Is It Already Track Season? 2008 in Review

By Eric.

I don’t know about you, but I’m quite pleased the Olympics only occur once every fourth year. Any other years like the one which is winding down and has long since ended in terms of competition, and I’m not sure how much emotion, turmoil, ups and downs I’d have left in the tank to offer the sport as a fan. The summer season seemed to just conclude, and already, we’re looking at Bernard Lagat attempting to win a seventh Wannamaker Mile competition in New York in about a month.

Has it already been four years since Hicham El Guerrouj flashed two fingers up at the camera in complete disbelief that he’d won not only his first, but snuck by Kenenisa Bekele to win his second-ever Olympic gold medals in the same championships?

Was that the same Bekele who smashed the socks off his competitors in the 10.000m, and, following an additional 12,5 laps of qualifying, smashed his sly Kenyan rivals to smithereens with shifty pacing and a furious kick? Were those the same Kenyans who had to endure an indescribable hell to even reach the Olympics?

Watching Bekele come through in the 5.000m was breath-taking, but nothing took hold of my attention and belief than did the performances Usain Bolt put up individually in the short sprints and collectively with Asafa Powell and compatriots in the short relay. Four months later and quickly approaching a new year, I’ve finally let off the gas and have attempted to make sense­ – any – of times, marks and efforts which defied belief.

There are only so many times in a two-week time frame one has been able to listen the Russian national anthem or watch a gob-smacking number of Jamaican fans wave their hands in the air and shed tears for a boy who turned into a man by breaking two individual world records and helping his hapless team mate turn the tables on his own bitter-sweet championship record.

The Jamaican women didn’t fare too shabbily, either, one can say.

I don’t have a desire to re-hash all the happenings from this past year, but a few stand out to my liking and recollection, though others will be higher on your own personal priority lists and lodged deeper in your memory banks.

The anticipation surrounding the medal chase is so exhausting from a distance that I can only imagine what athletes must face from the indoor kick-offs to the final dash to the finish lines at a track stadium near you as they put their years of training to the test to determine if it would net them a medal in front of the world’s biggest audience. When the roof caves in and the rain falls on your parade in front of your own home fans, as it did for former 110m hurdle world-record holder Liu Xiang, the personal tragedy can be greater than one can ever imagine – even with the wildest of thoughts.

Closer up, however, that anticipation of winning was also so great, that it has caused many an athlete to turn to the darker side of sport, namely, doping, and attempt to squeeze on by through the corridors between right and wrong straight for the medal stand, lofty pay-outs and extreme adornment despite the methods by which they were to have been achieved – mark that, stolen.

Seven Russian women went down that path of destruction this season, caught in one of the largest doping conspiracies to hit the sport in the past 20 years – a time which also happened to be an Olympic year, and a location which also happened to be held in an Asian city. Ben Johnson has long since been removed from this sport, with his steroid-enabled times replaced by legal ones which raised the hair on the arms and laid the foundation for any number of clichés, questions and superlatives to be used.

Whilst on the topic of doping, let it be known that Marion Jones, who won honour and privilege by method of fraud eight years ago in Sydney, was confined to a prison unit many worlds away from the glittering flashes capturing images of greatness by athletes competing at the Bird’s Nest. She was released about two weeks following the extinguishing of the flame – a fitting image as her career can finally be extinguished and put to rest following years of denials about her involvement in performance-enhancing drugs. Six months of thinking time didn’t make Marion Jones smarter, however, it made her deny on national television in the United States in front of Oprah Winfrey that Marion Jones can and will take full and complete responsibility for her illegal actions rather than blaming someone else.

Lyudmyla Blonska, the outcast Ukrainian heptathlon competitor who was banned following a positive test in Beijing, has made it a case to blame someone else – in this case, that someone being her husband. She’s facing a lifetime ban from the sport if she is unable to clear this case with CAS. Carolina Klüft, our Swedish star who won every major heptathlon title available and decided to concentrate on the long and triple jumps this season, has been vocal about Blonska’s inclusion back in the sport following her first ban.

