Brussels, BelgiumWhen the ÅF Golden League series kicked off at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on 14 June, among the prohibitive favourites to go the distance in the six-meeting series were Russian Pole Vault star Yelena Isinbayeva, American 400m record holder Sanya Richards, and Ethiopia’s double distance World record holder Kenenisa Bekele. And in the end the three delivered in grand fashion.
“This year, to win a World title first and then be able to come back and win the jackpot was just very special for me,” said Richards, the first of the three to claim her share, after her 48.83 performance, a run that was as dazzling as it was dominating. It was also a meet record, finally eclipsing the mark set in 1982, nearly three years before Richards was born. “These are some of the best athletes in the world and I’m just so proud to share the jackpot with them.”
Isinbayeva was next to stake her claim, her first leap at her opening height of 4.70m yet again sufficing for the victory. “This is very special for so many reasons,” said the 2008 World Athlete of the Year, who last week raised her own World record to 5.06m after failing to reach the podium at the World championships. “This is the last year for the Golden League, so that is very special. And it’s especially great after what happened in Berlin.”
And while the Russian was taking her second and third attempts at a would be 5.07m World record, Bekele was already well on his way to a solid and steady 12:55.31 in the 5000.
“It was fantastic, I’m so happy to win all six races,” said Bekele, who last month duplicated his double Olympic triumph with a victories in the 5000 and 10,000m at the World Championships. “This one was very tough. I’ve run many races recently, just too much in one month.”
None of the three, who will leave the Belgian capital $333,333 richer, were newcomers to the Jackpot chase. For Richards it was her third six-for-six Jackpot season after sharing the prize pie in 2006 and 2007, and for Isinbayeva her second, after she split the pot with Richards two years ago. But for Bekele, who took a lesser share after winning five of six in 2006, his victory tonight gave the mighty Ethiopian the one major prize missing from his voluminous trophy case.
Stop #1 – Berlin’s ISTAF and World championships dress rehearsal
Beginning the season on the comeback from injury and short on training, Bekele arrived at Berlin’s ISTAF as the main contender most susceptible to defeat. But he nonetheless outkicked Kenyan Abraham Chebii to begin his Jackpot ambitions with a 13:00.76 victory in the 5000m on the Olympic Stadium’s bright blue track that he would later come to love.
"I had to work really hard for the victory," the 5000 and 10,000m Olympic champion said.
Meanwhile, Isinbayeva got her Golden League season off to a solid start, making her season’s debut with a 4.83m clearance, a world lead and an easy victory. Richards was more impressive, with an overwhelming 49.57 win, more than a second-and-a-half ahead of the runner-up.
Next stop, Oslo’s ExxonMobil Bislett Games - - Stop #2
After winning the notoriously difficult U.S. title in Eugene, Richards didn’t skip a beat when the series resumed in Oslo on 3 July. Facing the strongest field yet assembled this season, and despite a long rain delay, the American produced a 49.23 run, the fourth fastest of her career and her quickest since setting the US record at the 2006 IAAF World Cup in Athens. Among the vanquished was reigning World and Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu who witnessed first hand how the American’s homestretch speed had progressed.
Isinbayeva meanwhile suffered a minor scare. In a competition heavily affected by the massive rainstorm that romped through the Norwegian capital, the Russian did just enough to take the victory, winning on the countback from Monica Pyrek at 4.71m.
Still catching up on his training, Bekele too did just enough. Kicking to the lead at the bell, Bekele again fended off all challengers to win in 13:04.87.
Stop #3 – Rome’s Golden Gala
A week later and a week stronger, Bekele took control of the season’s list with another comfortable victory, this time at the Golden Gala at Rome’s Olympic Stadium, with a season-pacing 12:56.23. “My shape is improving,” he said.
Isinbayeva’s victory was also a straightforward one, as her opening height of 4.75m would have sufficed. She went on to raise her own world lead to 4.85m before bowing out at 4.95m. Richards meanwhile continued to impress, winning by a massive 0.85 seconds in 49.46.
Paris and the Stade de France – Stop #4
The four contenders – Jamaican Kerron Stewart was still alive in Jackpot chase – were greeted by cool and extremely damp conditions when the series moved on to Paris a week later, but all managed to continue their momentum.
Isinbayeva’s event was most severely hampered by the weather, with her first and only jump of 4.65m securing the victory. As in Oslo, the rain did little to affect Richards who sped to the finish in 49.34 win, this time more than a second clear of the runner-up. Among the fans at the Stade de France was her fiancé and NFL star Aaron Ross, who watched her compete outside the USA for the first time.
For Bekele, the distance was shortened to 3000m this time around, but the result was the same. Here he battled then reigning double World champion Bernard Lagat, but was still in complete control en route to his 7:28.64 victory.
After Paris, the trio, along with the rest of the athletics world, took a break for the World championships and again all three made headlines.
First up was Bekele, who took his fourth 10,000m title and added the 5000m later as well to become the first to ever win both at a World championships. After several seasons as the world’s best 400m runner, Richards finally captured her first major global title in resounding fashion in 49.00, another world leader.
For Isinbayeva, it wasn’t quite the sort of news she was hoping to make. In one of the more dramatic moments of the championships, Isinbayeva failed to clear a height – she later admitted to complacency getting the better of her – resulting in one of the biggest implosions in nine thrilling days of competition at the Olympic Stadium
World championships follow-up in Zurich - Stop #5
But 11 days later, Isinbayeva matched her Berlin low with yet another unprecedented high when the series resumed with the Weltklasse in Zurich. With a vault as confident as it was elegant, the Russian scaled 5.06m on her first try to notch the 27th World record of her career.
Although they didn’t enter the record books, both Bekele and Richards produced 2009 world leads in their Berlin follow-ups. First it was Richards who dipped under the 49-second barrier for the third time in her career, reaching the finish line in 48.94. Yet again, Bekele ran the race and controlled it on his terms en route to a 12:52.32 performance. Neither faced a significant challenge; Richards won by nearly a second and Bekele by nearly three.
Brussels and the Memorial Van Damme - Stop #6
Fittingly for the triumphant triumvirate, each faced little opposition before collecting their over-sized paychecks in a ceremony that drew the final curtain on the Golden League’s 12 year run. Typically, Isinbayeva had started just where her competitors had ended, Richards ran her second fastest performance ever and won by more than a second-and-a-half, and Bekele toyed with the field over the waning laps only to out-kick them yet again.
With their gold bars in hand, each is planning something special with at least a part of their winnings. Isinbayeva will again provide gifts for an orphanage in her native Vologograd, Bekele will give some to a development fund in Addis Ababa. For Richards, it’ll be a bit more selfish, but she’s certainly entitled. “I’m getting married in the winter so I’ll use some to make my wedding even more grandiose,” she said.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF