Euro Athletics, Bands of brothers


The 2018 European Athletics Championships brought to light some family history worth telling. In a sports in which money does not abound, having a coach at home helps young athletes to lower the cost of training and maximise the yield from having somebody that strongly believes in you.

But in this championship, two distinct groups of brothers excelled in the same disciplines: the Borlee in the 400 meters, and the Ingebritsen in the longer distances, from 1500 to 10.000.

Indeed, this is not a novelty, both groups of brothers’ elders have been competing for years at the highest level. Henrik Ingebritsen won the 1500 meters in Helsinki 2012 and Filip the same competition at Amsterdam 2016. Jonathan and Kevin Borlee, twins born in 1988, have been storming the 400 meters in the last decade.

This year the Ingebritsen were joined by their younger brother Jakob, who seems to be the more talented, while Dylan Borlee forms with his brothers to one of the best 400 relay groups of the world.

On the track, both groups of brothers move in the same way. They carry the same running style, the fruits of their father’s efforts to grow top level athletes. It is an odd view, actually.

In the crowded group of middle-distance runners, the pale complexion of the Ingebrintsens stands out. They run with their head up, the arms oscillating at the rhythm of their steps. Their running style is different from the Kenyans and the Ethiopic, the benchmark in the last two decades.

The African runners always have their head a little ahead of the body, as though they’d fall down if they did not do another step. They run on lightness, as though their body did not weight, the eyes staring a far horizon.

The Norway brothers show more power in their run. Their head remains firmly at the top of their body, the chest forms a straight line meeting the turf in a 90° angle. It is a more constructed style, one that their father must have built since their childhood, when he decided to second their desire to run using his personal experience as a trainer.

The Borlees as well are the product of a meticulous work from a trainer-father. Same running style, but in a competition that, except for the 400 relay, never puts runners shoulder to shoulder, thus avoiding the possibility to work together to make one win.

These fathers did a good job indeed. Building athletes, and men, is an experiment tried a lot of times, often without success. And, if successful, met with anger from the kids athletes who developed a complicated relationship with their fathers.

But parents do this also if they are not former athletes or trainers. Magic Johnson remembers that his father never let him win a one on one game, until he grew up enough to do it on his own. Andre Agassi’s father always pushed him to do more in tennis, though he was a former boxer.

This provokes very often a complicated relationship, one that would fill entire pages of psychological analysis. After they grew up, many of these athletes report how their sports success came at the cost of personal grievances. They gave up their youth, and though many became rich, the personal cost was never balanced by a bigger bank account.

Nevertheless, fathers also have merits. Pete Maravich’s unique talent could not flourish like it did, hadn’t he been coached by a father, who was willing to unleash all his imagination on the court.

An athlete requires somebody to believe so much in him that will take him to break his limits, to go beyond what he thinks is his best.

Parents are not always the best ones to do it. They fear their kids are tired, make them stop training because they see them suffer. In order to succeed a parent must, in part, forget that he’s a father, and mother, and see the athlete beyond the child.

If he’s not a specialist, he must allow others to take care of him, to nurture and mentor, and this is often a problem for those parents who want to steer their children’s talent and would not trust anybody.

Nevertheless, isn’t this what any parent should do, in any time? Think about it when you will sit by your children, trying to understand a task their teacher gave them. You will not do a much different work from Mr Borlee and Mr Ingebritsen: you will push your kids to the limits, paying attention to not help them too much, but letting them carry out their task, because it is their challenge.

The parents can teach, they can help, they can train, but then they have to sit outside the court, the track, the classroom, and let their children do the battle on their own.

The success of these families, in fact, do not depend on the medals, but on the legacy they will leave to their kids. It will depend on how much their athletic success will be the result of the underlying talent that their parents have seen in them, and not the obligation to follow a path somebody else chose for them.

As we see them, the Borlees, the Ingebritsens, run happily. Their faces smile, the eyes shine in their success. They suffer every day in a sport that own less great sponsors, leagues, and only are remembered in one or two events per year, that they can’t avoid.

So, in this landscape, they probably find more comfort in this familiar environment, and the transition from children running in the house yard to world class athletes, happened in a natural way, almost unfelt.

These athletes still seem to run against one another, in an internal competition that grew in the years but did not consume their relationship, thus demonstrating that there is a good job, personally, made by their parents, to stimulate a positive sports competition, that does not go out of the borders.

And this, in the end, will remain, when all the competitions will finish and they will still sit at the table to talk to one another. The real result of Mr Borlee and Mr Ingebritsen will be to build men, brothers that will remain brothers and will remember their time as athletes as a continuation of a serene family environment.

And this is a much tougher challenge than just winning a gold medal.