While Peter Bol was fighting to clear his name, his longtime housemate quietly broke the Olympic hero’s national record. Again.
Joe Deng lived with Bol for five years in Richmond. Deng is Bol’s close friend and training partner, and was the 800m national record holder before Bol.
Former housemates Joe Deng (left) and Peter Bol train together in Melbourne.
During the seven months since news that Bol had failed a drug test leaked to the media, just days before he was expected to be named Australian of the Year – the 29-year-old was exonerated on Tuesday – the pair has spent hours running the low hills that rise from the back of the MCG, near Light Tower 2, up towards Jolimont and Bridge Road.
Bol is in Europe preparing to return to top-flight competition at the World Athletics Championships, which start in Budapest on August 19. But, having made history at the Tokyo Olympics where he inspired a locked-down nation with a blistering run to finish just outside the medals, Bol has now watched the runner he knows best edge past him. Deng could upstage Bol in Budapest, but their coach Justin Rinaldi said neither Bol nor Deng would see it that way. They don’t regard each other as rivals.
“They don’t look at it as breaking each other’s record, [how] they look at it is that the Australian record is a bit soft, dare we say it, and they want to push it to a record that is really world-class,” Rinaldi explains. “We have always talked about being in the 1:42s. It’s a long way off, it’s not going to be easy. It would take the perfect race, but 1:42s is possible.”
In pursuit of that goal, Bol and Deng would sweep up the rises in Fitzroy Gardens and sprint from Punt Road, past the home of Richmond Football Club, to the Aboriginal scarred trees at the top of another MCG hill, and back again.
They would encounter office workers, dog walkers and joggers, who were surprised to see the two skinny African-born runners gliding effortlessly up the hills. Some would ask if they could join them. Sure they could. The joggers could only stay with them for a couple of hills, but could say they ran with an Olympic finalist and the fastest Australian 800-metre runners in history.
Once, Bruce McAvaney happened upon Deng and Bol when he was walking through Fitzroy Gardens. They were as surprised as the veteran TV commentator and athletics doyen was, and just as excited. It was special.
This year has been extremely taxing on Bol since he was provisionally banned in January after testing positive to the performance-enhancing drug EPO. He immediately stated that he was innocent, and a second test conflicted with the first, so the suspension was lifted, but he was not immediately exonerated. Bol’s name was finally cleared this week when Sport Integrity Australia announced that it now accepted the first positive test should not have been called a positive test at all.
“I have been exonerated! It was a false positive like I have said all along!” Bol said on Instagram. “The news from Sport Integrity Australia today was a dream come true. I am glad that WADA has agreed to review the EPO testing process to prevent future false positives. No one should ever experience what I’ve gone through this year.”
Throughout, Bol has depended on support from, among others, his friend Deng, his coach Rinaldi, and the encouragement of the many people who’d call out to wish him well as he climbed the inner Melbourne parkland hills, or stopped to ask for selfies.
Bol and Deng came to Melbourne separately years ago to train with Rinaldi. Their training fits around his full-time work commitments, which means they are innovative with time and space, and Rinaldi said it fits with their character. They like open community spaces.
“They are overseas a lot, but when they are here in Melbourne we train at the local Collingwood aths track because it is a community track open to the public, we train around the MCG on the hills around there. We train at Princes Park on a Saturday. We use mostly public venues,” Rinaldi said.
“I still work full time, so we have to train after 5pm, and we sometimes struggle to get onto Lakeside track because of restricted hours, whereas the Collingwood track we are lucky we can get in there.
“The hills around the MCG are always open. We use the hills in Fitzroy Gardens.”
The pair recently lived in Niddrie, but for a long time were housemates in Richmond and trained at the local Crunch gym.
Again people would come up halfway through a session to say hello. “It’s not too often you see two skinny Africans running as fast as the treadmill can go. Pete and Joe love it,” Rinaldi said.
“They are both Sudanese, Joe was actually born in Kenya because his mum walked to Kenya from Sudan where she had him. But they have a similar story of coming to Australia from Sudan, both ending up in Queensland when they came to Australia. Pete’s family moved to Perth, but then both of them left their families to move to Melbourne to train.[They have] a shared sense of community.”
Deng broke the national record unexpectedly in 2018, surprising even himself with a run of 1:44.21 seconds.
“They have been great friends, live together, train together for years. Joe got that national record in 2018 which was a bit of a shock, but he then missed the [2018 Gold Coast] Comm Games because he was injured, then they both ran 1:44 in the same race, both gunning for the [national] record.
“Joe struggled since 2018, personally dealing with some stuff outside of running and questioning whether he really wants to be a runner, and Pete sort of shone in that period – he ran well at the Olympics, he broke the national record three times.
“I don’t know if that spurred Joe on to break the record again, but Joe found his passion for running again this year and I think he is showing the talent he has.”
When Deng set a new national record in Lyon, France, last month he lowered Bol’s mark by .01 seconds, but importantly for the pair, he went below 1:44 for the first time when he ran 1:43.99.
“They do definitely push each other. They don’t look at it as a rivalry. They look at it as a positive that they push each other to be the best in the world, and having someone who is almost the exact level as you within a hundredth of a second is probably the best training partner you could ever have.”
For Bol, the months of suspension, uncertainty and fighting to clear his name cannot have made for an ideal preparation. With legal bills to pay, he signed up for the reality TV show SAS Australia. He didn’t pick up an actual injury during the physically demanding show but came away sore, with niggles and stresses on his body that held up training.
But he is back in the best shape he can be. So, too, is Deng.
The pair won’t just be pushing each other, they will be pushing the worlds best.