On the inside of Nijel Amos’s forearm, etched into his dark skin, sits a tattoo of a number which defines not just the athlete he is, but recounts his greatest achievement to date: 1:41.73.
It was almost three years ago – on a warm Friday evening in August 2012 – when Amos took precisely that long to run two laps of the track inside London’s Olympic stadium, a run which saw him close in on Kenya’s David Rudisha on the run to the line in the 800m and earn an Olympic silver medal. The performance made Amos a national hero in his native Botswana, along with pushing him to joint-third on the all-time list for 800m alongside Sebastian Coe. He was 18 years old.
Last week, Amos, now 21, took his first Diamond League victory of the year in Birmingham, dispatching an international field to win in 1:46.77. The time was some five seconds slower than his best, but Amos didn’t care. “Me and my coach decided the weather was not good so we would forget about times and just go for the win,” he said afterwards.
Amos opened his outdoor campaign in Eugene three weeks ago, where he was narrowly beaten by Ethiopia’s reigning world champion Mohammed Aman, and he suffered the same fate again days later in Rome, though at least had the consolation of a fast time, 1:43.80, to bolster his confidence.
With the win in Birmingham under his belt, it’s now time to go back into hard training at his base in South Africa – where Amos studies sports science at university and trains under coach Jean Verster.
“We’re going back to basics,” he says. “I’ll run two more races before [the IAAF World Championships in] Beijing. Every training session I am having more hope, every race I am having more hope. In about four weeks I’ll be back to my shape of last year.”
Having already bagged has an Olympic silver medal (2012) and Commonwealth Games gold medal (2014), Amos longs for a world championship medal to complete the collection. “This year I’m looking forward to walking away with the medal,” he says. “It is the only one I don’t have.”
His career to date, as accomplished as it is at such a young age, has defied the odds, but then again his whole life has been that way.
Amos grew up in Marobela, a village in Northeast Botswana. His mother passed away when he was four and Amos, his brother and two sisters were raised primarily by their grandmother, Gakenaope. It was a rural, basic and extremely underprivileged upbringing but one which ingrained in Amos the desire and work ethic required to succeed in life.
“It was a struggle each day,” he says. “At school, I was like: ‘I want to work hard to get out of this.'”
Amos worked diligently in the classroom and toiled passionately on the ploughing fields, helping his family in whatever way he could as a youngster.
When his talent for running was discovered by high school coach Kereleng Mafefe at the age of 17, though, his life soon changed. At the time, Amos had been running 3,000m and 5,000m races, but Mafefe recognised thoroughbred talent when he saw it and encouraged him to step down.
“He told me it’s time to run an 800,” recalls Amos, “and I performed really well.”
That year, 2011, he ran 1:47.28 for 800. The next year he won the World Junior Championships in Barcelona and just three weeks later, ran to that Olympic silver in London behind Kenya’s king of the 800m: David Rudisha.
Amos was asked in Birmingham whether he was glad Rudisha – who picked up an injury in Ostrava in recently – was not in the field. Though Amos would obviously love to ascend to Rudisha’s throne, his answer showed a wisdom and fabric of character which belied his youth. “He’s in my prayers,” said Amos of his great rival. “Every day I pray for him to recover. I know what it’s like to be injured. He will be back strong.”
Amos also knows that in athletics, there is no greater aid to running fast than having a formidable rival pushing you to your limit. “In athletics it’s all about helping each other,” he says. “For me to run fast, I need Rudisha. I need him in the field.”
Looking ahead, Amos’s long-term goals are about as lofty as you’d expect for a man who won an Olympic silver medal at the age of 18.
“I believe at some point in my career I will have the world record,” he says.
The current mark stands to Rudisha at 1:40.91, set in that Olympic stadium almost three years ago. It’s almost a second quicker than Amos’s best time, but he believes it’s possible. Not now, but some day. “I’m not going to rush,” he says. “I’m just taking it easy and I’ll achieve it. Next year I’m concentrating on the Olympics; the world record will come on its own.”
And if that record comes, I ask, what will that mean for the tattoo that currently sits on his right arm – that personal best time which will then be out-dated?
Thinking just as fast as he runs, though, I soon realise Amos is way ahead of me.
“I’m just going to write it on the other arm.”