Underdogs at the World Championships
Now that the 2011 World Championships are complete, I would characterize this championship meet as one full of surprises and unexpected results. The underdogs seem to have come through with big performances at the right time, while the pre-meet favorites seemed to have come up short. In fact, at one point there was a daily program cover jinx. Athletes featured on the cover of the program (usually a pre-meet favorite) failed to win their event on six of the first seven days of the meet, with only race walker Olga Kaniskina breaking the jinx. Finally some of the favorites came through on the final two days of the meet with Sally Pearson winning the 100 meter hurdles and Usain Bolt anchoring the Jamaica 4X100 meter relay team to a world record.
The first surprise took place on day two of the meet, when in the 100 meter final Usain Bolt false started, thus the world record holder and defending champion was eliminated from the race. Yohan Blake of Jamaica seized the opportunity to win gold in a time of 9.92 seconds. Blake’s accomplishment is somewhat tempered by the fact that the three men readily acknowledged as fastest men in the world (Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Tyson Gay) were not in the race.
On day three of the meet, the favorites in the men’s hammer included Primoz Kozmus of Slovenia and Krisztian Pars of Hungary. Way down on the season best list with a mark of 78.10 meters was Koji Murofushi of Japan. Murofushi was the 2004 Olympic Champion and his PR of 84.86 meters was set eight year ago. The thirty-six year old who has battled a back injury was not expected to contend for a medal at this year’s championships. In the third round he threw 81.24 meters and matched that mark again in the fifth round. A final throw of 81.18 meters by Pars in the last round was six centimeters short. Murofushi became the oldest hammer throw World Champion in history. This year’s gold came one decade after winning his first World Championship medal and gives him a complete set of medals; he won the silver in 2001 and the bronze in 2003.
Much of the World Championships hype centered on the day three showdown in the men’s 110 hurdles between David Oliver (USA), Dayron Robles (Cuba), and Liu Xiang (China). All over Korea there were banners and posters of these three under the heading, “Who’s the Fastest?” But that is why they run the race. Oliver has been in a slump all summer and was never in contention. Xiang looked like he was going to make a move for the win over the last couple hurdles but chopped his steps. It turns out that the reason he chopped his steps was contact by Robles. This contact led to Robles being disqualified. That made the somewhat unheralded and certainly overlooked Jason Richardson (USA) the gold medal winner.
Both the men’s and women’s 400 meter races came down to the final strides. In both races the USA had one of their superstars competing. Also in both races, the prime competition came from a runner from a country without a rich 400 meter tradition.
In the women’s 400 on day three of the meet, it was Amantle Montsho from Botswana who held off a late charge by the USA’s Allyson Felix to win Bostwana’s first World Championship gold medal. Montsho ran a PR 49.56 to beat Felix, who also ran a PR of 49.59. Montsho has been dominant in the Diamond League this summer, but her previous record of finishing eight at both the 2009 World Championships and the 2008 Olympics made many skeptical that she could win in Daegu…but she did!
On day four of the meet, in the men’s 400 meters it was 2009 defending World Champion Lashawn Merritt against eighteen year old Kirani James of Grenada. Merritt had the lead down the final homestretch, but in the final strides James overtook him to win Grenada’s first ever World Championship gold medal. Similar to the women’s race the winner ran a PR (44.60) to win by the slim margin of 0.03 seconds over a USA superstar.
On day four of the meet, the women’s steeplechase was expected to be dominated by the Kenyan trio of Micah Chemos Cheywa, Mecy Njoroge,
and Lydia Rotich. Cheywa, having won eight steeplechases in a row this year, was the heavy favorite. But instead it was Russia’s Yuliya Zaripova and Tunisia’s Habiba Ghribi who not only went 1-2 in the race but became the third fastest and ninth fastest steeplechasers of all-time. Zaripova’s 9:07.03 is the 2011 world leading mark. Ghribi’s 9:11.97 was a Tunisian national record. She and her supporters were the happiest people in the stadium. Ghribi jumped up and down – and after handing her a Tunisia flag, three ecstatic Tunisian fans could be seen sobbing. Why? Ghribi was Tunisia’s first woman to ever win a medal at the World Championships.
On day six of the meet, the women’s 1500 meters produced an upset for the ages. Most of the focus was on the two-time defending champion, Maryam Yusuf Jamal of Bahrain. American Jenny Barringer Simpson was hardly mentioned, and when she was it usually centered on the fact that she was fifth at the 2009 World Championships….in the steeplechase; but for some reason known only to her and her coach she was competing in the 1500 meters at these championships. Simpson’s 2011 season best in the 1500 ranked her ninth out of the twelve women who started the race. It was a typically tight race but with 300 meters to go, Simpson moved into contention. With 150 meters to go she looked poised to move into the top three to secure a medal. With 50 meters to go she had the same look that she had at the 2009 Prefontaine Classic when she shocked the world by running a new collegiate record of 3:59.90. After seeing that look, I knew she was going to win it…and she did. That’s why she was in the 1500 instead of the steeplechase…to win a gold medal!
Day seven featured the men’s shot put, which was a who’s who of past champions: 2009 World Champion, Christian Cantwell (USA), 2008 Olympic Champion Tomasz Majewski (Poland), 2007 World Champion Resse Hoffa (USA), 2005 World Champion Adam Nelson (USA), and 2003 World Champion Andrei Mikhnevich (Belarus). Despite the presence of these five throwers, the pre-meet favorite was Dylan Armstrong of Canada, who had the 2011 world leading mark (and Canadian national record) of 22.21 meters. Lost in this crowd was twenty-one year old German, David Storl, who had only the eighth best mark in 2011 among the twelve finalists. Storl took the early lead with a throw of 21.60 meters (a PR) in the second round. Armstrong pushed him back to second with a throw of 21.64 meters in the fourth round. In the final round, on the second to last throw of the competition, Storl launched the shot 21.78 meters (another PR, giving him 28 centimeters of improvement in one day, which is just short of one foot). On the last throw of the competition Armstrong could not re-take the lead and Storl was the champion. Among the historic oddities from this event were Storl wining Germany’s first ever gold medal in the shot put and the USA getting shutout of the medals for the first time in twenty years.
The final upset winner came on day nine in one of the last events of the meet, the men’s triple jump. The field included three former World or Olympic Champions: Phillip Idowu of Great Britain (2009 World Champion), Nelson Evora of Cuba (2007 World Champion and 2008 Olympic Champion), and Christian Olsson of Sweden (2003 World Champion and 2004 Olympic Champion). With Teddy Tamgho, the 2011 world leader, out with an injury Idowu wore the hat as the favorite. After one round of jumping the three former world champions held the three medal spots. However, it was the young American jumpers who leaped to glory. In round three twenty year old American Will Claye leaped a PR of 17.50 meters to take the lead. Idowu responded with a 17.70 meter jump to re-take the lead. Twenty-one year old American Christian Taylor then jumped 17.40 meters to move into third. Taylor followed that up in the next round with a jump of 17.96 meters, making him the fifth best triple jumper of all-time. Idowu would improve to 17.77 meters but that was only good enough for silver. The gold went to Taylor, the youngest triple jump gold medalist in history, with bronze to Claye, the youngest triple jump medalist in history.
The difference between winning a world championship and coming up short is a fine line. That fine line is often measured in milliseconds and millimeters. That’s why an underdog can pull off the upset. The unpredictable nature of track & field is what makes watching a World Championship meet so very exciting.
Note: All the great photos in this blog entry were taken by the Track Widow from our fantastic seats in row ten right by the finish line.