09 September, 2017

A bizarre championship. Second part: field and combined events

I hope you will excuse me if I start this second part of my report with the victory of K. Stefanidi. After having won the Olympic (and the European) title in 2016 Stefanidi went on to dominate the 2017 season. Her 4.91 m record was a world leading performance. She entered the competition at 4.65 m, a height where most of her opponents had started to falter. And once S. Morris was eliminated at 4.89, Stefanidi passed and went on to 4.91 m which she successfully cleared. The surprising new-comer was R. Peinado of Venezuela who tied at third place with Y. Silva. A minor disappointment were the 9 and 10th places of E. McCartney and A. Bengtsson who could only manage a 4.55 m height.

K. Stefanidi, the best pole vaulter 
of these last two years

I did really enjoy the men's pole vault competition. I have rarely seen R. Lavillenie be so serene, starting with confidence at a relatively high 5.65 m and making the good choices of heights to pass. In a year where he was not in the best of shapes he managed to grab bronze medal with his season's best of 5.89 m. The gold medal went to S. Kendricks who did impress me not only for his performance (he jumped 5.95 m)  but also with his fair-play, rushing into the reception area to congratulate Lavillenie. Pre-event favourite P. Wojciechowski was a disappointing 5th but the polish pride was saved by P. Lisek's silver medal. The ex-world champions S. Barber and R. Holzdeppe were disappointing and the same holds true for the wunderkind of pole vault A. Duplantis (although most probably Duplantis had peaked for the U20 Europeans in July).

It's been years since I have last seen Lavillenie so happy

Men's high jump was won by M.E. Barshim who is the uncontested number one of the discipline this year. Curious as it may sound, for an athlete who is the second best performer of all times, Barshim's only other global gold medal was the 2014 indoors' one. He jumped 2.35 m at the World's but went on to jump 2.40 m twice at meetings just after the championships. B. Bondarenko is having a mediocre season and could only manage a 9th place in London. The one athlete I did notice (in particular for his excellent technique) was silver medalist (with 2.32 m) D. Lysenko of Russia who jumped a personal best of 2.38 m after the championships. At 30 years of age M.E. Ghazal of Syria captured his first global medal with 2.29 m relegating on count-back the astonishing E. Rivera of Mexico to a 4th place. Italy's G. Tamberi, who jumped 2.39 in 2016 only to get injured just before the Olympics, was back in London with a 2.29 m year's best but could not make the final just for one missed height.

Barshim has dominated this season's high jump

M. Kuchina-Lasitskene had no trouble whatsoever winning the gold medal of women's high jump. After having cleared 2.03 m she went on to try 2.08 m, which would have made of her the second best performer of all times (together with B. Vlasic) with a russian record, but she missed all three attempts. Y. Levchenko of Ukraine obtained the silver medal with a huge personal best of 2.01 m, while K. Licwinko of Poland had to equal her outdoors record at 1.99 m in order to obtain the bronze medal. It looks like R. Beitia's career is coming to an end this time: with a 1.88 m jump she was relegated to the 12th place.

The women's horizontal jumps were a minor disappointment for me since my two preferred athletes did not shine. In triple jump C. Ibargüen lost to Y. Rojas for a measly two centimetres despite a great competition. The style of Y. Rojas is always the same awful to look at but quite efficient. Some people are advancing the argument that if Rojas manages to improve her style she will be able to do extraordinary things. I do not share this opinion. I believe that Rojas' style is adapted to her morphology, her minuscule second jump being precisely one that allows her to conserve her speed. I do not know if Ibargüen's defeat signals a possible career end. I hope not since it will be difficult to find another triple jumper with her feline grace.

But what I still cannot believe is that I. Spanovic went home empty handed. In particular since her last jump was visually way beyond Reese's winning mark of 7.02 m. It seems that Spanovic's number on her back left a mark in the sand and the length of her jump was measured from that point. Having seen her jump at the European indoors I was ready to bet that this time she was going to clinch the gold medal, but in the end she registered her worst result since 2012. D. Klishina was second of a high level competition with an excellent 7.00 m and the first global medal of her career.

