Feature Paris, France

Wilhem Belocian – barrier breaker in junior hurdling?

Wilhem Belocian at the 2013 European Athletics Junior Championships (Getty Images)Wilhem Belocian at the 2013 European Athletics Junior Championships (Getty Images) © Copyright

French athletes appear to have cornered the small part of the market in the men’s sprint hurdles in recent years and Wilhem Belocian is the latest model to roll off the production line.

In the indoor season, at the French junior championships, he ran a world junior indoor 60m hurdles record of 7.48* and on Monday, on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, he continued his fine start to the summer season with an outing of 13.23 over the junior barriers to win the CARIFTA Games title.

The run was just 0.05 shy of his European junior record of 13.18 set when winning the European junior title in the Italian town of Rieti and pulverised Jehue Gordon's Carifta Games record of 13.41 from 2010.

"I got a bad start and made some mistakes over the barriers, but I am better than I was at the same time last year," reflected the teenager. 

Now Belocian has his sights set on adding a global junior title at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, USA, in July and he is already fired up for the challenge.

“The World Juniors is my main objective of the summer and this time I am targeting gold,” Belocian said recently.

Two years ago, though still a youth, he took the bronze medal at the last edition of the championships in Barcelona.

The 18-year-old from the Stade Lamentin club in Guadeloupe has been maturing steadily during his teenage years, and is no stranger to medals and records.

In 2011, he won the IAAF World Youth Championships bronze medal before another bronze in Barcelona and finally a gold in Rieti, where he took 0.05 from the seven-year-old European junior record, which had been held by Poland’s Artur Noga, and moved up to equal third on the junior all-time list for the event.

Now on the table is the world junior record of 13.08 set by Wayne Davis II in 2009. “It is still a long way off to be talking of that,” Belocian insisted, adding that he and his coach have actually gone much further, “I have already discussed with my coach the 13-second barrier.”

Apart from Davis’s standard, he may also want to consider the world junior record for the higher barriers used in senior competition, which stands to China’s Liu Xiang.

Liu’s time of 13.12 was set in Lausanne two years before he became Olympic champion. Take note, Wilhem.

Belocian admits his heart would keep him in his native Guadeloupe but he has only two tracks to choose from there and is not impressed with the state they are in: “You can injure yourself easily training there.”

He also has the added problem of being the only hurdler in his club which is why, in his head, he prefers the French national sports institute (INSEP), on the outskirts of Paris, where he has peers to push him.

“I am returning above all for my studies, but also for the benefit of rejoining a training group with a bit of confrontation in it.”

Despite his obvious pedigree and all the eulogies about his future, Belocian sees room for improvement.

“There aren’t too many technical concerns, but my trailing leg needs to come through more quickly. I need to work on my speed more and improve my start.”

World record run

The reason for all this optimism about this young man’s rosy future reached a peak indoors last month.

On the same day as his countrymen, Pascal Martinot-Lagarde and Garfield Darien, were claiming the 60m hurdles silver and bronze medals on the final day of the 2014 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Poland, back home in the Normandy town of Val de Reuil, Belocian was rewriting the record books.

At the French youth and junior championships and starting from lane four, Belocian turned in an impeccable display, swooping across the line in a world junior record of 7.48.

His hurdling was faultless, clearing each flight without even a hint of brushing the obstacles.

Getting his usual explosive start, Belocian forged away from the field, snapping crisply over the barriers and was clearly heading for something special.

Initially, the clock showed 7.50 to equal the previous world mark of Greece’s Kostadinos Douvalidis, but then it was revised down to 7.48 and the record belonged exclusively to Belocian.

It goes without saying that Belocian’s time was also a French junior record, but it was the second time in the afternoon that Belocian had improved on that: in the semis he had lowered Martinot-Lagarde’s mark by 0.09 when he recorded 7.52.

The time was not the only thing to surprise Belocian. “I didn’t expect to break the world record. In fact, I didn’t know there were world indoor junior records. It’s a great day for me.”

His coach Ketty Cham was initially lost for words but, when she had recovered, said: “I thought he would beat the French record but not the world record. It was not the most perfect race for him, but he’s in good shape for the winter.”

Making the record run even more special, at the same time he was getting ready for his Baccalaureate and was spending hours and energy on his studies, burning the midnight oil.

“I was tired the whole time revising and I was getting to bed late. It was very hard but the work paid off.”

More accolades

Record breaking appears to be one of Belocian’s fortes. Two years ago in Lens he set a world youth outdoor best of 13.12. Now, he can add the world junior indoor record to that accolade.

Explaining his fine run of form in 2014, Belocian noted: “I have controlled things this winter,” which is something of an understatement.

Before his record run in Val de Reuil, he sensed he was in great form, particularly after his semi-final. “I kept something back in the semi, but I gave it everything in the final.”

Athletics has been in Belocian’s sights since he was a child. Playing with his brother in his home town of Les Abymes in Guadeloupe, he made starting blocks out of wood so that he could practise his sprinting. Although he is still only 18, he is already a veteran. He has been a club member since the age of eight.

Just in case you are wondering whether there is a chink in his armour, Belocian offers a small clue.

His sports science studies include volleyball and basketball, “but my dance is only so so,” he joked.

Nevertheless, he hopes to be waltzing to a world junior gold medal and perhaps into new territory over the barriers in the months to come.

Michael Butcher for the IAAF

*subject to ratification