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Athletics World Championships

World championships an opportunity to notice new beacons

Performers take part in the closing ceremony of the 15th IAAF World Championships in Beijing, 30 August, 2015.
Performers take part in the closing ceremony of the 15th IAAF World Championships in Beijing, 30 August, 2015. Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
Text by: Paul Myers in Beijing
9 min

The Beijing event was a chance for China to open itself, and brought focus to the debate on ethics in sport.


When Zhang Peimeng crossed the finishing line after 38.01 seconds, his 4x100m relay teammates Mo Youxue, Xie Zhenye and Su Bingtian, as well as the frenzied crowd in the Bird’s Nest stadium and the watching nation, thought they had a bronze medal.

The din rose even more when China were promoted to second behind Jamaica after the United States team was disqualified for an illegal baton change. Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers’ despair had fuelled partisan joy. This is what Schadenfreude sounded like in Beijing.

The Chinese quartet was already draped in the national flag and on a tour of the stadium when their elevation was announced. The four heroes needed eagle-eyed guards until deep into the early hours to keep them from being mobbed by adoring fans.

Silver was a huge achievement for a country without a sprint tradition. But the world championships – like the Olympic Games seven years ago – was more than about competition. It was a chance for China to open itself to the world and mutually reconfigure perceptions.

Sebastian Coe, the incoming president of the International Association of Athletics Federations – the body which organises the world championships – said the local organising committee had made the athletes feel at home.

“They feel that they have been at the centre of everybody’s attention both in terms of the detail that’s been applied on their behalf and the way they’ve been hosted.”

The country may be experiencing economic woes on the world’s stock markets but a show has gone on. The evening sessions at the stadium were respectably full and there was a willingness from the spectators to get involved with the proceedings on the track and field.

They joined in when summoned by non-Chinese athletes to pump up the volume. Of course, no prompting was necessary whenever a local hero was about to attempt a high or long jump or throw a javelin, discus or hammer. Indeed, when Ashton Eaton from the United States set a world record of 9045 points for the decathlon on the final Saturday night, the noise was feverish.

Chinese authorities had enjoyed a relatively stress-free prelude to the meeting. Unlike in Moscow two years ago when the Russian government was under fire for having passed what was labelled internationally as a law discriminating against homosexuals, there were no such political undercurrents for Beijing’s rulers. If anything the debate seemed to be focused on ethics in sport.

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The America sprinter Justin Gatlin was painted as the villain for having served two bans for taking performance enhancing drugs. Should he be allowed to compete? Shouldn’t there be lifetime bans? Is he a bad man? Questions, questions, questions.

Gatlin, in his dealings with the media, refused to entertain any discussion about his legitimacy. He hadn’t done anything wrong lately. He had taken part at the Moscow championships with less of a furore. But back then, it wasn’t thought that he would have any chance of winning because the drugs-free lord was an all-conquering Usain Bolt. A year previously in London the Jamaican had become the first man to win back-to-back Olympic sprint doubles.

But Bolt’s 2015 had been riddled with niggles and injuries. He pulled out of the Paris and Lausanne Diamond League events with a hip injury. Meanwhile Gatlin had been in fine form. And for that matter, so too had the two other former drugs cheats Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell who were both due to run in the 100 metres.

It was the return of Bolt to the stadium where he was born as a star in the sultry August of 2008 that provided the sentimental strand to the championships. Perhaps it gave him the metaphysical edge.

He benefited from a Gatlin stumble five metres from the line to pinch the 100 metres. The Jamaican admitted it was his hardest race. He was actually stating the obvious. The 200 metres was a lark. Bolt had it sewn up after 160 metres and he beat his chest as he crossed the finishing line ahead of Gatlin.

The 4x100 metres relay seemed lost to the Jamaicans after two poor changeovers. But Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers bungled even more spectacularly. And Bolt surged home.

The Americans’ embarrassment turned to despair when they were disqualified for encroachment. China rose to second and Canada third.

Bolt’s first trip to the Bird’s Nest had yielded three golds. And so had the second. Not a bad haul for someone who had been tipped for a barren time.

“If you start doubting yourself, you’ve already lost the race,” said Bolt. “I never doubt myself I know my ability.”

His compatriot Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce went home with two gold medals. She anchored the 4x100m relay team to a championship record time of 41.07 seconds and she retained her 100 metres title just ahead of the Dutch former heptathlete Dafne Schippers.

