How are the mighty fallen

Marion Jones-AP

The abiding image of the year is that of a sobbing Marion Jones in front of the Federal courthouse in White Plains, New York, shortly after she pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to Federal investigators, writes K. P. Mohan.

Asafa Powell ran a world record 9.74 seconds in Rieti in September, just two weeks after he was comprehensively beaten by American Tyson Gay in the World Championships sprint showdown in Osaka. Three weeks later, Haile Gebrselassie, rated the “greatest athlete” of our times by Lord Sebastian Coe, shattered Paul Tergat’s marathon world record, slicing 29 seconds off the Kenyan’s 2003 mark, while winning the Berlin marathon. Then, in November, 10 mont hs after giving birth to a baby girl, Paula Radcliffe regained the New York marathon title.

Yet, the abiding image of the year is not that of Powell being beaten by Gay or Gebrselassie breasting the tape, arms raised, in Berlin or for that matter Radcliffe cradling daughter Isla immediately after her New York victory; it is that of a sobbing Marion Jones in front of the Federal courthouse in White Plains, New York, shortly after she pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to Federal investigators. She admitted to using steroid prior to the Sydney Olympics and also stated that she had lied in a cheque-fraud case. She faces at least a six-month prison term.

Jones broke down as she confessed she had let her country, her sport and herself down by resorting to drug use at the instance of coach Trevor Graham. She sought forgiveness from her fans.

In December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped the 31-year-old American of the five medals, including three gold, she had won in the Sydney Olympics.

“Go for five” was the slogan with which Jones mounted her Sydney campaign. Her smile captivated millions of fans across the globe; her sprinting prowess destroyed rivals on the finishing straight and made Flo Jo’s 10.49 look attainable. She was the ‘face of athletics’.

Or so we thought at that time. Now, seven years later, Jones is being branded ‘just another drug cheat’.

It is a terrible fall for an athlete whose talent and potential could never have been questioned. In a broader sense, it is a huge blow to athletics, the biggest since Ben Johnson took the first flight home from Seoul in 1988 after testing positive in the Olympics.

From the time the BALCO scandal broke in 2003 through the turmoil of 2006 when she was slapped with an EPO ‘positive’, only to be reprieved as the ‘B’ test turned up ‘negative’, Jones had persistently denied that she had ever taken prohibited substances. Now, she was telling the world that her Olympic dream was realised with the aid of drugs.

“Marion Jones will be known as one of the biggest frauds in sporting history,” said Lamine Diack, President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the sport’s governing body.

Jones announced her retirement from the sport, but the IOC, in an unprecedented decision, not only barred her from competing in the 2008 Olympics (by then the IAAF had already slapped a two-year suspension on her) but also banned her from participating in the Beijing Games in any capacity. It said it was also considering whether to bar her permanently from future Olympics.

There were several other doping cases, notably Olympic champion sprinter Justin Gatlin of the US, but the year was not all about doping. It couldn’t have been what with the World Championships coming off in Osaka.

Unlike the rain and cold of Helsinki two years ago, the Japanese city was hot and humid much of the time through the nine-day championships. The US expectedly topped the table with 14 gold, four silver and eight bronze medals. Kenya came second with 13 medals including five gold, ahead of Russia’s 16 that included four gold medals.

Coming into the championships, Gay had clocked a season best 9.84s while winning the US outdoor title in Indianapolis, though Powell had also looked formidable. In the event, Gay proved too good in the 100 metres for the world record holder from Jamaica who could manage only the bronze, behind Derrick Atkins of the Bahamas. Gay timed 9.85, Atkins 9.91 and Powell 9.96.

Gay went on to complete the sprint double, taking the 200 metres in a championship record of 19.76 seconds, edging another Jamaican, Usain Bolt, in the final. As the year closed, Gay was adjudged the ‘male athlete of the year’ by the IAAF with the award in the women’s section going to Ethiopian Meseret Defar.

Gay lost just one 100m final out of eight in 2007, at the Golden GP in Shanghai, right at the end of the season, to countryman Wallace Spearmon. He won four out of four in the 200 metres with a season best of 19.61s while winning the US outdoor title.

Powell, however, held the top three timings in the 100 metres for the year, with his world record 9.74s coming in Rieti with a tail-wind of 1.7m/s. The 25-year-old Jamaican is yet to win the big one, though.

If there was a noticeable gap between Gay and the rest in the men’s sprint of the Worlds, the women’s 100m produced one of the closest finishes ever, with just three-thousandth of a second separating Jamaican Veronica Campbell from American Lauryn Williams. Both were given an official time of 11.01 seconds.

Osaka saw Swede Carolina Kluft winning her third world heptathlon title with a personal best and European record of 7032 points and Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele also scoring a hat-trick of 10,000m gold medals.

Carolina Kluft of Sweden. The champion heptathlete won her third world title in Osaka with a personal best and European record of 7032 points.-AP

Even as Kenya rejoiced at a clean sweep in men’s steeplechase, the first since 1997, and the victory in men’s 800 metres by the little-known Alfred Kirwa Yego, there must have been mixed feelings in Bernard Lagat, now in the American vest, scoring a rare 1500-5000 double. It was only the third such double in world athletics, behind Paavo Nurmi’s 1924 Olympics feat and Hicham El Guerrouj’s Athens Olympics effort.

