Norman was trying to prove he was no choker and make his Japanese mother proud. James was trying to prove he can run fast even after Graves disease and death of his mother.

Written by Sriram Veera
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Updated: July 23, 2022 11:27:46 am

Gold medalist Michael Norman, of the United States, left, embraces Silver medalist Kirani James, of Grenada, after the final of the men's 400-meter run at the World Athletics Championships. (AP)

Michael Norman was learning Japanese before the Tokyo Olympics. To converse with the relatives of his Japanese mother, who used to be a sprinter in her growing up years in her homeland. Son of an African-American father, a runner, and the sprinter mother, Michael seemed primed to take the gold at Tokyo. “He is going to win it,” his father would say, a sentiment shared by US media and fans. “He is getting a bit popular in Japan,” his mother would tell KSL sports. As it turned out, he crashed out in the final.

The US media were shocked. A LA Times columnist couldn’t hide his sarcasm. First the ‘choker’ tag was brought up before he turned in the knife: “Norman didn’t offer an explanation for his 44.31-second disaster in the Olympic 400-meter final, whipping through the designated post-race interview zone without breaking stride or even looking up. It’s a shame he didn’t run the second half of his race with similar purpose. Without saying a word, the most disappointing athlete on the most underachieving American sprint team in recent history, simply vanished.”

USA’s Michael Norman with an electric 400 meter run to win the gold. He had the stadium rocking.🔥 pic.twitter.com/rRR1AuyF79

— Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) July 23, 2022

Kirani James, the Grenadian who won Olympic gold in 2012, was taking his mother to the hospital in 2019 when she died in the car. His world had already begun to crash a couple of years before that. Not long after the Rio Olympics, during a race, he just couldn’t muster up his energy, finishing sixth in a race of eight.“What was the worst point? When I wasn’t feeling like me,” he would say later.

It was diagnosed as Graves disease, that made his thyroid overactive. He would lose 20 pounds. He took refuge at home, with his mother. Luckily, his coach remembered a famous woman athlete from the past who had suffered the same diseases Gail Devers, who had lost 3 years due to the illness but had stormed back to take gold in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The coach requested Devers to speak to James. Confidence, inspiration floated. The way out of the illness was found.

But his mother, one who he would call from all around the world to sigh about how his “rice, curry chicken, stew chicken, macaroni pie doesn’t come out the same way as mom”, would not be there to see his comeback from hell. Last year, he said, “I had an illness. It’s still going on, I have to be on medication for the rest of my life. 2019 I lost my mother who was the matriarch of our family … , I wish she would have been here to see me be back.”

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At Oregon, Norman’s tryst was with redemption, to prove to himself and to the world that he was no choker. That he was the fastest in the world even under pressure. To make his mother proud.

At Oregon, James’s goal was to prove to himself and to the world that a rare illness could be fought, that a mother’s dream doesn’t have to go to waste.

Both ran, possessed with different urges. Norman, in an inner lane, with Kirani James to his left. The commentator would lay out Norman’s challenge. “Michael Norman has everybody to look at outside of him, but he has Kirani James on his inside, and the Grenadian finishes incredibly fast.”

And so it proved. On the final bend, just as the final 100 metres was about to begin, James started to power kick. He gets beside Norman, and for a fleeting second it even seemed he was getting just ahead, a shoe-stride out in the front. At least, the two were on level for sure. Norman, with his white headband gleaming, pumps ahead, and just as he is about to cross, the white label with his number rips off his shorts and flies behind him. As if it was the choker tag that flew away.

Beside him, on that final lap run, we can see James trying his best to catch up with the man trying to get rid of his demons. But focus on his left foot, for a moment, when you catch the replays.

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The left foot flares wide, to its left, a sight that had a decade back perplexed his coach, Harvey Glance, 4 x 100 metres relay gold medallist in 1976 Olympics. Worried that it would slow him down, Glance had had a word with a young James. “He (James) said it was a family trait. I took that into consideration. I didn’t try to change that. The bottom line was I was watching the results,” Glance had said then. After he won the 2012 London Olympics gold, James would say about that left foot, “It could get better but it could make me worse. Why take that risk? I’m already doing some great things. It is what it is.”

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It is what it is. Just deal with it, was his approach, as he did with graves disease, his mother’s death. Just as Norman did with the perceptions about him. Two men in pursuit of greatness, two men trying to leave the recent past behind, two men trying to catch each other. It was some race. Perhaps, the man who needed a special triumph more than the other, did win.

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