With the World Athletics Championships underway, all track and field fans will be eager to follow results and cheer on their favourite athletes. We, of course, want India to do well, but let us not lose focus on the global perspective here.
There have been multiple talking points over the weeks leading up to the World Championships on star athletes such as Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone (women’s 400m hurdles), Pedro Pichardo (men’s triple jump), Michael Norman (men’s 400m), to name a few, dropping out and not attempting a title defence.
We must respect athletes’ decision to not take part due to whatever reason they may have mentioned, and understand that the sport revolves around these athletes who are breaking barriers that were once thought humanly impossible.
After everything is said, done and heard, they are human, and the body needs to be taken care of. Going into a competition knowing that you are not in 100 per cent shape, especially for world-beaters who don’t go to such competitions to gain experience but break human barriers, is understandable. Also, each athlete has a personal way of preparing for competitions.
A good example to look at domestically would be a comparison between two of India’s premier male athletes, M. Sreeshankar (long jump) and Neeraj Chopra (javelin). Sreeshankar has already competed in seven competitions this year, with the World Championships being number eight for him.
Not to forget we are only in August and still have the Asian Games, Diamond League meetings and the Diamond League Finals. Knowing Sree, I will not be surprised if he comes back in November after the Asian Games and competes at the National Games, too. In case of Chopra, he has competed in two competitions and the World Championships will be the third.
Though the World Championships are not ‘just another competition,’ we must understand where the athletes are coming from and how they like to prepare to achieve their goals. All the names I have mentioned above, who are skipping World Championships, are multiple time World Champions, Olympic gold medallists and World Record holders. Maybe another World Championship title for them is just not lucrative enough.
But this is a story for another day. Let us talk about the stuff that I, as an athlete, am interested in!
Up until last year, had you asked me which event I would be most interested in watching, it would have been a no-brainer. The men’s high jump, like every year, has a stacked field in Budapest with both reigning Olympic champions Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi set to duel it out again with the likes of Woo Sang-hyeok and JuVaughn Harrison wanting a piece of the pie for themselves as well.
Barshim, the world leader this year, has also, like Chopra, competed in just two competitions this season, while Woo, who was the silver medallist last year in Eugene, Oregon, has competed in nine. The men’s high jump will be a fun contest between youthful exuberance and shrewd veterans.
But hey, I am a decathlete now and I have learned to appreciate other events, too.
Out of all the events that I am eager to follow, the men’s discus throw has the potential to pan out as an absolute blockbuster event. But instead of focusing on the results and predictions I would like to focus on the competitors. With Daniel Stahl of Sweden, Kristjan Ceh of Slovania, and Mykolas Alekna of Lithuania, we already have our medallists from last year (Ceh and Alekna) returning to get back on the podium.
But the best part is no one is undefeated this year. Mykolas became the youngest discus thrower to go beyond 70m with his 71m throw in April, only to finish second behind Turner Washington in an absolute upset in June at the NCAA Championships in Texas. Ceh and Stahl have consistently thrown between 67-71m this year and have pipped each other multiple times to take pole position during the regular season.
I would love to see Mykolas on the podium as my claim to fame is that I had the chance to share a bite with him at a small Thai restaurant in Eugene, Oregon, on the eve of the 2022 NCAA championships where the discus and high jump were on simultaneously. Mykolas finished second in the discus final as a freshman, and I won my last NCAA title as a fifth-year student.
I said I wouldn’t go into numbers and results here so let’s wrap up the event on this brain bender. Back in 1999, the men’s discus was won by Anthony Washington, who also set the championship record of 69.08m and pipped the second-best discus thrower of all time, Virgilijus Alekna of Lithuania, who finished fourth. Fast forward 24 years, Alekna’s two sons, Mykolas and Martynas, and Washington’s son, Turner, will be locking horns in the same event in Budapest.
I can’t not comment on the decathlon. So, here is what I am excited about. This might be one of the most open fields in a very long time at a World Championships. All three medallists from last edition are in the fray this year. Gold medallist Kevin Mayer has not completed a decathlon this year, but if you know anything about the decathlon you know that the world record holder doesn’t need to complete a decathlon before showing up for the World Championships. He is a performer and knows how to prepare for major championships. With Olympic gold medallist Damian Warner looking in good shape after getting injured last year at worlds, he will have his hands full with fellow Canadian Pierce LePage looking formidable after his win at the Gotzis Hypo meeting.
Harrison Williams of the United States keeps up the American legacy of producing world-class decathletes, with his solid score 8630 from the USA trials. But keeping numbers aside, I would love to see the 2023 NCAA champion and world leader Leo Neugebauer of Germany and Kyle Garland of USA duel it out at the World Championships. Having had the pleasure of sharing a beer with both these gentlemen during my time in the US, I can vouch for the fact that they are not just tanks on the field but off it as well.
Be it Mondo Duplantis dominating singlehandedly or a Noah Lyles vs Fred Kerley; or Yulimar Rojas going for her fourth world title; or a Valarie Allman vs Sandra Perkovic; or a Ryan Crouser going for another world record; or a Sifan Hassan attempting another triple; or, for that matter, Neeraj Chopra looking to break the 90m barrier — my only request from the reader is to not focus purely on the numbers or results but also on the unique story and circumstances behind each competitor and event.
I believe it is the stories that make the sport of track and field interesting.
Tejaswin Shankar is India’s national record holder in the high jump and Commonwealth Games 2022 bronze medallist. He has also evolved into a decathlete of note.
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