Darya Klishina, flying to a silver medal. 
I would have preferred to give a photo of Spanovic, but...

C. Taylor won the men's triple jump with 17.68 m but W. Claye did chase him all the way and lost the gold medal for just 5 centimetres. Clearly Taylor was not in his spring, 18 m plus, shape. N. Evora, always present in important competitions won the bronze medal repelling the assaults of four Cuban jumpers (one of them competing for Azerbaijan).

Men's long jump saw two south africans on the podium: L. Manyonga first with 8.48 m and R. Samaai third with 8.32 m. J. Lawson of the US was the silver medalist with a leap of 8.44 m. The 2013 world champion A. Menkov of Russia was fourth with just one valid jump at 8.27 m. What I did like best in this, admittedly low-key competition, was the absence of G. Rutherford. I don't know whether he was simply injured or has in fact retired but I am crossing my fingers for the second.

My men's shot put and discus throw favourites did quite well but the score was not perfect. T. Walsh did indeed win the men's shot put with a superb 22.03 m throw. The second new-zealander J. Gill did make it to the final only to finish 9th. A least he is starting to fulfill my expectations, because for one or two years I was afraid he had fizzled out. D. Storl, still quite young for a shot putter had only one valid throw ending in 10th position. He was the only glider in the final and it seems that my last year's article "Are shot-putters becoming spinners?" was not off the mark. As I had already pointed out in that article, women are rather slow in catching up. Among the three medalists only the silver medal winner, A. Marton, is a spinner, the gold medalist L.Gong and the bronze one M. Carter both using the glide technique. In fact, if my count is correct, only two among the 12 women finalists were spinning.

Walsh being carried on the shoulders of bronze medalist Zunic

D. Stahl in discus lost the gold medal by a mere 2 cm, after the winner, A. Gudzius of Lithuania, threw a huge personal best of 69.21 m. F. Dacres of Jamaica missed out on a medal, finishing fourth, but this is a definite improvement over his last year's olympic debacle. The Harting brothers were nowhere to be seen, Robert finishing 6th and Cristoph absent from the championships.

S. Perkovic took her revenge for the 2015 defeat. She had two throws beyond 70 m and won with 70.31 m, the silver medal going to the amazing D. Stevens (the 2009 world champion) who improved her area record with 69.64 m. M. Robert-Michon confirmed her olympic medal with a world bronze one at 38 years of age. This time Y. Pérez managed to disappoint me only a little. Arriving in London as one of the favourites with a huge personal best over 69 m, she finished fourth with a modest 64.82 m throw. Still better than the 2015 world champion and over-70 thrower, D. Caballero who had to content herself with a 5th place. 

The women's javelin throw was won by B. Spotakova, 10 years after her only other world tile, the one won in Osaka in 2007. Not a bad performance for the 36 years old veteran. The Rio olympic champion S. Kolak was a relative disappointment, finishing fourth. All in all the competition was rather low-key the gold medal being won with a 66.76 m throw. We are definitely missing 70-plus female javelin throwers.

While the women's javelin is going through a crisis the men's discipline is flourishing. Walcott, Yego, Röhler and Vetter have made us miss a little less the giants of the discipline, Zelezny and Thorkildsen. J. Vetter confirmed his position as second best thrower of all time with a world title obtained with a 89.89 m throw. T. Röhler himself was somewhat below par and ended up fourth behind the two surprising czech athletes J. Vadlejch and P. Frydrych who both thew personal bests at the World's. K. Walcott finished 7th and J. Yego is definitely going through a bad year and 13th place at the Wolrd's. The high level of men's javelin reflects itself in the fact that 13 athletes threw beyond the qualifying distance (and thus gained access to the final). Among them the talented young greek thrower I. Kyriazis who finished at a most honourable 6th place. Perhaps we have found the successor to the great K. Gatsioudis. My only disappointment in this event was the presence of T. Pitkämäki. When is he going to retire? We have seen him more than enough.