I didn’t get stung by the whole Marion Jones saga, but I got hit in the head and knocked over by Yelena Soboleva, instead. I picked Soboleva as my Indoor Athlete-of-the-Year on my blog following her incredulous runs at the World Indoor Championships in March, and believed with all honesty that she was competing clean. She tested clean, but with someone else’s urine. Yep, one star athlete’s chances went right down the toilet...literally.

I was anticipating a Soboleva match-up with Pamela Jelimo, the Kenyan teenager whom I can not truly describe with any adjective which correctly sums up her ability, year and mark left on this sport. Those match-ups never occurred, with Soboleva, who ran a world-leading 1.54,85 in Kazan in June, getting temporarily banned prior to the Olympics and unable to compete in the IAAF Golden League series.

That didn’t stop Jelimo, who broke on to the scene with death-defying times and eventually went on to win the Olympics, set a World Junior Record, a Kenyan National record and record one of the top-five times ever recorded for a female over two laps. Jelimo wasn’t simply precocious. She wasn’t fast in terms of having great wheels, either. She was more than dynamic, and she was more than dominant. She went from rags to riches – one million dollars richer – in one simple season which saw her line up for 15 races (including heats, rounds and finals), and win every single competition in which she entered over the 800m distance, running under 1.57,00 on nine of those occasions.

On the topic of Russian match-ups, I had two other ones to which I was greatly looking forward this season, namely those of Yuriy Borzakovskiy and Abubaker Kaki and Yelena Isinbayeva and Jenn Stuczynski in the pole vault.

Kaki, who concluded 2007 by running a solo 1.43, gained my uttermost attention this past winter season, running a world junior record in the 1.000m 10 minutes down the street at the GE Galan at Globen and then going on to win the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Spain in March. He kicked off outdoors on a high note, running a 1.42,69 at the Oslo Golden League meeting, setting up what was to be a very high expectation for great things to come on the men’s two-lap circuit.

Borzakovskiy, who anchored Russia to a national indoor record in the 4x800m this past winter, also notched a blistering time over the two-lap distance outdoors, running 1.42,79 three weeks ahead of the Beijing Olympics, and one week after setting a national record over 1.000m here in Stockholm at the DN Galan (2.15,50).

Sadly, neither athlete was anywhere near the medal stand following Wilfred Bungei’s surprise victory. I haven’t heard from Kaki since our two meetings this summer, and Borzakovskiy has vowed to return for more at the London 2012 Olympics, though by then there will be other Kaki-type athletes who will have cropped up by then, and Kaki, if he’s healthy and not burned out by then, will be the Wilson Kipketer of this generation.

First up for either athlete, will be the opportunity afforded Jelimo in 2008, namely a stab at a portion of (or all the proceeds outright of) the $1,000,0000 prize money for winning each of the Golden League competitions.

Isinbayeva, on the other hand, was one of two Russian athletes who came through for poor, selfish me this season. I’m a fan, dammit, and wanted a world record from the queen of the vault. Wow, did I get the best of two worlds this season: Isinbayeva got great competition from a gutsy challenger in Stuczynski, and Isinbayeva was able to set one world indoor record and establish three outdoor ones, culminating with an in-your-face 5.05m clearance in Beijing – some 25cm up on the American.

Olympic steeplechase champion Gulnara Galkina, was the other Russian who shone brightly in Beijing, capturing the event with history's first sub-nine clocking - a world record.

And these Olympic Games, ladies and gentlemen, were following the Olympic-size performances prep star German Fernandez put up in June in at the California State Meet and the Nike Outdoor Nationals, where, on successive occasions, he not only outclassed the best in the Class of 2008, he obliterated national federation (8.41,10) and national records (8.36,3) in the 3.200m and 2-mile, respectively. The 3.200m time was achieved following a 1.600m race which saw the lanky kid, who now attends Oklahoma State University and has already established a line of credibility on the NCAA scene, average just over 60 seconds per segment without stopping.

