15 October, 2017

My list of top athletes for 2017

It is customary at the end of the year for IAAf to nominate and reward the best athlete of the year. The 2017 campaign is launched and the first list of 10 was made public. Last year we were treated to the Gatlin scandal. This year, things were tamer but still I was shocked when I found that Semenya was part of the list. Here are the official IAAF lists for women

Almaz Ayana (ETH)
Maria Lasitskene (ANA)
Hellen Obiri (KEN)
Sally Pearson (AUS)
Sandra Perkovic (CRO)
Brittney Reese (USA)
Caster Semenya (RSA)
Ekaterini Stefanidi (GRE)
Nafissatou Thiam (BEL)
Anita Wlodarczyk (POL)

and for men

Mutaz Essa Barshim (QAT)
Pawel Fajdek (POL)
Mo Farah (GBR)
Sam Kendricks (USA)
Elijah Manangoi (KEN)
Luvo Manyonga (RSA)
Omar McLeod (JAM)
Christian Taylor (USA)
Wayde van Niekerk (RSA)
Johannes Vetter (GER)

While I agree with, say, 60-70 % of the choice of the nominees I do also disagree with some choices. I am also afraid that things will become worse when we'll go down to the short list of three and finally the athlete of the year. Last year U. Bolt got the title that should have been awarded to W. Van Niekerk and A. Wlodarczyk was passed over in favour of A. Ayana.

Thus I decided to give my list of 10, the short list of three and my athlete of the year choice in one go. Here it is. For women

1. A. Wlodarczyk

2. E. Stefanidi

3. N. Thiam

M. Lasitskene
S. Pearson
S. Perkovic
I. Spanovic
R. Jebet
S. Miller
M.J. TaLou

And for men

1. M. Barshim

2. E. Kipchoge

3. O. McLeod

S. Kendricks
K. Mayer
J. Vetter
C. Taylor
W. Van Niekerk
P. Fajdek
D. Kipruto

Some comments are in order. There is no ranking past the first three. The athletes of the year are Wlodarczyk and Barshim. (I am curious to see whether the IAAF will ignore Wlodarczyk for the second year in a row). I included Kipchoge because to my eyes he is the best marathon runner ever. Van Niekerk would have been my athlete of the year for 2016 but not this year. He is among the 10 best but that's it. For me Spanovic has done better than Reese (the IAAF nominee): she jumped a world-leading 7.24 m and won the Diamond League. I don't understand how Mayer did not make it to the IAAF list. He had a brilliant year and his European heptathlon record of 6479 (at 99 % ! efficiency with respect to his best performances) is putting him at second place in the all-time list. Jebet and Miller failed at the World's but then redeemed themselves at the Diamond League. TaLou did not win any major victory but to my eyes she has been the most consistent sprinter, so there.

It is also customary to nominate the best new talents, the young athletes that made an impression. IAAF is doing this and I find it an excellent idea. Again my choice is totally subjective. The three best new female talents are
S.E. Naser (400 m, 19), Y. Levchenko (HJ, 20), R. Peinado (PV, 20) 
and corresponding male ones
K. McMaster (400 m HD, 20) D. Lysenko (HJ, 20), J. Cheptegei (10 km, 21).
I included in parentheses their specialty, just in case the name does not ring a bell, as well as their age.

They are not the only ones. I have already written on K. Warholm who at just 21 was world champion this year. Taking into account the presence of K. McMaster and of A. Samba (20) one can be pretty optimistic about the future of men's 400 m hurdles. And to finish on a greek note I would like to add to the talent list I. Kyriazis (21) who finished 6th at the javelin throw event of this year's World's.

01 October, 2017

Redemption Games

The title of this post is not mine. Mike Rowbottom, writing for the IAAF site used it in order to qualify the Diamond League final. The redemption he was referring was that of favourites who failed to shine at the World Championships a month earlier. While following the Diamond league final I had the same feeling: many athletes who failed (well, sort of) at the World's managed to take their revenge at the Diamond League. And thus I decided to use his title for this post.

So, what was my greatest disappointment in London? If you have been following this blog you cane easily guess it. That was the no-medal of I. Spanovic in women's long jump. She took her revenge in Brussels although her performance there was rather below-par. But the three world medalists finished 5th, 7th and 4th respectively so I guess this is OK.

