Fight against doping OVERSHADOWS feats

Hestrie Cloete (left) and Hicham El Guerrouj with the IAAF best female and male athletes awards. — Pic. REUTERS-Hestrie Cloete (left) and Hicham El Guerrouj with the IAAF best female and male athletes awards. — Pic. REUTERS

Many young faces emerged out of the shadows of their more illustrious team-mates at the World championship, but what was more significant during the year was the breakthrough in the fight against doping, writes K.P. MOHAN.

Kenenisa Bekele took the 10,000m ahead of the greatest distance runner, Haile Gebrselassie, at the World championships in Paris. — Pic. REUTERS-

LOOKING back at the year just ending, you find many young faces, who emerged out of the shadows of their more illustrious team-mates at the World athletics championships, firmly establishing themselves at the top. You also find, just as in the recent past, a few of the elders further cementing their places in history; Hicham El Guerrouj, Maria Mutola and a few more.

The spotlight was fully on the Worlds in Paris, the run-up to the championships and the actual meet itself through the course of the year, though the Golden League meetings, from which Mutola carried home the million-dollar jackpot, and the overall Grand Prix circuit, did generate the usual interest.

Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj reacts after clinching the gold medal in the 1500m in the World meet in Paris. — Pic. AP-

Among a string of first-time winners at the World championships, two of the long distance runners should get precedence. Kenenisa Bekele, two-time double World cross-country champion, took the 10,000 metres, ahead of his Ethiopian team-mate and arguably the greatest distance runner of our time, Haile Gebrselassie, and a clutch of top-class performers of the season.

Then, in a battle that most predicted could be a historic one between El Guerrouj and Bekele, an 18-year-old Kenyan pulled off an impossible-looking gold. Eliud Kipchoge restored for Kenya its pride that looked to have been shattered beyond repair when Bekele led a 1-2-3 Ethiopian sweep of the 10,000m medals.

After having made his marathon debut the previous year, Gebrselassie had turned to the track again and assiduously prepared for the Paris Worlds. He surely wanted to erase his Edmonton memories, that bitter defeat against Kenyan Charles Kamathi, and must have been looking forward to winning his fifth World crown. But then, pre-championship form showed chinks in his armour and losses to Kenyan Abraham Chebii and Bekele only confirmed the growing belief that the `monarch' was on his way out from the top.

After having performed so brilliantly in the run-up, Chebii proved a disappointment in Paris, coming home fifth in the 5000m — he did not compete in the 10,000m — an event in which El Guerrouj and Bekele were looking for their second gold medals. That both failed, leaving a younger Kipchoge as the champion should augur well for Kenyan athletics, still groping for the kind of dominance they once had over the distance events.

Anju Bobby George did India proud by winning the long jump bronze in the World championship. -- Pic. CLIVE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES-

It was an unspectacular season for the sprinters, both male and female. All the top men showed such inconsistent form in the run-up to the Worlds that it was difficult to pick a favourite. That in the end, the little-known Kim Collins won the title was no big surprise as such. The 27-year-old sprinter from St Kitts and Nevis, a small group of Caribbean islands, does not sport bulging muscles nor does he boast of hours of practice on the track or long workouts at the gym.

Maurice Greene finished the semifinal in pain, his left quad popping just when the former World record holder looked good enough to get a place in the final at least. World record holder Tim Montgomery, fighting injuries in the run-up, ended up fifth in the final, leaving the Americans with no 100m medal for the first time since 1995. The one-two by John Capel and Darvis Patton in the 200m was some consolation for a nation with such a hoary sprinting tradition. There was a first for Japan in the 200m, Shingo Suetsugu winning the bronze, the first sprint medal at the Worlds for his country.

Only eight men cracked 10 seconds in the season. Montgomery was not one among them; Maurice Greene was. The man, who did it first, Australian Patrick Johnson, could not even make the semifinals in Paris. The Aussie did not make it to the World Athletics Final either.

The World Athletics Final was a `first' for the year. Held in Monaco at the end of the season, it replaced the Grand Prix final. Qualification was based on a ranking system that took into consideration performances at all levels, not just in GP meets. The points collected in the GP meets, including the Golden League, and the World Athletics Final, counted towards the `athletes of the year' awards.

Maria Mutola winning the women's 800m at the Van Damme Memorial IAAF meeting in Brussels. She won six straight finals in the Golden League to become the first athlete to win the Grand Prix jackpot outright. -- Pic. STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES-

El Guerrouj and high jumper Hestrie Cloete were adjudged the `athletes of the year' in the men and women's sections respectively. Though the race for the awards went right up to the wire, at least theoretically, it was an anti-climactic end as the Moroccan withdrew from the World Athletics Final and yet easily managed to take the honours, for a record third year in a row, ahead of Bekele and Qatar's Kenyan `import' Saeed Saif Shaheen.

