Salwa Eid Naser is dreaming big, eyeing the 400 metres world record but her astonishing winning time of 48.14 seconds at the World Championships rekindled memories of an era three decades ago dominated by eastern Europe.
The engaging 21-year-old – born Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu in Nigeria to a Nigerian mother and Bahraini father – pulled off a shock (yet not unsurprising) defeat of reigning Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo on Thursday, who had not lost a race since August 2017.
However, it was the time – the third fastest of all time – that took many people’s breath away.
Only those over 40 would recall watching the two women who have run faster than her, world record holder Marita Koch of what was then East Germany, who recorded 47.60sec in 1985, and the former Czechoslovakia’s Jarmila Kratochvilova (47.99sec in 1983).
Theirs was an era when the Cold War was ongoing and the Berlin Wall separated East and West Berlin.
Neither Koch nor Kratochvilova failed a doping test but their countries are known to have operated state-sponsored programmes as athletic supremacy was viewed by their rulers as a weapon in the battle between east and west.
Naser, who switched to Bahrain aged 16, played coy as to whether she considered her time in Doha the fastest clean one in history.
“You tell me,” she replied.
Miller-Uibo – who herself ran the sixth fastest time ever in the final only to have to finish with silver – believes the world record will fall in the event she considers “her baby”.
But when asked if she believed Naser’s time was the fastest untainted run ever, the Bahamian also refused to be drawn on the past.
“I would prefer not to comment,” she replied.
Naser’s victory – which also saw three other finalists record personal bests – may have shocked many but her championship record in the past two years suggested she was a genuine title contender.
‘I cried all night’
A second-place finish at the last world championships in 2017 aged 19 – her idol Allyson Felix and Miller-Uibo were behind her – heralded her talent as she became the youngest ever medallist in the event.
Her Asian Games success last year also showed she has extraordinary resilience.
Having run two relay finals at the end of that competition she flew for 14 hours from Jakarta to Brussels and the next day won the 400m Diamond League title.
That sort of determination is a characteristc that US veteran Felix – who won a mixed relay gold earlier in the week as she returned to global competition following the birth of her baby last November – would admire.
Naser believes she and the 33-year-old Felix, whose world gold medal tally of 12 now outstrips that of retired Jamaican legend Usain Bolt, share common ground.
“Allyson Felix is my role model as I see similarities,” said Naser.
“I was really looking up to her and I still look up to her, she’s an amazing athlete.”
Naser was previously coached by Bulgarian Yanko Bratanov, one of whose athletes Kemi Adekoya was banned for four years earlier this year. She is now under the tutelage of Jose Rubio, who is head coach for Bahrain’s sprinters and hurdlers.
The new one-lap sensation has been dogged by a fragile left ankle due to an accident she had aged six.
“My ankle was first weakened after I was struck by a car,” she told iaaf.org last year.
“I recall I had bought an ice cream but I had forgotten my change and as I ran across the road to retrieve it, that’s when the car hit me.”
This old injury came back to haunt her when she twisted her ankle – “it opened up a fracture” – a week before the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Showing typical obstinacy, she refuted medical advice and competed before bowing out in the semi-finals with a new personal best time.
“I cried all night and I remember my mum had to say some nice and sweet words to make me feel better,” she said.
“Thankfully, it did not take too long for me to recover from the disappointment.
“I am a Gemini so I adapt to things quickly and take on an attitude of whatever happens, happens.”