07 September, 2015

A fabulous championship. First part: track events.

The World 2015 Championships are over and I must say that I have never watched a better one. The time difference between Greece and China made it practically impossible to follow the morning session and thus I missed the two Marathon races and part of the combined events, but apart from that I have watched every evening session and I must say that I was enthralled. Thus I could not resist the temptation to write a short account with my impressions with just a sprinkle of technical analysis.

Perhaps the most important conclusion one can draw from the 2015 World's is that U. Bolt is the best sprinter ever. (In fact, I was convinced about this even before the championships). He did not come into the competition as the favourite for the first time in many years. Short-sighted people had let themselves be impressed by J. Gatlin's performances and, to tell the truth, Bolt had hidden his game almost perfectly. After a relaxed 100 m quarter final he stumbled out of the blocks in the semi and had to power hard in order to qualify. So, coming into the 100 m final, we knew nothing about his real condition. It turned out that it was excellent and Gatlin cracked. In fact having watched the replay several times I do not think that Gatlin had been ahead of Bolt at any moment. 

Then came the 200 m and it was clear to all, apart from hardcore Gatlin fans, that Bolt was going to make short work of Gatlin (he did with an excellent 19.55 time). By the way, are there Gatlin fans, apart from his family, friends and training partners? The only people I can think of are some journalists, the very ones who were ecstatic about the dominance of Marion Jones. In the semi-final we had a déjà-vu with Bolt "chatting" in the last 50 m with A. Jobodwana on his left just like he did at the Moscow, 2013, World's. In fact I was thinking that this relaxed race costed Jobodwana a sub-20 time. I should not have worried. The South African sprinter not only clocked a 19.87 in the final but he secured a bronze medal, his first in a major championship.

Women's 100 m saw the crowning of S.A. Fraser-Pryce in 10.76. (My regret is that my preferred female sprinter, M. Ahouré of Ivory Coast, could not make the final despite an excellent 10.98 in the semis). But the most important element of this race was the second place of D. Schippers in 10.81. To my eyes she became immediately the great favourite for the 200 m race. Some journalists started grudgingly granting her such a position after the usual incantations: "Felix is not running", "Fraser-Price is not running" etc. I am convinced that, had they run the 200 m, Schippers would have inflicted them a stinging defeat. In fact the one thing that surprised me was the superb race of E. Thompson. She was leading most of the race but, with a fantastic finish, Schippers managed to catch up and secured her victory by executing a perfect dip. 

She has now, with 21.63, the second best performance in the world after F. Griffith-Joyner (and I refuse to acknowledge the 21.62 of M. Jones, which, moreover, was registered at the 1753 m altitude of Johannesburg).

The two 400 m races were exciting in quite different ways. For men's 400 m my favourites were, in that order: K. James, L. Merritt and L. Santos. I admit that I did not believe in the braggadocio of I. Makwala. But I would never had thought that W. Van Niekerk could win the race despite the fact that he had run a sub-44 (short-lived) African record. Still he executed the perfect race and won in an amazing 43.47 (fourth all-time best). In the case of women's 400 m A. Felix was hands-down the favourite. She run an almost suicidal first 150 m, which had a serious effect, psychological and otherwise, on her opponents, slowed down for the next 100 m and then accelerated again to finish in a brilliant 49.26. (What is even more impressive is her 47.72 split in the 4x400 relay, but more on this later).

When a friend of mine who couldn't watch the championships asked me about the results of the men's 800 m and I told him that D. Rudisha won in 1:45.84 he pouted and said that that was a shitty time. Well, with his two most dangerous rivals Amos and Aman out, Rudisha knew that the race was his to win. He used the best tactique for this. After a first fast 200 m Rudisha took control and slowed the race to an almost snail pace (54.15 at mid-race). He controlled the first attack at 550 m and managed to contain the opposition and when he reached 700 m he went off at full speed. He was never caught. Remember, at the World Championships, or at the Olympics, the important thing is to win.

