On Sunday night, having just become the first Australian to qualify for the men’s Olympic 800m final since 1968, Peter Bol was asked about the significance of his historic achievement. “What does it mean to Australia?” he replied. Bol’s rhetorical question was probably meant in a sporting sense. But the rise of the nation’s latest middle-distance star prompts broader questions about Australia, too.
Bol was born in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1994. His mother is Sudanese, his father from the region that would become South Sudan. It was a time of turmoil in Sudan and the Bol family soon left for Egypt, before arriving in Australia in 2004. There is some misinformation circulating around his story – his Wikipedia page says he and his family came from a refugee camp in Egypt, but he has never been in one.
Bol has in the past acknowledged the long-and-difficult-road-to-sporting-success storyline is a powerful one, but he also feels uncomfortable with the use of stereotypes within that narrative.
“I don’t think people should be seen as a refugee or a migrant or something like that,” Bol said in an interview last year. “It’s almost like a trophy – your identity is where you come from. If people want to associate it with bad things – yes there are bad things, bad struggles, but who doesn’t go through bad struggles and what not? We have people in Australia who go through some terrible things too. I think it’s better if we have a better conversation, to get to know the person, instead of the assumptions.”
Bol’s story is compelling – even beyond his journey from Sudan to Australia. As a teenager, he attended St Norbert College, a prestigious private school in Perth, on a basketball scholarship. Each year he was required participate in school athletics. He kept winning races but, despite the urgings of his teachers, had no interest in swapping sports.
Eventually, when Bol was in year 11, a teacher promised to help find him a coach, a club and a mentor if he gave athletics a shot. He agreed. “That single decision to say yes has meant I’ve travelled the whole world,” he said. Within five years, Bol was competing on the grandest stage. In Rio and now Tokyo, Bol has represented his adopted homeland.
“I love my identity and my background,” Bol said last year. “My mum is Sudanese, my dad is South Sudanese. I take a lot of pride in both of those. But I’m also as equally thankful to be here.” Bol has spoken about the positives of increased awareness about race and racism, and of his support for the conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement.
In addition to his running, Bol has studied construction management and economics at Curtin University – he intends to train as an engineer. But first he wants to become the best 800m runner in the world.
The 27-year-old certainly has the support around him to succeed on the international stage. He is managed by Justin Templeton, who formerly managed two-time 800m Olympic gold medallist David Rudisha, coached by the highly regarded Justin Rinaldi and trains with his close friend and fellow 800m runner Joseph Deng. “Justin is the greatest coach, James is the greatest manager, Joseph Deng is the greatest training partner,” said an elated Bol after his semi-final win.
But while Bol may have a strong support network, he remains very much his own man. In an amusing exchange with journalists on Sunday, he explained why he had remained on social media during Tokyo 2020.
“I was embracing all the social media stuff,” he said. “Credit to [fellow Australian 800m runner] Jeff [Riseley] – he’s so professional. I think he put up on Instagram, ‘I’m off for these championships’. I was thinking to myself, ‘I better get off Instagram too’. And I’m like, ‘Wait, I’m not Jeff. I’m myself and I gotta keep the same thing that I keep doing’. I love creating noise, I love creating the hype.”
On Wednesday night, Bol will race for gold in the 800m. He has already broken the national record twice in Tokyo, in his heat and semi, and in the final may well become the first Australian man to run the two-lap discipline in less than 1.44 seconds. But Bol is aiming for something even more historic – a spot on the podium. Australia have won gold in the men’s 800m on two occasions in the modern Olympic era – in 1896, at the first Games, and in 1968. Since Ralph Doubell’s triumph in Mexico City, no Australian man has even made the final.
“Times, records can go – as you can see – I took Joseph [Deng]’s record,” said Bol on Sunday. “But championships, golds, they stay with you forever, so that’s what we’re chasing.”