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Mr. Ward postulates even bigger controversy for the future of sports...

Faster than the Wind


Chris Ward

  What do you say to a man who has trained so hard for something, only to have it taken out of his grasp, have it taken away because he’s two feet too tall?

  The day I met Larry, I knew he was something.  Knew the world would roll beneath him like the rails below a thundering train.  Knew he would change whatever world he chose to be part of.  You had to admire him, carrying a weight of expectation like that, but Larry hardly seemed to care at all.

  At least so it seemed.

  ‘Coach, you gotta meet my friend Larry,’ Louis, quick but not extraordinary over 400m told me at training that first day.

  ‘The Tall?  The one you was tellin’ me about?’

  ‘Yeah.  He’s a bit shy but I got him to come on down.  Likes to run, he does.  He can go quick.  I seen that already.’

  ‘Ain’t in no trouble, is he?’

  ‘Good as gold.  Likes to run, is all.’

  I looked up and there he was, bending low to leave the clubhouse, head as big and black as a refuse sack, and just from the size of that boy’s neck and shoulders I knew he was gonna fly.

  Larry lumbered over, huge head slumped between colossal shoulders as though his size embarrassed him.

  ‘Stand up straight, boy,’ was the first thing I said.  ‘God’s given you something special so stand up n’ let him see it.’

  Larry lifted his head.  I estimated him at nine-five.  Later the tape would tell me he evened a clean nine-seven.  I would need a step ladder just to pat his shoulder.

  ‘I hear you like to run, boy.’

  ‘Like the wind, sir.  Faster n’, sometimes.’

  ‘I don’t doubt that.  Wanna give me a little show of what you can do?’

  ‘Sure, sir.’

  I pointed across the training field.  ‘See that tree there?  Go run round it and back.’  I patted his arm to steer him in that direction, and I felt big, strong muscles under the long-sleeved top he wore.  I knew then this boy could do anything.  And if he chose to be a runner, it was all right by me.

  Larry was gone in a moment.  I didn’t time him.  I didn’t want to know, just yet.  Wanted to see if he had the heart, the hunger, before I got excited.

  ‘I told him he should play ball,’ Louis said.  ‘They have a league especially for Talls like him.’

  I knew about it.  Over 8ft had a separate NBA in the States, and there was talk of one in Britain too, if there were enough players around.  The old NBA was too popular in its current form to be altered to accommodate Talls, but for guys almost at eye-level with the 10ft hoop, it was too easy.  This new league, the TNBA, only consisted of three teams though, playing a round-robin event that toured the country.  While scientists currently estimated that there was one Tall born in every ten thousand, not all of them wanted to shoot hoops for a living.

  I looked towards Larry, heading back now.  I thought he could win medals at 200m, 400m, but as I watched him his legs began to pump and his body sprang forward across the grass of the outfield.  In fact, he barely appeared to be touching it as he moved, and I took a step back, worried he’d be unable to stop himself and plow straight into us.  As he came to a heavy, faltering stop, I knew I had the next sprint champion on my hands, if only I could get him out of the blocks quick enough.  He had the cruising speed to beat anyone; if I could get that huge frame up and running within a yard of the field he’d tear them all up in the last fifty.

  ‘What d’ya reckon?’ Larry said through huffs, baseball-mitt-sized hands on his knees.

  I nodded.  ‘Not bad, but you need work, boy.’  Overconfidence can kill, or at least ruin a career.  ‘You got the tools, all right.  Learn how to get t’best out of ‘em, learn how to use ‘em proper…’

  ‘You’ll train me up, sir?’

  ‘Sure, boy.  I’ll do what I can.’  I paused.  ‘And call me coach f’m now on.’


  The oversized son of an inattentive steelworker father and an underachieving dress-maker mother, Larry wasn’t the brightest spark, but he put in the training hours I asked for and then some, the way you have to if you want to be a champ.  We did mostly gym and pool work, the obvious fitness stuff and a lot of weight training, building and tightening up those huge muscles, working on flex, speed.  Out on the track we concentrated on starts, acceleration.  I didn’t need to tell Larry that no sprinter should slow before 110m; Larry ran until 120m.  I had to move the blocks back ten meters to stop him running out of the ground and into the road.

  We trained for six months before I timed him.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, Christ, I did.  I knew he was fast.  I just didn’t want to know how much.  It scared me, maybe.  I’d been around so-so or mediocre athletes all my life, and now chance had brought me a potential legend.  It was hard to get your head around.

