It’s likely that by the time you read this, Emiel Pauwels will be dead. He was 95 last month.
I can never claim that I knew him well. Emiel was one of the best-known figures in Belgian, European and World masters athletics. I’d photographed him running or high jumping on at least two dozen occasions, and he’s mentioned in this 2011 blog of mine. Like many others, I guess, I’ve come to regard him as one of the “Ever-presents” of the Masters scene. I have hardly ever attended a major Masters championships at which he wasn’t a competitor.
Emiel spoke just a few words of English, and rather more of German. I have no Flemish, his native tongue. Trackside banter between venerable athlete and irritating photographer was usually in a patois of several languages, depending on who else was around. Not that Emiel ever did get irritated with photographers around him. He was a publicity-magnet, and he knew it. A smile and a triumphant victory salute were never far away when he saw a camera. And his expressions of pleasure were never limited just to events he won. Emiel’s delight was always to finish. For him, it was about participating. And about still being able to participate, whatever the calendar might say.
I saw this very starkly in the European Masters Championships in Hungary in July 2010. It was hot and intensely humid. I was working trackside with the camera and, as I said at the time, “I was on at least three litres of water a day, yet never saw any return on that investment”. The crowds were being delighted, as usual, by the 1500 metres race for the highest Masters age groups. Suddenly a clipboard-wielding green-blazered official strode on to the track in front of Emiel Pauwels, raised his hand and instructed him to stop. He didn’t, of course. With a wave of his thin arms, he side-stepped the official and carried on for a further lap. With less than 400 metres of the race remaining, the official blocked his way again and physically restrained him from continuing.
I’d never seen Emiel angry before. He was furious, and attempted again to continue, before almost seeming to crumple as he accepted he was being disqualified. He’d broken no rules before the official (a “health and safety officer” who had probably never seen athletes of 80 years old and above racing) first tried to stop him on the grounds (as we were later told) that he thought he was running too slowly. That’s right; he tried to stop a man of 90 from running because, in the heat of the afternoon, he thought the competitor was “running too slowly”. When Emiel didn’t stop first time, it was a simple matter for officialdom to disqualify him for failing to obey an official’s instruction.
I was right where this happened. Across the track, people in the stands were booing. I said loudly to the official “I think you have made a bad decision there.” I’d taken the photo in this blog a few moments before Emiel was pulled from the event. Does this look like a man in distress to you?
Emiel was totally disorientated, but soon whisked away by other Belgian athletes. I later learned that the official had subsequently also tried to have me banned from working as a photographer, for my comment.
Next day, I asked Emiel how he was. It was clear from his reply that he was mainly incensed at not being allowed to finish his race – being told he could not participate any further when he had just 350 metres left of the event.
This story came back to me when a friend sent me the news last weekend that Emiel was terminally ill. Ken Stone of Masterstrack tells the rest with this post.
So, farewell Emiel. You were not the first 90 year old on the track, and you won’t be the last, but you were one who seldom seemed to turn down a chance to run or jump. We’ll not see you again, but we’ll not forget your racing spirit.
(By way of an update, Emiel’s family subsequently posted online this video of his “Farewell” party. Incredibly poignant. News of Emiel’s death next day was picked up in newspapers all over the world.)