I made five requests of 2007 when putting together my wish list for this athletics season (blog entry), and by most accounts, I didn't waste precious space hoping for things further than the imagination could stretch. Though Marion Jones still bugs me, Trevor Graham still annoys me, and BALCO has continued living on despite the archaic form it has taken on the current events chart, I nearly struck pay dirt with the first item on my agenda, namely getting closer to a semblance of having clean sport and knocking some of the haughty riders off their horses -- including Jones and Graham.
- Clean sport. Athletics is closer to it than at this time last year, with Jones caught with her hands in the cookie jar, some (but not all) of her medal collection returned to the rightful recipients, and Graham facing an insurmountable battle with the U.S. Justice Department over lies, lies and even more lies. Bulgarian disgraces Venelina Veneva and Vanya Stambolova were both found to have been in violation of anti-doping rules and one athlete, France's Naman Keïta, accepted responsibility for having made his mistake. There was not much trouble turning the murky waters into wine with the public, metaphorically speaking, as fan support seems to have been relatively unchanged by negative press and nearly untouched by the positive events which unfolded in 2007 -- though I'd have wished that Tatiana Lysenko, the world-record holding Russian hammer thrower, could have avoided making news in this department. Veneva had long been suspected of drugs usage by her competitors following suspicious activities which saw Veneva take long absences from main stream competition, obtain good marks in obscure competitions inside of Bulgaria where the belief that drug-testing -- if it exists -- is at a bare minimum, then hit the championships with more power and better marks than she had at any other time of the season.
"As [the way] she has set up her seasons and suddenly appeared at championships, I have understood that there was something shady. That she has finally gotten caught is an unbelievable relief, but one had hoped that it could have occured earlier," says Kajsa Bergqvist.
- Alan Webb did stay injury-free in 2007, but I still felt for guy following his 2007 IAAF World Championships performance when he'd been bitten by a flu-like bug which seemed to take his finishing kick and transform his legs from the Ferrari-backed motor he'd packed in there prior to his first heat to a local gym rat pushing uphill on a treadmill going nowhere fast. Webb never competes for "also ran" showings, and he laid it all down on the line in Osaka -- keeping himeslf in there from start to nearly the finish over the three laps and 300 metres which made up his 1.500m event in Japan. Webb proved in 2007 that he could keep things tightened under the belt in the middle distance department, focussing on the 800m (1.43,84 PB), 1.500m (3.30,54 PB) and mile (3.46,91 PB) events to set new best marks in each of the those, lead the world at the latter two, and set a national record in the mile; he recorded the year's second-fastest 800m. Webb seemed spent by the time his final was run, however, and had a less than successful follow-up on the Grand Prix circuit before closing out his season with a road mile victory in New York. All-in-all, however, he broke a long-standing record in Steve Scott's mile best, and outkicked Mehdi Baala on his home turf in prime time and under the lights in Friday Night fashion.
- Stefan Holm decided to stay with the sport in 2007 and continue on through Beijing in defense of his Olympic title. I had wished for Holm to win his first IAAF World Outdoor Championships gold medal, but one Donald Thomas would steal the thunder this season -- taking the world's highest available honour in his first-ever competition at that level. Holm finished out of medal contention with a fourth-place effort in Osaka. The season-ending best mark in the event -- 2,35m, which was shared by Thomas, Jaroslav Rybakov, Holm and Kyriakos Iannou -- was lower than I'd expected, but noteworthy about the "down" high jump year is that 30 athletes cleared 2.30m outdoors -- including seven by Russians and five by Americans. That left a lot of guessing at nearly every meet this summer as to which of those folks would win what, where, how and under which circumstances, and, almost as important as who would win the global title, who the number-one ranked athelte will be is completely up for grabs, too -- though Thomas seems to have the advantage in head-to-head battles. Thomas had a losing record against Holm, and "close" records against Linus Thörnblad and Tomas Janku, but Thomas beat Holm in their World Athletics Final clash, as did he Janku and Thörnblad. However, Thomas did lose to Thörnblad in Shanghai where neither Holm nor Janku competed. André Silnov, the 2006 European Champion, tied Thomas at 1-1 on the season due to Thomas no-heighting in Shanghai. Thomas's lone loss to Victor Moya was atoned for at the world championships. Holm had five losses on the outdoor season -- four of which were in his final four competitions.