  The first day I did, with Larry deliberately running into a strong headwind, he clocked 9.51secs on an unhelpful surface.  He was just 0.09secs off the world’s best.  That 9.43 run by Manuel Discus in Montreal 13 years ago was still blamed on an undetectable steroid, not that the runner would admit anything.  Even retired, drug use carried a 10-year jail term after a huge betting scandal a few years back caused the IAF to tighten the laws.

  And since, no had ever got close.  According to the digital display on the club’s photo timer, Larry was unofficially the second fastest man of all time.  With another eighteen months of training Larry was going to smash it.  In the right conditions, I had found the first man capable of running under nine seconds.

  And that scared the shit out of me.


  ‘What happens if he breaks it?’ Louis said, himself in the 400m field at the British Olympic Trails – a minor miracle, but Larry seemed to have pulled a new level out of his friend – as we watched Larry warming up before his heat.

  ‘He won’t,’ I said.  ‘I told him to pull off.  Take second place, if he can.’

  ‘Coach, you’re asking him to cheat,’ Louis said without thinking.

  Anger bloomed and I hit him across the head.

  ‘Ow!’ Louis scowled.

  ‘I’m asking him to keep a lid on it, is what,’ I growled.  ‘Asking him not to draw attention to himself.  Look at the way they are with him, and he hasn’t even lined up yet.’

  Across at the track several competitors eyed Larry with suspicion.  He towered over all of them, and more than one spat unkind comments in his direction.  At a guy of Larry’s size I’d never have dared, but Larry looked so kind, so harmless that they were taking liberties.  He would remain the target unless he picked one of his tormentors up and snapped him over those huge knees.  And that would get him kicked out.

  ‘We need Larry to keep a low profile,’ I said.  ‘We need them thinkin’ they have a chance.’

  ‘I guess,’ Louis said.  ‘But I’d love to see him leave them assholes for dust.’

  ‘We get him into the Istanbul Games,’ I said, ‘And the whole world’ll see it.’

  Literature painted oversized guys like Larry just as he appeared, big and dumb, capable of lugging stacks of bricks and little else.  But the reality was much different.  Talls were as clued up as anyone, and there were fears their obvious physical advantages were manifest in their minds as well.  A team of scientists, led, in fact, by a Tall, were researching the possibility that a race of superbeings were evolving out of us.  Expectations were that Talls had an extended lifespan, but none had yet died of natural causes.  The oldest recognized Tall was only fifty-five.

  ‘Here we go,’ Louis said.

  Larry clocked 9.68secs and still finished two feet clear.  It wasn’t what I had hoped for, but the time was average enough and in a weak field he could get away with it.  Still, I was worried success would go to his head and he’d get carried away.

  ‘How’d I do, coach?’ he asked, after he’d made his way back to us.

  ‘Good, boy, good.  Take another step off the pedal in the semi, though, hey.’

  ‘Sure thing.  I whopped ass, eh.’  He grinned.

  I forced a smile.  ‘You sure did.  Now get off and take a shower.’


  In the semi Larry did as I asked.  He came in a head clear but with a time of 9.75 it was less obvious he was holding back.  In fact, at a point when he should be striving for quicker times he appeared tired, his run strained.  Of course, competition was a new thing for him; the timer-less, spectator-free tryouts just to get a spot in the Olympic Trials themselves were a whole level of pressure less.  The large crowds of the Trials proper were a new experience for Larry, as were the snide remarks of the other competitors, for some of which this was the last chance to be anything other than career also-rans.

  ‘He called me dumb, he did,’ Larry mumbled over a quiet dinner the night before the final.


  The guy from Belgrave,’ Larry said.  ‘The guy with dyed hair.’

  ‘Ignore that punk,’ Louis said, leaning across.  ‘You could whip his ass, Larry.’

  ‘Ignore Louis,’ I said.  ‘Stick to the game plan like I told you.  Jus’ enough to make the squad.  Don’t you say or do nothin’ different.  We’ll do our talkin’ in three months time, with the world watchin’.  You hear me?’

  ‘Loud and clear,’ Larry said, but Louis wasn’t done.

  ‘I say blitz ‘em, Larry.  Blow ‘em away.  Show ‘em there ain’t no one gonna beat you.  You’ll be running quicker come the games anyhow.’

  ‘Who’s the fucking coach here?’ I shouted, slamming my hand down on the table.  ‘You follow team orders or I’ll pull both of you.’

  That shut them up.  It didn’t matter for Louis anyway; he’d somehow made the 400m final but had the weakest PB of the field and, baring another miracle, would go out, gallantly, I hoped.  I had one or two others who would make the squad, but in an international field I had hopes of a semi-final at best.  No, Larry was the jewel.  Fit, no one would beat him, and I suspected he could beat most on one leg.


