Friday, September 7, 2018

Track and Field - My International Language

On Meeting Pauline Davis-Thompson for the First Time

Copyright 2018, Mark Cullen/, All Rights Reserved

In recent years, students from Lithuania made annual treks to the school in Seattle where I worked for 41 years.

Every visit I would approach them and ask, “Is Virgilijus Alekna still the bodyguard of your  prime minister?”

How’s that for an ice breaker?

They would look at me - astonished - and ask, “How do you know that? We were told athletics (track and field) is not such a popular sport in America.”

The doors to cross cultural communication had opened, and without my speaking a word of Lithuanian, the conversation was on. We had something in common – a discus thrower – and from there we spoke of ourselves, each other, and our lives.

One summer I was on campus while a candidate was being interviewed for an English position. As few adults were present that day, I was asked to come speak with the candidate, even though our subject areas were different.

“She’s from the Bahamas,” I was told.

“I’ve got this one nailed,” I thought to myself.

We hit it off well, and even better when I let this little bit of information slip.

“I was in the stadium in Seville in 1999 when –“


Why, yes.

We had more than enough to sustain our conversation, and finally I was told that it was time for the real interview to begin.

The real interview had just taken place.

What’s most memorable to me is the candidate’s description of how life stopped the moment Debbie Ferguson crossed the finish line in triumph. People poured out of buildings into the streets, traffic stopped, and a national celebration was on.

“I’ve also heard that employees just left their positions and ran out of banks!” a still astonished Pauline Davis-Thompson said outside the IAAF Heritage exhibit in Ostrava, Czech Republic on Friday.

Our meeting was 19 years in the making.

Davis-Thompson, who ran third leg on both the 1999 World and 2000 Olympic gold medal teams and is the Sydney Olympic 200m champion, is serving her 3rd 4-year term on the IAAF Council. I was meeting with Chris Turner, Director of IAAF’s Heritage program.

You can guess what story I told Davis-Thompson.

She loved hearing how her performance and that of her teammates had influenced the course of a job interview several years later.

Instant connection.

The Bahamas women’s 4x100m relay team pulled off a colossal upset in the 1999 Seville World Championships, defeating France, Jamaica, and the United States.

It wasn’t quite such an upset the next year when they won the Olympic gold medal in Sydney.

“No, it wasn’t – was it?!” laughed Davis-Thompson.

“Not anymore,” I replied.

I have always said that track and field is my international language. Almost every time I meet someone from a country other than mine, there is an athlete I mention or a memorable performance I note. What we have is a common heritage, an international heritage, even if it may not always seem so at first glance.

The doors of friendship and understanding fly open when we discover what we have in common, and what we invariably have in common is a track and field story, an event, a shared memory: where were you when?

She asked for my business card.

“Track and field storytelling,” she read. “Yes, indeed.”

As for the candidate?

She got the job.

Speaking Track and Field
Honored to be with Pauline Davis-Thompson, Bahamas
2 x Olympic Gold
1 x World Gold

Dude, get a comb.
You never know when you're going to meet an Olympic Champion.

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