The 800m is a torturous event. Not long enough to allow athletes to settle into a rhythm or overcome any early mistakes with a late surge, you pretty much have to go for bust from the gun. The lactic agony experienced in the muscles is excruciating and breath entering the body during that final 200m feels like razor blades piercing the lungs. In the Olympic semi-finals though, Peter Bol made it look easy. His stride length was long, like he was gliding across the track. He looked to his left and right, seeing just where his competitors were placed behind him, but still there was no tension in his facial features or body. His shoulders were down, relaxed. Like it was just another training run and not the run of his life.
With his semi-final victory, 27-year-old Bol advances to the finals in the 800m and becomes the first Australian man in 53 years to do so. Now considered a strong medal contention for the final tonight, there is just Kenya’s Ferguson Rotich who qualified faster than Bol, by just 0.07 seconds. We could, to put it mildly, see history take place tonight in the final. And if ever there was a man to do it, it’s Bol.
If you weren’t familiar with the running star before, you will be now. Born in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, Bol and his family fled the war-torn country when he was just four-years-old where they then emigrated to Egypt. They lived there for six years before migrating to Toowoomba, Queensland. No one in his family spoke English. Bol remembers his childhood, and the stories about his home in Sudan that his father would tell him, stories about conflict and family struggles.
In an interview with The West Australian in 2015, he said: “So [my father] always tried to push us a bit harder in whatever we do. Sudan has always had conflict and it wasn’t really a safe place to be. So they saw that the best opportunity was to get their children out of there and work towards a better life. I’m pretty grateful to [my parents] because all of their circumstances worked to my favour. Life could be a lot different.”
It wasn’t until 16 when Bol and his family moved to Perth that he discovered his sprinting ability. It was a teacher who spotted his incredible speed, picking Bol out at a school carnival and encouraging him to join an athletics club. “I thought it was a pretty good deal because it meant I’d be fitter for basketball so I agreed and she delivered,” Bol told Athletics Australia.
Bol made his first Australian team selection for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio when he was just 22. He placed sixth in his heat in 1:49.36, but already we’re seeing a Bol who has not only improved physically, but is more mature in his running and as a result, confident in his abilities. He has already shaved five seconds off that Rio time, running 1:44.11 in the semi-final in Tokyo.
But while Bol certainly knows the power of the sporting story that charts the long and difficult road to success, he is more than that. He doesn’t want to simply be an origin story, or be defined by the stereotype within that narrative. In an interview last year he said, “I don’t think people should be seen as a refugee or a migrant or something like that. It’s almost like a trophy – your identity is where you come from. If people want to associate it with bad things – yes there are bad things, bad struggles, but who doesn’t go through bad struggles and what not? We have people in Australia who go through some terrible things too. I think it’s better if we have a better conversation, to get to know the person, instead of the assumptions.”
Already, Bol has broken the national record twice in Tokyo, in his heat and semi, and we might just see something special come from his two laps in tonight’s final. He isn’t shy of admitting his goals, and the final will see him chasing a medal. “Times, records can go – as you can see – I took Joseph [Deng]’s record,” said Bol. “But championships, golds, they stay with you forever, so that’s what we’re chasing.”
Bol will race in the 800m Olympic final tonight. Tune in on Channel 7 or 7Plus for the race at 10pm.