A legend bids goodbye, while two greats are beaten

Published : Dec 29, 2001 00:00 IST


IT was the year in which Michael Johnson said goodbye to track. It was also the year in which Haile Gebrselassie and Marion Jones were beaten.

This was the World championships year. The focus naturally was on the championships in Edmonton for the better part of the season. Like in Sydney, during the Olympics, the World championships, too, failed to produce a world record. But some excellent marks were returned and there were some stirring contests, especially in the men's throwing events.

Michael Johnson was there in Edmonton, not on the track, but in the TV commentators' booth. He skipped the US trials though he was keen to wind up with a relay anchor and add another possible gold medal to his collection of nine. For that, the USATF wanted him to enter a race. It was not prepared to give him a wild card otherwise. MJ refused. Instead, he went around the world, ran some exhibition relays and bowed out, in the US colours, eventually at the Brisbane Goodwill Games, running the longer relay.

At the International Athletic Foundation (IAF) Gala in Monaco, Johnson received a special 'distinguished career' award. No one would have deserved it better. The world will never see another Michael Johnson perhaps. He went out with the 200 metres and 400 metres world records under his belt, both well beyond the reach of the present-day stars, at 19.32s and 43.18s. He said he had other things to look forward to in his life, especially his family. Track was no longer challenging enough for the big Texan with that characteristic, upright running style.

Haile Gebrselassie was also supposed to say adieu to track and shift to road for good at the end of the Edmonton Worlds, track no longer posing a challenge. But the great Ethiopian distance runner was no longer sure about that after being beaten. He might have moved towards road had his winning streak of eight years remained intact. A little-known, dapper Kenyan changed the course of long distance history by outkicking the 'Emperor' from 120 metres out in the 10,000 metres. Gebrselassie, who was running his first race of the season, after surgery and a lay-off, still wore that patented smile of his even after the stunning defeat by Charles Kamathi.

In the post-Edmonton phase, Gebrselassie was preparing himself for his marathon debut in London in April, 2002, by competing in half-marathons and some road and cross-country races.

The other stunner was provided by Ukrainian Zhanna Pintusevich-Block. She beat Marion Jones over the 100 metres twice, in the semifinal and final in Edmonton. Pintusevich had a dream fulfilled. For, four years earlier, at Athens, she had thought she had beaten Jones only to be told that she had lost. This time, she beat the American fair and square in the final, 10.82s to 10.85s.

Jones had her revenge, after Edmonton. But the championship defeat was what mattered. Jones was undoubtedly the best woman sprinter in the season, with Chandra Sturrup of the Bahamas threatening her on a couple of occasions in the Grand Prix meets. But no one could have imagined that the American superstar could be beaten in a World championships final.

In terms of timings, Pintusevich's 10.82 at Edmonton topped the charts, while the 200 metres produced the poorest fare in more than two decades. Jones's 22.23 was the best in the world for 2001 and that happened to be the poorest since 1977. The next best was a 22.38 by American Kelli White.

Talking of timings, Maurice Greene clocked a 9.82, the third best in history, behind his own world record of 9.79s and the 9.80 he clocked at the 1999 Seville Worlds in the 100m. And that 9.82 came after he hobbled across the finish-line. He had felt a tug on his left quad and a twitch on his hamstring past the 70-metre mark.

Greene won the 100m for the third time in a row. What would have happened had there been no tug and twitch? Greene himself guessed that a 9.77 could have been a possibility.

The fact that Greene clocked a 10-plus only in one of the eight finals he started in the season showed his consistency and capacity to run sub-10s. He was beaten once, early in the season by Jamaican Patrick Jarrett, who was to come under a doping cloud later.

By clocking a 9.84 in Olso, before moving into Edmonton, Tim Montgomery had proclaimed that he was ready to take on Greene. But as it turned out, the little man from South Carolina, US, is a long way off from challenging the best sprinter of our times. The one man who could have really threatened Greene had he been in form, Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago, just managed the fourth place. It was a forgettable year for Boldon and many opined that it would be good for him to leave John Smith's HSI stable. Boldon also had an awkward time in answering his fans when it was announced that he had tested positive for the stimulant, ephedrine at the Mt. SAC Relays at Walnut, California, in April.

The year produced a string of exciting races in the middle distance events, especially the men's 800 metres. Andre Bucher of Switzerland, who went on to claim the overall Grand Prix title, and Russian Yuriy Borzakovskiy fought it out in some of the most memorable two-lap battles.

Bucher won to the delight of the Swiss brigade at Edmonton, though the success was not too sweet since the Russian had skipped the Worlds after having won the World indoor title. Bucher won again in Melbourne, in the Grand Prix finals. But Borzakovskiy, just 20, had one distinction; he topped the season's charts with his 1:42.47 at Brussels where he beat Bucher.

The metric mile also saw some fine timings being returned. Hicham El Guerrouj, still smarting under the Olympic defeat by Kenyan Noah Ngeny, came close to his world record in Brussels, just 0.12 sec outside, clocking 3:26.12. Kenyan Bernard Lagat was his main challenger through the season, while Ngeny, in poor form, eventually failed to get into the Kenyan team.

El Guerrouj had actually planned to tackle the 5000 metres this year but kept himself in the metric mile and the mile to make up for the Olympic setback. Another man who showed his interest in the 1500m and finally made a tactical switch to the 5000 at Edmonton was Algerian Ali Saidi-Sief. He won the silver behind Kenyan Richard Limo but in one of the most shocking doping positives for the year, the 23-year-old Algerian was stripped of his medal.

