Track & Field

Beijing 2015: the good, the bad, the ugly (and the great)

The Good

The Hosts

Beijing can hold its head just as high and proud as it did seven years ago, when the greatest show on earth came to town and the world was left with a lifetime of good memories of the place. This time it was a smaller task for the hosts, but they did just as well with the IAAF World Athletics Championships.

The locals came to the Bird’s Nest Stadium in their droves from the very first morning’s action until the last, the usual panic about attendances never materializing, and things were run with the kind of military precision you’d expect from the Chinese. The volunteers, too, were exceptional: polite, deferential, helpful, and – crucially when you’re a foreign writer whose only knowledge of Mandarin is that it’s also a fruit – they were English-speaking. Kudos all round.

Pin-ups: China's 4x100m men. Image: PhotoRun

Pin-ups: China’s 4x100m men. Image: PhotoRun

China’s men of bronze

It was the second-last night in the Bird’s Nest, and as good as the championships had been, we started to wonder whether we’d have that crucial moment, the one all events like this have, where the whole place just finally ignites. In the men’s 4x100m final, in which China took the silver medal, we finally got it. The Bird’s Nest screeched, roared and implored their men over the line in a photo finish for third, a noise only exceeded all week by the moment that followed shortly after, when their bronze was confirmed on the scoreboard. This was soon upgraded to silver when the US were disqualified for breaking the zone. The silver medal was just reward for the Chinese squad, who have made great progress in recent years.

The Bad

US men botch baton change

In the end, the climactic clash we were all hoping to see never got to reach its denouement. Just a few moments before, it was all going to plan, a re-run of the World Relays – in which the US gained an unassailable lead on Jamaica before the final leg – except with much higher stakes. Jamaica was down by two metres, and we all knew what – who – was coming next. Perhaps that was the reason Michael Rogers set off too early and Tyson Gay simply couldn’t get the baton in his hand. Perhaps, as some suggested, it was a little sprinkle of karma for the team which ran three athletes who have served doping bans. Either way, the race as a contest was ruined, with Bolt cruising home to take yet another gold medal. He must be losing count.

Kenya’s marathon men

Standing on the start line of a world championships marathon, it seems major titles and world records are more of a burden than a boost. It certainly appeared that way for Dennis Kimetto and Wilson Kipsang, who faded timidly out of contention soon after halfway and stepped off the course shortly after the 20-mile mark. Their teammate Mark Korir could only finish a lowly 22ndin 2:21:20, nine minutes behind race winner Ghirmay Ghebreslassie of Eritrea.

Hats off to Kipsang and Kimetto for attending, but it’s hard to imagine they cared and prepared for this race in the same way as they did as, say, a London or New York. Speaking of which, expect to see them on a marathon start line again this fall, and expect them to show up as very different incarnations of themselves to those who toed the line in Beijing.

The Ugly

Agony and ecstasy: Molly Huddle (right) congratulates bronze medallist Emily Infeld (centre). Image: PhotoRun

Agony and ecstasy: Molly Huddle (right) congratulates bronze medallist Emily Infeld (centre). Image: PhotoRun

Huddle’s Horror

Run through the line – it’s the advice every athlete, even Molly Huddle, is told in their formative years in the sport. The fact Huddle didn’t, and as a result lost out on 10,000m bronze to teammate Emily Infeld, may well haunt her forever, but you’d like to think not. Huddle, 30, absorbed the embarrassing sucker punch with typical good grace, even though there was the inevitable pang of remorse in her words. “I just wish I had that one last step,” she said. “That race was an opportunity for someone to medal who will probably not get that chance again. I didn’t want to mess up on the last lap, and I did. I blew it.”

Doping duo found out

There we were, sailing along with the metaphorical wind in our hair – enjoying top-class athletics without the cloud of doping blocking our view for once – when up pops the storm once again, this time in the form of two positive tests from Kenyans Joyce Zakary and Koki Manunga. That they are B-list athletes may have ensured the headlines were kept from exploding in hyperbole, but it mattered little. The news came as a little reminder, lest we forget, that not everything we watched was real. It will likely always be this way but still, in a week where Kenya enjoyed a run of dominance across several events – even in previously unconquered territory like the 400m hurdles and javelin – the positives cast a shadow on many others’ achievements, which was a shame.

The Great

Taylor’s historic leap

It looked all set to be a six-round, tit-for-tat slog between Christian Taylor and Pedro Pablo Pichardo for triple jump supremacy – just as it had been all season – and that was pretty much how it went, with just 8cm separating the two going into the final round. It was then, though, that Taylor landed the knockout punch, his leap of 18.21m an effort to which his Cuban rival simply had no response. It was the second longest jump in history, only 8cm behind Jonathan Edwards’ 20-year-old world record, which may now be the American’s next target.

History man: Ashton Eaton en route to a decathlon world record. Image: PhotoRun

History man: Ashton Eaton en route to a decathlon world record. Image: PhotoRun

Eaton’s final 200m

Midway through the men’s decathlon 1500m, with Ashton Eaton beginning to slip off the pace required to break his own world record, the fans began to settle back in their seats, their enthusiasm waning a little, given the gold medal was already secured and it appeared Eaton was content just with that. However, despite Eaton’s polite church-boy manner lies a competitive demon, and when he entered the last 400m, he let rip. Eaton accelerated into the back straight, and by the time he turned for home, he was prying deep into his exhausted energy reserves, finding what he needed to churn out a 29.6-second last 200m and come home in 4:17.52. His final tally of 9045 points was a world record which left him with a whopping 350 points to spare over silver medallist Damian Warner.

Super Schippers

The 23-year-old Dutch sprinter sent gasps rippling through the stadium when she came from behind to take 200m gold in 21.63 seconds, becoming the third fastest of all time. Up until this year, she had focused primarily on the heptathlon, but when competing at the Glasgow Diamond League last year, Schippers began to reconsider her future. In Beijing, that decision paid off in style.

Afterwards, of course, Schippers faced questions about whether she could be believed, as did her coach Bart Bennema, but both dealt with the prying questions admirably. “I know I am clean and I work very hard for it,” said Schippers. Until someone could come up with something more than running fast as a cause for suspicion, there was little else to be said.

Yego’s monster throw

Julius Yego proved he was anything but a one-hit wonder when heaving the spear out to 92.72m in the third round of the javelin final to take Kenya’s first gold in the event. The 26-year-old’s throw was one of the most jaw-dropping performances of the week in the Bird’s Nest, and he was rewarded with an African record and moving to number three on the all-time list.

Bolt’s brilliance

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Though the good-versus-evil, save-the-sport narrative to the men’s 100m final was emphatically misplaced – neither is inherently good nor evil, and the sport would carry on just fine if Gatlin happened to win – there was still an overwhelming desire among the general fans for the Jamaican to come out on top. He had done little this season to suggest he would, but then again, that’s Bolt’s modus operandi.

While Gatlin was showing off with needless exuberance in his qualifying rounds, Bolt was saving it all for when it mattered most. When the time came, he kept his head as Gatlin lost his – the American straining for the line with arms flailing wildly – and grabbed gold by the smallest of margins. In the 200m later in the week, Gatlin unsurprisingly looked a broken man. Bolt tends to have that effect.

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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He has won two sports-writing awards, the Peter Ball Memorial Award in Ireland and the Wills Writing Award in the UK. Nationally, he previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, the Guardian and The Independent in Britain. He is a regular contributor to Running Times, Runner's World, RunBlogRun and the IAAF website.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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