Who is the next star sprinter after Usain Bolt?

Barring the 2011 World championships where he shockingly false-started in the 100m, to be disqualified, the long-limbed Jamaican powerhouse won everything in sight up to 2017.

Simply the best: No sprinter had ever retained the short sprint double in Olympics. Jamaican Usain Bolt did that in London. He then went onto to better that record by repeating the double in Rio.   -  REUTERS

 

Athletics has gone through its darkest chapters in the past decade. Yet, the sport looks ready to grind through the thick haze of doping controversies that have left its credibility in tatters.

The decade gone by saw the retirement of the biggest icon of the sport, Usain Bolt. Well before the Jamaican ended his glittering career, the question was asked: Who after Bolt? No clear answer is forthcoming nor is there a star waiting to take over that mantle.

Though Bolt ended his world-record breaking spree with the 200m in the World championships in Berlin in 2009, where he also posted his current 100m world record, his overwhelming dominance in the sprints continued in the next decade.

Barring the 2011 World championships where he shockingly false-started in the 100m, to be disqualified, the long-limbed Jamaican powerhouse won everything in sight up to 2017. This included the sprint double in the London Olympics and Rio Games, plus the same double in the 2013 and 2015 World championships. In all these championships he was also part of the Jamaican 4x100m relay teams. The 36.84s that the Jamaicans clocked in winning the 2012 relay gold remains the world record.

On top: Several polls towards the end of 2019 put David Rudisha’s world record of 1:40.91 to win the London Olympics 800m gold as the ‘performance of the decade’.   -  Getty Images

 

Bolt had equalled Carl Lewis’s nine gold medals in the Olympics. But, a doping disqualification of team-mate Nesta Carter in the 2008 Beijing Games, meant the Jamaicans would lose the relay gold.

No sprinter had ever retained the short sprint double in Olympics. Bolt did that in London. He then went onto to better that record by repeating the double in Rio. The athletics fraternity wanted the sprint superstar to win his third Olympic double though he was not in the best of shapes with a hamstring problem troubling him in the run-up. He knew that the onus was on him to pull the sport out of the depths it had plunged into following the Russian doping scandal. He said so much before Rio. And he delivered.

By his standards, the winning time of 9.81s for the 100m in Rio, was ordinary. When you are the owner of a world record that looks unbeatable at 9.58s, everything else will pale in comparison. Despite being not at his best, he beat American Justin Gatlin by 0.08 seconds with four others behind them clocking sub-10. With his 9.80s during the Olympic trials at home, Gatlin was the No. 1 in the world lists that year.

Bolt could not, however, add to his World championships 100m golden tally of three at the 2017 London championships, beaten by Justin Gatlin and the new American boy on the block, Christian Coleman, in what was to be his farewell appearance in a championship. London marked the end of a glorious track career and though the great man tried cricket and football afterwards, he finally announced retirement from all sports in 2019. It is sad we will not see him decimating the 100m field in a championship again. We will also miss the trademark “Bolting”, his patented signature pose.

Stunning show: Eliud Kipchoge’s historic sub-two-hour marathon in Vienna, in October 2019, though aided by groups of pace-setters and guided by technological support, was sensational before a world-wide audience through television and live-streaming.   -  AFP

 

Several polls towards the end of 2019 put David Rudisha’s world record of 1:40.91 to win the London Olympics 800m gold as the ‘performance of the decade’. The Kenyan had posted two world records within a week of each other in 2010 to be the undisputed champion for the two-lapper and he capped that sequence with the Olympic gold and another record.

Wilson Kipketer, the Kenya-born Danish athlete, had set the previous world record of 1:41.11 bettering Sebastian Coe’s 1:41.73 set in Firenze, Italy, in 1981.

Talking of Coe, who was elected president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), now renamed World Athletics, in a direct contest with another incomparable athletics great, Sergey Bubka, in August 2015, his fight against state-sponsored doping in Russia has brought him laurels and brickbats since the Russian scandal broke.

The Russian athletics federation remains suspended by World Athletics, its athletes being eligible to compete under neutral status if they are cleared to compete by the world body, depending on any charge against them. In the meantime, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has also recommended suspension of Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and other major events to the extent of prohibiting use of anthem, flag etc and Russia hosting international competitions.

Double treat: Britain’s Mo Farah reacts as he wins the men’s 5000m final at the London 2012 Olympics. Farah won back to back Olympic doubles (5000m and 10,000m) in London and Rio 2016 to become only the second man in history to score the distance double double in Olympics, the first being Finland’s Lasse Viren who did that in 1972 and 1976.   -  REUTERS

 

The Stepanovs, Yuliya and Vitaly, who blew the whistle on systematic, state-sponsored Russian doping, now live in an unknown location in the US. So, too, the former director of the Russian lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, who is under US witness protection status. Their lives, according to reports, were in constant danger. The US has brought a Bill in the name of Rodchenkov to sanction those engaged in international doping controversies.

