AA keeps Britain on right road
By Sue Mott
All we want for Christmas is a sportsman. Preferably one that does not cry or moan or go home or whinge or fail or fall over or drop his head or miss penalties. It may be asking a great deal, a bit beyond Santa’s range (otherwise Lapland would have won the World Cup), but in one young, athletic, laugh-a-minute man perhaps there is an icing-sugar sprinkling of hope.
He is late, of course, but the upsurge of school ma’am severity is instantly quelled by the fact that he is bouncy, grinning and lovable in a little grey hat. This is Harry AA, aptly named after batteries, given his obvious hyperactivity. The longer version is Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, the world junior 100 metres champion, part Carshalton student and part blockbuster superstar (pending).
He sat down and ‘twang’ one of his wrist bands exploded. “Ah, I’m always doing that. Stretch them too much. I fidget,” he explained. Some boys are cowed by the potential onset of fame. Harry is a five-ring circus. But there is work ethic in there, and belief, and performances, and a wonderful family that hailed originally from Ghana where his father, William, played for the international football B team and was dismayed to discover that his mother-in-law sold his pet parrot and cats when his wife was expecting their first child.
That was a daughter. The second child was a daughter too. Then the family moved to England and had a son. That was Harry. By the age of seven, Harry had discovered he could run fast. “We were playing a game on the estate where I lived when this dog came along. It was really friendly but it was barking. I was only little. Without thinking I was off, I just started running. The dog thought, ‘Ah, he wants to play’ so he started chasing me. You know what it’s like in the movies when someone’s running, and looking behind them, and then they fall flat on their face over nothing. That was me. All the dog did when he caught me was sniff. But my mates all came up and said, ‘You were quick!’”
Was it a gigantic Rottweiler, seemed the obvious question. “Er no,” he said, “it was like one of those, er, troubadour things. You know, like an Andrex puppy.” Oh, a Labrador. “Yeah, that’s it. I don’t mean troubadour, do I?” He laughed, an almost permanent state of affairs. It was pointed out to him that Labradors are just about the most gentle, sweetest, softest canine in the entire dog universe. “Well, it barked,” he said ruefully.
He wanted to be a footballer at first. His senior school football team reached the final of the Sutton Cup when he scored a full-pelt solo goal having come on as substitute, making the opposing full-back cry at the same time. But aged 13 he started training for the track more seriously and the fact that he could outrun a playful Andrex puppy started to have some significance in his life.
By 16, he was World Youth champion, winning two gold medals in Morocco for the 100 and 200m – the first athlete to do the double – and was named the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year. At 17 he was World Junior champion, winning the 100m in Beijing. In between he had taken part in the Grand Prix race in Gateshead, when Asafa Powell equalled the 100m world record of 9.77 seconds. “He obviously hit the tape a lot sooner than I did and when I saw his time, I just thought, ‘Woweee!’ and stopped running. If I hadn’t stopped I might have run a personal best but it’s still something I’ll cherish all my life.”
Things not quite going according to plan have been a feature of his existence. The World Juniors for instance. “I had a bit of an upset in my heat. No one knows this but – ha, ha, ha [more laughter and general effervescence] – I forgot my tape measure. So I couldn’t do my block settings. So I was just guessing.”
Who knew athletes stood there before races, fretting over their tape measures like harassed tailors? Anyway, on this occasion, AA wasn’t.
"It was quite silly of me. So I stumbled out of my blocks in that race and another guy beat me who was really going for it.
“He was an Australian. My coach is an Aussie, too. I went up to him afterwards and said, ‘Why do you blokes try so hard?’”
Ah, Harry, that is a wider philosophical question that, post-Ashes pulverising, we dare not look into too hard. “Oh,” he said, “I only watch the cricket for the jokes.” Jokes? “Yeah, someone says something funny about the England team and then I change channels.”
But back to Beijing: "After the heat, I was just sitting there on the physio’s couch worrying my head off. Worrying that my mate, Wade Bennett-Jackson, had run a PB [personal best] in the heats. He was on fire. I was worrying I hadn’t shown my potential. I was worrying I was letting people down. Then the physio said, ‘Just forget about all those things. Just go out there and do it.’ The semi-final was where it all came together. I remembered my tape measure and what it felt like to drive for the line. The guy I beat in that semi-final was second in the world. I actually beat him quite comfortably. Straight after I was going mad. I wanted to jump on buildings, I wanted to run up walls. But by the time I got back to the warm-up area I was calm again. I saw my coach and just said, ‘Another box ticked.’
