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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The IAAF World Championships - a recap and the Best and Worst of...

So the IAAF World Championships in athletics concluded on the weekend, and we’ve tried to bring you as much analysis and insight as possible here at The Science of Sport. So in our final post on the World Champs, now that the dust has settled, we bring you a wrap up of our “best” and “worst” for the week of athletics. Obviously, we’re biased in favour of the track events, and especially the longer distance running, but we’ll be as objective as possible. Feel free to throw your hat in the ring…

Best male athlete

In terms of medals, our vote goes to Tyson Gay, who claimed three golds, winning a sprint (100m-200m) double and gold in the 4 x 100m relays. This particular double has been pretty common in recent years, with Maurice Greene and Justin Gatlin both achieving it. Hopefully, Gay will not go the same was as Gatlin! Gay is a big-race runner, his greatest strength seems to be his ability to put all other athletes out of his mind and withstand the pressure of a head to head race. Asafa Powell, with whom he shares one of the great rivalries in the sport, does not possess this gift, and Gay’s edge over him may grow in the future.

On the other end of the spectrum, an honourable mention for Bernard Lagat of the USA repeated a double that only Hicham el Guerrouj has achieved in World Champs history, winning the 1500m and 5000m titles. His victories, both of which we analysed in a bit more detail (click for 1500m and 5000m) were achieved after a reasonably bad season, but he was the dominant man. Admittedly, his rivals gifted him the 5000m title, but few will remember that.

Finally, perhaps the best individual performance goes to Jeremy Wariner, who became the third fastest 400m runner in history, winning the title in 43.46secs. He also anchored the USA to a gold in the 4 x 400m relay, running close to 43-flat, and is one of the superstars of the sport.

Best female athlete

Speaking of superstars, you’d have to look hard to beat Allyson Felix, who, at just 21 years, appears to be destined for greatness. The biggest winning margin in the history of the World Champs in the 200m, the fastest leg in the 4 x 400m (by a long way), and a gold in the 4 x 100m were the performances that earned this athlete our vote. She is a majestic runner, looking almost out of place against the much bigger, more muscular women she runs against. And she now has four golds, at the age of 21. Whether she’ll run the 400m individual event in Beijing remains to be seen. If she does, it would be difficult to bet against her winning four golds on the track. The only thing preventing that may be the tough schedule. The other regrettable fact is that she will likely never be a world record holder. In fact, she’s unlikely to even challenge a record – the women’s sprint events are so tainted with drug use they could just as well begin classifying records by the era they were set. The problem is, no one knows where it starts and ends – asks Marion Jones.

But regardless, Allyson Felix is a superstar, and will be the light of women’s athletics for many years to come.

An honourable mention goes to what we believe is the best performance of the Champs, by Janeth Jepkosgei in the 800m final. You can read about this here. The first Kenyan woman to win a middle distance title, she ran a race that others described as suicidal, winning with dominance that is rarely seen at this level.

Men’s most disappointing performance

A very subjective category this one, and our bias is difficult to eliminate. But Craig Mottram, the Australian who everyone fancied to mix it with the Kenyans and Ethiopians in the 5000m final was a huge disappointment. He was not even to make an impression in a race that was the slowest in the history of the Championships.

Another candidate is Bershawn Jackson, who was heading for a comfortable qualifier in the 400m Hurdles semi-final, before he got himself horribly out of step and bunny hopped straight into the final hurdle. He stumbled, slowed and jogged home, his world title to be surrendered in his absence in the final.

But our vote goes to the entire field in the Men’s 5000m final, Mottram included. Only Bernard Lagat escapes mention. How a group of elite athletes could set out at 3min/km pace when the world’s best 1500m runner was in the field is beyond belief. Of course, taking the pace out harder may have done nothing to the result, but at least they’d have had a chance. The way the race developed, it was a meek surrender and a lesson in poor tactical awareness.