Doping continued to be a world-wide problem in athletics. Surprisingly, Kenya was in the forefront with some of its leading athletes caught doping during the past decade. These included Rio Olympic woman marathon champion Jemima Sumgong, suspended for eight years, and Beijing Olympics 1500m champion and three-time world champion Asbel Kiprop. The latter’s appeal process was on at the time of writing.

But Kenya also produced the champions that mattered. Eliud Kipchoge’s historic sub-two-hour marathon in Vienna, in October 2019, though aided by groups of pace-setters and guided by technological support, was sensational before a world-wide audience through television and live-streaming.

The record will not become official since the attempt was not as per IAAF stipulations, but the Kenyan, marathon champion in Rio Olympics, and owner of the world record at 2:01.39 in Berlin in 2018, will go down in history as the first man to break the two-hour barrier. Just as Roger Bannister did with his sub-four mile in Oxford back in May 1954, and became immortal in the world of athletics, Kipchoge’s name will adorn the record books for generations to come as the man who broke through the impossible-looking barrier.

There was much talk of Nike’s latest shoes having contributed handsomely to Kipchoge’s sub-two effort. There has even been demands for the ban of those shoes because of the advantage they were shown to be providing distance runners. Whatever be the final outcome, Kipchoge has cemented his place in athletics hall of fame.

A day after Kipchoge ran his sub-two came another marathon record, that by Kenyan woman Brigid Kosgei in the Chicago marathon. She clocked 2:14:04 to comprehensively beat Briton Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 world record of 2:15:25. Unlike Kipchoge, Kosgei is not such a big name. She was champion in Chicago in 2018 and London in 2019. But unlike Kosgei’s this one should pass through ratification. Apart from Radcliffe, no woman had even run anything below 2:17 till now.

Golden girl: Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce crosses the finish line to win the women’s 100m gold in the World championships in Doha in 2019. Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce crosses the finish line to win gold. It was the ninth World title for the 33-year-old who had started her winning story in the 100m in Berlin in 2009.   -  REUTERS

 

On the track, apart from Rudisha in the London Olympics, there was a fabulous world record by South African Wayde van Niekerk in the 400m in the Rio Olympics. The previous world record by the peerless Michael Johnson, at the Seville World championships (43.18s) had defied the best of them all through 17 years before the then 24-year-old South African bettered it.

“It was a massacre“, Johnson was quoted as saying. “Van Niekerk is so young, what else can he do? Can he go under 43 seconds? It is something I thought I could do, but never did,” said the American.

Van Niekerk clocked 43. 03s for the Rio gold. Following him were Grenada’s Kirani James (43.76s) and American LaShawn Merritt (43.85s). James was defending the title he won in London four years earlier.

Johnson speculated at that time whether Van Niekerk could be the next world athletics icon following Bolt’s impending retirement.

Van Niekerk was injured, however, in 2017 a year in which he won his second World championships title in 43.98s. Playing a celebrity rugby match he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in October 2017 and though he said at that time that he hoped to be back in the summer of 2018, that did not happen. He missed the whole of 2018 and barring one race at home he again missed 2019 when he had plans to compete in the World championships in Doha. Cruel fate. Hopefully, we may see him in Tokyo Olympics.

Through the past decade, Britain’s Mo Farah emerged as the distance runner to beat. His last-lap pace was phenomenal. His rivals invariably walked into his trap by allowing him to dictate early pace. Once he hit the front in the last lap or the final 300m, Farah stayed there.

Farah won back to back Olympic doubles in London and Rio after having failed to get past the 5000m heats in the Beijing Games. He became only the second man in history to score the distance double double in Olympics, the first being Finland’s Lasse Viren who did that in 1972 and 1976, the double of 5000m and 10,000m. Farah’s reputation suffered and doubts arose with the doping suspension of coach Alberto Salazar in 2019 though the Briton had never tested positive.

Winning big: Allyson Felix of the United States (right) with Wilbert London, Michael Cherry and Courtney Okolo after setting a new world record in the 4x400 metres mixed relay in the World Championships in Doha in 2019. It was record 12th gold for American superstar.   -  Getty Images

 

Along with Farah’s ascendancy came the eclipse of one of the greatest distance runners of our times, Kenenisa Bekele. The Ethiopian who holds the world records in the 5000m and 10,000m finished fourth in the 10,000m in the London Olympics, made the expected switch to marathon in 2014, but could not gain selection for Rio two years later despite a national record of 2:03:03 in winning Berlin that year. He bettered that mark with a 2:01:41 while winning in Berlin again in 2019. Only Kipchoge has run the 42-km-plus distance faster.