I. Spanovic winning at the Diamond League

The other favourite who missed out on a gold medal was C. Ibargüen in women's triple jump but she did even worse in Zürich finishing third. This year has not been a particularly good one for Ibargüen and I just hope that she will not end her career with a low note. 

On the other hand the two female jump world champions defended her titles with brio and if we can talk about redemption this can only be the fact that this time S. Morris lost to Stefanidi on count-back at a decent 4.87 m.

K. Stefanidi dominated completely women's pole vault

Men's jump's on the other hand were uneventful, all world champions winning the diamond trophy.

In men's javelin throw J. Vadlejch, second in London for a mere 16 cm, won in Zürich the bad surprise for myself being the third place of T. Pitkämäki. When is he going to retire? A partial redemption at men's discus throw for F. Dacres of Jamaica who finished second behind the world champion Gudzius, London's favourite Stahl, who lost there for just 2 cm, managing just a 7th place in Brussels. But the biggest surprise was the victory of D. Hill in men's shot put, with a 22.44 m throw at his last effort: he had finished just 11th in London.

D. Hill winning in Brussels' Place de la Monnaie

Just as in the case fo men's jumps, women's throws did not reserve any surprise the world champions winning also in the Diamond League. (Still I must voice my disappointment for the lacklustre performance of Y. Pérez in women's discus, who after finishing 4th in London could only manage a 7th place in Brussels).

For the track events things were somewhat complicated since the Brussels meeting included some non-Diamond League events in the program. Thus while Y. Blake and L. Santos won the 100 m and 400 m respectively that did not count towards the diamond. The winner of the last race was I. Makwala who had not been allowed to participate at the World's final, taking thus his revenge. Had the world vice-champion S. Gardiner not slipped and fallen at the start we would have watched a great fight and perhaps an even better performance. 

Makwala celebrating his Diamond League vistory

N. Amos won the men's 800 m after missing out on the medals in London. The World's vice-champion T. Cheruiyot prevailed over the champion, E. Manangoi, but the London pre-race favourite, A. Kiprop did not manage to redeem himself in Zürich, finishing 4th. The most exciting race was undoubtedly the 5 km one where M. Farah took his revenge over M. Edris. This time Farah did not let himself be boxed in and took quite some risk launching an early sprint.

A photo-finish redemption-victory for Farah

The podium of the 3000 m steeplechase was identical to the one of the World's, while in the 110 m hurdles S. Shubenkov was promoted to the first place in the absence of the world champion O. McLeod. K. McMaster redeemed himself in the 400 m hurdles race beating the world champion. Much as I admire K. Warholm (who improved his personal record in that race) I think that McMaster's technique is better and this could make a difference in the future. (And a funny remark. When I looked up McMaster's best performance over the 400 m flat I could only find a 3 year old one of 48.10 s. Since his 400 m hurdles best is 47.80 s this is the first case where I've seen somebody have a better time in the hurdles. I know, I know. He ran in 48.10 s when he was just seventeen. He is probably worth a 45 s now).

K. McMaster, the new 400 m hurdles great talent

Women's track events were even more interesting than the men's ones. E. Thompson won the 100m (just barely, for a meagre 100th of the second) over M.-J. TaLou, thus redeeming herself after her stinging defeat in London. 

E. Thompson winning the Diamond League 100 m

But for whom the word redemption is most appropriate it's none other than S. Miller. After going home from London with just a bronze medal she dominated both the 200 m with 21.88 s, beating Thompson, TaLou and (world champion) Schippers and the 400 m with 49.46 s pushing along S. Naser (the world vice-champion) to her first below 50 time (49.88 s).

S. Miller deminated both the 200 and 400 m

The 800, 1500 and 5000 m races were won by the world champions, with the well-known troika of Semenya, Niyonsaba and Wambui trusting the podium places of the former race. There was no possible redemption for K. Harrison in the 100 m hurdles, as she had not qualified for the Diamond League final and S. Pearson confirmed her world title with a diamond victory. D. Muhammad and Z. Hejnova took a relative revenge in the 400 m but where we can talk about a real redemption it's in the 3000 m steeplechase. World record holder and pre-championship favourite R. Jebet had finished in a disappointing 5th place in London. In Zürich she won with the second best performance of all times pushing along B. Chepkoech to a sub-9 time.

I like the style of E. Chepkoech (here at the Rio Olympics)

And in case you were wondering, hammer throw has its own special, non-Diamond League, challenge, which was won, quite expectedly by the world champions A. Wlodarczyk and P. Fajdek.