J. Vetter, first among a host a great javelin throwers

Hammer throw was a polish affair, Poland winning 4 out of the 6 medals. P. Fajdek won his third consecutive world title, a reassuring result after last year's olympic disaster, where he was unable to make the final. A. Wlodarczyk's was also a third world title but only the second consecutive one. She had obtained a surprise victory in 2009 where she threw 77.96 m, practically the same distance as her 77.90 m winning mark in London. We are far from her 82 plus world record but in any case her dominance in this delicate discipline is absolute. 

N. Thiam being congratulated by N. Visser

Combined events were as always a privileged moment on the Championships. N. Thiam was everybody's favourite for the women's heptathlon. She won comfortably despite an excellent performance by C. Schäfer. (They had finished in the same order in Götzis were Thiam became the third all-time performer with 7013 points). The three wonderwomen from Holland met with various fates in the World's. A. Vetter, thanks to a massive 58.41 throw in the javelin repelled the assaults of Y. Rodriguez and K. Johnson-Thompson obtaining the bronze medal. N. Visser finished 7th, the same position she obtained in the 100 m hurdles final. Unfortunately N. Broersen dropped out due to injury after the long jump, but even her first day was somewhat below par. I was expecting I. Dadic to obtain something better than a 6th place but the level of the competition was so high that she had to break her own national record just to make it to this position.

K. Mayer at the pole vault that might have cased his fall

I wrote last year that K. Mayer is successor of A. Eaton only to have some people voice their doubts. His victory in London will convince even the more sceptical ones. On the other hand his triumph could have turned to a disaster at the pole vault. He decided to start at 5.10 m and could only pass at the third try. I cannot understand why decathletes are doing this to themselves. I wrote a whole article on fouling out in decathlon. Given that they start really feeling the tiredness in the middle of the second day, decathletes should take an easy jump just to make sure they have the necessary points. Mayer should have started at 4.90 m maximum (and given that even 5.30 m proved to be too high, a 4.70 m jump wouldn't have been too timid). Fortunately for Mayer all turned out for the best for him and he could enjoy his first global title. D. Warner, ex world vice-champion was not in great shape and finished 5th. The two medals went to R. Freimuth and K. Kazmirek from Germany while in the 4th position we have a new-comer from Estonia, J. Oiglane. I'll keep an eye on him. Looking at the top decathletes of the competition I noticed a prevalence of jumper-throwers: Mayer (1st), Freimuth (2nd), Kazmirek (3rd), Oiglane (4th) Felix (7th), Helcelet (8th). The discus, that had been the downfall of J. Ureña (9th in London with a personal best of 8125) at last year's Europeans, made two victims in London: double ex-world champion T. Hardee (but he already had a 0 due to a fall in the 110 m hurdles) and the second (after K. Felix) grenadian talent L. Victor. African record holder L. Bourrada of Algeria abandoned the competition after the high jump, depriving us of a strong finisher in the 1500 m. M. Dudas and I. Shkurenyev had a fall in the 110 m and were disqualified, being thus forced out of the competition. This is something that I find too harsh. 

Fouling out in hurdles is a point where I am at odds with the current rules. Suppose somebody falls in the hurdles race of a combined event, but picks himself up and finishes after having pushed down a hurdle in a non-regulatory way. Why should he be disqualified if he makes the effort of passing all remaining hurdles normally and crosses the finishing line? Suppose he can run the 110 m in 14.50 s for slightly over 900 points and after a fall manages to finish in 18 seconds, which gives a bit more than 500 points. Isn't the 400 point loss penalty enough? Why go all the way to disqualification? Just as we have special rules for combined events concerning false starts and wind speed, we should have had also special, more clement, rules for the hurdles race.

All in all London World’s were bizarre championships. Many favourites failed, outsiders won, not a single performance came close to a world record, men’s sprint is following the trend set by the long jump. (This last statement, in case you have missed my previous posts, is referring to the fact that men’s long jump has been stagnant for years). I did enjoy following the competition but I am also a bit worried about the general down-turn. We have to wait till the Tokyo, 2020, Olympics before drawing conclusions, but one has the feeling that world athletics are entering a crisis.