There were eight performances below 3:30 in the 1500 metres and five of them belonged to El Guerrouj. The Moroccan ended up with the 'best athlete' award in the men's section both in the selection made by the IAF and the American magazine, Track and Field News. So did Stacy Dragila in the women's section.

Dragila had two world records in one meet at Stanford, US, 4.71 and 4.81. Finally, the women's pole vault seems to be levelling off and from now onwards it is going to be that much tougher for Dragila and the others to better world records. Russian Svetlana Feofanova, who pushed the American hard at Edmonton, with a personal best of 4.75, would be the one to watch in the new year. But Dragila is not the one who will give in easily.

At the senior level, there were five other world records, apart from the ones set by Dragila. The one by Moroccan Brahim Boulami in the 3000m steeplechase, 7:55.28, at Brussels in August, was a big surprise. Perennially the Kenyan preserve, the Algerians and the Moroccans have been trying to make a mark in the steeplechase, but not many would have tipped Boulami to better the world mark (7:55.72) held by Kenyan Bernard Barmasai since 1977.

Czech Roman Sebrle also came up with a surprise by becoming the first man to cross the 9000-point barrier in the decathlon. He achieved that at the multis meeting in Gotzis, Austria, compiling 9026 points. But at the World championships, there could be no stopping the man from whom Sebrle had snatched the WR. Tomas Dvorak, the better-known Czech till then, won with 8902 points after being on world record pace on day one. Olympic champion Erki Nool was second, while Sebrle, hampered by an injury, finished tenth with 8174.

Cuban Osleidys Menendez stretched the women's javelin world record to 71.54 at Rethymno, Greece, and went on to win the world title as well.

Another world record came in the women's 20km walk when Olimpiada Ivanova timed 1:26:52.3 in the Brisbane Goodwill Games. The Russian had won rather effortlessly at the Edmonton Worlds as well.

The other world record was in the newly-introduced women's 3000m steeplechase, with Justyna Bak of Poland clocking 9:25.31 at Nice in July.

World records apart, there were some notable performances elsewhere. Though the men's jumping events remained below par overall, there was the 6.05m clearance by Dmitri Markov, a Belarus-born Russian, representing Australia, at Edmonton. Markov now moves into the joint second position with Russian Maxim Tarasov in the all-time pole vault list. The top nine marks plus another four at 6.05 are, of course, held by the 'Czar', Sergey Bubka, who is now busy as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Long jump provided below par fare, with Cuban Ivan Pedroso winning at 8.40 for his fourth World title on the trot. But triple jump, with world record holder Jonathan Edwards free of major injury worries, produced a series of good results. Edwards won the World title with a season-leading 17.92m and he had the three next best marks as well. Quite encouragingly, two youngsters challenged the Briton. The 22-year-old Swede, Christian Olsson had a brilliant season, with the silver at Edmonton and a best of 17.49 at Rethymno, Greece, while the 21-year-old Russian, Igor Spasovkhdoskiy, took the bronze at 17.44.

The men's throwing events were the most hotly-contested at Edmonton. German Lars Riedel won the discus gold for the fifth time, edging Olympic champion Virgilijus Alekna of Lithuania, 69.72 to 69.40. A titanic battle ensued in the hammer sector between Japanese Koji Murofushi and Pole Szymon Ziolkowski. The Pole, who won at the Sydney Olympics, clinched this one with 83.38, but Murofushi had perhaps the best series ever.

Jan Zelezny's reply to Finn Aki Parviainen's opening throw in javelin at Edmonton, that of 91.31, was a second-round effort of 92.80, the seventh best throw on the all-time lists. Zelezny now has three World titles to add to the three Olympic gold medals. The Czech was nominated, along with Bubka, Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka and Canadian Charmaine Crookes, as an IOC member but towards the end of the year, Zelezny said that he was resigning. He wanted to concentrate on his career, he said. At the ripe age of 35, that is!

Besides the defeat of Marion Jones and the exploits of Stacy Dragila, the spotlight in the women's section was turned towards the Olga Yegorova doping controversy. In the first positive case announced for EPO (erythropoietin) Yegorova was declared guilty even before the 'trial' had taken place. The test result, from the Paris Golden League meeting, was leaked to the press just days before the World championships and suddenly the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) was in the midst of a doping controversy.

The Paris test had to be thrown out since, quite astonishingly, there was only a urine test. A combination of urine and blood tests had been prescribed by the IOC. A few days later, in time for Yegorova's heat in the 5000m, the IAAF announced that the Russian had come 'clean' in tests it had itself carried out on several athletes after the Paris meet.

Romanian Gabriela Szabo, who was to win the 1500m, beating team-mate Violeta Szekely, the overall Grand Prix winner, threatened to pull out if Yegorova was in the 5000m field. Briton's Paula Radcliffe held a banner 'Drug cheats out' as Yegorova ran the heat. Szabo competed eventually and finished a miserable eighth as Yegorova won comfortably. Radcliffe was outkicked, yet again by a trio of Ethiopians led by Derartu Tulu in the 10,000 metres.

The year also saw the sad exit of the peerless Cuban high jumper, Javier Sotomayor. He was allowed to compete in the 1999 Worlds as a special gesture by the IAAF after he was charged with a cocaine positive at the Pan-American Games. This time in Edmonton, Soto finished fourth. Suddenly, in October, he announced his retirement and shortly after that came the news that he had tested positive for steroid nandrolone in July. The Cuban probably wanted to avoid further embarrassment by announcing his retirement. The taint will remain on the Cuban who to-date is the only man to have scaled the height of a football goal-post.

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