2015 World Championships in Athletics: Duels

World Championships Athletics 1

The 2015 World Championships in Athletics – the 15th IAAF World Championships – took place last week in Beijing. Over nine days, from Saturday 22 August to Sunday 30 August, and sixteen sessions morning and evening, 144 medals were on offer across 47 events. 1,933 athletes competed from 206 nations, with 43 of these nations coming away from the Championships with metal to brag about. Kenya topped the medal table for the first time, with 7 golds, 6 silvers, and 3 medallions in bronze. The United States won the most medals overall, but obtained only 6 golds, and 6 apiece of the other two varieties.

The World Championships were held in Beijing National Stadium, otherwise known as the Bird’s Nest, built to serve as the centrepiece of the 2008 Olympic Games. There is no stadium more impressive in athletics, and perhaps not in the whole of sport. Instead of summarising briefly the entirety of competition, we will look in detail at six of the major duels which defined Beijing 2015.

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Usain Bolt vs. Justin Gatlin: Men’s 100 Metres

More than simply bringing together the world’s best athletics talent, the World Championships in Beijing also promised to advance something of a revolution occurring within the sport. Many of the brightest young names in athletics went into the Championships on the back of new personal bests and national records. Genzebe Dibaba, just 24 years old, even broke the women’s 1500 metres world record in Monaco in July, which had stood since way back in 1993; and with Dibaba and Mo Farah now at the forefront of distance running, global interest in the distance events is stronger than it has been for many years.

Meanwhile young European athletes like Zharnel Hughes, Dina Asher-Smith, but most of all Dafne Schippers have shaken up the sprints, dominated for so long by the United States and the Caribbean. And Kenya, perennially strong over distance, emerged as a competitor elsewhere too, with Nicholas Bett winning the men’s 400 metres hurdles, and Julius Yego the men’s javelin.

Still Usain Bolt vs. Justin Gatlin was always going to be Beijing’s main event.  It was billed in numerous quarters as a battle for the very soul of athletics: with Bolt a worldwide phenomenon, the sport’s most celebrated and beloved athlete, while Gatlin still races under a cloud having twice served bans for failing drugs tests. But while the best part of the waiting world hoped for a Bolt triumph, and many commentators and former athletes followed suit, betting on Bolt’s competitive spirit, it was perhaps understated not only how uncertain but how unlikely a Bolt victory in the 100 metres appeared heading into Beijing.

Bolt still held the world record, a time of 9.58 set in Berlin in 2009, but Gatlin could boast all of the best times of 2015: 9.74 in Doha, 9.75 in Rome and Lausanne, and 9.78 in Monaco. While the two men had managed to avoid meeting face-to-face, Bolt’s best time in 2015 stood at a relatively meagre 9.87.

Fit but lacking fluidity, on the first evening of competition in Beijing, Bolt won his heat in 9.96, Gatlin his in 9.83. At the semi-final stage the following day, Gatlin recorded another exceptional time of 9.77, making him by some margin the fastest man on the track with the final just hours away. It was a final which Bolt barely managed to reach. Struggling with his start, as he began his semi-final race he almost fell face-first to the ground, having to throw out an arm in preparation for the fall. He kept his balance, but with ten metres to go was back in fourth place, with only the top two to qualify automatically. Bolt came through just to win the semi-final in another time of 9.96, with Andre De Grasse recording the same time, and Trayvon Bromell and Bingtian Su in third and fourth in 9.99. All four men qualified for the final, Bromell and Su as the two fastest losers.

So as the competitors lined up for the men’s 100 metres final, on the first Sunday of competition at about 9.15 pm local time, it was Gatlin rather than Bolt who seemed the sprinter to beat. He had the times and the form, unbeaten in his previous twenty-eight races, and also the technique: much more precise than Bolt’s, with Gatlin keeping his head down and driving out of the blocks, and pumping his arms steadily throughout the race, never rocking from side to side or doing anything otherwise that would cost him momentum. In Bolt’s favour stood history: with World Championship gold medals over 100 metres in 2009 and 2013, not to mention his Olympic golds in 2008 and 2012, Bolt was looking for his ninth World Championships gold in total; and despite a casual and self-contained manner prior to races, his historical speed, his size, and the sheer force of his personality often leave opponents overawed.

