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The Day De Castella Beat the Pain in Spain

‘Here comes Deek into the stadium now. Oh what a great champion,’ Bruce said, his voice cracking in the way only Bruce’s voice can.

You obviously can’t rate memorable Olympic moments solely on the existence of a McAvaney voice crack, but as Deek came into the Barcelona stadium on that day in 1992, there were tears in my eyes too. I’d grown up loving Deek. That huge celebrity moustache. Those flappy outward pointing shoes. The way he hauled a big man’s body around a small man’s sport and had done so brilliantly for more than a decade. Robert de Castella was the very embodiment of a man who had declared war on his body the day he chose his sport, and had spent the rest of his career refusing to negotiate a treaty.

And quite aside from his athletic greatness, there was also the personal connection I had with him. After all, Robert de Castella’s father, and Robert de Castella’s father’s dog, ran in the park that backed onto our house. I suppose that didn’t really place me in Deek’s inner circle, but it provided an all-important reference point to a world that I could comprehend. Deek the superhuman had a Dad – a friendly, shuffling, slightly arthritic Dad called Roly who said hello to my Mum if she was out in the vegetable garden.

If ever the Roly shuffle was to be showcased by his famous son, it was this day in Barcelona. The race had been started at 6.30pm to miss the worst of the Spanish sun, but the temperature was still a deadly 26 degrees. The humidity was choking, taking the athletes’ lead in giving something close to 100%. And the course was ferocious. It was hard to tell from the television how steep the four-kilometre finish up Montjuic was, but from the way the commentators were talking, you half expected the runners to produce picks and ropes.

As Deek entered the stadium he had the look of a man who wished that Athenian king in 490 BC had have got off his royal behind and intercepted the messenger at about the 35km mark. Yet somehow he dragged his body into the bend, drew level with another runner, and then passed him to move into 26th place. Bruce cracked his voice again and asked us all to acknowledge the greatness of the man. A world championship gold. Two Commonwealth golds. World record holder from 1981 to 1984. Course record holder at Boston and Fukuoka. Eight sub 2:10 marathons. Three consecutive top 10 Olympic finishes. All we needed was a whiff of a slow motion close-up or a few bars of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and our family room would have been a flood with tears.

The finish line itself was like a war zone. Four minutes earlier, race winner Hwang Youang-Choo of Korea enjoyed half a second of celebration before falling face first into unconsciousness. Japanese silver medallist Kolchi Morishito was stretchered from the track as well. One by one the runners arrived, and one by one they were carried away for a date with a saline drip. No ripping off of singlets. No strutting victory laps. When Deek crossed the line, he just quietly placed his hands on his knees, mopped his face with a sponge, and waited for his wheelchair.

‘It’s a shame there’s no medal for 26th,’ my mother said, choking up as we watched Deek fold himself into the chair. The truth is that Deek would probably be just as happy to go without than have a medal forged from the 26th most impressive metal (pig iron perhaps?), but Mum did have a point. It’s medals that capture the imagination of the public. You can dehydrate yourself, hospitalise yourself, bleed from every one of your ten toes, but without a medal, it’s difficult for people to remember the moment.

De Castella’s run in Barcelona was his slowest ever marathon (2:17:44) and his worst ever finish. He was 35, so it also signaled the end of his dreams for an Olympic medal. Nevertheless, on a day when a race was run in conditions that were an embarrassment to the sport of athletics, he finished in front of some huge names of the sport – Salah, Bordin, Moneghetti, Waikahuri and Ikanga. The man in the wheelchair with the big moustache also had a big heart.

On Olympic marathon day this year, Rob de Castella will be in his now familiar position in the commentary box next to McAvaney. Most Australian attention will be on Steve Moneghetti, another victim of that brutal Spanish day in 1992. As it was for Deek then, Moneghetti has been eased from the burden of favoritism. And as was the case with Deek, he has already proven his greatness. Monna, a man from a cold town who keeps running marathons in the tropics, is our second greatest marathoner. And however he’s placed on October 1st when he runs into the stadium to the roar of a capacity Australian crowd, it won’t matter who has the microphone. There’ll be voices cracking all over the place.