a couple of years back (just think of the longevity of Roger Federer) the frustrating reality remains that even marathon runners, with all their slow-twitch muscles, which are supposed to go more slowly than fast-twitch muscles of a sprinter, decline as they age.

 This injured ex-runner, 12 months Radcliffe’s senior, wishes them both well.