A quarter of a century ago, when the east African runners were beginning to dominate the long-distance world rankings, the belief arose that the developed world’s runners, with their increasingly soft-centred lifestyles, would simply be unable to compete. That has proved largely to be the case.
There have been exceptions, of course, notably in women’s athletics, with two consecutive Japanese Olympic marathon winners, Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi, and Britain’s world record holder Paula Radcliffe. Even the Kenyans and Ethiopians find it hard to deal with the obsession verging on paranoia that these women have brought to their lives and training.
And there is now another woman the Africans are having to take note of over the long distances, this time an Australian. Benita Johnson is not the best known athlete in her native country, where successful long-distance women runners have been thin on the ground, but this weekend provides another opportunity to remind her compatriots of the scope of her achievements. For today Johnson, 25, will in St Etienne, France.
The origins of her triumph a year ago lie in her place of birth – indeed her childhood reads like a page out of the Kenyan running manual. Johnson cheerfully admits that she was born in the “sticks”, going barefoot until her early teens, at which point she had never travelled on public transport.
The “sticks” meant 30km from the town of Mackay in Queensland, halfway between Brisbane and Cairns, on Australia’s north-eastern coast. “There were no movies, no city, nothing else to do but play backyard sport with my two brothers and sisters. It was always keenly contested, I can tell you.”
Field hockey was her first love, and at the age of 16 she even passed up an opportunity to run in the world junior championships in Sydney in 1996 to go to a tournament in South Africa. “But I realised I was more suited to individual sport. I’d won state and national running titles without really training, so when I got a scholarship to Canberra [The Australian Institute for Sport], I decided to take it seriously.”
Running 1,500 and 5,000 metres, distances that have since proven to be short of her best, she made the Olympic team for Sydney 2000, but failed to progress from the heats. “It was when I finished sixth in the world indoors [championships] and in the world cross in 2001, the first time I’d ever run either, I realised I could be world class, not just the best in Australia.”
The next stage in her progression was teaming up with coach Nic Bideau and his partner, Irish running legend Sonia O’Sullivan. Johnson now spends most of her time living and training in London. “Nic’s coaching and help have been invaluable, and just being around Sonia has helped me a lot. Australia is so far from the rest of the world, it’s not so much training with Sonia, it’s seeing how she deals with her daily life, that sort of thing rubs off on you. She’s helped me believe I can compete at world level. If I could do only half of what she’s done, it’d be an achievement.”
In one sense, Johnson has already done half of what O’Sullivan has achieved. The Irishwoman won both the 4km and 8km races in the world cross country championships in 1998.
Johnson’s victory came in last year’s long-course event in Brussels, where she ran away from the Ethiopian favourites. “Although I’d barely done cross country, I was confident, I’d beaten Tulu [Derartu, the double Olympic 10,000m champion] by 20 seconds in Chiba [Japan], and she was in great shape. I’d planned to ‘go’ in the last 2km, and I dropped them quite easily. It wasn’t a surprise to me, but it was a big deal.”
It was not such a big deal back home, as Johnson admits. “To us, it’s the biggest race in the world, but nobody knows what the world cross is in Australia. It was probably shown on TV two weeks later.”
The rest of last year proved to be disastrous. Johnson got injured, missed five weeks’ training prior to the Olympics, tried to make amends with a marathon debut in New York, suffered a stomach upset and ran 2hr 38min, about 20 minutes slower than her potential.
“That was tough to take, one of the hardest races to get over in my life. That’s another reason why I’ve run a full cross country season in Europe, to get my motivation back.”
After a close second in her first cross country outing, she has been unbeatable since then, and says she is going into the race in St Etienne in the same shape and same frame of mind as last year. “The world cross is never easy, and there are a lot of top girls to beat, but I know I can do it again, and if I do it right, the end result will be the same.”