Yelena Isinbayeva needed just three jumps to defend her pole vault title, though she could do no better than 4.80. She had a best of 4.91, in Paris, and stretched her winning streak to 22. The Russian also shared the Golden League jackpot of $1 million with American quarter-miler Sanya Richards, who surprisingly failed to make the team to Osaka, failing to finish among the top three in Indianapolis.

Richards topped the women’s 400-metre lists, clocking 49.27s twice, the last one while winning the World Athletics Finals in Stuttgart, ahead of those who had finished on the podium in Osaka. Christine Ohuruogu, coming back from a one-year suspension for missing three dope tests, headed a rare British one-two in Osaka in the 400 metres, with Nicola Sanders providing the silver.

Chinese Liu Xiang, who should be the crowd favourite to win in Beijing next year, won his first world title, clocking 12.95 in the 110m hurdles. Also winning his first world title was decathlete Roman Sebrle. The Czech, the only man to cross 9000 points, tallied 8676 points, just 32 points in front of Jamaican Maurice Smith. Tatyana Lebedeva led a Russian sweep of the long jump medals, with a 7.03. Lyudmila Kolachanova (6.92) and Tatyana Kotova (6.90) took the other two medals. Lebedeva’s attempt for a jumping double was, however, spoilt by Cuban Yargelis Savigne who opened with a world-leading 15.28 in triple jump.

Another woman jumper to impress through the season was Croatian Blanca Vlasic. The high jumper from Split improved her personal best to 2.07 from 2.03 this year, won the World title and remained undefeated in 16 competitions since June 24, 2007. She was one of the favourites to claim the ‘athlete of the year’ award which eventually went to Defar.

Defar, undefeated through the year indoors and outdoors, set a world outdoor record in the 5000 metres, clocking 14:16.62 in Oslo in June, bettering her own mark of 14:24.53 set in New York in 2006.

Among the world record setters, mention must also be made of Russian Tatyana Lysenko who stretched her hammer mark to 78.61 in Sochi in May. Without setting a world record but looking nearly as good as his illustrious manager, Jeremy Wariner scorched the Osaka track for a superb 43.35, the fastest for the season and a personal best. It was the fifth fastest ever, three of the other four belonging to the one and only Michael Johnson, who is Wariner’s manager. The fourth one is held by former world record holder Butch Reynolds.

For sheer drama, the men’s long jump in Osaka was unmatched. Panama’s Irving Saladino won with a last-round jump of 8.57m, a South American record, after Italian Andrew Howe had snatched the lead with his last-round effort of 8.47m, just a centimetre more than the Panamian’s second-round jump.

Saladino’s dramatic jump did not make the shortlist for the ‘performance of the year’ award. The list contained Powell’s world record in 100m, Eritrean Zersenay Tadese’s World cross-country victory over Kenenisa Bekele, Wariner’s 43.45, Isinbayeva’s indoor world record of 4.93, Kenyan Janeth Jepkosgei’s Osaka performance of 1:56.04 in the 800 metres, the world’s fastest time in four years, and Vlasic’s 2.07 in Stockholm, the third all-time best mark.

Haile Gebrselassie shattered Paul Tergat's marathon world record, slicing 29 seconds off the Kenyan's 2003 mark, while winning the Berlin marathon.-AP

Eventually, Powell and Vlasic cornered the awards. There was one special award for Carl Lewis as the ‘Hero of Athletics’ and two other ‘inspirational’ awards for Radcliffe and Gebrselassie. Donald Thomas of the Bahamas, 23, who won the high jump title in Osaka (2.35m), was adjudged the ‘newcomer of the year’.

Asia had very limited success in Osaka, with Japan earning just a bronze through woman marathoner Reiko Tosa. Hammer man Koji Murofushi, on whom all Japanese hopes rested, finished sixth.

China had one gold, one silver and one bronze, woman marathoner Zhou Chunxiu, the London Marathon winner, contributing the silver and hammer girl Zhang Wenxiu winning the bronze. Incidentally, Zhang Wenxiu set an Asian record of 74.30 in June. For Indian athletics, the gulf looked to have widened more than ever before in Osaka. Triple jumper Renjith Maheswary, who bettered a 36-year-old National record with his 17.04 in Guwahati, failed miserably while finishing 26th overall with just 16.38. He rounded off the year with a mediocre 16.14 in the Open Nationals in Jamshedpur.

Anju George made the long jump final in Osaka, finishing ninth with 6.53, while 400m hurdler, Joseph Abraham made the semifinals and clocked a national record of 49.51 before bowing out. A devalued Asian Championship in Amman, Jordan, with none of the top Chinese or Japanese around, allowed India to win five gold, five silver and five bronze medals. However, its women’s 4x400m relay team, touted as a medal contender in Beijing, was thoroughly exposed, finishing last in the World Championships and finally getting disqualified for a lane violation.