Sunday, 13 September 2015

(A Belated) World Athletics Championships Review

By Shane Thomas

There were many significant stories to come from the World Athletics Championship in Beijing. So, let's have a look at some:

The Stage Belongs to the Showstopper:

The vulnerabilities Usain Bolt displayed leading into the London Olympics paled in comparison to the mediocre form he took into the Bird's Nest Stadium. Bedeviled by injuries, the only sliver of hope for his fans to cling to was the 9.87 he ran at the Anniversary Games.

But even that was adrift of the fastest times set by Justin Gatlin throughout 2015, including the 9.77 Gatlin delivered in the semi-final[1]. At they lined up for the final, in what was their first showdown of the year, I'd grudgingly accepted the inevitability of a Gatlin gold, with a rubber match between the two at next year's Olympics.

And had Gatlin held his nerve, that's what would have transpired. As we reached the closing stages of the 100 metre final, Gatlin was ahead, but he hadn't shaken Bolt off, and still had work to do. So now the American's plans of a fast start, and better technique weren't enough. It was no longer a physical test, but a mental one.

Gatlin wasn't up to the task. He panicked, overstriding with the finish line in sight. Bolt held his form, and pipped Gatlin on the line. They say sport doesn't build character, it reveals it. Gatlin was shown to crack when under pressure, while Bolt reinforces my comparison of him and the former wrestler, Shawn Michaels by never being outperformed in a big match situation.

By the time the 200 metres rolled around, Bolt was fatigued, but Gatlin was broken. As soon as Gatlin realised Bolt was ahead in the final 100, he had nothing to reply with. Bolt cruised to the line to win his 11th World Championship gold medal, and be the first man to do the 100/200 double three times.

He remains the greatest show in sport.

Jamaica's Carefree Black Champ

While the 2008 Olympics will be remembered for the supernova of Usain Bolt, another Jamaican sprinter also used China to announce the beginning of her era of dominance: Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who (then known as Shelly-Ann Fraser) unexpectedly stormed to glory in the 100 metres.

An unexpected win, but Fraser-Pryce victories in the sprint events soon became a regularity. And as she held off a late challenge by Dafne Schippers (who also had a fine World Championships) to win her third 100 metre world title, she proved that the world of athletics should treasure her as much as we treasure Bolt.

Fraser-Pryce is that combination of a world-class athlete combined with a winsome demeanour. In her victories back in 2008 and 2009, her relatively young age was underscored by the virtue of her wearing braces, while in Beijing she had a flower crown adorning her dyed locs. There's even something childlike in the way she runs: eyes wide open, as if drawn by a cartoonist; leaning forward with her chin; running to the line the manner of a toddler whose parent has just come through the door.

And then there's her bubbly disposition. Just look at this interview she gave after winning gold at the Worlds in Berlin six years ago.

For clarity's sake, this isn't to paint Fraser-Pryce as the "right" kind of female athlete. None should feel obligated to act in a certain kind of way for the cameras. But this isn't performative likability, As one can see when asked about her sartorial choices, this is who she is; Jamaica's carefree champion. In an age of professionalised rigour, it's a joy to watch someone who finds such joy in what she does.

Britain's Greatest? Not Yet, But Give it Time

Mo Farah's been the dominant force in long distance running since 2011. But I confess while I admired and enjoyed watching his victories[2], I always felt a sliver of partisan relief, being of the opinion that while his supremacy was unquestionable[3], he was fortunate to compete in an era devoid of any truly great male long distance runners: No Haile Gebreselassie; no Kenenisa Bekele; no Said Aouita.

But this is an argument that no longer stands on solid ground. This year, Farah didn't just manage the global 5,000 and 10,000 metre double for a third time, but did so being clearly targeted by his rivals. Imagine if Chris Froome had to contest the Tour de France without the help of his Team Sky teammates, having to race the peloton on his own? Because that's what Farah's doing.

As he burned off his opposition in the home-straight of both the 5,000 and 10,000, it became patently obvious of how wrong I was. Of course Farah's era contains greatness. He's the greatness.

Don't let the wide smile and 'Mobot' fool you. As Steve Cram noted on BBC commentary, one of Farah's great strengths is his ruthlessness. The nature of long distance running means one needs a considerable mental acumen, as well as athletic gifts. The ability to observe the pattern of a race, and then bend it to your will. And right now, Farah is taking long distance running, and making it his. He's truly one of the greatest ever to represent Britain. In time, he may become our greatest.

Rutherford Has His Medals. Will He Finally Get His Respect?

Greg Rutherford always looked set to be little more than a pub quiz question. The "other guy" who won gold on that Saturday. Just like the third guy on Apollo 11[4].

But since injury curtailed his chances at the 2013 World Championship, Rutherford has low-key become one of Britain's best championship performers. Golds in last year's European Championships and Commonwealth Games[5] meant he would have the full set with victory in Beijing.

That said, he wasn't favoured to succeed. Indeed, is Rutherford ever favoured? He's made little secret of the fact that he feels the regard he's held in is far from commensurate with his achievements. The past three years of his career appears to be less a battle for medals, but a battle for respect.

Rutherford delivered a mammoth 8.41 metres to upset the odds once again. We can keep doubting, but Rutherford keeps winning.