If you are interested in the details of the 2017 Diamond League, you can find here a summary (on the IAAF's site).

09 September, 2017

A bizarre championship. Second part: field and combined events

I hope you will excuse me if I start this second part of my report with the victory of K. Stefanidi. After having won the Olympic (and the European) title in 2016 Stefanidi went on to dominate the 2017 season. Her 4.91 m record was a world leading performance. She entered the competition at 4.65 m, a height where most of her opponents had started to falter. And once S. Morris was eliminated at 4.89, Stefanidi passed and went on to 4.91 m which she successfully cleared. The surprising new-comer was R. Peinado of Venezuela who tied at third place with Y. Silva. A minor disappointment were the 9 and 10th places of E. McCartney and A. Bengtsson who could only manage a 4.55 m height.

K. Stefanidi, the best pole vaulter 
of these last two years

I did really enjoy the men's pole vault competition. I have rarely seen R. Lavillenie be so serene, starting with confidence at a relatively high 5.65 m and making the good choices of heights to pass. In a year where he was not in the best of shapes he managed to grab bronze medal with his season's best of 5.89 m. The gold medal went to S. Kendricks who did impress me not only for his performance (he jumped 5.95 m)  but also with his fair-play, rushing into the reception area to congratulate Lavillenie. Pre-event favourite P. Wojciechowski was a disappointing 5th but the polish pride was saved by P. Lisek's silver medal. The ex-world champions S. Barber and R. Holzdeppe were disappointing and the same holds true for the wunderkind of pole vault A. Duplantis (although most probably Duplantis had peaked for the U20 Europeans in July).

It's been years since I have last seen Lavillenie so happy

Men's high jump was won by M.E. Barshim who is the uncontested number one of the discipline this year. Curious as it may sound, for an athlete who is the second best performer of all times, Barshim's only other global gold medal was the 2014 indoors' one. He jumped 2.35 m at the World's but went on to jump 2.40 m twice at meetings just after the championships. B. Bondarenko is having a mediocre season and could only manage a 9th place in London. The one athlete I did notice (in particular for his excellent technique) was silver medalist (with 2.32 m) D. Lysenko of Russia who jumped a personal best of 2.38 m after the championships. At 30 years of age M.E. Ghazal of Syria captured his first global medal with 2.29 m relegating on count-back the astonishing E. Rivera of Mexico to a 4th place. Italy's G. Tamberi, who jumped 2.39 in 2016 only to get injured just before the Olympics, was back in London with a 2.29 m year's best but could not make the final just for one missed height.

Barshim has dominated this season's high jump

M. Kuchina-Lasitskene had no trouble whatsoever winning the gold medal of women's high jump. After having cleared 2.03 m she went on to try 2.08 m, which would have made of her the second best performer of all times (together with B. Vlasic) with a russian record, but she missed all three attempts. Y. Levchenko of Ukraine obtained the silver medal with a huge personal best of 2.01 m, while K. Licwinko of Poland had to equal her outdoors record at 1.99 m in order to obtain the bronze medal. It looks like R. Beitia's career is coming to an end this time: with a 1.88 m jump she was relegated to the 12th place.

The women's horizontal jumps were a minor disappointment for me since my two preferred athletes did not shine. In triple jump C. Ibargüen lost to Y. Rojas for a measly two centimetres despite a great competition. The style of Y. Rojas is always the same awful to look at but quite efficient. Some people are advancing the argument that if Rojas manages to improve her style she will be able to do extraordinary things. I do not share this opinion. I believe that Rojas' style is adapted to her morphology, her minuscule second jump being precisely one that allows her to conserve her speed. I do not know if Ibargüen's defeat signals a possible career end. I hope not since it will be difficult to find another triple jumper with her feline grace.

But what I still cannot believe is that I. Spanovic went home empty handed. In particular since her last jump was visually way beyond Reese's winning mark of 7.02 m. It seems that Spanovic's number on her back left a mark in the sand and the length of her jump was measured from that point. Having seen her jump at the European indoors I was ready to bet that this time she was going to clinch the gold medal, but in the end she registered her worst result since 2012. D. Klishina was second of a high level competition with an excellent 7.00 m and the first global medal of her career.

Darya Klishina, flying to a silver medal. 
I would have preferred to give a photo of Spanovic, but...