  By race time though, I knew things were starting to go wrong.  Larry looked riled during the build up and I hoped Louis had kept his mouth shut.  As expected, he’d gone out in the 400m final but he’d placed a respectable sixth, and now, with the weight of expectation lifted he was beside me in the coaches’ dugout shouting encouragement to Larry.

  The big man didn’t seem to need it.  His jaw was set and in his tight running outfit his muscles bulged in readiness.  He looked like a human tank and I prayed he didn’t get carried away.

  ‘Rip it up, Larry!’ Louis shouted, hands cupped around his mouth.

  ‘I was about to shout something less forceful when I saw there was a problem out on the track.

  One of the other athletes said something to Larry, then stepped up and pushed him in the chest.  The scene was almost comic; it looked like a little boy picking on a man.  Although Larry didn’t move I saw him clench his fist tight.

  I was out of the dugout in a moment.  I reached the starting blocks just after two marshals.

  ‘Take it easy big man!’ one shouted.

  ‘I ain’t done nothin’!’

  I shoulder-barged the marshal who’d put his hands on Larry and then I turned on the other.  ‘Get your hands off my athlete!’

  ‘He’ll be disqualified if he isn’t careful!’

  ‘He’s done nothin’ wrong.  Have you Larry?’

  ‘Not me, coach.  Jus’ warmin’ up.  He started it.’  He pointed at the other athlete, a white guy whose running shirt said, “14 Jenkins K.  Warrington Harriers.”

‘He called me a freak,’ Larry continued.

The other man glared.  ‘Shouldn’t be out here with us,’ Jenkins spat.  ‘Should be in a damn cage!’

‘Shut it or I’ll make an official complaint,’ I said, following protocol, when I would have preferred to throw a punch.  It shut Jenkins up at least.

The marshals steered me away from the track, back to the dugout.  ‘Keep it down, or we’ll pull your runner,’ one said.

Scowling but saying nothing, I went back to where Louis stood and watched the runners line up.  Larry looked incensed.  To my dismay, Jenkins was on Larry’s inside lane.  I hoped he didn’t try anything dirty.

The runners marked.  Louis was practically hanging off my shoulder as the gun blew.

Larry flew.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Worked up into a frenzy, he roared down the track like a sinner running from God.  He blitzed them, blitzed them all.  It was almost frightening.

Larry finished yards clear, but looking back down the track I knew there was a problem.  Jenkins, the troublemaker, hadn’t even made the line.  Instead he was sitting, halfway back down the track, hollering something at the officials, waving his arms in the air, fists clenched.  As Larry’s time flashed up on the big screens, 9.14 seconds, a new World Record by an astonishing three tenths of a second, I sensed a storm gathering overhead.


  It broke later that night.  While eating a celebratory dinner with the boys, I got a call on my cell phone.

  ‘Mr. Thompson?  My name is Derrick Whiteman.  I’m from the British Olympic Committee.’

  ‘Yeah, I know who you are.  I watched you win the 1500m back in the Cairo Games.’

  ‘Hey, thanks.’

  ‘So what’s the BOC doin’ callin’ me?’

  There was a pause on the other end of the line.  ‘It’s about your runner.  We’re … pulling him.’

  I saw white heat.  ‘The fuck you are – ‘

  ‘I’m afraid he’s been disqualified from the race, and that puts him out of selection.’


  ‘Independent adjudication has ruled his shoulder barge on Kevin Jenkins was deliberate.’

  ‘You know as well as I do that Jenkins encroached on Larry’s lane!’

  ‘T.V. replays were inconclusive.  We have to go with the instigator of the physical contact.’

  ‘The hell you have…’

  What I saw on the replays was Kevin Jenkins leaning across into Larry’s lane.  He played it clever; his foot didn’t cross the line but his body was way overbalanced.  He was a turkey contender himself, had no chance of a squad place.  He was trying to take them both out.  Whether he had been paid up to it or was just a spiteful bastard we might never know.

  He hadn’t reckoned on Larry’s physical advantage.  A couple of feet ahead when Jenkins leaned in, one of Larry’s pumping arms caught Jenkins in the chest.  Running at speed and off balance, Larry just gave him a little nudge into race retirement.  Nothing less than he deserved, in my opinion, and that of the sizeable crowd, roaring their appreciation of the record.  The BOC and Kevin Jenkins were alone in their disagreement.

  I hung up the phone and stalked off to be alone a while.  It would be difficult breaking the news to Larry, who was basking in his record as best as a humble man could.  Louis, in contrast, was hammered on the euphoria surrounding his friend, and also on a case of champagne donated by a national newspaper.