The one thing I hated about these championships was the “Authorised Neutral Athlete” moniker. For me that was a shameful, hypocritical thing. The AN athletes are russian. Once they were allowed to participate they should have been able to represent their country. Depriving them of their national anthem (as in the case of Lasitskene) or simply their flag is, to my eyes, totally unacceptable. 

In last year’s Europeans’ report I had voiced my objection over the participation  of Y. Stepanova and the fact that qualification criteria were not applied in her case. Fortunately, she did not force her presence in this year’s World’s. Speaking about criteria I was unable to find the ones that govern the participation of athletes who enter under the banner of the “Athlete Refugee Team”. Don’t get me wrong on this! I do not object the existence of such a team, since it is due to the sad state of our civilisation. However I think that refuge athletes must participate under strict, elitist, criteria like everybody else.

02 September, 2017

A bizarre championship. First part: track events.

Let me give my opinion on Bolt right away so that we can move on to more interesting things. Two years ago in my report on the 2015 World Championships I had written

"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." 

I still stand by this statement. To my eyes Bolt is always the greatest. That said I am convinced that he shouldn't have run an individual race in this championship. He could have participated only in the relay just as he had done three years at the Commonwealth Games, probably anchoring the jamaican relay to one last gold medal. Instead of this he opted for the 100 m, where he managed to fumble his start three races in a row with, as a consequence, a stinging defeat. Despite a great race at the semi-final (or because of this effort) the Bolt who presented himself at the 4x100 m final was not the familiar sprint superhero. We all know how that ended. I don't know about you but I'm afraid I'll miss his antics. 

A sad end for Bolt's career

OK. Forget the men's 100 m. At least the 200 m was interesting in the sense that the winner, R. Guliyev, was totally unexpected, something reminiscing of Kenteris' victory in the 2000, Sydney, Olympics. (They ran also in exactly the same time, 20.09 s, at 17 years of separation). But, to be fair Guliyev is an excellent sprinter. With this year's best of 9.97 s, he is one of the rare sub-10 white performers. And I did like the fact that he first put the flag of Azerbaijan upon his shoulders and only later the turkish one. Pre-race favourites Van Niekerk and Makwala paled into insignificance although the former did save the silver medal. The one athlete who did impress me was J. Richards (bronze medal) who went on to win gold with the Trinidad & Tobago 4x400 m team.

Men's 200 m finish

The women's sprint races were more interesting, and by far, than the men's ones. For a few seconds I was hoping that M.-J. TaLou, one of the two ivorian sprinters that I admire, was going to win. But then T. Bowie with a perfectly-timed dip clinched the gold medal. (M. Ahouré, my second ivorian favourite, barely lost the bronze medal to D. Schippers). 

Bowie's dive earned her the gold medal.

The huge surprise was the fifth place of the pre-race favourite E. Thompson. (In particular since she had dominated her semi-final in a time better than that of the winner of the final). The 200 m was again a silver race for TaLou. This time she did dip on time but Schippers was faster over the last meters and renewed her world champion title. S. Miller (one of the pre-race favourites) had a great finish but had to content herself with a third place.

TaLou went home with two silver medals

Speaking of S. Miller, I will not forget the drama of women's 400 m. MIller went out way too fast and she was left without reserves with 30 m to go. The way was clear for A. Felix, but she could only grab the bronze medal, losing not only to P. Francis but also to the most impressive 19-year old bahraini S.E. Naser. I was particularly glad that one athlete I am following closely, K. Mupopo of Zambia, did make it to the final this time.

MIller freezing up with just 30 m to go

In the absence of Makwala I was expecting a heated contest between W. Van Niekerk and S. Gardiner (who had run an impressive 43.89 s in the semi-final). Gardiner did enter the final stretch ahead of Van Niekerk but the latter managed to catch up finishing in a relaxed way (which did disappoint some spectators who were expecting another feat by the talented south-african sprinter). But Van Niekerk was saving forces for the yet to be contested 200 m, where, as we saw, he did not shine. 