- The world did not see Kenenisa Bekele at his best in the 2007 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Mombassa, Kenya. Scorching humidity and heat ended the reign of the Great Bekele, who did not complete the race following a late charge to take the lead, and threw his track and field season off as well. For once, Bekele was made human over the hills, and scooped up times and marks on the track which scraped any hopes of him doubling at the IAAF World Championships in an equally hot and humid Osaka. Bekele had commanded my total respect for disabling competitors upon demand and playing catch with fire since his initial double-double IAAF Cross Country World Championships victories in 2001, and in the winter of this year, he became the first man to break 4.50 over 2.000m indoors, running 4.49,99 at the Norwich Union Grand Prix. His competitors, however -- many of whom were his compatriots -- gained new-found hope and life in believing they could make a challenge of defeating the weaker, non-dominant Kenenisa Bekele a reality over 25 laps to be run at 21.40 on a hot August evening, the 27th of August -- first and foremost Sileshi Sihine, who stuck it to Bekele in a masterful and memorable final lap, but one which saw Bekele turn back the charge and create a silver-medalist out of Sihine again following their identical finish two years earlier in Helsinki, which followed their identical finish at the Athens Olympics as well. Sihine has collected three silver medals and a bronze at either the World Championships or Olympic Games. Bekele was able to record the year's three-quickest outdoor 3.000m times, running 7.25,79 - 7.26,69 and 7.29,32. Bekele's world-leading mark is the eighth-fastest of all-time, and he's the sixth-fastest ever at the distance.
- The final golden moment of 2007 was to have been Kajsa Bergqvist jumping over 2,09m either indoors or out. She didn't. Kajsa had trouble hitting 2,00m this outdoor season as she found it difficult to balance ground training her coach, Yannick Tregaro, had wished for her to endure versus getting in quality meets which she believed would help her reach her season's potential, which she felt was certainly higher than the 2,02m she recorded in Torino. Bergqvist would separate from Tregaro's group following the World Championships. Bergqvist had my hope button alive with talk of improving her world record in 2007, but it was Blanka Vlašic who made headlines this season. Bergqvist made it clear in no uncertain terms last winter that she was going to make an assault on the 16-year-old world indoor record of 2,07m held by Heike Henkel, and she eclipsed that mark with Henkel in attendance, jumping 2.08m in Arnstadt on 2006-February-4. She then made a pact to give a go at seriously attempting to take down Stefka Kostadinova's 2,09m from Rome set 19 years earlier. That perfect-day, best-ever jump was not to unfold outdoors in 2006, leaving Bergqvist even more loaded and focused from having missed nearly a year-and-a-half following her ruptured achilles injury suffered in the spring of 2004. What Bergqvist hadn't had time to see as she struggled in chartering for green pastures in the world record pursuit was that Vlašic had found incredible focus and determination during the indoor season, and was able to translated that to a near-undefeated outdoor campaign, topping the yearly list at 2,07m, and also jumping 2,06m, twice clearing 2,05m and finishing two other competitions with 2,04m victories; she toppled the 2,00m barrier in an incredible 17 competitions in 2007. Her lone defeat was a second-place finish at the Oslo Golden League to Yelena Slesarenko, who at that early time, was in contention for the $1.000.000 Golden League jackpot. Vlašic had the misfortune of having her only loss of the season come in the Golden League, and also missed out on the jackpot. Russia's Anna Chicherova as well as Italy's Antonietta Di Martino brought their "A" game to the World Championships, where I'd hoped that clearing 2,04m would only yield a bronze to the third-best of the group. Both athletes cleared 2,03m, with Chicherova taking the third spot on the podium. The most women ever to clear 2,00m in an IAAF World Championships final before Osaka was three, but five women in Japan went on to attempt 2,03m -- with four successful over 2,00m. Slesarenko had the misfortune of finishing fourth in 2,00m, with compatriot Yekaterina Savchenko the fourth over the same height -- making that three Russians over 2,00m in the same competition. Bergqvist finished tied for seventh with a best of 1,94m.
I'd also hoped for a season of faster times and good marks, and 2007 did not disappoint in that category, either, with Allyson Felix running excellent 200m (21,81) and 400m (49,70) times in Europe and Osaka, and a stellar 48-flat relay leg on the winning 4x400m at the IAAF World Championships. Tyson Gay blazed an incredible 9,84-19,62 at his national championships, and U.S. collegian Walter Dix screached to 9,93 - 19,69 times whilst in university competition.
Finally, not to continue touting my Swedish team, but Johan Wissman's 400m exploits this summer -- culminating in a seventh-place finish at the World Championships following a national-record 44,56 in the semi-finals -- was one of those hidden gems which made wishes worth making and dreams worth having.
Now that the season is virtually concluded (although there was a 10,10 100m recorded last week at the World Military Games), I'll have time to finally sit back and reflect on what was truly inspiring, and which athletes I believe can provide me the greatest entertainment value leading up to Beijing.
Until then, I'm going to enjoy cross country and the road races around Europe. I hate to admit this, but I am a bit "tracked" out.
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