Athletics World Championships a competitive triumph - though not for the Irish
Beijing has seen the second-longest-ever triple jump and the third-furthest javelin throw
Gold medallist Usain Bolt turns to wave to the crowd during the victory ceremony for the men’s 200 metres. Photograph: Getty Images
For a sport reportedly on its deathbed, might events in Beijing over the last seven days be considered a glorious resurrection?
It certainly takes something special for any athlete from any sport to single-handedly make headlines across the world, even if Usian Bolt’s little run-in with the stadium cameraman played the perfect cameo part in that.
Nor is it unreasonable to hail Bolt as the saviour of athletics, at least when considering the alternative. Had Justin Gatlin beaten him to either of those sprint titles, then the headlines would surely have carried a more deathly tone.
The good-versus-evil carry-on provided an irresistible backdrop, although truth is athletics was never going to live or die based on who actually won. Track and field is central to the DNA of sport, and as long as human beings feel the urge to run and throw and jump, it will continue to be.
Of course, there is still that nagging sense of doubt: trying to distinguish between what is true sporting prowess and what is not, even when it comes to Bolt. That’s part of the DNA of track and field now, as well, as indeed it is with most other sports – or, at least, those willing to admit it. The IAAF does need to ask itself why Bolt versus Gatlin was allowed to be billed as good versus evil in the first place, and there’s no doubt more can be done to at least ease that nagging sense of doubt. Over to you, Sebastian Coe.
Anyway, with two more days of finals still to come, these World Championships are already being hailed as the most competitive and consistently entertaining in a long time, and possibly ever. Berlin in 2009 was spectacular on many levels, particularly Bolt’s two world records, although it probably wouldn’t top the depth and range of performances seen in Beijing so far. Not even the most cynical of observers could deny that at least some of that comes down to true sporting prowess.
All four titles and, indeed, all 12 medals won inside the Bird’s Nest on Friday required a championship record, a national record, a personal best or else the best performance of 2015. That’s more or less been the trend all week. Indeed, the opening seven days of competition have now resulted in nine of the best performances of 2015, seven continental records, and an amazing 68 national records. Few athletes who fell short of their personal best made any impression at all.
Okay, no world records so far, but Beijing has also witnessed the second longest ever triple jump, when the USA’s Christian Taylor fell just 8cm shy of Jonathan Edwards’ 20-year-old mark: Julius Yego from Kenya also became the third furthest javelin thrower in history, while South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk became the fourth fastest man in 400m history. Trust me: they are not all on drugs.
The Kenyans have raised some eyebrows by the strength and depth of their performances, although the Russians, singled-out as the worst doping offenders in the Sunday Times/German ARD revelations, have dropped back considerably, and no prizes for guessing why. In some ways, then, it can be argued that athletics has never been in a more healthy state.
State of the sport
So, by the time this appears in print, Rob Heffernan could well have resurrected Irish athletics by pulling off a medal in the 50km walk – just like he did in Moscow, two years ago, when he brilliantly won gold. That would single-handedly make some positive headlines. But it wouldn’t necessarily save Irish athletics from its worst World Championships in a long time, possibly ever.
This is not intended has simply having a go at the squad of 16 Irish athletes in Beijing. None of them deliberately underperformed, of course, and both Thomas Barr in the 400m hurdles and Mark English in the 800m probably ran as well as expected to make the semi-finals. It just would have been nice if one of them surpassed that.
For the rest, so far all eliminated in the opening rounds, without a personal best or even season best (and with only the men’s 4x400m relay to come), there is little consolation. No matter what Heffernan does in the 50km walk, Ireland’s failure to produce a single track or field finalist, for a second successive World Championships, now demands some urgent inspection.
It’s clearly too late to change things before the Rio Olympics, but central to that inspection is the realisation that Irish athletics is in a worrying state of decline.
It’s only six years since that unforgettable week in Berlin, when Olive Loughnane won silver (now promoted to gold) in the 20km walk, and the night when Derval O’Rourke, David Gillick and Paul Hession walked through the mixed zone, one after the other, having gone where no Irish sprinters had gone before.
O’Rourke had just run in the final of the 100m hurdles, finishing fourth; Gillick had just made the final of the 400m, and would later finish sixth; and Hession had just came within two spots of making the 200m final, where he would have lined up alongside Bolt and his 19.19 world record.
Daegu victoriesAlistair CraggDeirdre RyanWorld Championship
2011 was also the year Kevin Ankrom was appointed high performance director of Athletics Ireland. It’s been two years since he presented his Strategic Plan 2013-2016, which was subtitled “more athletes winning on the world stage”. Ankrom actually predicted Irish athletes could win 24 medals in this Olympic cycle, across all championships, senior and junior, up to and including Rio.
So far, they’ve won nine. Given how the sport is now struggling to produce a single World Championship finalist, might this be considered a glorious failure?