The best last year are the best again

Asafa Powell... new 100m world record.-AP

There was no stopping Isinbayeva, just as there seemed to be no limits for Bubka in his time. And there looked no barriers were insurmountable for Kenenisa Bekele as it used to be for another Ethiopian, Haile Gebrselassie, writes K. P. MOHAN

YELENA ISINBAYEVA scaled five metres, prompting Sergey Bubka to say that she was "something special". She then scaled 5.01 metres to win the World championships. Everyone had run out of superlatives by then.

There was no stopping Isinbayeva, just as there seemed to be no limits for Bubka in his time. And there looked no barriers were insurmountable for Kenenisa Bekele as it used to be for another Ethiopian, Haile Gebrselassie.

Isinbayeva and Bekele were the dominant figures in world athletics in 2005 just as they were the previous year, too. Not surprisingly, they were once again named `Athletes of the Year' at the IAAF's season-ending World Athletics Gala in Monaco.

We missed Gebrselassie in action at the World Championships after a dozen years; Maurice Greene for the first time in a decade. There was no Marion Jones either. Yet, Helsinki provided plenty of thrills, though rains and cold weather marred what could otherwise have been a great World Championships. Needless to say, the focus through the course of the year was fixed firmly on the tune-up to the championships.

Bekele came into the World Championships with the double at the World cross-country behind him. He had won the double for the fourth successive time, overcoming the tragic death of his fiancee, Alem Techale, at the beginning of the year.

The 23-year-old Ethiopian did not aim for the distance double at Helsinki, but concentrated on the 10,000 metres alone. He won comfortably and later went on to clock a world record (26:17.53) for the event at Brussels.

One man who ran Bekele close for the `Athlete of the Year' award was Justin Gatlin. He had the sprint double at Helsinki after having done the same in the US championships. It was only the second sprint double in the history of the championships behind Maurice Greene in 1999. Greene, incidentally, did not make it to the start at Helsinki, pulling out of the US championships final with a hamstring injury.

Neither Gatlin nor Greene, however, managed what every sprinter aspires to become: The fastest man on earth. Asafa Powell, the 23-year-old Jamaican, clocked 9.77 seconds in Athens on June 14 to better what — at least at that point of time — was the three-year-old world record of 9.78s held by Tim Montgomery. (Following the CAS verdict on his doping violation case on December 13, Montgomery has lost all his results including the world record, from March 31, 2001. Greene's 9.79, Athens, 16 June, 1999, will be treated as the previous best to Powell's current mark).

Powell could not make it to the Worlds for the much-awaited showdown with Gatlin. He suffered an abductor muscle injury in London in July and was forced to pull out. Powell's little-known countryman, Michael Frater, was a surprising silver winner in the 100 metres at Helsinki, while defending champion Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis took the bronze.

Ethiopia's Tirunesh Dibaba (right) with her sister Ejegayehu Dibaba. Tirunesh Dibaba, 19, became the first woman to win the distance double at the World Championships.-AP

If 21-year-old American Jeremy Wariner stamped his undisputed class on the 400 metres by adding the world title to the Olympic gold, an unheralded — at least to the world, though not for Asia — Moroccan, now in Bahrain colours, became the first man ever to win the 800-1500 double at the World championships.

Rashid Ramzi of course provided the biggest surprise of the Helsinki championships by scoring the middle distance double. The former Moroccan, the Asian Games and Asian champion in the 1500 metres, had clocked a season-leading 3:30.00 for the metric mile in July and yet was nowhere near being considered the favourite to win. An injured Hicham El Guerrouj, the peerless Moroccan metric miler, was absent.

French high hurdler Ladji Doucoure was another man to pull off a big upset, edging Olympic champion Liu Xiang and four-time world champion Allen Johnson of the US to win the 110m hurdles gold. Doucoure also clocked the best for the year as well a national mark, a 12.97s at Angers, France.

The men's jumps generally remained at modest levels. Two men scaled 2.38 metres in high jump, Jacques Freitag of South Africa and Andriy Sokolovskiy of Ukraine. Neither won a medal at Helsinki, Freitag even failing to qualify for the final. A most surprise gold winner in Helsinki was Ukrainian Yuriy Krymarenko at 2.32. Sokolovskiy finished 13th and last.

Only one man, Mark Burgess of Australia, cleared six metres in pole vault through the season. Rens Blom of the Netherlands, however, took the Worlds gold in rain, with his season best 5.80, prompting IAAF Internet voters to name that as the "performance of the year" by a male athlete.

Two men attracted attention among the throwers, with their feats on the field. Lithuanian Virgilijus Alekna, with a last throw of 70.71m snatched the Worlds gold from Gerd Kanter of Estonia in the discus competition to add to his collection of two Olympic golds and one World title. He had remained unbeaten coming into Helsinki and rounded off with the gold in the World Athletics Final.

