The 2015 IAAF World Championships ended Sunday in Beijing — finally — and what a strange, exhilarating, frustrating eight days it was.
The big winners, among countries, were Kenya (7 golds, 16 medals) and Jamaica (7 golds, 12 medals), with honorable mentions to Poland (3 golds, 8 medals) and Canada (2 golds, 8 medals). The United States contingent did have some impressive successes, but also some agonizing lapses, and although the U.S. won the most medals with 18, only six of those were gold, far behind what had been predicted for “the world’s best track and field team.” The country that saw the most dramatic drop in medal production was Russia, which managed only four medals, leading many to the conclusion that recent efforts to find and catch drug cheats in Russia had pulled the rug out from under previous Russian performances.
In general, it was impossible to watch or read about the action in Beijing without being confronted with allegations. What was news in the summer of 2015 was that the chatter went way beyond suspicions about individual athletes, it was about the sport itself. Suddenly it seemed impossible that any great performance was legitimate. If someone ran well, the message board mob would take it as proof that they were doped. If someone ran poorly relative to expectations, the same mob would insist that the athlete in question HAD been doping, but had been forced to abandon the practice to avoid detection. A very few athletes seemed to rise above suspicion, either by having been consistently good for so long (Bolt, Felix) or by running competently, but not spectacularly (David Rudisha).
But, as track fan and loyal reader Josh Seeherman points out, there were some races in Beijing that seemed almost too good to be true. Exhibit “A” would be the women’s 200m, where former heptathlete Dafne Schippers (21.63) edged Elaine Thompson (21.66), making them the #3 and #5 performers of all time. Schippers now trails only Florence Griffeth-Joyner and Marion Jones on the all-time list, and sits ahead of East Germans Marita Koch and Heike Drechsler. Oh dear.
That race, along with a few others (men’s 400, second half of women’s 1500) made some folks even question the track itself. Could it be possible that the track in the Bird’s Nest was different, somehow, from a normal track? Maybe it was harder, or had broader turns?
Or maybe it was just that, from the chauvinistic perspective of an American, the meet just didn’t seem to be going “our” way. I’m still stunned by the almost complete meltdown of the U.S. hurdlers (with the exception of Shamier Little’s silver). I’m not stunned, but definitely disappointed that the U.S. regressed in the middle and long distances, failing to win a medal in the 800, 1500, steeple, or 5000. Even Emily Infeld’s bronze medal in the 10,000m, which she earned with a great and gutsy stretch run, was muted by Molly Huddle’s yielding the third-place spot by slowing up before the line.
There were some bright spots for the Americans: Joe Kovacs had the honor of earning the United States’ first gold by winning the shot put. Later in the meet, Christian Taylor would win the triple jump with one of the three best jumps in history. Tianna Bartoletta won the long jump, and Allyson Felix won her fourth individual world championship, and first one-lap title, when she cruised to victory in the 400.
Of course, I didn’t get to see any of this live. The combination of the 12-hour time difference between the U.S. and Beijing, the crappy coverage by NBC, and the difficulty of finding a streaming solution that didn’t involve handing over credit card information to Russian mobsters or Nigerian princes meant that I spent most of last week in a perpetual state of uncertainty about whether I should check results immediately, listen to the live IAAF radio broadcast (not bad, actually), or try to hold out to see video without knowing the result ahead of time. Mostly I just looked up results, which probably blunted both the drama and the disappointment.
Meanwhile, I watched my “bracket” of predictions tank, as favorite after favorite went down, beginning with the mens marathon and going downhill from there.
But there was one event that really brought me out of my funk and made me a fan again. Into the unpredictable, roiling cauldron of the Bird’s Nest strode Ashton Eaton, who in his first full decathlon in two years almost single-handedly restored order to the Track and Field universe.
I find it impossible not to like Ashton Eaton. He doesn’t preen; he doesn’t taunt; he doesn’t wag his finger at the cameras, rip off his shirt in the homestretch, dance after a victory or make the sign of a lightning bolt. When I watch his press conferences, I get the impression that he’s the most articulate athlete in track and field — gracious, humble, and a spokesmen for his event and for his sport, not just for himself.
And in addition to being the world record holder in the decathlon, he continually challenges himself to be world class in his individual events. He has conspicuously competed as a hurdler this last year. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he would have a shot at making a U.S. national team in at least two events (110 hurdles, long jump), and after running an unthinkable 45.00 in the 400 at the end of Decathlon Day 1 in Beijing (an all-time best for a 400 run in a decathlon), he looks like he might be a pretty good at that, too.
But what really impresses me about Eaton is that he “honors” every event in the decathlon, in the sense that when he’s doing an event, he looks like a guy who does that event. Unlike so many decathletes, he doesn’t look awkward or out-of-place pole-vaulting or throwing the discus. He looks no worse than a good collegiate athlete in every one of the events he contests. He’s a one-man clinic.
Eaton’s final event of the World Championships was the 1500m at the end of Day 2, and by that point, his gold medal was a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, he went absolutely to the well, kicking a 63 final 400 to earn just enough points to break his own world record. There aren’t a lot of decathletes who look good running 1500, and the few who do are usually far from the medals. Eaton looked good. He looked great, in fact. He looked like someone who was racing a middle distance race, not trudging around the track wishing it were over.
The World Championships didn’t end with the decathlon, but for me, Eaton’s final sprint to the finish and the world record was the moment when I decided the sport was still worth watching.