Gatlin got out of the blocks well in the final, and as anticipated Bolt was behind – but not by nearly as much as his fans may have feared, or as the semi-finals suggested. With Gatlin in lane seven and Bolt in lane five, on Bolt’s inside, Bromell and Mike Rodgers started strongly, and De Grasse began to come through in lane nine. But it was Gatlin and Bolt who moved away from the rest of the field.

Gatlin led for most of the way, but from about fifteen metres out, he began to falter, surely sensing Bolt alongside him, losing his stride and straining desperately for the line. Bolt kept working, and as both men dipped, Bolt was the clear victor. He took the gold medal in 9.79, with Gatlin achieving silver in 9.80, and Bromell and De Grasse inseparable in the bronze medal position, both running 9.92, in times indistinguishable down to the nearest thousandth of a second.

Bolt got the better of Gatlin twice more during the World Championships. If his 100 metres form had looked shaky, he expressed absolute confidence heading into his 200 metres campaign, with the longer distance his favoured event. And in the final of the men’s 200 metres on Thursday evening, he led round the bend, and recorded a world-leading time of 19.55 to win gold, with Gatlin again silver in 19.74, and Anaso Jobodwana attaining bronze in a South African national record of 19.87. Then in the men’s 4×100 metres relay final at the close of the second Saturday, Jamaica secured yet another victory, with the United States finishing second but disqualified for overstepping their mark on the third and final change.

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Dafne Schippers vs. Elaine Thompson: Women’s 200 Metres

With the reigning Olympic champion Allyson Felix determining to try her hand at the World Championships over 400 metres, the field was open when it came to the women’s 200 metres in Beijing. Dafne Schippers, Elaine Thompson, and Candyce McGrone had raced fast times over the course of the athletics season, with Jeneba Tarmoh and Dina Asher-Smith not too far behind. And Veronica Campbell-Brown, now thirty-three years old and a champion in 2011, was also competing in the event and coming into form.

Schippers enjoyed great success in the sprints at last year’s European Championships, but she only confirmed her decision to focus full-time on sprinting – at the expense of the heptathlon, her original event – this June. On Monday she managed a silver medal in the women’s 100 metres final: delighted to finish just behind Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in a new Dutch national record of 10.81.

In fact it was Dina Asher-Smith who led the way to the 200 metres final, recording a personal best of 22.22 in the heats, and improving again with a time of 22.12 in the semis. All of Schippers, Thompson, McGrone, Tarmoh, Asher-Smith, and Campbell-Brown made it to the final with relative ease, although Campbell-Brown qualified from the semis only as the second fastest loser. But the critical consensus was that the final would be between Schippers and Thompson, with many analysts giving the Jamaican athlete the edge.

In a remarkable race on Friday evening, it was McGrone who led round the bend, just ahead of Thompson and Campbell-Brown on the inside lane. Yet Schippers showed tremendous conviction in her running, and held her form, her long stride seeing her gain ground over the last fifty metres, before she narrowly edged Thomspon on the line to win the gold medal.

This was only the second time in history – the first occurred at the contentious final of the Olympics in 1988 – that three women have run under 22 seconds in the same race. Schippers’ time of 21.63 marked a new European record, bettering the 21.71 set by Marita Koch in 1979 and equalled by Heike Drechsler in 1986. More than this, it makes her the third fastest woman ever to run the distance. In the process she took home the first world sprint title achieved by a Dutch athlete since Fanny Blankers-Koen dominated the sprints at the London Olympics in 1948.

Elaine Thompson set a personal best of her own in 21.66. And Veronica Campbell-Brown came third, in a time of 21.97. Candyce McGrone in fourth ran a personal best of 22.01. And Dina Asher-Smith, in fifth, set a new British record of 22.07, finally breaking the mark of 22.10 set by Kathy Cook back in 1984.

These were five of the top six times of the year: only Allyson Felix, who ran 21.98 in Doha in May, has otherwise come close to such speed. Next year at the Olympics in Rio Felix will be back in 200 metres contention, in what is already one of the most tantalising prospects of the games. Schippers’ time is better than Felix’s personal best of 21.69, set in 2012. On the other hand, at the World Championships Felix only enhanced her reputation as a competitor: taking gold in the women’s 400 metres; while in the women’s 4×100 metres relay final, she and Schippers went head-to-head over the second leg, as Felix ran a stronger bend than her Dutch counterpart.