If there is a lesson to be learned by the (relative) failures of Van Niekerk and Miller this is that a 200-400 m double is a very risky enterprise. A. Felix has also gone for a double in the past without success. Speaking of Felix I must say that she is a great athlete (I was ecstatic when I first saw her fluid style of running) but I find that there is too big a marketing campaign around her name. Of her 6 olympic gold medals only one is won in an individual race. The tally is four out of 11 for her world champion titles. Still she has been among the top world sprinters for over 15 years and this, undeniably, merits respect.

Should I say anything about women's 800 m? I prefer not. (But, rest assured, I am going to write the article I am planning for quite some time now on Semenya). Better discuss the men's race. It was major surprise. After all P.A. Bosse qualified for the final on the basis of time having arrived third in his semi. In the final his opponents spent their energy trying to hinder each other (Amos, Bett and Aman I am looking at you). Bosse attacked with 250 m to go and managed to surprise everybody, including himself. (Look at the photo below, where he cannot yet believe he is the winner). The one who was really surprised was Kszczot who has already seen Bosse, in previous races, attack early only to yield on the final straight. He was convinced that his superior finish would make short shrift of the frenchman but this time Bosse was really the capo.

Bosse cannot yet believe that he won the race

Men's 1500 m saw the defeat of the triple world champion A. Kiprop. Still Kenya managed to grab the two highest post on the podium with E. Manangoi and T. Cheruyiot, the bronze medal going to a member of the Ingerbrigsten clan, Filip, the surprise european champion of last year. Women's 1500 m reserved two surprises. The biggest one (at least for myself) is that Semenya did not win (but I am convinced that she is throwing some races so as to avoid a huge outcry). The second was the disappearance of G. Dibaba. Since she had comfortably won her semi I was expecting her to play some role in the final. However she faded to last place fuelling more doubts about her extraterrestrial world record. One year after Rio, F. Kipyegon added the world gold to her olympic one.

Men's 5000 m was a great race and one which, after so many years, did not finish with M. Farah victorious. With one lap to go the three ethiopians moved ahead and bracketed Farah. But what did make the difference was Chelimo (running for the US) who, just when Farah was going to unleash his sprint, blocked him to the inside track. So Farah had to wait for an opening and when one presented itself, when Kejelcha moved to the right, it was too late. M. Edris could not be caught. The rest is history. And Farah's biggest disappointment.

Farah's post-race statement

Although with one silver and one gold (won over 10000 m with his usual, devastating sprint) Farah did much better than Bolt. Speaking of the 10 km, the one athlete that did impress me was J. Cheptegei of Uganda. Perhaps we have here the successor of Farah at the top of distance running hierarchy.

Ayana and Dibaba after the 10 km double

A. Ayana obliterated once again the opposition in the women's 10000 m. In fact the really interesting part of the race was (far) behind her in the battle of T. Dibaba and the kenyans for the remaining medals which ended with Dibaba winning silver and A. Tirop bronze. And after having dominated the 10 km race Ayana, went on to lose the 5000 m just as she did last year in the Olympics. When H. Obiri launched her sprint with 300 m to go Ayana did not react in the least. I wouldn't like to enter here into conspiracy-like theories but I do find this way of Ayana of losing over the 5 km somewhat bizarre. Still we should not forget that Obiri was already silver medalist over the same distance at the Rio Olympics.

Obiri celebrating her victory over the 5 km

Both high-hurdle races were superb. O. McLeod confirmed his supremacy over the 110 m. He took he lead from the start and while S. Shubenkov managed to catch-up around the 8th hurdle  Mcleod's superior speed did make the difference leading to a clean win. A. Meritt and G. Darien have been contending for third place throughout the race but a series of technical mistakes lead to both of them losing the bronze medal to B. Baji. The women's race signalled the come-back fo S. Pearson. With her usual explosive start she took command of the race and kept it till the finishing line. World record holder K. Harrison confirmed what I have been suspecting for some time now: she is not a winner. She was just behind Pearson all the way to the 8th hurdle and still she managed to go back home empty handed. I was also very happy with the participation of N. Visser in the final. After finishing 7th on the heptathlon she obtained the same place in the hurdles, another proof, if ever there were a need thereof, that a woman can shine both in heptathlon and in an individual event.