I have been following M. Arzamasova since 2012 when she was going to qualify for the semis in 800 m at the London Olympics but was hit by a cramp over the last 20 metres. I had the right intuition because she won the European championships in 2014 and, after a great race, was crowned world champion in Beijing. But the women's 800 m was doubly interesting for me. As I wrote already in a previous post I was keeping an eye open for C. Semenya. And I must say that I am perplexed. In the heats she entered the final stretch at 7th position and managed with her well-known powerful sprint to win the qualifying third place. In the semi, on the other hand, she was last and apparently did not even try to catch the girls in front of her. In her interview she said that she was not "that much disappointed" and that she will be preparing for the Olympic Games. So no solution to the Semenya puzzle yet (but, boy, isn't she masculine in everything from looks to voice tone to gestures).

The women's 1500 m saw the crowning of G. Dibaba. It would have been a major surprise if, just after having improved one of those "haunted" world records, she were to lose the world title. But as we'll see below Dibaba is not a bionic woman, just a great champion. At men's 1500 m with 100 m to go there were practically 10 athletes competing for the medals. While one of the favourites, A. Kiprop, did win, the most astonishing race was that of the silver medalist, E. Manangoi. With 30 m to go he was still fifth but with his incredible finish he ensured the one-two for Kenya with the first five athletes separated by less than half a second.

Men's 5 and 10 km were a mere formality for M. Farah. He showed that he could equally win a (very) slow race, the 5 km, as a fast one, the 10 km. In the latter, the Kenyans did their best in order to blunt Farah's finish, but to no avail: Farah was the one to cross the line first. Women's 5 km was an exhibition of power by A. Ayana. I have not been paying much attention to this superb Ethiopian runner, despite the fact that she was bronze medalist in Moscow at the 2013 World's. From 2000 m onwards she imposed a 2:49, 2:44, 2:47 per 1000 m rhythm which nobody could follow. I will not be astonished if she were the one to break the 5000 m world record.  Dibaba, unable to follow, gave up on the race to the point that when she was caught up by S. Teferi she had to sprint in order to save the bronze medal. The African domination was total in this race with three Ethiopians finishing at the first three places followed by four Kenyans. The situation was less clear-cut in women's 10 km who saw the victory of V. Cheruiyot, four years after her Daegu 2011 gold medal: the first 9 places were occupied by three Ethiopians, three Kenyans and three Americans. It was in fact the latter who provided the most thrilling moment of this race. M. Huddle was arriving third at the finishing line and started celebrating when E. Infeld, coming from behind with a very strong finish and a timely dip managed to filch the precious bronze medal. 

The lesson here is clear: first cross the line and only then celebrate. You have all the time in the world once you have secured your medal.

Hurdles are a discipline of precision. As P. Iakovakis, the 2006 European champion over 400 m hurdles, has said '"the hurdles are there to make you fall". So, as was natural, the titles went to the people with the best technique over the hurdles. Shubenkov, in the 110 m was the only one in the final who managed to pass over every hurdle without even a single contact, scoring a new Russian record at 12.98. A serious last hurdle mistake costed T. Porter the title in the 100 m in a race won by D. Williams in a so-so time of 12.57 (it wouldn't have sufficed for a medal two years ago in Moscow) with second place, after a flawless race, to heptathlete-turned hurdler C. Roleder. Who in their right mind would have thought that the men's 400 m hurdles was to be won by a Kenyan. And moreover, N. Bett, the winner in a time of 47.79, was not the only Kenyan in the final, the fifth place going to his team-mate B. Tumuti. The big pre-race favourite M. Tinsley foundered, finishing last, after three huge mistakes over hurdles number 4, 7 and 8. What is amazing with Kenyans is that while their technique is far from perfect they do not seem to suffer a slow-down because of the hurdle jumping. 

