Bolt, Sanya Richards are the best

Yelena Isinbayeva... 15th world record outdoors.-AP

It was an awesome display of sprinting that surpassed the expectations of the pundits as Usain Bolt registered his world record double. Sanya Richards had an excellent year, winning her first World title at last, apart from topping the season’s charts in the 400 metres with a 48.83s in Brussels. Over to K. P. Mohan.

The year belonged to Usain Bolt. At the end of the year, he had two fresh world records in the short sprints, was for the second time voted ‘Best Male Athlete of the Year’ by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and remained unbeaten in the 100 metres and 200 metres.

No one could have imagined that the Jamaican would once again shatter the world records in such convincing fashion. It was an awesome display of sprinting that surpassed the expectations of the pundits as Bolt registered his world record double while winning the sprints in the World Championships in Berlin.

There never was any question of who would win the World titles. It was only a question of what timings Bolt would return. In the event, the man who celebrated his 23rd birthday on August 21, a day after the 200m final in Berlin, timed 9.58 seconds and 19.19 seconds. He had returned 9.69s and 19.30s in the Beijing Olympic Games for the then world records.

It thus happened to be the biggest reduction of the 100m world record in the shortest span of time since electronic timing was introduced in 1968. Then, American Jim Hines had run 9.95 in the Mexico City Olympics and it took 28 years for Canadian Donovan Bailey to shave 0.11s off that record.

Bolt averaged 37.578km per hour during his 100m run, touching a top speed of 44.172km per hour between 60 and 80 metres. Inevitably, the Jamaican was asked how fast he could go.

“Anything is possible. I am just happy I won. For me 9.5 is definitely a big thing. I am proud of myself because I am the first man to have done that. I never go out there thinking about world records. I just go out there trying to win.” He had earlier indicated that 9.4 would be about the limit that humans could achieve.

Bolt himself tried to downplay the build-up before the 200 metres in Berlin, but when it came to the final, he put up yet another astounding display. He had splits of 9.92s and 9.27s for the first and second 100m segments. It is interesting to note here that Michael Johnson ran his second 100 in 9.20s in Atlanta in his world-record-breaking time of 19.32s in 1996.

By the end of the season, Bolt stretched his winning streak in both 100m and 200m to 11 each, the short sprint dating back to the Beijing Olympics final and the longer one beginning from the Golden Spike in Ostrava in June, 2008. He now has a 2-0 record over American Tyson Gay, the man who took the silver in Berlin, and a 7-1 record over team-mate Asafa Powell who won the bronze in the Worlds.

Gay won almost every other race he entered during the year, but couldn’t match Bolt where it mattered. He also had a loss to Powell in Brussels, but most significantly clocked an American record and an area record of 9.69s in the Shanghai Golden Grand Prix in September. That tied the second fastest timing ever, the previous world record of Bolt.

Bolt and Gay apart, there were quite a few outstanding feats during the year. Yelena Isinbayeva had a rare failure in a big championship. She no-heighted at the World Championships after having suffered her first loss in 19 finals in the Aviva Grand Prix in London in July to Anna Rogowska of Poland who went on to win the World Championship. But then the year otherwise belonged to the Russian. She won 12 of her competitions, indoors and out, and had a world record to boot.

At the Weltklasse meet in Zurich, on August 28, 11 days after her stunning exit from the World Championships final, Isinbayeva cleared 5.06m, her 15th world record outdoors. She also had a share of the one-million dollar Golden League jackpot, the other two achievers being Ethiopian distance runner Kenenisa Bekele and American quarter-miler Sanya Richards.

Bekele scored an unprecedented distance double in the Berlin Worlds. He took his fourth World title in the 10,000 metres, his only race at that distance in the season, in a championship record of 26:46.31 and won his first 5000m crown in 13:17.09. He has not lost a 10,000m in his career and now has an impressive 16 world titles, the majority of them from cross-country championships.

There were impressive performances by javelin thrower Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway, pole vaulter Steve Hooker of Australia, long jumper Dwight Phillips of the US and shot putter Christian Cantwell of the US at the World Championships.

Two-time Olympic champion Thorkildsen took his first World Championship title with a second-round throw of 89.59m that killed the competition. He had a season-leading 91.28m in Zurich and also won the World Athletics Final.

Hooker, also an Olympic champion, who braved an abductor muscle injury, had to be administered local anesthesia, and vaulted just twice, the first time a failure at 5.85. He still had his first World crown, at 5.90m. By clearing 6.06 indoors in Boston in February, Hooker had become the second highest vaulter in history behind Sergey Bubka.

Phillips became the first man to regain the World long jump title. In great form in 2009, the 32-year-old American, who had won in 2003 and 2005, did it again in Berlin with 8.54m. He had posted 8.74m, the longest jump in 15 years, in Eugene, US, in June. Cantwell responded with a world-leading 22.03m in the fifth round of the shot put competition in the World Championships after Olympic champion Tomasz Majewski of Poland looked to have grasped the gold with a 21.91 in the same round.

From an Asian viewpoint, the success of Youssef Saad Kamel in the 1500 metres in Berlin was a phenomenal achievement. The former Kenyan (Gregory Konchellah, son of two-time world champion Billy Konchellah), now in Bahrain colours, also took the bronze in the 800 metres.

Sanya Richards, chosen ‘Female Athlete of the Year’, had an excellent year, winning her first World title at last, apart from topping the season’s charts in the 400 metres with a 48.83s in Brussels. She won 10 of her 11 meetings, her only defeat coming in her first outing of the season to Jamaican Novlene Williams-Mills in Kingston.