"Come the final I was confident. Whenever I started to think, ‘What if I false start? What if I tighten up?’ I just told myself, ‘Stop it!’ As soon as the gun went off, I thought, ‘OK. Go!’ and all I remember is seeing this ‘V’ formation in front of me of the other guys running who seemed to be ahead of me. Suddenly, I made myself tall, the V formation disappeared and I came through to win by two one-hundredths of a second.
“I had a slight inkling I’d won, but I didn’t know for sure. I went over to the scoreboard to see if I’d won before I did anything silly and it went straight over to the man’s hammer.” He giggled fetchingly. “Then I got chucked a flag and everyone started taking my picture. So I broke into my lap of honour – well…” he corrected himself, “my half a lap of honour because I got out of breath half way round.” This does not bode too well for the 200m, but Harry just grinned.
It was a big win, especially as a 17-year-old up against under-20s. He puts it down to…pizza. I am not joking. “Whenever I win a big race, the day before I’ve had a pizza. Ha ha. I had a pizza – actually two pizzas – in Birmingham the day before I ran 6.67 seconds indoors, I had a pizza in Beijing the day before the Juniors and I had a pizza the day before I won the double gold in Marrakesh.” A pizza in Marrakesh. What could be more romantic. “I know,” he said cheerily, “I really adapt to the local culture, don’t I.” His other secret weapon is his Xbox, and PlayStation, and laptop and any other gadgets he can lay his hands upon. “I think gaming for me – as silly as it sounds – could be one of my reasons for success. When I go to championships, instead of getting bored, I take my Xbox along, sit in my room with a few other athletes and play. We’re the ones that tend to do better than the others and it’s purely because we’re not bored. They don’t know what to do so they go out shopping or something in that boiling heat, all day on their feet.” He looked suitably disapproving.
While other members of his team were ruining their chances in the shopping malls of China, he and Bennett-Jackson were slugging it out on his Athens 2004 game. Who does he represent when he cyber runs. “Oh, you’re not going to like me. Sometimes it’s Trinidad & Tobago, sometimes the US and sometimes GB. It can get very competitive. I wouldn’t say I cheat but I use equipment to button bash more effectively. I use a bottle cap and rub it across the controller.” Well, aren’t we in Britain always saying we need our athletes more ruthless. Here he is.
But not as ruthless as some we could mention. This is the 100m we are talking about and Harry went to visit Justin Gatlin, the Olympic champion, and his coach, Trevor Graham, in America last year.
Later, Gatlin was banned (edit) and Graham was implicated.
This is the world in which Aikines-Aryeetey moves (fast) and he will have to get used to dealing with it.
“That was still an experience, training with those guys, that I treasure,” he said. “Me and my coach went to learn and we learned a lot. What happened happened afterwards. It was upsetting but it hasn’t got anything to do with me. I just have to run fast in a straight line and it’s what I intend to do. I want to give more to the sport than I take away and one of the ways is to run clean. I love the 100. It’s definitely exciting. Everything’s a blur. The buzz I get from it is amazing. It’s a shame it goes so quickly but it’s just what a typical boy loves: fast, furious, powerful, explosive, all the action words in one.”
He has the passion for his sport but he does not have anything like the impossible arrogance we have seen in the sprint division. “You know, sometimes I forget I’m an athlete at all,” he confided. "I was with my girlfriend the other day, and as we got out of the car, I said, ‘I’ll race you.’ She said, ‘Do you think I’m stupid?’
“I said, ‘Er, ah, oh yeah. I’m a sprinter.’ I do have these blond moments.” He smiled endearingly, possibly the first time a tough, black, 18-year-old with thighs so well-developed he has to buy jeans three sizes too big to get them over his legs, has seen himself as a blond.
We have quite some prospect here with his hatching talent, his junior medals and his chat-athon personality.
“I could talk for years, me!” he said happily. So he did. He even supplied the reason his AA name came about. His father, who (he thinks) works as a psychiatric nurse, found applying for jobs when he came to Britain was difficult under the name ‘Aryeetey’. He added an old school nickname ‘Aikines’ and sailed into the workforce.
“They’re a laugh, my family. You walk into the house and you get that typical warm African vibe. You can smell food cooking and everyone’s loud and laughing.” They will be even more delighted if their boy makes it on the Olympic stage, if not Beijing then London 2012.
“That’s what I’m here for,” said Harry. “Whether it turns out that way, we’ll see. I just need to give it my all.” Somehow, you get the feeling that Harry AA’s got a lot of all to give.