Away from track, Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie went past Sergey Bubka’s storied world record in pole vault with an indoor clearance of 2.16m at Donetsk on Feb 15, 2014. For the purpose of world records IAAF now does not differentiate between outdoors and indoors. However, some of the statisticians still keep Bubka’s 6.14m in 1994 on top outdoors. Lavillenie has not cleared 6.00m indoors or out since 2016 and he could not make the final in the Doha Worlds.

The exploits of Qatari Mutaz Essa Barshim in high jump with a 2.43m in 2014, the second best on the all-time lists behind Cuban Javier Sotomayor’s 2.45m in 1993, the 90-metre-plus spree by German javelin throwers, Thomas Rohler, Johannes Vetter and Andreas Hofmann, and American Will Claye and Frenchman Teddy Tamgho joining the elite 18-metre club in triple jump were some of the other highlights on the field in the last decade.

On the women’s side, the most outstanding athletes of the past decade included American Dalilah Muhammad (400m hurdles), Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba (1500m), Ethiopian Almaz Ayana (10,000m), American Kendra Harrison (100m hurdles) Kenyan Beatrice Chepkoech (3000m steeplechase) and Pole Anita Wlodarczyk (hammer). All these women set world records during the past decade.

Off the field, athletics generated enough controversies to keep the critics busy. In 2015, the then IAAF president Lamine Diack was accused of extracting money from Russian athletes to sweep positive dope tests under the carpet.   -  AP

 

But without posting world records, several other women were also dominant through the decade. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce should get prominent mention here. The Jamaican sprinter, all of 33 years, won her ninth World championships title in Doha in 2019. She took the 100m and was part of the sprint relay team. She had started her winning story in the 100m in Berlin in 2009. She also retained her Olympic sprint gold in London Olympics but was third in Rio, where another Jamaican Elaine Thompson pulled off the sprint double. Both Fraser-Pryce and Thompson have clocked PBs of 10.70s in the past decade.

The great Allyson Felix won a record 12th gold in being part of the US mixed relay team in the Doha Worlds in 2019. She had come back from a pregnancy break to compete in the US trials and in Doha, but could not make it to an individual event finishing sixth in the 400m in the US National.

Off the field, athletics generated enough controversies to keep the critics busy. First there was the IAAF chief Lamine Diack being accused of extracting money from Russian athletes to sweep positive dope tests under the carpet. Both Diack and son Papa Massata Diack were charged by French Police in the scandal that stunned the athletics world. The case is continuing even as Diack Junior has escaped to his home in Senegal. The Russian doping investigations are still going on.

The gender issue of Caster Semenya was another contentious topic that kept athletics busy from 2014 through to 2019. Following the CAS ruling on Indian Dutee Chand’s petition in 2015, all transsexual athletes were eligible to compete in all athletics events. The IAAF brought in new rules based on research and presented them to CAS and in May 2019 the latter ruled in IAAF’s favour. Semenya was out of 800m and 1500m.

Semenya’s appeal was briefly successful as the Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) stayed the IAAF regulations. Later, on an IAAF appeal, it was vacated. The case is with the SFT even as Dutee Chand and other woman sprinters with similar biological traits and high levels of testosterone would be free to compete in short sprints. The restriction, at least for the moment, is for events from 400m upwards to the mile.

Never ending debate: The gender issue of Caster Semenya was another contentious topic that kept athletics busy from 2014 through to 2019.   -  AFP

 

Critics have pointed out flaws in the IAAF research while human rights groups have protested against the new regulations that, for the first time in many decades, have brought “biological sex” into the debate. There has been some support for the IAAF from a few Olympians of the past, though active athletes have by and large shied away from the controversy.

In an effort to bring innovations to make athletics more appealing to the youth, the IAAF introduced the mixed relays that would also be part of the Tokyo Olympics. There was also a different format for competitions in the Continental Cup (formerly World Cup) in which the ‘best’ performer always did not win! The format made little sense and drew criticism from the athletes.

As athletics moved into the 2020s the overwhelming focus, unfortunately, was on doping. Credibility is low for the sport, so much so every record or every improved performance is viewed with suspicion. Are there other countries like Russia with state-sponsored doping is the question that World Athletics and others have to answer. World Athletics has made efforts to change the dopey profile. But it needs to put in more resources in anti-doping to be able to bring in a “clean” image of the sport.