Anita Wlodarczyk was another woman who shone. The Polish hammer thrower won the world title with a world record 77.96 metres.

Prominent among the other women who stood out during the year were Croatian high jumper Blanca Vlasic, who won the World Championship, Kiwi shot putter Valeri Vili, who broke through the 21-metre barrier, apart from winning the World Championship gold, American sprinter Allyson Felix, who took her third successive World 200m title, 21-year-old Aussie discus thrower Dani Samuels, who won the world title with a personal best 65.44 and Briton Jessica Ennis, the new heptathlon world champion who scored a personal best and world-leading 6731 points in Berlin.

Vlasic not only won the Worlds but also became the second highest jumper in history by clearing 2.08m in Zagreb on August 31. It was the best since Stekfka Kostadinov of Bulgaria scaled 2.09m in Rome in 1987.

Off the track, there were plenty of controversies and debate, none more disturbing than the gender issue raised against South African teenager Caster Semenya. She won the World title in the 800 metres before plunging into an embarrassing controversy over her gender. The issue has not been settled, but the IAAF was pushed into an awkward position when news leaked out.

Olympic champion in the 1500m, Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain, was finally disqualified after re-tests showed he had taken CERA, a variant of EPO. Russia had seven of its female athletes suspended for two years and nine months each after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) partially upheld an appeal by the IAAF. They were accused of substituting their urine samples. The batch included two-time world champion in 1500m, Tatyana Tomoshova, and former world 5000m champion Olga Yegorova.

Closer home, one of the sub-continent’s top-ranked athletes, Susanthika Jayasinghe, announced her retirement. The Sri Lankan sprinter who turned 34 on December 17, was one of the athletes to benefit from American Marion Jones’s disqualification from the Sydney Olympics following doping admissions.

She gained the bronze in the 200 metres. In an unprecedented decision, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) also announced that Jones’s 100m gold would not be awarded to Greek Katerina Thanou, another athlete involved in a doping controversy four years later, and she would share the silver with Jamaican Tanya Lawrence. The IAAF, however, placed Thanou first in its official results clarifying that she would not be awarded the gold.

Clearly, the message has gone out that ‘cheats’ would not be encouraged.

* * * Same old story

Indian athletics continued to grope in the dark in 2009 towards achieving its targets. After gaining just one gold medal in a tally of dozen from the Asian Championships in Guangzhou, it consoled itself by arguing that the main focus had to be the Commonwealth Games in Delhi and along the way there could be disappointments and corrections.

Om Prakash Singh... remarkable improvement in the year.-A.M. FARUQUI

Nothing seemed to work for Indian athletics after the season started on a promising note. A six-week camp in England for a batch of 45-odd athletes in the summer did not produce the desired results, barring a few exceptions.

The private arrangement with the Mittals Champions Trust that enabled another batch to train in South Africa also proved futile. In fact, all the leading middle distance and distance runners in that group, including Sinimole Paulose, failed to gain selection to the Indian team. It was argued that fitness problems had caused a setback for Paulose and company.

The performance in most cases took a nosedive through the season before stabilising a little during the inter-State meet in Chennai, which happened to be the final selection meet for the Asian Championships. A squad of 57 eventually returned with a haul of one gold, four silver and seven bronze medals. Shot putter Om Prakash Singh was the lone gold-medal winner. The fact that even the women’s 4x400m relay team failed to get the gold was galling.

Om Prakash showed remarkable improvement during the year. It was almost unbelievable that he could jump from his 2008 best of 18.71m to end up with a 20.02m (Chennai) in the season. Nine of his marks were over 19 metres, two of them over 19.80 metres — 19.89m in Istanbul in June, missing the World Championships qualification by a centimetre, and 19.87m in Guangzhou for the Asian title.

Joseph Abraham (silver in 400m hurdles) and Kavita Raut (silver in women’s 10,000m, bronze in 5000m) were two other impressive performers at the Asian Championships. Abraham ended the year with four timings below 50 seconds including the 49.96s he clocked in Guangzhou. His biggest disappointment, of course, was in being disqualified during the heats in the World Championships.

World Championships proved beyond the reach of our athletes as in the past. Walker Babubhai Panucha timed a National record of 1:23:06 for the 20km event to come 20th in Berlin. That was the best performance by an Indian athlete in a six-member squad.

Tintu Luka, P. T. Usha’s trainee, showed much promise but ended up sixth in the 800 metres in Guangzhou. She could not cope with the cold and winds that day when she was not hundred per cent fit.

Three of India’s medal hopefuls in the Asian Championships did not compete at all during the year. Long jumper Anju George did not return to competition after her heart-breaking foot injury at the Beijing Olympics. She is expecting a baby in 2010 and will miss the Commonwealth Games, too.

Shot putter Navpreet Singh and US-based discus thrower Vikas Gowda were also reported to be nursing injuries at some point of time during the season.

Before the year was out, three top-ranked athletes, javelin thrower Om Narayan, hammer thrower Madhu Kumar and woman hammer thrower Sukanya Mishra failed dope tests, among several other athletes. Om Narayan and Sukanya were part of the Indian team in Guangzhou.

There is a general belief that a sizeable number of Indian athletes in National camps resort to doping. The great fluctuations in performances, the failure to even qualify for global championships and poor returns even in Continental championships, always raise suspicions. Indian athletes will have to rise above these suspicions to put up a credible performance in the Commonwealth Games.