Look beyond the medal podium and you'll find people whose roles as ambassadors for the sport of track and field are just as important. These are the 2016 SPIKES Personalities of the Year.
With just the final kilometres remaining of the Olympic men’s 50km Race Walk final at Rio 2016, Evan Dunfee was passed by Hirooki Arai. There was a slight tangle, and while Dunfee lost his rhythm, Arai edged away to take bronze.
A successful appeal by the Canadian team was countered by a successful appeal from Japanese team. Very messy, and not how anyone wants matters settled after nearly four hours of racing.
Dunfee drew a line under the affair with one of the classiest interjections of the Games.
“I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life,” he said in a statement, choosing not to lodge a counter appeal the counter appeal.
Such magnanimity represents the best of the noble pursuit of race walking.
Think you can walk? In November, Dunfee ran to the win in the Fall-Classic Half Marathon in Vancouver, clocking 1:10:44.
Few people worldwide run a marathon, even fewer get to travel space. In April, Major Tim Peake combined the two and caught the imagination of Earthlings everywhere.
During a six-month stint on the International Space Station, the Briton ran the London Marathon in real time, strapped into an intergalactic treadmill while his progress was tracked on the Run Social app.
“It’s really good for communicating to kids the importance of staying fit and healthy,” Peake told us ahead of the run.
He completed the 26.2 mile course in 3:35:21, completing two full orbits of the earth in the process, and writing his name in the record books as the first man and fastest person in history to run a marathon in space. Which is pretty cool.
After a running career that included iconic marathon wins across the globe including a world record in Berlin, you could forgive Tegla Loroupe for taking post-athletics life easy. She has done the opposite, campaigning tirelessly through the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation to promote the unifying powers of sport.
Her most high-profile project came when she headed up the Olympic Refugee Team for Rio 2016. Loroupe’s stated aim was to raise the profile of refugees as humans, and to promote peace and unity through sport. The refugee team captured the imagination of millions and was cheered on from everywhere around the world.
Loroupe herself described her role merely as “the mother of those who need a mother”, and reminded us that it’s not just her, but “all of our project to create peace and to build bridges through sport”.
Mother really does know best.
Piotr Malachowski is a big man with a big heart to match his big throws.
Not long after the reigning world champ won his second Olympic discus silver at Rio 2016, news emerged that the Polish hero would be auctioning off his medal for charity. He donated the funds to Olek Szymanski, the three-year-old son of family friends, to have treatment for a rare form of cancer at a specialist unit in New York.
“Together we can make miracles,” Malachowski said. “My silver medal today is worth much more than a week ago – it is worth the health of little Olek.”
What a guy.
After finishing fourth in the 1500m at the US Olympic Trials in 2012, therefore missing a spot on the US team by a single place, Gabriele Grunewald had targeted the 5000m as her best chance of qualifying for Rio 2016. Yet after not making it out of her semi, she determinedly entered the 1500m a couple of hours later. She advanced to the final and finished 12th, but something didn’t quite feel right.
It was only a month later that the athlete discovered she had a six-inch cancerous tumour growing in her liver. It was her third cancer diagnosis – she suffered a bout of adenoid cystic carcinoma in 2009 and then thyroid cancer in 2010.
Having already bounced back twice and following successful surgery, Grunewald is already back running. The 30-year-old told Runner’s World: “I’m definitely on board for 2017 and optimistic about sticking around through 2020.”
“Pro Runner, Essayist, Actress and Filmmaker” reads the Twitter bio of Alexi Pappas, who has inspired a generation with her actions on and off the track.
At Rio 2016, she became the first woman to represent Greece in an Olympic 10,000m race, finishing 17th in 31:36.16 to break a national record that had stood for a decade.
She also released TrackTown, a film she directed and starred in, to sell-out screenings across the USA, has become a regular correspondent for the New York Times, and appeared on the anniversary cover of Runners’ World alongside pint-sized comic megastar Kevin Hart.
Head to her social media pages if you doubt the strength of her following. “Whatever I am to these girls, I’m happy to be,” says Pappas of her influence.
In our eyes: a fantastic representative for the sport of athletics.
Majd Eddin Ghazal
Back in 2012, Syrian high jumper Majd Eddin Ghazal’s preparations for the London Olympics were disrupted when a bomb exploded at his training base in Damascus.
In preparation for Rio 2016, he trained at a Damascus stadium that boasted only “an old landing area, several hurdles and one weight”. Despite that, he was one of the best high jumpers in the world in 2016.
He won silver with a national record 2.28m at the Asian Indoor Championships, and then notched an outdoor NR 2.36m to win the IAAF Beijing World Challenge event. He finished seventh in the final at Rio 2016 and ended the season ranked sixth in the world.
Aged 29, and in the face of unthinkable adversity, Ghazal has enjoyed his finest ever season. “I believe that this is just the start,” he said in August. “I believe I can fly.”
At the age of 85, Ed Whitlock became the oldest man in history to break four hours for the marathon, running 3:56:38 at the 2016 Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
It was just another notch on the bedpost for the Canadian, a serial record breaker. He is the oldest man to break three hours for the marathon (did it aged 74) and owns age-group world records from 1500m up to the marathon.
We salute you, Ed Whitlock, the true elder statesman of recreational road running.
The Crown Prince of Greece opened the meeting of the Committee for the First International Olympic Games with a speech. In it, he set out his hope for how the modern Olympic Games would “tighten, through frequent intercourse, the bonds of friendship which ought to unite all civilised nations”. More than 120 years on, two athletes did HRH proud.
New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and USA’s Abbey D’Agostino accidently tangled with each other in the 5000m heats at Rio 2016. First, D’Agostino helped Hamblin to her feet, before herself falling, clearly stricken. Hamblin automatically returned the favour.
The two athletes were strangers before the race. By its end they were firm friends, united by adversity, by sport, under the otherwise intangible spell of the Olympic spirit.