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David Rudisha vs. Adam Kszczot: Men’s 800 Metres

This was not the duel anyone was expecting moving towards the World Championships in Athletics in Beijing. The key rivalry in the men’s 800 metres over the past few seasons has been between David Rudisha and Nijel Amos. At the Olympics in 2012, Rudisha became the first – and so far only – man in history to go under 1:41, taking gold in a world-record time of 1:40.91 and leaving Amos, then aged just eighteen, in second place.

Amos had to be carried from the track on a stretcher. But in seven meetings since between the two athletes, Amos has come out on top six times, Rudisha recovering from a long injury layoff, but equally struggling to devise a tactic sufficient to counteract Amos’s blistering finish. Rudisha suggested prior to the Championships that he was yet to peak, still arriving at full fitness; but with Amos appearing to enjoy a significant psychological advantage, he was the favourite before the running commenced.

However Amos got his 800 metres campaign all wrong. Drawn with Rudisha in the second of three semi-finals, he allowed Rudisha to set a slow pace, but left his usual kick much too late: Rudisha easing home in first place, while Amos grasped and strained, but marginally failed to catch Musaeb Balla, coming third by 0.03. Given the slow time, this wasn’t enough to see him qualify for the final as a fastest loser, and Amos was out.

In the other two semi-finals, Adam Kszczot – last year’s European champion – got the best of a blanket finish, ahead of Alfred Kipketer and Pierre-Ambroise Bosse, with Mohammed Aman, the defending world champion, also present but disqualified for obstruction. And the impressive Amel Tuka headed Ferguson Cheruiyot Rotich, with Nader Belhanbel qualifying like Bosse as a fastest loser.

Come the final on Tuesday evening, Rudisha held his position at the front of the pack, refusing to let his competitors past as they surged at the bell and again going round the final bend. He gained a few metres, and sustained his pace to win gold in a time of 1:45.84. Kszczot was his nearest challenger, grabbing silver in 1:46.08. And a similar sort of gap separated silver from bronze, which was obtained by Tuka, who ran past Rotich down the home straight, finishing in a time of 1:46.30.

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Genzebe Dibaba vs. Sifan Hassan: Women’s 1500 Metres

When Genzebe Dibaba achieved her women’s 1500 metres world record in July – establishing a time of 3:50.07, bettering Yunxia Qu’s 3:50.46 which had stood since September 1993 – Sifan Hassan finished in second place. Dibaba had spent much of the early season focusing on the 5,000 metres, following a spell at the start of 2014 which saw her break three world records in fifteen days: first the indoor 1500 metres (3:55.17), then the indoor 3,000 metres (8:16.60), and finally the indoor two-mile (9:00.48).

Dibaba began her career racing over the longer distance on the track, before switching to the 1500 metres around the turn of 2011/12. At the World Championships in Beijing, she was to compete in both events, with the 1500 metres first on the agenda.

In Monaco, behind Dibaba, Hassan’s time was a Dutch 1500 metres record of 3:56.05. Hassan, the European champion over the distance last year, had managed other fast times during the course of 2015, notably also breaking the 4-minute barrier in Rome at the start of June. The race in Rome was won by Jennifer Simpson, with Dawit Seyaum coming after Hassan in third; but given the speed displayed by the two athletes a month later in Monaco, Dibaba arrived in Beijing the favourite for this event, with Hassan considered her closest competitor.

Both women strolled through the heats and semis, winning their respective races to qualify for the final, which was to be held on Tuesday evening. When the final came, Dibaba ran a flawless tactical race. Pushing from the front with just over two laps to go, and at precisely the moment when Hassan carelessly found herself most boxed-in towards the back of the pack, Dibaba stretched out the field and put distance between herself and her main challenger.

Hassan had to work awfully hard over the next lap just to get back into contention. As the bell sounded indicating one lap to go, she charged up the outside and into fourth; then climbed into second round the long last bend, and for a moment it looked as though she had the legs to reel in Dibaba. However as soon as she hit the home straight, Dibaba kicked again towards victory, and with Hassan’s energy spent, she had to settle in the end for bronze, with Faith Kipyegon a slightly surprising silver medallist. Seyaum finished fourth, Laura Muir fifth, and defending champion Abeba Aregawi sixth, with Simpson suffering all the way down in eleventh.

