Swiss marathon runner Viktor Röthlin has won gold at the European Athletics Championships in Barcelona.
Röthlin thus became the fourth Swiss European champion overall and the first since shot putter Werner Günthör in 1986.
The 35-year-old made up for European silver four years ago in Gothenburg – Switzerland’s only medal – with a winning run of 2 hours, 15 minutes, 31 seconds. It was also Switzerland's first medal of the competition.
Spain's José Manuel Martinez, a former European champion in the 10,000 metres, was 2:29 minutes slower to win silver.
Dmitriy Safronov of Russia claimed bronze with a time of 2:18:16 in hot conditions on the streets of Barcelona.
Although Röthlin came sixth in the 2008 Olympic Marathon in Beijing, his win in Spain is something of a surprise. He contracted thrombosis during a flight from the United Arab Emirates in 2009, which led to a pulmonary embolism.
On Sunday he waited in a small leading group until the 28th of 42 kilometres, when he broke away.
Swiss National Day
“It’s fantastic to do this on Swiss National Day. After everything that’s happened over the past two years, this is incredible. I wouldn’t have come had I not been in with a medal chance,” he said.
"This was my 19th marathon and it felt like the first. My career might as well have been over after today, but the only thing I can say now is that I'm back! It feels great."
Röthlin added that he liked to run in the heat. "Compared to Osaka 2007 [the World Championships] this was cold."
Defending champion Stefano Baldini's return to defend his title ended early when the Italian pulled up nearly halfway through.
The 39-year-old 2004 Olympic champion hadn't competed since a 12th-place finish at the Beijing Games and had only returned to defend his European title.
Also on Sunday, the Swiss men's 4x100 metres relay team just missed out on a medal, coming fourth. But the team of Pascal Mancini, Aron Beyene, Reto Amaru Schenkel and Marc Schneeberger did set a new national record, shaving 0.09 seconds off the old one to come in at 38.69 seconds.
Werner Günthör, who now works at the Federal Sport Office in Magglingen, believes the European championships in Barcelona could help push Swiss athletes to better performances.
Long jumper Irene Pusterla and hurdler Lisa Urech in particular have shown the potential needed to give Swiss athletics a boost, Günthör told swissinfo.ch.
“Track and field athletics can be brutal,” he said. And he knows exactly what he is talking about. Holder of three world titles, an Olympic bronze and European championship gold, the 49-year-old is the most successful Swiss athlete of all time.
While Pusterla just missed out on the long jump final, Urech came seventh.
Günthör says that he was “particularly impressed” by the latter’s performance.
“Barcelona is important for Urech, with bigger events in mind like the world championships or the Olympics where she will have to cope with even more pressure.”
While Pusterla must also look for improvement and higher goals, most of the athletes in the 22-strong Swiss team in Barcelona have to admit that an appearance in 2014 when Switzerland stages the European championships is a long-term objective.
Criticism that the Swiss contingent exhibits more in numbers than in class is countered by Swiss Athletics, which argues that the Barcelona team should form a basis for the championships in four years at the Letzigrund stadium in Zurich.
Günthör welcomes the association’s efforts to make athletics more attractive for young athletes because it shows them “that it can be ‘cool’ to take part in a big event”.
But he says the idea that any Tom, Dick or Harry can take part has to be nipped in the bud.
“The athletes selected must have at least the potential to go further. Just taking part doesn’t help the association or the athletes.”
An additional factor is that the level in the global athletics sport may be extremely high. “I don’t know of any other kind of sport, apart from perhaps swimming, in which an athlete can immediately see how he stands compared with the world’s best.”
That makes track and field “brutal sports” in which talent alone does not necessarily mean success.
Swiss European golds
1950, Fritz Schwab, 10km walk
1969, Philippe Clerc, 200m
1986, Werner Günthör, shot put
2010, Viktor Röthlin, marathon
Viktor Röthlin is currently Switzerland's most successful track and field athlete.
Röthlin set a new Swiss record of 2:07:23 in February 2008 to become the second-quickest European marathon runner of all time.
In 2007 he won bronze in an exciting finish at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka.
The previous year he ran to a silver medal behind Italian Stefano Baldini at the European Athletics Championships in Gothenburg.
In 2004 he became the first Swiss to break the magical 2 hours 10 minutes barrier with a time of 2:09:55.
His first notable performance in an international race came in the 2001 Berlin marathon, where he finished eighth in a time of 2:10:54.
Röthlin has clocked eight of the ten best marathon times ever run by a Swiss athlete.