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TrackLife International

Those Beijing 2015 Shockers and Surprises

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The 2015 Beijing World Championships ended in high excitement two months ago after nine days of interesting competition among some of the world’s leading movers and shakers of track and field. There were Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann-Fraser-Pryce, the fastest man and woman, respectively, and decathlete Ashton Eaton, the two-time record-breaking “super athlete” of the sport, who went about their business in expected fashion. But while the expected was just that – expected, there were the unexpected that I call shocks and surprises; some performances just weren’t anticipated, based on a country’s trend or an athlete’s performance history.

Take the Africans, for example, who delivered no surprise in winning the steeplechase, mile, and other long distance races. It’s always a given that Kenya, Ethiopia or their continental neighbors will dominate in that arena. But in Beijing, when Kenya’s javelin thrower Julius Yego snatched gold with a distance of 92.72 meters, the third farthest in history and the farthest in 14 years, it was a shock (from a country standpoint) to track and field’s system. This is an event that is traditionally ruled by Europeans, especially before Keshorn Walcott of the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago took the title at the London 2012 Olympics.

The 5ft-9in stocky African champion in 2012 and 2014 is the first Kenyan to qualify for a field event at the World Championships, yet his country has won 79 medals on the track. Even more interesting is that he has no coach and learned javelin by watching YouTube videos of top throwers. He then registered a string of wins on the Diamond League circuit leading up to Beijing.

Men’s Hurdles Shocker

The main surprise on the other hand was the overall struggle and sub-par performances of the Americans. Perhaps at the top of the list of biggest failures was Bershawn (Batman) Jackson’s exit at the preliminary stage of the 400m hurdles. I still wonder how such a veteran, who went into Beijing healthy and red hot, could run so poorly against hurdlers inferior to him. Like salt in USA’s wound, their Olympic and World silver medalist Michael Tinsley placed last in the final won by another Kenyan, Nicholas Bett, in a world leading 47.79secs. This African shocker has not happened since Munich in 1972, when the 6ft-2in, 170lb Ugandan John Akii-bua won Olympic gold, setting a world record time of 47.82 from the inside lane. Akii-bua died at 47 in 1997.

These two Kenyan shockers contributed handsomely to the country’s seven gold and 16 medals total to top the medal table, just ahead of Jamaica with an equal number of gold and 12 medals overall, and the US in third with six gold among a total of 18 medals.
The flat 400m (still referred to as the quarter-mile) is yet another event that used to be dominated by Americans until recent times, when Kirani James of the Caribbean island of Genada stepped into the discussion with World Championship and Olympic gold in 2011 and 2012, respectively. But in 2015, neither James nor the American LaShawn Merritt had his way; South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk showed signs on the Diamond League circuit that he would be a force and then ran a breathtaking world leading 43.48 in Beijing to break the American-Grenadian control of recent years.

That the US women won no medal in the sprint hurdles is significant, given that the country had seven of the 10 fastest times in the world this year and four entrants in the Championships. Their disaster in this event began with the disqualification of Kendra Harrison in the heat for jumping the gun. That was followed by the fall of Olympic champion Dawn Harper Nelson in her semi-final heat. In the final, Brianna Rollins clipped the first hurdle and was off rhythm onwards. She managed fourth place, while 2015 world leader Sharika Nelvis lost her composure, struggled and twisted herself over the final hurdle to eighth place as a Jamaican and two Europeans ran away with the top three prizes.

While the US performance was a surprise, the shocker here was that of the winner, Jamaica’s 22-yr-old Danielle Williams. Jamaica is certainly no stranger to featuring in the sprints, from hurdles to flat races, but no one saw Williams coming away with gold, pulling away from the “A-listers’— not even Williams herself. On 9 July, she copped gold at the World University Games (12.78secs (0.1m/s). in Gwangju, Korea soon after taking the Jamaica title in a time relatively slow in contrast to what the US stars were clocking at home and on the Diamond League circuit, where Williams did not compete. In essence, there was literally nothing that suggested she was a contender for gold. By that token, it is reasonable to say that outside of her school and country, no one was paying attention to her.

In continuing with the theme of failure, no American secured a medal in the final of the men’s long jump final, where they have always been among the leaders. Their two finalists came in at ninth and eleventh, triggering a picture of two weeping jumpers being consoled. For the women, Tianna Bartoletta saved face after three-time defending champion Britney Reece didn’t make it to the women’s long jump final.

Chinese-anchor

Zhang of China on anchor in the 4x100m relay.

And the men’s sprint relay was not without baton-exchange drama as hosts China captured silver behind Jamaica, when the US was disqualified for changing outside the zone. It was China’s first sprint relay medal in 28 years. Earlier in the Championships, their high jumper Guowei Zhang and long jumper Jianan Wang electrified the competition on their way to winning silver and bronze, respectively.

Such shocking and surprising performances should be seen for what they really are: not flukes on one hand or a bad period on the other; they represent clear signs that other countries are learning what it takes to become world champions at best or competitive at least, in various disciplines. Rio 2016 looms large as the ultimate prestigious track and field event and could serve up much bigger stories than Beijing 2015. Indications are it will be a real break-out for the least unexpected.

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