London Postcards: Scenes from the 16th IAAF World Championships

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 8.51.25 AMFinal leg of the men’s 4×100 relay

Has it been five years already since the Olympics returned to London?

In the wider world, a lot has changed for Great Britain and for the rest of us since 2012, but it seems like only yesterday that we were watching the planet’s best track and field athletes – Bolt, Rudisha, Dibaba, Farah – amaze and delight us during the Athletics portion of the London Games.

But impressions can be deceiving. The world of Athletics has changed, too. Although many of the same athletes were competing in the same Olympic Stadium over these last two weeks for the 16th IAAF World Championships, at some point, a few of these formerly invincible runners became mortal, yielding the podium to newcomers. At some point, other runners and jumpers and throwers stepped out of obscurity to win unexpected titles. Some fans called it the “Bizzaro World Championships,” and felt that the world of Track and Field had been turned upside-down. I wouldn’t go that far, but there were definitely events that shocked fans of the sport.

As for me, I watched what I could of the WC’s, although that wasn’t much since I spent the last two weeks in the wilds of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, herding high school runners up hills and along trails. But I followed the action from London as best I could, and occasionally managed to find a TV to watch a race or two live.

I don’t want to try to recap all of the races and results, so instead, I’ll settle for offering a few vignettes from London 2017, and a last look back at some of the more weird, wonderful, and somber moments it produced.

Usain Bolt’s final moment ends in a stumble

Usain Bolt, the world’s greatest sprinter and the most recognizable track and field athlete in the world, ran his final races in London. Unfortunately, those races did not follow the script that called for a final, triumphant exit from the sport. Bolt finished third in the 100m behind two Americans, the much-booed Justin Gatlin, who had been chasing Bolt for almost a decade, and the young upstart Christian Coleman, whose explosive start had him leading for most of the race before Gatlin overhauled him at the end.

Then, in the 4×100, Bolt pulled up lame, leading to a DNF for Jamaica. Adding insult to injury, the crowd cheered its collective head off as Bolt staggered, rolled, and finally got up and hobbled to the finish. They weren’t cheering his misfortune, but were celebrating an upset victory (by 0.05s) for Great Britain over a U.S. team that didn’t drop the baton, but whose exchanges were less than crisp.

There would be no lightening poses from Bolt, whose injury was described as a severe muscle cramp.

Contemplating the sport of Athletics without Bolt, IAAF president Sebastian Coe urged young athletes to be more engaging, to “be themselves,” singling out Norway’s Karsten Warholm, surprise winner of the 400m hurdles, as an example. Or, as the London Telegraph put it, to be less bland.

We miss you already, Usain.

Women’s Steeple: Coburn and Frerichs shock the world

I had just finished an afternoon run, and was hanging out at an ice cream shop along with a dozen counselors and about sixty kids. One of the counselors, who had been checking his phone looked up with a shocked expression and said, the U.S. just went 1-2 in the women’s steeple.

No, of course they didn’t, I thought, and waited for the explanation of this bizarre comment. I’m still waiting.

Now that I’ve watched the race a few dozen times, and have had repeated chances to see Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs come off that last water jump and run away from heavily favored Kenyans and Kenyan ex-pats, I am starting to get used to the idea that I live in a universe where such a thing can happen. But I’m still not sure how it DID happen.

Of course, it happened because the two Americans ran near-perfect races, because Beatrice Chepkoech made a horrendous mistake at the first water jump, because Ruth Jebet tried to run the entire race from the front, setting a steady fast pace for everyone else, and because hurdling form actually does matter.

Along with Evan Jager’s bronze, Coburn’s gold and Frerich’s silver gave the U.S. three steeplechase medals, one more than Kenya, who regard the steeple as their national property. ESPN called it one of the best races in running history. LetsRun — for once the more sober media outlet — called it “incomprehensible.”

Two more relay golds for Allison Felix

Age may be catching up to Usain Bolt, and Mo Farah might not be able to win the 5000 and 10,000 in every championship meet forever, but Allison Felix continues to win gold medals.

Competing in her sixth world championships, twelve years after winning the 200m in Osaka, Felix took individual bronze in London in the 400m. (The 400m was one of the most surprising races of the games, with Phyllis Frances taking gold in the rain, ahead of surprise silver medalist Salwa Eid Naser, and favorites Felix and Shaunae Miller-Uibo, who might have run each other into the ground with a hyper-aggressive first 200m.)

After Felix’s disappointment in the 400m (because for her, a WC bronze is a disappointment), Felix turned her attention to the 4×100 and 4×400 relays, helping the U.S. win both events. With her 4×400 gold, Felix matched Bolt’s lifetime total of 11 WC gold medals, the most of any athletes in history.

And is 2017 it for her? Or will she continue and be with us for Doha in 2019?

Not a good meet for Jamaica

In Beijing in 2015, Jamaica tied with Kenya for the most gold medals, winning seven events, and taking home 10 of 24 possible medals in the sprint events (100, 200, 110/100 hurdles, 4×100 relay).

In London in 2017, Jamaica managed a single gold medal (Omar McCleod in the 110 hurdles), and 3 bronze medals.

And now Bolt is gone. Not a great meet for the green, black, and gold.

Debut of the women’s 50K walk

This was definitely the strangest event of the WCs, not because of the event itself, but because it had been added to the programme so late that only seven women started the race, and only four finished it.

Portugal’s Ines Henriques won the race in a world record 4:05:56. The U.S’s Kathleen Burnett finished fourth (and last) in an American record 4:21:51, the only finisher not to receive a medal.

Norovirus and NHS knock Makwala out of 400m, disadvantage him in 200m

A showdown between Botswana’s Isaac Makwala and South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekirk failed to materialize when Makwala came down with an intestinal virus and was barred by the health officials from competing in the 200m heats on Day 4 and the 400m final on Day 5. It’s hard to imagine that Makwala would have been anywhere close to his best in the 400m final, but the decision to keep him out against his wishes seemed like a real screw-up.

But, it got stranger. On Day 6, Makwala was allowed to run a solo 200m time trial, in lieu of the heat he had missed two days earlier, to qualify for the semi-final later that evening.

 

Makwala ran 20.20 to make the semis, and then ran 20.14 later in the day to make the final, recording the second fastest time of all qualifiers.

However, running two hard races the day before the final might have hurt his chances, as he placed only sixth the next day in a relatively poor time of 20.44.

So much more…

So many more things I could/should mention, but I’m running out of time and space.

  • Sam Kendricks winning the pole vault…
  • Jenny Simpson somehow pulling out another medal in a championship 1500…
  • Almaz Ayana absolutely crushing the field in the 10,000 (with a final 5000 that seemed extravagantly too fast)…
  • Ayana and Helen Obiri taking off to turn what looked like it might become a tactical 5000m into a highly interesting and entertaining race, with Obiri emphatically out-kicking Ayana in the final 300m…
  • Sally Pearson to form after serious injury to upset the favored Americans in the 100 hurdles…

Where does one stop?

I don’t know about the ratings, and whether the audience satisfied the execs at NBC, but this seemed to me to be a pretty great meet. It was also a meet that moved the sport forward, introducing new heroes and leaving a few older ones behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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