08 JUL 2014 Feature

Teenage talent to the fore – a brief history of the IAAF World Junior Championships

Usain Bolt of Jamaica at the 2002 IAAF World Junior Championships in Kingston (Getty Images)Usain Bolt of Jamaica at the 2002 IAAF World Junior Championships in Kingston (Getty Images) © Copyright

There have been national junior championships for athletes dating back to the 1920s, with the former Czechoslovakia having organised what is believed to be the first in 1921. But having a global event – the IAAF World Junior Championships – that puts young talent on display is a relatively recent innovation.

The early and mid-1980s witnessed a period of many changes in the sport, driven by the energy and vision of the then IAAF President Primo Nebiolo, and among the new ideas to emerge was the introduction of the championships.

The concept of having a major international junior championship was far from new – the first South American Junior Championships were as far back as 1959, a similar event in Europe saw the light of day in 1964 while transatlantic junior matches between the USA and USSR started in 1972 – but Nebiolo realised it was time to organise a festival for teenage talent on a truly worldwide basis.

At the 34th IAAF Congress held in conjunction with the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and just three years after he came to power, Nebiolo's brainchild was given the green light.

The first edition was awarded to Athens later in the year, and the Greek federation swiftly moved into action to organise the first championships in 1986.

It was a huge success, possibly bigger than anyone expected, attracting 1188 athletes from 143 countries.

Medals in Athens were spread among 27 nations, with African and Asian competitors notably on the podium despite their Area Associations not having a continental junior championship at the time.

The five-day event also got a fillip thanks to two world junior records: by the Soviet javelin thrower Vladimir Sasimovich (78.84m) and the US men's 4x400m relay team (3:01.90).

There is no doubt, in retrospect, that those first championships clearly demonstrated that there was a real desire by the vast majority of the IAAF's members to test their top young athletes against the best of the rest of the world.

It set the scene for the future of what was to become a biennial event.

“Those who follow our sport closely know that these championships were an important moment in our (IAAF) development,” reflected Nebiolo in 1998.

“It gave us an opportunity to showcase tomorrow's stars as they take their first steps to greatness. The championships give youngsters a chance to gain the valuable experience of top class competition,” he added, reiterating several of his initial reasons for establishing the IAAF World Junior Championships.

Nebiolo was absolutely right in both respects.

Many athletes who were later to become household names got their first gold medal on a world stage at the IAAF World Junior Championships while others now knew what it would take to get to the top.

British hurdler Colin Jackson, Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor and East German discus thrower Ilke Wyludda are just three of the athletes that stand out from the list of winners from Athens.

By contrast, the Soviet race walker Olimpiada Ivanova was a lowly 15th in the 5000m race walk but went on, in a Russian vest, to win world and European titles and set world records. Similarly, Algeria’s Hassiba Boulmerka failed to make either the 800m or 1500m final at the 1986 World Junior Championships but, six years later, would win the gold medal over the longer distance at the 1992 Olympic Games.

“When I consider my career, the World Junior Championships gold is one of my most memorable races," remembered Jackson in his autobiography. "I'll always remember it because it had all those ingredients that I would need later to be a champion: to come back successfully from adversity and live up to the responsibility of being a champion."

Every single championships since 1986 has seen more illustrious names make their mark on the sporting consciousness for the first time.

During the 1990s, names such as Trinidad and Tobago’s Ato Boldon, Kenya's Moses Kiptanui and Daniel Komen, Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie and Derartu Tulu, United States' Adam Nelson, Ecuador’s Jefferson Perez, Romania's Gabriela Szabo, China's Wang Junxia and Cuba's Osleidys Menéndez were all winners at the World Junior Championships.

All were to strike gold again at the IAAF World Championships later in their careers.

During the 10 years from the 2000 IAAF World Junior Championships in Santiago de Chile, a ground-breaking event as it was the first time that a global stadium-based IAAF competition was staged in South America, a similar roll call can be made.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt gave notice of his phenomenal talent when he won the 200m title in 2002 on home soil at the prodigious age of 15, thrilling and stunning observers in the Jamaican capital Kingston.

Four years later, Kenya’s David Rudisha was one of the brightest stars of the 2006 IAAF World Junior Championships in Beijing, winning over 800m.

Like Bolt, Rudisha was to become a world record-breaker and to be honoured as an IAAF Athlete of the Year before the end of the decade.

Among the other men's names that leap out from the list of winners in the new millennium are the USA’s LaShawn Merritt and Kerron Clement, Ethiopia’s Ibrahim Jeylan, France’s Teddy Tamgho, Grenada’s Kirani James and Germany’s David Storl.

Female athletes who made the transition from being junior champions to superstars of the sport in this period include Ethiopian distance runner Meseret Defar, Russia's pole vault queen Yelena Isinbayeva, Australian discus thrower Dani Samuels and combined events exponents Carolina Kluft of Sweden and Russia's Tatyana Chernova.

The popularity and universality of the championships has also steadily grown with more than 1500 athletes in action from 171 nations at the 2012 edition in Barcelona, the biggest ever participation figures on both counts.

A number of winners in the Catalan city, notably Dominican Republic’s 400m runner Luguelin Santos, Kenyan distance runners Conseslus Kipruto and Faith Kipyegon, Trinidad and Tobago's javelin thrower Keshorn Walcott, and 800m gold medallists Nijel Amos and Ajee Wilson, from Botswana and the USA respectively, have already made a big impact at senior international championships in a short time.

The question now to be asked is, who will make their mark at Oregon 2014 and put their names into the annals of athletics history?

Phil Minshull for the IAAF

(Some of the content in this article first appeared in the IAAF centenary book IAAF 1912-2012, 100 Years of Athletics Excellence.)