Hey There Georgie Girl !Pat Butcher on the teenage Australian track prodigy who is set to become an Olympic sensation
Sonia O'Sullivan got a shock in the Melbourne Grand Prix 1500m a month ago. She was beaten by her 15-year-old babysitter. But then Georgie Clarke is no ordinary teenager.
Nor is the Irishwoman the only world-class victim of this talented youngster. For while it is one thing for Clarke's best time to be way ahead of com-parably precocious youngsters such as Mary Decker and Zola Budd, it is with mounting amazement that one flicks through the sport's history books to discover that the Australian schoolgirl has run faster than Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, than Steve Cram and Saïd Aouita, than Nourredine Morceli and Hicham El Guerrouj at the same age. And those gents all went on to become world record holders in the event.
Differences in physical strength between mature men and women dictate that Clarke will ultimately never run as fast as Coe and company. But that does not diminish the evidence that she is one of the most extraordinary talents ever unleashed on athletics. Her best of 4min 06.77sec is not an isolated case. Clarke ran within a tenth of a second of that time when beating O'Sullivan in Melbourne last month.
Those times are the fastest ever run at home by an Australian woman of any age, and Clarke currently stands second on the world senior outdoor lists for the year. She has also run 800m in 2min 01.81sec, another world-class time. And for good measure, she is Australian Schools 400m champion and holds the national under-16 record for 3,000m. Barring accident or injury, Clarke is going to be one of the sensations of this year's Olympic Games, when she takes to the track in front of 110,000 compatriots in Sydney in mid-September.
If that wasn't enough expectation for one unspoiled teenager, Clarke, from Geelong in Victoria, is carrying some historic baggage too. She is a relative, albeit distant, of one of the Aussie running greats, Ron Clarke. The multi-world record holder from the 1960s is guardedly enthusiastic about this green shoot on the family tree. "Uncle" Ron ("her great-great-grandfather was my great-grandfather's brother") was a world junior record holder himself, but almost gave up the sport after that early achievement. "She has tremendous potential. You don't know until she matures a bit. Success as a junior means nothing; the only thing that counts in athletics is how good you are as a senior, against all competition," Ron Clarke said.
But it's obvious she's already doing well on that score, after emerging on the international stage last year and winning the inaugural World Youth Games 800m in Poland. Characteristically, she led from gun to tape.
It is rare in athletics to find somebody so precocious. Unlike in swimming and gymnastics, athletes mature into their sport. The exceptions are almost always women, notably Decker and Budd. "Georgie shows everything that Budd and Decker did at that age. She reminds me very much of Mary, huge potential if she can stay clear of injury," Ron Clarke said. "She's aggressive, she wants to lead, and like Mary as a girl, she overstrides a bit, but that doesn't seem to stop her. She wants to win."
Unlike Decker, however, Clarke doesn't carry that aggression off the track, unless it is in pursuing her senior rivals for information. On a brief, non-competitive tour of the European circuit after her victory in Poland last summer, Clarke - she stands 5ft 8in and weighs 7st - met stars such as Svetlana Masterkova, Maria Mutola and Kelly Holmes, and baby-sat for O'Sullivan, the partner of Nick Bideau, Clarke's manager. "Georgie is one of the best athletes I've ever worked with. She's not big-headed, she's grateful for any help she gets, and she has a terrific attitude to competing," Bideau said. "When she watched Masterkova training, she had a hundred questions. She wants to learn."
O'Sullivan, too, was as impressed as she was nonplussed by last month's defeat: "She's great. She doesn't just want to be the best for her age or the best in Australia. She wants to be the best, regardless. It doesn't matter who she's running against, she goes out to win."
By the time the Olympics come round, Clarke will be all of 16, and possibly even more unselfconsciously assured than now. "I've been winning ever since I started running when I was 11, so I suppose I've had time to get used to it," she said. "The thought of running the Olympics is really exciting. I ran the national championships and there were 15-20,000 spectators, and that seemed a lot. I can't imagine what 110,000 is going to be like."
Ron isn't the only Clarke connection to supply impetus to Georgie's talent. The sports genes look good right down the bloodline. In a career lasting 10 years, her father David starred for Geelong and Carlton, two of the top Australian Rules football teams. David Jr, the elder of her brothers, currently plays for Geelong, and Tim has just signed for competitors Hawthorn. The boys were also champion skiers. Ron Clarke thinks that provides a further insight into why Georgie is so good, so young. He is currently engaged in experiments with altitude environment chambers, as a means of kick-starting Australia's moribund distance running tradition. Accordingly, questions of altitude training are uppermost in his mind: "When she was a kid, the whole family would go to Colorado for four months a year. While her brothers loved skiing, Georgie didn't. But she was running around all day at altitude. And that's a long time each year at such a formative period. I just wonder if that's had an effect on her metabolism."
Kim McDonald, British agent to many of the top Kenyans as well as O'Sullivan, demurs on that score, but not on Clarke's potential: "Unless you're born at altitude, the effects wear off after a while, so I don't think it's that. "She's obviously very, very good. I met her when she was staying with Sonia last summer, and she's very level-headed. If you were looking at a tennis player being that good at 15, you'd have no hesitation in saying that, at 21, she'll be No 1 in the world. Unfortunately, athletics is a bit different."
Since so many young and talented runners drop out of the sport as they mature, there is an almost universal fear for Clarke's future. O'Sullivan dismisses those fears: "The only problem she'll have is in maintaining interest. I was only just starting at 15. And even if she were to run in just this Olympics and the next one, and give up at 20, that would still mean she'd had a four-year window at the top. And few people get that." As for Clarke herself, she said: "People used to be critical of me running against women twice my age, but that's kind of stopped since I got an Olympic qualifying time. I just want to keep improving every year. If I'm fast enough, I'm good enough. "It doesn't matter how young I am. There have been other people who have been good when they're young, like Mary Decker. It's not as if I'm out there on my own."
But the point is, she is out there on her own. There's never been anybody quite like her.She will be coming to London this summer, to stay with manager Bideau and O'Sullivan, and to give Europe a close-up of her talent. At the moment, she is unlikely to run in the London Grand Prix on August 5, since she has to be back in Australia to prepare for the Olympic trials. But, says Bideau, she is due to race as early as June 17 in Lille, and as late as July 28 at Oslo. "The best of it is she's still training like a 15-year-old. She only runs 30 miles a week. Imagine what she'll be like when she steps that up. I reckon she can do 4.05 now. By the Olympics, she can do 4.03, and if she can do that, she can make the Olympic final. And then who knows?"
If that happens, I don't know about the other 109,999 ticket-holders, but this one will be taking his seat early that day.