Prep athletes Jordan Hasay (USA Junior Record 4.14,50 in the 1.500m) and Jeffery Demps shone outstanding at the USA Olympic Trials, with Demps setting a new world junior record (the third in the group of five juniors listed here!) in the 100m at 10,01 seconds. Hasay won the girl’s 3.200m run (9.52,13) at the state meet minutes before Fernandez set chase to Dathan Ritzenhein’s Federation record, running the second-fastest time ever by a high school girl. After enduring a long season, which brought Hasay from the West Coast of the United States to the World Junior Championships in Poland, Hasay won every cross country race she entered this autumn, capping off a season of excellence by winning her second Footlocker Cross Country championship two weeks ago – three years after earning her first victory.

Usain Bolt stole (earned) the show(boating) in Beijing, becoming an instantaneous favourite the world round. The Olympics have a way of measuring your ability to succeed on exactly the right queue, and Bolt delivered. So did André Silnov, the Russian high jumper who was not initially selected for his team, delivered a world-leading 2.38m in London a month before the Games, was then selected to compete in Beijing and brought Russia joy in winning the event.

Stefan Holm, the 2004 Olympic high jump champion, won’t have any more opportunities to push his small frame through the air and take down the giants in his path – athletes like Jaroslav Rybakov, a perennial rival. Rybakov, who won a silver in Beijing to Holm’s fourth-place finish, is still very much on the scene, alive and well, and will be for some time coming. Holm, on the other hand, announced that this would be his final season, and he gave it everything he had.

Maria Mutola, the evergreen of the 800m crop, did, as well.

Christian Olsson, our triple jump specialist and 2004 gold medal winner, is also at a cross-road in his career, one which has been terrorised by injury since his winning jump in Athens four years ago. Olsson, like Holm, may have taken his final jumps on the field.

There were also a lot of disappointing moments in 2008, with Blanka Vlasic holding top spot in that category. Vlasic, who had a 20-plus win-streak going heading into Beijing, lost her bid to add an Olympic crown to her world title, as Tia Hellebaut, who is now retired and expecting a baby, earned the coveted crown in a magnificent fashion – and at a personal best height (2.05m). Vlasic eventually lost out on the Golden League jackpot as well, one which Jelimo was able to keep completely to herself as she headed back to Kenya following the season finale in Germany.

Susanna Kallur and LoLo Jones, two of the year’s best 100m hurdlers – with Kallur the world indoor record-holder and Jones, the fastest outdoors, both running into troubles over the hurdles in Beijing and being knocked from their four-year goals of making it to the medal stand. The semi-final was a bitter moment for Kallur, as she had to again endure a defeat at the hands of circumstance rather than the competition; Kallur also had an injury during the world indoor championships in March and missed the final, which Jones won.

There were a thousand small wonders in the world of athletics which made the 2008 season special, unique and a memorable one, for sure.

Did it honestly take me this long to mention LaShawn Merritt’s accomplishments in the 400m? Undisputed heavyweight champion at 400m over the previous Olympic champion, Jeremy Wariner. Or Dayron Robles in the men’s 110m hurdles? Rachid Ramzi’s perfection when it counted in Beijing, despite his show-boat semi-final?

Turning the attention back to the women, has it taken this long to speak of Veronica Campbell over Allyson Felix, with the former running a 21,74 in the Olympic 200m final? Christine Ohuruogu in the women’s 400m after falters at the shorter sprints appeared to have derailed her plans? Last, and not least, the efforts two other Ethiopians, Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar, put up in the 5.000m and/or 10.000m this summer? When will they feed off one another instead of ducking? Will the 14-minute barrier be breached if they worked collaboratively?