The superb come back of Pearson

An ex combined event specialist won the men's low hurdles. In both my reports on the Rio Olympics and the Amsterdam Europeans I had written about K. Warholm saying that I was going to keep an eye on him. Well, I didn't have to wait for too long. Running in the same, semi-suicidal, tactics Warholm obtained the world title this year. And he is just starting. Another athlete who did impress me was the qatari, ex-mauritanian, A. Samba. He was just behind Warholm, running in excellent style when he stumbled coming out from the last hurdle and dropped out of the medal race. (And let us not forget the best performer of the year K. McMaster of the British Virgin Islands, who was disqualified in the quarter finals).

Warholm surpised everybody with his victory

Both pre-race favourites, olympic champion D. Muhammad and world champion Z. Hejnova, were beaten in the women low-hurdle race. Muhammad ran too fast over the first part of the race and could not resist to the sprint of K. Carter who, running in the 9th lane without visual contact with the other hurdlers, managed to set her own pace and still have reserves left in the end.

Women's 3000 m steeple was somewhat of a surprise with two americans claiming the first two places. Well, to be fair, the winner E. Coburn, was olympic bronze medalist last year, so she was logically among the favourites. A somewhat bigger surprise was the silver medal of C. Frerichs, who was just 11th at Rio. H. Jepkemoi, Rio silver medalist and 2015 world champion had to content herself with a bronze medal, while the gold medalist and world record holder, R. Jebet, could only place 5th with a mediocre, for her, time. But the probably most "interesting" moment of the race was at the beginning of the race when B. Chepkoech who was leading at that moment "forgot" the water jump and had to backtrack losing precious ground. She ended up finishing fourth and your guess is as good as mine as to what she could have done without this blunder.

The moment when Chepkoech forgot the water jump

Men's 3000 m steeple saw the scathing defeat of the great E. Kemboi. (Don't get me wrong: to my eyes he is still the greatest steeplechaser. His defeat in London signals just the end of a career). C. Kipruto won his first world title after the olympic one he obtained last year, in a race where almost everybody was expecting E. Jager to play a more important role. In the end the latter, without forces, obtained the bronze medal thanks to the fact that M. Mekhissi did not realise early enough that Jager was worn out and launched a final sprint a tad too late ending in a frustrating fourth place. (Go watch the last metres of the race in youtubeor the whole race following this link, unless the IAAF has it taken down). Still the athlete I am going to keep an eye on is S. El Bakkali from Morocco, who won silver after having placed fourth in last year's Olympics.

Both women's relays were won by the US team. While there was a comfortable victory in the 4x400 m, in the 4x100, it is the anchor of T. Bowie that made the difference in the end. Men's relays were a totally different business. In the 4x100 m C. Coleman took the relay ahead of N. Mitchell-Blake and he still managed to lose in the end. (The explanations we heard was that Coleman is still young and that he ran too many races during the championships. You can believe it if you wish. And just to put things in perspective, Mitchell-Blake is just two years older than Coleman and the only major competition he has participated in was last year's Olympics). The 4x400 m men's relay was one of the most exciting races in the championships. L. Gordon, of Trinidad & Tobago, with a 44.02 anchor managed to beat F. Kerley, of the US, who could only run in 44.71. (And, as expected, the most impressive runner was J. Richards with a 43.60 split. He is definitely the sprinter to follow).  

Trinidad & Tobago's victory in the 4x400 m

As those who follow my blog know very well,  I don't care at all about race-walking. But I would like to point out here that at long last the 50 km race entered the women's program. So we would have had a perfect men-women parity were it not for the heptathlon which is not on par with men's decathlon. But more on this point in the second part of my report.