A 5th Place We Should Pay Close Attention To

When looking back at the heritage of British sprinting success, it's been slim pickings on the women's side. No global title - singular or relay - has ever been won by a British woman (or women). But for the first time in my lifetime, there's genuine optimism that could change. In Dina Asher-Smith, Britain have a talent that can go stride-for-stride with the world's best.

Still only 19, what's so encouraging about Asher-Smith is that she hasn't given one or two impressive displays and then fizzled out, but she's consistently improved throughout 2015. In May, she broke the British women's 100 metre record. She then lowered this record two months later, being the first British women to run sub-11 seconds for the event.

By the time she got to Beijing - competing in the 200 metres - she had Kathy Cook's domestic record in her sights. The time of 22.10 seconds has been something of a holy grail for British women sprinters, standing for over two decades.

Finishing 5th in the final, Asher-Smith took the record, running 22.07. There was no medal for her this time, but one seems an inevitability. Mark my words, we've got a good'un in Asher-Smith.

Destructive Beauty

There is no more graceful sight in this sport than when Allyson Felix is running. The model of aesthetic grace on the track, Felix already had 8 World Championship golds, but produced arguably her most impressive performance yet, winning gold in the 400 metres.

Nominally a 200 metre specialist, Felix showed few problems in stepping up to the 400. Her blistering start put her well ahead, but received wisdom dictated that this was a naive move; a 200 specialist out of her depth, not recalibrating for the longer distance, and would run of out gas in the closing stages.

However, this rapid start turned out to be an inspired tactical move[6]. With the normally fast finishing Christine Ohuruogu outside her, Felix immediately put her under pressure, forcing Ohuruogu to abandon her trusted strategy to try - and fail - to keep pace with the American.

Felix's countrywoman, Sanya Richards-Ross knows what it's like to think you have the 400 won, only for Ohuruogu to play her own game of 'The Tortoise and The Hare' with you. Felix - being one of the most conscientious athletes around - would have been cognisant of this, so the plan was simple; Take Christine out of the equation, and then deal with the rest.

It worked to perfection, as Felix ran a stunning time of 49.28 to win. It was the most destructive and ruthless piece of sporting beauty I've seen in 2015 so far.

Taylor Leaps Into Greatness

One of my most indelible memories as a sports fan is watching Jonathan Edwards obliterate the triple-jump world record (twice) in 1995. I imagine fans watching Bob Beamon in 1968 felt the way I did watching Edwards as a spellbound 11 year old. Edwards leap of 18.29 metres was a feat so supernatural, surely no human could even envisage of surpassing it.

Well, Christian Taylor clearly did envisage. Although, unlike Edwards, who had been knocking on the door of something special leading into Gothenburg 20 years ago, Taylor's ceiling appeared to be triple-jump gold, and no more.

Taylor didn't only secure gold, but he was mere centimetres away from a lot more. Hopping, stepping, and launching himself into the sandpit, Edwards record was put in legitimate jeopardy for the first time in history. The fact that he was in the BBC commentary box, with a look of disbelief on his face made the moment all the more piquant.

If you're able to hear over Steve Backley's caterwauling, listen to the Beijing crowd. Their gasps almost sucked the air out of the Bird's Nest Stadium. They knew they had witnessed something that would give them anecdotes for the rest of their lives.

Ultimately, Taylor fell narrowly short of 18.29. But his jump of 18.21 is nearly as epochal as Edwards's was. Because before Beijing, the world record seemed an inconceivable mark. Not any more. Taylor, and his notable rival, Pedro Pichardo will believe that Edwards can be knocked off that gilded perch.

When Edwards performed his superlative feat in 1995, I was certain I'd never see it bettered. Now, I'm not longer so certain.

Kenyan Supremacy

Not an individual athlete, but the story of the championships was the rise of Kenya. Often pigeon-holed as being good for nothing more than skinny, long-distance runners, they produced a stunning display to top the medal table in Beijing.

And this wasn't solely down to their traditional strengths in the distance events. Julius Yego triumphed in the javelin, while Nicholas Bett produced a superb run in an outside lane to power home in the final 100 metres to surprise the world with gold in the men's 400 metre hurdles.

The Rio Olympics will be intriguing to see if Kenya can build on this success. The real bonus to come from their display may be the Western world paying closer attention to their methods. While credit has been correctly laden on Kenya, their program is still viewed through an Orientalist prism, assuming that their achievements are down to having a whole bunch of "magic negros".

According to the reductive Western media narrative, the story of Yego began and ended with him learning to throw the javelin from watching YouTube videos, with little mention of the hard work, coaching, and natural talent he clearly possesses.

Sustained success may cause us to reappraise how we view the track and field exploits of Kenyan - and African - athletes. If so, these World Championships will have done a lot more than provide some compelling sport.

[1] - Bolt, meanwhile nearly lost his balance in his semi-final, barely making the final.

[2] - So much so that Jonathan and I chose him as our domestic sporting star of 2013.

[3] - Apart from the obvious issue of performance enhancing drugs, which have to be considered when talking about any athlete.

[4] - Seriously, what was his name? No Googling.

[5] - That said, they shouldn't be a thing.

[6] - As with Farah, we shouldn't overlook the intelligence of these athletes, and of athletes in general.

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