The 23-year-old from Utrecht then went on to break the Jamaican/American duopoly by winning the 200 metres. She is the first European since Anastasiya Kapachinskaya in 2003 to win the title. Otherwise it’s been Allyson Felix with three in a row followed by the Jamaicans Veronica Campbell-Brown and Fraser-Pryce. How Schippers copes with her new status will be intriguing, especially in the prelude to the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

True, she has practice as the poster girl of Dutch athletics. But projection into the world market is a completely different tournament. She wouldn’t do too badly to seek out a certain Mr Bolt.

Or maybe Schippers could seek out a sister athlete. Or perhaps, more appropriately a mother heptathlete.

Jessica Ennis-Hill won the world title 13 months after giving birth to her first child. It was her first major championship since glory in the London Olympics in 2012. The 29-year-old said she almost never went to Beijing. That must rankle with the defeated. She saw off rising compatriot Katarina Johnson-Thompson while the year’s top performer Brianne Theisen-Eaton had to settle for silver.

The Canadian, who is married to Ashton Eaton, will be wiser for her loss.

“It was the first time I went into a championship as the favourite and I have always thought what’s the big deal? It can’t be that hard. I know my husband has experienced it and Jessica has experienced it and – not that I didn’t have respect for them before - but I have a lot more now. Because it’s a whole different ball game.”

The 25-year-old added: “I think I put more pressure on myself. I wasn’t the same athlete. I wasn’t relaxed. I wasn’t having fun. I thought I had to do something spectacular and different than I had done before and I think that’s what caused the problem.”

The acquisition of perspective was also highlighted with the triumphant return of another mother. Vivian Cheruiyot won the 10,000 metres to reclaim the title she won in Daegu in 2011. She decided to have a baby following her disappointment at the London Olympics where she claimed a bronze medal. Cheruiyot wasn’t able to defend her world championship crown in Moscow because she was seven months pregnant. Fast-forward two years and her boy Allan Kiprono is 22 months old and she is a world champion. The little lad topped a long list of people to whom Cheruiyot dedicated her medal.

Allen Johnson, the American former world champion high hurdler, was most animated before the start of the Beijing meeting that there was too much emphasis on former drugs cheating Americans. There are plenty of other feel-good stories out there, he bridled. Well, he was right. But the dope scum narrative is such a godsend that why would any newsdesk in its right mind try to track down heart-warming tales of women battling with their maternal and competitive drives? Who’d be interested in yarns like that?

Those stories were pursued. Ironically, Theisen-Eaton’s husband encapsulated the harsh realities of athletic life after breaking his own world record to retain the decathlon. He inhabits a world of testosterone-pumped uberjocks. But after setting his sport’s latest high, he broke down in tears. Reassuring perhaps for hollow-chested minor mortals to know that behind the walls of shining sinew and menacing muscle, resides marshmallow.

“The older I get the more I realise we’re having to make choices to have the experiences that we’re having,” Eaton explained. “And those choices include giving up a lot of stuff. Of course track and field is temporary so it’s not the end of the world but you feel like you miss a lot; friends, family. I sometimes forget I’m 27.

“So breaking down is just an accumulation of those feelings. When you do something for a reason and that reason manifests itself, it’s an emotional moment because it’s reinforcement. You know that you’re making those tough decisions for a reason.”

Sacrifice is the athlete’s way. So much is immutable. Drugs are the shortcut to glory, the con, the trick. Lamine Diack’s swansong was an impassioned defence of the IAAF’s efforts over the past years to implement effective doping controls.

Coe will carry on that work. The 58-year-old is as smooth and seamless as he was during his Olympic gold medal days on the running track. He also has heft in the fight against drugs cheats.

Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, recalled how he and Coe as the athletes’ representatives at the Olympic congress in Baden Baden in 1981 were demanding lifelong bans for athletes who fell foul of the anti-doping rules. They’ve been thwarted by the courts.

Bach added: “Since then we have always been together in this fight to protect the clean athletes.”

Two Kenyans were suspended during the world championships for drugs offences. It took the sheen off the country’s achievement of topping the medals table for the first time. Yet there were too many upbeat stories emanating from the Kenyan camp for the bans to overshadow an important juncture in the country’s sporting history: Julius Yego’s javelin gold – the country’s first in the field - Cheruiyot’s return from maternity leave and David Rudisha’s resurgence following two injury blighted yeas to win the 800m a few days before the birth of his child.

Beijing was the cradle of the Bolt phenomenon and it could have been the place where his star began its descent. That hasn’t happened but just as importantly for athletics and its new administrators, Beijing is the place where the sport and the public started to notice the other beacons. Life will go on after King Usain.

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