It’s close to noon and Abderrahman Samba is slogging it out in the sweltering heat and humidity of the Indonesian capital. His music system – which he carried to the stadium – is belting out a Rihanna number at full volume. His coach, Hennie Kotze, is hollering instructions and struggling to make himself heard.
They had been there for close to two hours with a few other members of Qatar’s track and field squad in Jakarta for the Asian Games. There’s hardly anybody else at the venue apart from a few teenaged Asian Games volunteers. They are watching Samba drip bucketsful of sweat as he goes through his strenuous routine. One of the girls tries to imitate him by jumping over an imaginary hurdle. Her friends break into giggles.
It’s 12.30pm and the heat has suddenly become oppressive. “Ok, we are done for today,” Kotze shouts. “Five more minutes, coach,” Samba shouts back.
Kotze is regarded as one of the greatest hurdles coaches in the world, but the genial and humble South African considers himself lucky to have Samba as his student.
“He is really dedicated and disciplined and has a fantastic temperament. It’s an honour for me to have him under my wings,” Kotze says, as Samba collects the hurdles and heads back to rest on the steps of the stadium. On the way, however, he stops and shouts into this writer’s recorder: “He is the best coach in the world, he is the best coach in the world.”
Kotze smiles gently and waves him off with a pat on the back. There’s little doubt about the level of admiration they have for each other.
“The thing about him is he takes the same discipline and dedication to his life outside of athletics. To his personal life, his religion, he is totally committed. It’s lucky for me that he is that way. It helps me a lot in my work and it helps him run very fast!”
Samba, of course, is the hot favourite to win the 400m hurdles gold for Qatar in Jakarta. His sensational exploits in the Diamond League, where he upstaged Norwegian world champion Karsten Warholm, would go down as one of the highlights of the 2018 track and field season.
The South African is certain Samba is a future world champion, with the world record possibly accompanying it as the icing on the cake. The world record, of course, belongs to American Kevin Young, who clocked 46.78 seconds at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
Twenty-six years after Young’s blistering effort, the Qatari became only the second man ever to go under 47 seconds (46.98), his feat coming during the Paris Diamond League meeting on June 30. It was a performance that even surprised Kotze.
“To be honest even I was taken by surprise. I didn’t realise he would come close to the world record. He was fantastic in the Diamond League. His consistency has been amazing. Surely we are planning for the world record and the title at the IAAF World Championships in Doha next year. But we have to be careful with our planning.”
One of the things coach Kotze would like Samba to do is to take just 13 strides consistently between hurdles as this is considered the benchmark of greatness over the 400m.
American all-time great Edwin Moses, who won the gold at the 1976 and 1984 Olympics – he didn’t take part in the 1980 Games in Moscow because of the US boycott – is considered the first man to perfect the 13-stride pattern.
In a 400m hurdles race, runners usually take 14 steps between hurdles because maintaining a long enough stride to reach every hurdle in 13 steps is considered extremely taxing. On the other hand, if an athlete takes 15 strides he would be hardly competitive because that would mean each stride will be shorter.
Moses was a self-coached athlete. He had a masters in physics and industrial engineering, and perhaps used some of his knowledge to develop his athletics prowess.
As a result, between 1977 and 1987, he went unbeaten in a mindboggling 122 races, setting four world records in the process. Moses’ personal best of 47.02 was set in 1983, which his compatriot Young later eclipsed in 1992. The fact that Samba also broke Moses’ mark at the Paris Diamond League surely puts him on the road to superstardom.
“That’s one of the things we are working on. The 400m hurdles is one of the most demanding events, technically as well as physically. You have to set your target, speed wise, endurance wise,” says Kotze.
“I want him to reach the first hurdle in 20 strides and each of the remaining nine hurdles in 13 strides each.”
But at the moment, the focus is on the Asian Games.
“It’s one of the biggest events in the world even though it’s the Asian Games. Winning the gold for your country is an honour. Abderrahman is very excited and motivated. He is in great shape. He is both naturally gifted as well as totally dedicated.”
The 400m hurdles gold will be decided on August 27.
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