The runner to watch was in Lane 2, and she was hard to miss: Jolien Boumkwo of Belgium was a head taller and heavier than every other woman in the second heat of the 100-meter hurdles.
Boumkwo regularly competes in track and field’s strength events — the shot-put, hammer throw and discus — but on Saturday at the European Team Championships in Krakow, Poland, Belgium needed a hurdler. Any hurdler.
The two it had brought to the meet were injured, and if Belgium did not send a runner to the starting line in the 100 hurdles, its team would have been disqualified.
So Boumkwo agreed to run. Sort of.
Boumkwo beamed and waved to the television cameras when she was introduced with the rest of the runners.
Form was not her priority. Neither was speed. “My team is the most important thing for me,” said Boumkwo, 29, who had finished seventh in the shot-put on Friday.
She knew Belgium needed every point. Its team was hoping to stay in the top division of the European Team Championships, an event in which countries compete against their relative peers in three leagues that are based on performance. Disqualification would most likely mean demotion for Belgium. Running, even if she finished last, would mean two valuable points, which she knew might make the difference.
“I couldn’t let it happen to lose by one point,” she told Agence France-Presse. “That’s why I considered taking part.
“There was no risk for me if I took it calmly.”
And so, for one afternoon, Boumkwo became a hurdler. Stepping rather than leaping over each hurdle, and then jogging to the next one, she took her time. The rest of the field was already over their second hurdle and sprinting toward the next when Boumkwo lifted her foot ever-so-carefully over the first one.
Her goal was to finish, and to finish on her feet, however long it took. An embarrassing fall probably would not have made a difference — she knew she was going to be last — but an injury definitely would have made things worse. Carefully and calmly, she cleared every obstacle and crossed the finish line in 32.81 seconds.
The crowd cheered in appreciation. A fellow runner, Maja Maunsbach of Sweden, greeted Boumkwo just past the line with a double-handed high five. Catarina Queiros of Portugal, who had run in the lane next to Boumkwo, extended a hand of congratulations.
Both Maunsbach, who was seventh, and Queiros, who was sixth, had finished fractions of a second behind the heat’s winner, Teresa Errandonea of Spain, who won in 13.22 seconds.
The storybook ending for Boumkwo and Belgium, however, was not to be. Belgium finished 14th in the team standings, 6.5 points behind Greece — a gap too large for even Boumkwo to make up — and was demoted to Division 2.