It was with deep sadness that I heard of the death of legendary Malagasy sprinter Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa this morning. I knew that he had been battling cancer in Lyon, France, for the last year, but it was still a shock to hear of his passing on Tuesday, aged 73.
I knew Jean-Louis and his wife, Ingrid, from Tana City Church in Madagascar, but one of my most memorable times with them was a lunch at their home in April last year. I’m copying excerpts of what I wrote about them then as a tribute to this icon and wonderful man.
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Jean-Louis “Ravelo” is Malagasy, while Ingrid has a Franco-Vietnamese background. She met her husband after coming to Madagascar in the 1960s with her stepfather, who was advising the post-independence government. Her beau admitted that the best thing he got from university was having met her.
Soon after marrying, their lives took off in a direction neither could have imagined. He was a runner – specialising in the 100m. The fastest sprinter Madagascar had ever seen. He was short, stocky and lightning-fast: this was the 1960s, where raw speed and talent was the order of the day.
One day he was invited to compete in an international meeting on the island, his talent was recognised, and he was offered the chance to run and study in the USA. This eventually led him to Westmont College in California, during which time he competed in numerous national athletics finals, three Olympic Games and won a world indoor title. At his final Olympics in Munich, in 1972, where he was at his peak and ranked the second-fastest 100m athlete in the world, he pulled a hamstring in the semi-finals and was eliminated.
Asked what he felt about seeing his dream of being Olympic champion die, at the final hurdle (to mix a running metaphor), he simply shrugged. “These things happen. It’s in the past. I lived a good life, and there are many better things I can talk about.”
One achievement which stands out, above even the Olympics, was at a small race called the “Stawell Gift” in Australia. Athletes are staggered at the start line according to their times – with the faster runners starting behind the slower ones. On a boggy, wet track (which rose 90cm over the distance) in 1975 he ran the 120m in 12 seconds dead from the back of the pack, scorching past the other runners in the final few metres. In 2006, at the 125th anniversary of the running of the event, his run was voted the best in its history.
I could hear sadness in their voices, though, when they spoke about how all the mementoes from that part of their lives – the trophies, videos, photos and newspaper clippings – had been stolen in a house burglary in the 1970s. With no physical reminders, apart from the scraps one can find on the Internet, they really do only have their memories.
We talked about life after athletics; about many years in Africa where he worked for an international organisation in finance and economics; about their children, their grandchildren and their life back home in Madagascar. We spoke about her roots, and a trip she took back to Vietnam with her sisters. We spoke over drinks, over dinner, dessert and coffee but one afternoon is way too short to truly know people.
One thing that struck me throughout the afternoon was their humility, grace and dignity: It’s not often one gets to see the simple contentment of a life lived well. I left with photos of much beauty, but a glimpse into two special lives and a reminder to listen to people’s stories – whether exciting or seemingly mundane – is what the afternoon was really about.