In the women's section, the race was between the effervescent, young Swedish heptathlete, Carolina Kluft and Cloete. For all practical purposes, the South African was the winner even before the Final started in Monte Carlo since Kluft declined a wild card for the long jump event. Heptathlon was not in the Monte Carlo programme. Even if Kluft had competed, she had an impossible task of holding onto her slender lead (1436 to 1434) over Cloete.

Maria Mutola became the first athlete ever to win the Grand Prix jackpot outright as she won six straight 800m finals in the Golden League series. It was worth a million dollars and added to her wins in the World championships, World Indoor championships and the World Athletics Final, not to speak of her prizes from the six top meetings of the year, she was richer by a whopping 12,20,000 dollars from IAAF events alone. She thus surpassed the previous `woman millionaire' Romanian Gabriela Szabo's record for a year's earnings.

World records were hard to come by. Russian Yulia Pechonkina clocked an awe-inspiring 52.34 for the 400m hurdles in the National championships in Tula where another Russian woman, Gulnara Samitova timed a 9:08.33 for the 3000m steeplechase for a World mark. Pechonkina could manage only the bronze behind Australian Jana Pitman and American Sandra Glover at the World championships.

Russian Yelena Isinbayeva raised the women's pole vault World record to 4.82 at Gateshead on July 13, but finished third in the World championships behind teammate Svetlana Feofanova and German Annika Becker.

From the Asian viewpoint, two bronze medals for China in Paris, through high hurdler Liu Xiang, and woman distance runner Sun Yingjie, were significant since the Asian powerhouse had not tasted success at the World level in recent years. Qatar was the only Asian nation to win a gold, that by Saeed Saif Shaheen in the 3000m steeplechase.

Shaheen (nee Stephen Cherono) was lured by the money that Qatar offered and the international federation (IAAF) did not wait to complete a whole lot of formalities in allowing the Kenyan to compete under the Qatar banner.

Obviously the Kenyans were bitter. Brother Abraham Cherono, who finished fifth refused to shake hands with Shaheen.

Shaheen's experience at Manila, on his debut in the Asian championships, after he had won the World Athletics Final in Monaco, was disappointing. He lost both the 1500m and 5000m, though he seemed to be in a position to win both the events.

India's finest moment in the World championships came in the form of a bronze medal for long jumper Anju Bobby George. She followed discus thrower Neelam J. Singh as the first two Indians to ever make the Worlds final and then the Kerala woman did one better, by grabbing the bronze at 6.70m in a memorable contest in which Frenchwoman Eunice Barber took the gold on her last jump, edging Russian Tatyana Kotova.

The year saw a significant breakthrough being made in the fight against doping. More than any other sport, the focus remained on athletics as a pioneering doctor at the accredited laboratory in California detected the hitherto unknown steroid, Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) to send shock waves through the world of sport. We had of course the Exum papers earlier that tried to put the blame on the US authorities for turning a blind eye to some of the positives from the 80s to this day, and in the process, pointing a finger at one of the greatest athletes of all time — Carl Lewis.

Kelli White, who won a sprint double in Paris, tested positive in a drug test. — Pic. PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES-

Before the year was out, pressure had mounted so much on the USATF that it was contemplating life-bans for steroid users. The USATF had earlier come under criticism from the IOC President, Jacques Rogge, and the WADA President, Richard Pound, on the Jerome Young issue. Young, who won the World title in Paris, had competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics after having tested positive for a steroid. The USATF had kept the name under wraps despite international pressure, but a newspaper report, during the World championship, brought the issue back into focus all over again.

The US came under the doping spotlight more than ever before as Kelli White, the sprint double winner in Paris, tested positive for modafinil, a stimulant that was yet to be put in the IAAF's banned list, and four other athletes including middle distance runner Regina Jacobs and shot putter Kevin Toth, returned positive tests for THG.

The biggest `catch' under the THG net was, however, Briton Dwain Chambers. The European sprint champion tested positive for the designer steroid at an out-of-competition test in Germany, prior to the World championships and was believed to have come positive again when the IAAF started re-testing the Paris samples.

The THG discovery, thanks to a used syringe sent to the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) by an unknown coach, has surely shaken the athletics world, though, unlike early fears, its usage was not as widespread as speculated.

The oft-repeated argument that the `cheaters' are always a step ahead of the `testers' has been proved beyond doubt. The IAAF has the unenviable task of reviewing its two-year ban for steroid offenders and reverting to the four-year bans.