If the Finns pinned any hope of a gold medal at Helsinki it had to be on javelin thrower Tero Pitkamaki. He had impressed in the run-up with a couple of 90-metre-plus throws. Pitkamaki, however, failed, probably weighed down by the expectations. He finished fourth with only 81.27 metres. Estonian Andrus Varnik, silver medallist at Paris two years ago, had the gold at 87.17 with Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway taking silver (86.18) and Russian Sergey Makarov, the last man to throw more than 92 metres (2002) claiming bronze with 83.54.

Pitkamaki had come into the World Championships with marks of 91.53 and 90.54 behind him and he touched another 91.33 while winning the World Athletics Final at Monaco, where Varnus finished eighth and last.

Isinbayeva was easily the most outstanding woman athlete of the year. Apart from her gold and world record at Helsinki, she had set a series of five indoor world records and four other outdoor world records during the season.

On July 22, in London, Isinbayeva moved into the five-metre league as she set two world records of 4.96m and 5.00m. Just a week earlier she had set the previous mark of 4.95 in Madrid.

Russian Tatyana Lysenko (hammer, 77.06m), Cuban Osleidys Menendez (javelin, 71.70m), Columbian Austra Skujyte (decathlon 8358) and Russian Olimpiada Ivanova (20km walk, 1:25:41) were the other prominent world-record setters among women during the year.

Marion Jones finally lost her nerve. She had fought it out with the media and critics whole through the BALCO investigations, trying to put up a brave front even as her form dipped. With the European meet organisers becoming increasingly wary of inviting her, the situation had become difficult and she just walked out of the US Nationals to be out of the race for Helsinki.

As the father of her child, Tim Montgomery, announced his retirement, following the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) approving a two-year ban on him for doping infractions arising out of the BALCO controversy, Jones's future remained uncertain at the end of the season.

Americans Lauryn Williams (100m) and Allyson Felix (200m) won the sprint titles at Helsinki to keep up their country's tradition. One of the favourites in the 100m, Frenchwoman Christine Arron who finished third, had the satisfaction of ending the year as ranked No. 1.Olympic champion Yulia

Nesterlenko of Belarus finished last.

Favourites do not always oblige. And that is how it turned out in the women's 800 metres at Helsinki. Russians Tatyana Andrianova and Svetlana Cherkassova along with Hasna Benhassi of Morocco were the top favourites in the two-lapper, with defending champion Maria Mutola not in the best of form in the run-up. A 25-year-old Cuban turned the form charts upside down with a fine victory in the end. Zuliya Calatayud brought back memories of the great Cuban, Ana Quirot, as she raced to victory in 1:58.82.

Absent through an injury was Britain's double Olympic gold winner Kelly Holmes, who, later in the year, announced her retirement.

If there was anyone who came close to challenging Isinbayeva for the `Athlete of the Year' title, it was Tirunesh Dibaba. The 19-year-old Ethiopian became the first woman to win the distance double at the World Championships. She also led a unique one-two-three-four sweep by the Ethiopians in the 5000 metres (also all the medals in the 10,000m) just as the Americans did in the men's 200 metres. Messeret Defar, Ejegayehu Dibaba and Meselech Melkamu were the others in that order in the 5000m.

Paula Radcliffe at long last has a global championship gold. The Athens Olympics disappointment was pushed to the background as Radcliffe won the only gold for Britain while winning the marathon in Helsinki.

Russian Tatyana Lebedeva won the one-million jackpot, completing a sweep of the six Golden League meetings in triple jump. Only Arron kept her company up to the fourth leg after 12 started in Paris and just three survived the second leg. Lebedeva made light of an injury, skipped the Worlds and won the jackpot, though in the season-ending World Athletics Final she was only second.

For India, the enduring moment of 2005 will be that of long jumper Anju George winning the silver at the World Athletics Final in Monaco. She had a season best 6.75m while coming second to Russian Tatyana Kotova.

Russian Tatyana Lebedeva won the one-million jackpot, completing a sweep of the six Golden League meetings in triple jump.-AP

After winning the Asian title at Incheon (6.65m) Anju and husband-coach Bobby George had to make a dash to Monte Carlo. Though travel weary, Anju put her best foot forward. Literally.

She has had some disappointment earlier in the season, getting only the fifth place in Helsinki (6.66m), but that effort coupled with the Monaco one earned her the fourth ranking by the year end. She dropped the idea of competing in the Hyderabad National later once she realised that she would not be able to substantially add to her ranking points with the kind of form she was in at that point of time.

From the Indian point of view, the four gold medals earned in Incheon (Manjeet Kaur in 400m, Soma Biswas in heptathlon and 4x400m relay team apart from Anju) were satisfying considering the slump in standards compared to the Olympic year.

Yet, the year ended not just with the memory of Anju's silver at Monaco but also with that of the doping disqualification imposed on discus thrower Neelam J. Singh in Helsinki. Wonder if Indian athletics learnt any lessons from Neelam's trials and tribulations.