The same ease was exhibited by the Kenyans in the men's 3000 m steeplechase. They managed to kill the competition with a humongous acceleration over the last 300 m finishing in the first four places. E. Kemboi was first for the fourth consecutive time with a time of 8:11.28. Here again the technique over the barriers was essential. C. Kipruto was strongly attacking Kemboi coming into the final stretch but then he fumbled with the final barrier and he barely saved the silver medal. (Mind you, given the ease with which Kemboi finished the race I do not think that anybody stood a chance again him in Beijing). 

A similar mistake over the very same last barrier costed my personal favourite, H. Ghribi, the title of the women's 3000 m steeplechase, the victory going to H. Jepkemoi with a time of 9:19.11. Now I just hope that Y. Zaripova, a well-known doping offender, gets stripped of her London, 2012, olympic gold medal, in which case Ghribi will cease being an eternal second.

Relays could have been a clean sweep for Jamaica but they managed to lose the men's 4x400m. I was disgusted by the journalists' attitude who were practically rooting for the US in the 4x100 m men's relay. It is as if they were wishing for Bolt's team to lose the race. (It is understandable: they were the same who, before the championships, were promoting Gatlin as the big favourite). Jamaica, in fact did help them a lot with two messed up exchanges when A. Powell received and passed the baton, but I cannot tell whether Powell was responsible for this just from watching the video. Be that as it may, when it came to the final exchange the US had a slight lead on Jamaica, but nothing Bolt could not make up for. And of course the American team managed to miss completely the exchange and get disqualified, thus allowing the Canadian team to take the bronze medal home (and thus A. De Grasse, whom I consider the future of men's sprint, barring injury, is leaving his first World Championships with two bronze medals). The women's team of Jamaica won easily in 41.07 the second best performance ever. I would have been interested in their splits, even unofficial ones (although I know that they do not mean much in the 4x100 m).  Let us hope they surface one day. Just in case you were wondering: the best split that I know of is a 9.88 by F. Griffith-Joyner in Seoul, 2012, in third position. (Other athletes have done better but only when running at fourth position). 

Women's 4x400 m was probably the most exciting relay race. The US team could have won if the team were anchored by Felix provided that she received the baton close enough to the Jamaican team. So, despite Felix' blistering 47.72 split, that brought US to the head of the race her team had to contend with the silver medal. I cannot resist the temptation to mention the split of F. Guei, the very one who managed to win gold for France last year at the European championships. This time she had to retrieve the baton from her fallen team-late, tripped by the Nigerian athlete, and still managed to clock a 49.95. The men's 4x400 m was the only one won by the US. In this they were greatly helped by Jamaica, with R. Chambers, at second position, running a below-par 45.30, and R. McDonald, on third, running a suicidal first part resulting in an utterly disappointing 44.56 (while he had registered a 43.93 in the heats of the individual event). J. Francis, anchoring the relay, repeated the same mistake and, although he clocked a superb 43.52, managed to lose even the bronze medal. On the other hand, had the competition been fiercer, L. Merritt would most probably have run faster than his 44.19 anchor. (And had the Bahamas not been disqualified we would have witnessed an even more thrilling final). K. Borlée run an incredible 43.58 spilt at third position, confirming his 43.78 at anchor position at the semis, but making his elimination at the individual semis even more difficult to understand.

I have not been able to follow the Marathons and so it would be unfair to go into details but reading the results of the women's Marathon one can easily conclude that it should have been a most exciting race, the favourite, and winner, M. Dibaba (no relation to the other Dibabas) being chased all the way to the finish line by four kenyans (one running for Bahrain). The men's Marathon was won by a famous name, Ghebreslassie, belonging to an, almost unknown, Eritrean teenager, the youngest man to win a world title at this race. 

And for questions of principle, I am going to ignore the race-walking events (although I firmly believe in the athletic value of race-walkers). It is just that the rules as they stand allow them to run instead of walking which to my eyes is condemning the discipline.

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