The ordeal tired out both Dibaba and Hassan. Hassan was in women’s 800 metres action the following morning, and though she made it through the heats, she was the unlucky third fastest loser in the semis, failing to make the final. Dibaba did manage the final of the women’s 5,000 metres on the closing day of the Championships on Sunday; but she looked decidedly below par, and took bronze behind her Ethiopian counterparts Almaz Ayana and Senbere Teferi.

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Christian Taylor vs. Pedro P. Pichardo: Men’s Triple Jump

The men’s triple jump has arguably never been better: certainly the competition is fiercer than it has been since the waning days of Jonathan Edwards saw him routinely challenged by Christian Olsson. The world record Edwards set in Gothenburg in 1995 – a jump of 18.29, one of the grandest moments in the history of athletics – had hitherto never been approached, but this season both Christian Taylor and Pedro P. Pichardo for the first time in their careers exceeded 18 metres.

In Doha in mid-May – subsequently dubbed the greatest triple jump competition ever – Pichardo jumped 18.06, with Taylor coming up just shorter a few minutes later after a leap of 18.04. Then in Havana at the end of the month, Pichardo improved again on his personal best, jumping 18.08. Taylor added a couple of centimetres of his own with an effort of 18.06 in July in Lausanne. These jumps made Pichardo and Taylor respectively the third and fourth longest triple jumpers in the record books, behind only Edwards and Kenny Harrison.

So on and into Beijing, and it was really a tossup as to who would take the gold medal. Pichardo led after the first round of attempts during the final on Thursday, reaching 17.52 with his first jump; then on their third attempts, both athletes jumped 17.60. In the fourth round, Taylor took the lead with a hop, step, and jump of 17.68. Yet both men had saved their best efforts for last. In the sixth and final round, Pichardo jumped 17.73. This would have been enough for gold in other circumstances; but taking the last opportunity to extend his lead, Taylor had preempted it, jumping a remarkable distance of 18.21.

Jonathan Edwards, looking on in the Bird’s Nest while commentating for the BBC, took a deep breath and fidgeted anxiously as Taylor’s jump was measured. 18.21 is still some margin from his world record, but Taylor’s jump was the second longest in the history of the event: longer than the 18.16 which Edwards first set in Gothenburg, the first legal jump to go beyond 18 metres, before he eclipsed his own record on a subsequent attempt on the way to World Championship gold. Jumps like these are exceedingly rare, but Taylor and Pichardo have time on their side, so that surpassing Edwards’ momentous leap now at least seems plausible.

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Yarisley Silva vs. Fabiana Murer: Women’s Pole Vault

The women’s pole vault offered three or four potential gold medal contenders. Yarisley Silva – 2012 Olympic silver medallist, and bronze medallist two years ago in Moscow – had vaulted the highest this year heading into Beijing, with an especially strong sequence of performances in Toronto and Beckum in the month prior to the onset of the Championships. She was the only woman to have exceeded 4.90, jumping 4.91 in Beckum; but Fabiana Murer, Nikoleta Kyriakopoulou, and Jennifer Suhr had all achieved several jumps at and above 4.80.

Suhr beat Silva to gold at the London Olympics in 2012, and she obtained silver ahead of her at the 2013 World Championships, in an event won by Yelena Isinbayeva. But in the final of the women’s pole vault on Wednesday, three fouls left 4.70 as Suhr’s best jump. This was only enough for fourth place, an agonising position she shared with Angelica Bengtsson and Sandi Morris; while Holly Bradshaw also jumped 4.70, but had erred once at a lower height.

So Silva, Murer, and Kyriakopoulou remained. The three women were each guaranteed a medal – but what matter? Silva had faltered twice at 4.70, before making the height on her third and final attempt. Murer enjoyed a clean bill of health as she too progressed to 4.80. And Kyriakopoulou had fouled once at 4.60, and once at 4.70; but she made 4.80 at the first time of asking, whereas it took Silva and Murer a couple of efforts.

However Silva and Murer then succeeded immediately at 4.85, while Kyriakopolou failed her first attempt, then passed the height for two goes at 4.90. She couldn’t vault so high, and her competition was over. Both Silva and Murer too failed their first two attempts at 4.90; then with the gold medal on the line, Silva made the height at the third time of asking and Murer did not, leaving Silva the champion. Murer took silver, and Kyriakopolou bronze. Silva attempted 5.01 three times in vain – seeking to jump over 5 metres for the first time in her career – but it didn’t matter, as after twice coming so close, she finally got her hands on world gold.