C. Taylor won the men's triple jump with 17.68 m but W. Claye did chase him all the way and lost the gold medal for just 5 centimetres. Clearly Taylor was not in his spring, 18 m plus, shape. N. Evora, always present in important competitions won the bronze medal repelling the assaults of four Cuban jumpers (one of them competing for Azerbaijan).

Men's long jump saw two south africans on the podium: L. Manyonga first with 8.48 m and R. Samaai third with 8.32 m. J. Lawson of the US was the silver medalist with a leap of 8.44 m. The 2013 world champion A. Menkov of Russia was fourth with just one valid jump at 8.27 m. What I did like best in this, admittedly low-key competition, was the absence of G. Rutherford. I don't know whether he was simply injured or has in fact retired but I am crossing my fingers for the second.

My men's shot put and discus throw favourites did quite well but the score was not perfect. T. Walsh did indeed win the men's shot put with a superb 22.03 m throw. The second new-zealander J. Gill did make it to the final only to finish 9th. A least he is starting to fulfill my expectations, because for one or two years I was afraid he had fizzled out. D. Storl, still quite young for a shot putter had only one valid throw ending in 10th position. He was the only glider in the final and it seems that my last year's article "Are shot-putters becoming spinners?" was not off the mark. As I had already pointed out in that article, women are rather slow in catching up. Among the three medalists only the silver medal winner, A. Marton, is a spinner, the gold medalist L.Gong and the bronze one M. Carter both using the glide technique. In fact, if my count is correct, only two among the 12 women finalists were spinning.

Walsh being carried on the shoulders of bronze medalist Zunic

D. Stahl in discus lost the gold medal by a mere 2 cm, after the winner, A. Gudzius of Lithuania, threw a huge personal best of 69.21 m. F. Dacres of Jamaica missed out on a medal, finishing fourth, but this is a definite improvement over his last year's olympic debacle. The Harting brothers were nowhere to be seen, Robert finishing 6th and Cristoph absent from the championships.

S. Perkovic took her revenge for the 2015 defeat. She had two throws beyond 70 m and won with 70.31 m, the silver medal going to the amazing D. Stevens (the 2009 world champion) who improved her area record with 69.64 m. M. Robert-Michon confirmed her olympic medal with a world bronze one at 38 years of age. This time Y. Pérez managed to disappoint me only a little. Arriving in London as one of the favourites with a huge personal best over 69 m, she finished fourth with a modest 64.82 m throw. Still better than the 2015 world champion and over-70 thrower, D. Caballero who had to content herself with a 5th place. 

The women's javelin throw was won by B. Spotakova, 10 years after her only other world tile, the one won in Osaka in 2007. Not a bad performance for the 36 years old veteran. The Rio olympic champion S. Kolak was a relative disappointment, finishing fourth. All in all the competition was rather low-key the gold medal being won with a 66.76 m throw. We are definitely missing 70-plus female javelin throwers.

While the women's javelin is going through a crisis the men's discipline is flourishing. Walcott, Yego, Röhler and Vetter have made us miss a little less the giants of the discipline, Zelezny and Thorkildsen. J. Vetter confirmed his position as second best thrower of all time with a world title obtained with a 89.89 m throw. T. Röhler himself was somewhat below par and ended up fourth behind the two surprising czech athletes J. Vadlejch and P. Frydrych who both thew personal bests at the World's. K. Walcott finished 7th and J. Yego is definitely going through a bad year and 13th place at the Wolrd's. The high level of men's javelin reflects itself in the fact that 13 athletes threw beyond the qualifying distance (and thus gained access to the final). Among them the talented young greek thrower I. Kyriazis who finished at a most honourable 6th place. Perhaps we have found the successor to the great K. Gatsioudis. My only disappointment in this event was the presence of T. Pitkämäki. When is he going to retire? We have seen him more than enough.

J. Vetter, first among a host a great javelin throwers

Hammer throw was a polish affair, Poland winning 4 out of the 6 medals. P. Fajdek won his third consecutive world title, a reassuring result after last year's olympic disaster, where he was unable to make the final. A. Wlodarczyk's was also a third world title but only the second consecutive one. She had obtained a surprise victory in 2009 where she threw 77.96 m, practically the same distance as her 77.90 m winning mark in London. We are far from her 82 plus world record but in any case her dominance in this delicate discipline is absolute. 