Women’s most disappointing performance

A few candidates here too. On the track, Sanya Richards came into the 200m race with hopes of retribution after failing to make the USA 400m team. Everyone (ourselves included) felt she’d have to beat Allyson Felix to win that race, and it was lining up as a great race. In the end, it was a great mismatch, and Richards managed only fifth, another three athletes separating her from the dominant Felix. It’s difficult to know what happened, perhaps she was overdone and tired, and unable to find the speed that she showed leading up to the Championships. She gets our vote for most disappointing performance – but she’ll be back, in the 400m, hopefully stronger than ever. She’d better be, because Felix is ahead of her on current form.

An honourable mention for Torri Edwards, though this may be somewhat harsh, considering that she made finals in both the 100m and 200m races. But disappointing, because a pre-event favourite didn’t medal in either. And mostly because she’ll be disappointed at finishing only one place out of the medals in both races. So a frustrating performance is perhaps a better term.

Best nation

The obvious choice would be USA, who topped the medal table comfortably and had one of their greatest Championships in history. Apart from the usual plethora of sprinting medals (they won 4 of the 6 titles from 100 to 400m), and clean sweeps (the men’s 400m), they found medals in unusual sources. There was Kara Goucher winning bronze in the women’s 10000m final, and of course Lagat, with two golds in middle distance events (it had been 99 years since the last gold in those events for the USA).

But our vote actually goes to Kenya, mostly because of how they’ve turned their fortunes around. A few years ago, Kenyan coaches were being fired with regularity. This year, they won both 800m events, two marathons, steeplechase for men, and featured strongly in all the distance races. They’ll still be concerned over their inability to challenge the Ethiopian dominance at 10000m (though their men nearly got it right this year), and that they didn’t win gold in the 5000m final (when perhaps Kipchoge had the best chance of beating Lagat), but all in all, a hugely successful Championships. Best of all, two victories in the 800m event, and the breakthrough of some highly promising young athletes. It seems that Kenyan athletics is recovering – let’s hope it keeps happening.

Worst nation

OK, so we’re really biased here. But South Africa, a nation that has some history of winning medals, providing great athletes and featuring in these Championships, could not win a single medal. All but one athlete failed to even achieve personal bests (that one athlete was in the men’s javelin). In a week where personal bests, season’s bests and world leading times were being set left, right and centre, South Africa somehow contrived to achieve only one. Athletes who should have reached finals were eliminated in the first round, men who should have challenged for medals finished with the also-rans, often not even in the top 40 of the event. Worst of all, SA’s athletics president, Leonard Chuene, said in the media that he “does not understand the disappointment of people”, claiming that the Champs were a success! When one begins to celebrate mediocrity, then the path to the basement is a rapid one.

Finally, it is worth noting that Athletics South Africa recently employed a German coach, Eckhard Arbeit, who was notorious in the old East German system for his role in drug use and doping programmes. That didn’t stop ASA, who felt he could add to our athletic performance. I have it on authority that he has been taking hair samples from our athletes to test them and adjust their training! Needless to say, this is called “hocus pocus” in some circles. The SA team had a training camp in Germany leading up to the World Champs, and Arbeidt said in media interviews that the team took a lot out of this camp – they sure did. Injuries, burnout and poor performances. Bring on Beijing, where ‘mighty’ SA will be lucky to win two medals, and none in athletics.

Biggest disappointment of the World Champs

Two stand out – first, no world record. Of course, that’s only possible in sprint events (for tactical reasons) and field events. And then here, it’s only really the men, because the women’s events are about 50 years ahead of their time! But much was expected in the men’s sprints, and though performances were awesome, no world record. Perhaps Beijing will make up for it.

And then second, a huge disappointment that Turinesh Dibaba pulled out of the 5000m race, after winning the 10000m. It robbed us of maybe the best rivalry in the sport, Dibaba vs. Defar, for which we will now have to wait a little longer. Hopefully not all the way to Beijing though.

So that’s it for the IAAF World Champs. Athletics continues though, with the Golden League resuming for the Zurich Weltklasse this Friday. That’s one of the showpieces of athletics, and should throw up some great performances, which we’ll analyze in detail right here.