  For a couple of days I kept Larry away from newspaper reports and the T.V.  I didn’t want him getting carried away, I said.  He was going to find out eventually that his record wouldn’t stand, but I needed time to construct a plan.  We’d been cheated, and if cheats always won the world would revolve backwards.

  A buddy I had working as a lawyer told me we had a good case in what looked like discrimination.  That was until I received another phone call from the BOC.  Worse news was coming.

  ‘Sorry to tell you this, Mr. Thompson, but in light of your runner’s emergence, and certain… advantages… the BOC has voted unanimously to install a height restriction on its athletes.  This motion has been passed and you can expect a public announcement by Thursday.’

  ‘You’re shitting me!  This is ridiculous!’  I wanted to smash the phone.  ‘That’s discrimination against Talls.  You can’t do that!’

  ‘Actually, Mr. Thompson, it’s not.  The proposed height limit will be set at eight feet two inches.  And I’m sure you’re aware that the British government officially recognizes a person as a Tall as one with no physical or mental impairments standing at eight feet or above.  Therefore, Talls have as much right to compete as anyone else.  Talls of a certain height.’

  I scoffed.

  ‘Which means that your discrimination claim has no substance in a court of law.’

  He was right.  It was unethical, but they could push it, no different to an airline company having a downward height limit for their hostesses.  Especially if there was no opposition.

  ‘We’re going to have the motion forwarded to the International Olympic Association for possible implementation before the next Games.  I’m afraid it looks like your guy is looking for another profession.’

  I threw the phone to the ground and stamped on it until pieces of casing and circuit board mixed with the short grass of the training field.  I only wished it was the official’s face instead.

  That I knew of, Larry was the only recognized Tall competing in the Trials.  What they’d done was face off against the future and wimp out.  Britain didn’t have a strong squad; the BOC knew Larry had gold in the bag but they didn’t want people the world over accusing them of being unable to win medals without a Tall.

  For my part, I didn’t care about the politics and the ethics of it all.  I knew Larry had a physical advantage out in the open but I felt the extra time taken to get that huge body out of the blocks more that compensated.  More than anything, I saw Larry as just another man and I just wanted him to run, realize his potential.  I knew he could be the first man to go under nine seconds and at the Istanbul Games in June I had wanted the whole world to see it.


  Larry took it hard.  I held off about the sweeping ban, preferring to let him believe he could compete in other championships.  It was only a matter of time before he found out though.

  Larry didn’t drink, but I bought him a beer anyhow.  He sat opposite me, head down, disinterested in the steak dinner which was the biggest I could afford.  His face told it all, really.

  ‘Louis said they won’t let me compete,’ Larry said, and I cursed Louis under my breath.  At least he’d saved me the job of breaking the news.

  ‘We can fight it, Larry, I know we can.  This is unethical, plain and simple.  It’s against human rights.’

  I thought of the protest rally I’d seen on TV.  More than two hundred Talls in Trafalgar Square demanding Larry’s reinstatement.  They weren’t alone; groups of human rights protesters mingled in amongst them, banners held up to catch the cameras.  In the great scheme of things, three, four hundred people weren’t going to make a difference.  Most people weren’t interested, and there simply weren’t enough Talls around to get noticed alone.  By the time there were, Larry’s prime would have gone.

  ‘We can go private, Larry, create a breakaway athletics organization.  People want to see you run.  There might not be any medals, but we could make money, we could get endorsements.  Your record might not be official but there will be thousands of people who want to see how fast you can go, regardless of what the BOC think.’

  Larry swung his big head back and forth.  ‘That guy in the race, he called me a freak.  Maybe that’s what I am.’

  ‘No, Larry.  You’re a man, same as him.  You just happen to be the quickest man on the planet, and well, if that makes you a freak, then I’d happily be that freak in your place.’

  ‘I don’t feel much like running anymore,’ he said.

  I tried to convince him for a while longer, but soon he excused himself and went out for some air.  I waited, but he didn’t come back in.  After a while I got up and left too, noticing the emptiness of the car park as I walked back towards my vehicle.


  It’s been nineteen days, and Larry hasn’t returned.  Louis told me Larry hasn’t been back to the apartment they share, and no one I know has seen him.  I’ve filed a police report but even though it’s impossible to mistake him for someone else, no leads have come up.  As I tamely go about my day I wonder where he is now.  Louis and the police think suicide, but I can’t believe that.  I like to think of Larry out there somewhere in the open space, running at full speed, running so fast that nobody can see him.

  If I never see Larry again, that’s how I’ll remember him: running faster than the wind.