What will 2009 hold which can surpass this past season in overall greatness and provide an even greater degree of amazement? Is it fair to put this expectation on the sport, the athletes and the meeting arrangers?

Will more athletes like Craig Mottram, who broke off a working relationship with his coach, follow suit as Jeremy Wariner did earlier in the year? Will Alan Webb, the world's fastest miler in 2007 who did not advance to the Olympic Games, finally split with a coach who has mentored him since high school? As American distance runners continue migrating west to Eugene, will any superstars here in Europe join forces? Then again, we don't have many superstars left, so we're waiting on the Africans to trek here for spring cleaning.

I got my world record(s) from Isinbayeva, and Bolt single-handedly brought back life, spunk and a punkishness to the sport which it desperately needed in terms of a face-lift from the past. Can he run faster than 9,69 and/or 19,30 this season, and, if he does, how much faster? Would it be a failure if he doesn’t achieve those marks, but still wins the IAAF World Championships?

Time will tell in more ways than one.


2008 Season-Leaders (Final):


100m. 9,69 WR Usain Bolt JAM
200m. 19,30 WR Usain Bolt JAM
400m. 43,75 LaShawn Merritt USA
800m. 1.42,69 Abubaker Kaki SUD
1500m. 3.31,49 Daniel Kipchirchir Komen KEN
Mile. 3.49,38 Andy Baddeley GBR
3.000m. 7.31,83 Edwin Soi KEN
5.000m. 12.50,18 Kenenisa Bekele ETH
10.000m. 26.25,97 Kenenisa Bekele ETH
Mar. 2.03.59 WR Haile Gebrselassie ETH
3.000SC. 8.00,57 Paul Kipsiele Koech KEN
110mH. 12,87 WR Dayron Robles CUB
400mH. 47,25 Angelo Taylor USA
HJ. 2,38 Andrey Silnov RUS
PV. 6,04 Brad Walker USA
LJ. 8,73 Irving Saladino PAN
TJ. 17,67 Nelson Évora POR
SP. 22,12 Adam Nelson USA
DT. 71,88 Gerd Kanter EST
HT. 84,51 Ivan Tikhon BLR
JT. 90,57 Andreas Thorkildsen NOR
Dec. 8832 Bryan Clay USA
20KM W. 1.16.43 Sergey Morozov RUS
50KM W. 3.34.14 WR Denis Nizhegorodov RUS
4x100m. 37,10 WR JAM
4x400m. 2.55,39 USA


100m. 10,78 Shelly-Ann Fraser JAM, Torri Edwards USA
200m. 21,74 Veronica Campbell-Brown JAM
400m. 49,62 Christine Ohuruogu GBR
800m. 1.54,01 Pamela Jelimo KEN
1.500m. 3.56,59 Yelena Soboleva RUS
Mile. 4.18,23 Gelete Burka ETH
3.000m. 8.33,66 Vivian Cheruiyot KEN
5.000m. 14.11,15 WR Tirunesh Dibaba ETH
10.000m. 29.54,66 Tirunesh Dibaba ETH
Mar. 2.19.19 Irina Mikitenko GER
3.000mSC. 8.58,81 WR Gulnara Galkina RUS
100mH. 12,43 Lolo Jones USA
400mH. 52,64 Melaine Walker JAM
HJ. 2,06 Blanka Vlašic CRO
PV. 5,05 WR Yelena Isinbayeva RUS
LJ. 7,12 Naide Gomes POR
TJ. 15,39 Françoise Mbango CMR
SP. 20,98 Nadzeya Ostapchuk BLR
DT. 67,89 Iryna Yatchenko BLR
HT. 77,32 Aksana Menkova BLR
JT. 72,28 WR Barbora Špotáková CZE
Hep. 6733 Nataliya Dobrynska UKR
10KM W. 42.29 Tatyana Kalmykova RUS
20KM W. 1.25.11 Olga Kaniskina RUS
4x100m. 42,24 JAM
4x400m. 3.18,54 USA

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