N. Thiam being congratulated by N. Visser

Combined events were as always a privileged moment on the Championships. N. Thiam was everybody's favourite for the women's heptathlon. She won comfortably despite an excellent performance by C. Schäfer. (They had finished in the same order in Götzis were Thiam became the third all-time performer with 7013 points). The three wonderwomen from Holland met with various fates in the World's. A. Vetter, thanks to a massive 58.41 throw in the javelin repelled the assaults of Y. Rodriguez and K. Johnson-Thompson obtaining the bronze medal. N. Visser finished 7th, the same position she obtained in the 100 m hurdles final. Unfortunately N. Broersen dropped out due to injury after the long jump, but even her first day was somewhat below par. I was expecting I. Dadic to obtain something better than a 6th place but the level of the competition was so high that she had to break her own national record just to make it to this position.

K. Mayer at the pole vault that might have cased his fall

I wrote last year that K. Mayer is successor of A. Eaton only to have some people voice their doubts. His victory in London will convince even the more sceptical ones. On the other hand his triumph could have turned to a disaster at the pole vault. He decided to start at 5.10 m and could only pass at the third try. I cannot understand why decathletes are doing this to themselves. I wrote a whole article on fouling out in decathlon. Given that they start really feeling the tiredness in the middle of the second day, decathletes should take an easy jump just to make sure they have the necessary points. Mayer should have started at 4.90 m maximum (and given that even 5.30 m proved to be too high, a 4.70 m jump wouldn't have been too timid). Fortunately for Mayer all turned out for the best for him and he could enjoy his first global title. D. Warner, ex world vice-champion was not in great shape and finished 5th. The two medals went to R. Freimuth and K. Kazmirek from Germany while in the 4th position we have a new-comer from Estonia, J. Oiglane. I'll keep an eye on him. Looking at the top decathletes of the competition I noticed a prevalence of jumper-throwers: Mayer (1st), Freimuth (2nd), Kazmirek (3rd), Oiglane (4th) Felix (7th), Helcelet (8th). The discus, that had been the downfall of J. Ureña (9th in London with a personal best of 8125) at last year's Europeans, made two victims in London: double ex-world champion T. Hardee (but he already had a 0 due to a fall in the 110 m hurdles) and the second (after K. Felix) grenadian talent L. Victor. African record holder L. Bourrada of Algeria abandoned the competition after the high jump, depriving us of a strong finisher in the 1500 m. M. Dudas and I. Shkurenyev had a fall in the 110 m and were disqualified, being thus forced out of the competition. This is something that I find too harsh. 

Fouling out in hurdles is a point where I am at odds with the current rules. Suppose somebody falls in the hurdles race of a combined event, but picks himself up and finishes after having pushed down a hurdle in a non-regulatory way. Why should he be disqualified if he makes the effort of passing all remaining hurdles normally and crosses the finishing line? Suppose he can run the 110 m in 14.50 s for slightly over 900 points and after a fall manages to finish in 18 seconds, which gives a bit more than 500 points. Isn't the 400 point loss penalty enough? Why go all the way to disqualification? Just as we have special rules for combined events concerning false starts and wind speed, we should have had also special, more clement, rules for the hurdles race.

All in all London World’s were bizarre championships. Many favourites failed, outsiders won, not a single performance came close to a world record, men’s sprint is following the trend set by the long jump. (This last statement, in case you have missed my previous posts, is referring to the fact that men’s long jump has been stagnant for years). I did enjoy following the competition but I am also a bit worried about the general down-turn. We have to wait till the Tokyo, 2020, Olympics before drawing conclusions, but one has the feeling that world athletics are entering a crisis.

The one thing I hated about these championships was the “Authorised Neutral Athlete” moniker. For me that was a shameful, hypocritical thing. The AN athletes are russian. Once they were allowed to participate they should have been able to represent their country. Depriving them of their national anthem (as in the case of Lasitskene) or simply their flag is, to my eyes, totally unacceptable. 

In last year’s Europeans’ report I had voiced my objection over the participation  of Y. Stepanova and the fact that qualification criteria were not applied in her case. Fortunately, she did not force her presence in this year’s World’s. Speaking about criteria I was unable to find the ones that govern the participation of athletes who enter under the banner of the “Athlete Refugee Team”. Don’t get me wrong on this! I do not object the existence of such a team, since it is due to the sad state of our civilisation. However I think that refuge athletes must participate under strict, elitist, criteria like everybody else.