03 JAN 2007 General News

Golden League - 2006 World Athletics Tour REVIEW

The presentation of the six Jackpot winners in Berlin - (l to r) Wariner, Richards, Powell, Saladino, Dibaba - but Bekele is missing. (Bongarts / Getty Images)The presentation of the six Jackpot winners in Berlin - (l to r) Wariner, Richards, Powell, Saladino, Dibaba - but Bekele is missing. (Bongarts / Getty Images) © Copyright

Mel Watman of "Athletics International" reviews the highlights of the six IAAF Golden League meetings which were part of the inaugural World Athletics Tour in 2006, the big winners being Asafa Powell (with another World record equalling 9.77 100m during the series), Jeremy Wariner and Sanya Richards.

Oslo, Norway
2 June

The Golden League Jackpot format was modified this year. There was still a jackpot totalling a million dollars but this time it was divided into $500,000 to be split between any athlete who won designated events in all six meetings and another $500,000 to be shared not only by the undefeated athletes but also by anyone who was a winner in five meetings. The eleven events selected this year as counting towards the jackpot were the 100m, 400m, 1500m/Mile, 3000m/5000m, Long Jump and Javelin Throw for men; 100m, 400m, 3000m/5000m, 100m Hurdles and High Jump for women.

Those who staked an initial claim were Asafa Powell (9.98 100m into the wind after a 9.96 heat), Jeremy Wariner (44.31 400m), Alex Kipchirchir (whose 3:50.32 Mile would remain the year's fastest), Isaac Songok (12:55.79 5000m), Irving Saladino (8.53m Long Jump), Andreas Thorkildsen (91.59m Javelin Throw), Debbie Ferguson McKenzie (11.22 100m), Sanya Richards (49.82 400m), Tirunesh Dibaba (14:30.40 5000m), Brigitte Foster-Hylton (12.70 100m Hurdles) and Blanka Vlasic (1.98m High Jump).

The biggest thrill for the Bislett crowd was naturally Thorkildsen's javelin success. Not only did he defeat a stellar field but his second round throw of 91.59m eclipsed his own recent Norwegian record of 90.13m and promoted him to sixth on the world all-time list behind Jan Zelezny (98.48m), Aki Parviainen (93.09m), Sergey Makarov (92.61m), Raymond Hecht (92.60m) and Kostadinos Gatsioudis (91.69m). The only Norwegian who wasn't delighted was Thorkildsen himself. "It wasn't a maximum throw; I can do better than this," he declared. However, although he did go on to win the season's three big events - the European title, World Athletics Final and World Cup - that remained his and the world's longest throw of 2006.

The most surprising result was perhaps Kenenisa Bekele's 5000m defeat at the hands of Songok, who had finished second to him in April's World Cross Country Championship Short Race (4km). For once the World record holder was comprehensively out-kicked as his Kenyan rival sped around the last lap in 54.52 to leave the Ethiopian over 15 metres behind. Five men broke 13 minutes, including the precocious Abreham Feleke (reportedly aged 16!), who improved from 13:25.65 to 12:59.53. Kenyans and Ethiopians filled the first 15 places in this race and East Africans also monopolized a great in-depth women's 5000m with the first nine in a race in which Tirunesh Dibaba covered the last lap in under 58 sec to win in a personal best time over her sister Ejegayehu (14:33.52), with 39 year-old Edith Masai smashing the Kenyan record with 14:33.84 in third place.

The most closely contested event of the meeting was the women's High Jump. With Kajsa Bergqvist unable to clear higher than 1.93m for fourth place, and Olympic champion Yelena Slesarenko third at 1.96m, the battle was between Vlasic and heptathlete Tia Hellebaut,. Both cleared 1.98m at the second attempt, a Belgian record for Hellebaut, and after three failures apiece at 2.00m a jump-off was ordered with the 1.92m tall Croatian coming out on top.  

Saint-Denis (Paris), France
8 July

Of the eleven athletes who won Golden League Jackpot events in Oslo, only four emerged from the Stade de France still in contention for the big prize. Alex Kipchirchir was beaten by Ivan Heshko in the 1500m (3:31.08 to 3:31.36) with Isaac Songok - the Oslo 5000m winner - opting for this event and placing fifth; Irving Saladino suffered the costly misfortune to lose his one and only Long Jump contest of the season by just two centimetres to Ignisious Gaisah (8.31m); and javelin thrower Andreas Thorkildsen suffered a rare off-day to place fourth as Tero Pitkämäki took the honours with 89.07m. On the women's side the casualties were Debbie Ferguson McKenzie, a distant fourth in the 100m won by a resurgent Marion Jones in 10.92, her best for four years; Brigitte Foster-Hylton, third to Susanna Kallur (12.61) in the 100m Hurdles; and Blanka Vlasic, who despite clearing the winning height of 2.00m wound up fourth on count-back behind Yelena Slesarenko, Kajsa Bergqvist and European champion-in-waiting Tia Hellebaut. 

Watched by a crowd of nearly 63,000, the four survivors performed brilliantly. Asafa Powell had some two and a half metres to spare over Marcus Brunson in his 9.85 100m, describing it as an "alright race ... I had hoped for a little more." Jeremy Wariner was far more fulfilled as he shaved his 400m personal best to 43.91, fastest in the world since his mentor and manager Michael Johnson won the 2000 Olympic title in 43.84. "It felt easy," he commented. "I shut it down with about ten metres left." He cited good strength training and greater leg speed, having cut his best 200m time from 20.59 to 20.19, as reasons for his improvement. 

Among the women the big winners were Wariner's training companion Sanya Richards, who clocked 49.73 for her 400m but was run uncomfortably close by Vanya Stambolova whose 49.96 was a Bulgarian record, and Tirunesh Dibaba (14:54.24 5000m) who needed to summon a spectacular 57 sec last lap to get the better of arch-rival Meseret Defar, the new World record holder.

Kenenisa Bekele bounced back after his Oslo defeat with a resounding 5000m victory in 12:51.32 in a race which saw seven men inside 13 minutes including an Ethiopian junior record of 12:55.69 by his brother Tariku. Yuliya Chizhenko ran one of the world's quickest 1500m times of recent years with 3:55.68, and another Russian star, Yelena Isinbayeva, opened her outdoor season with a 4.76m Pole Vault win in a contest which featured the record number of eight women clearing at least 4.50m. Another highlight was the 110m Hurdles in which Terrence Trammell (13.06) and Dominique Arnold (13.08) temporarily held the world's two quickest times of the year. Close behind the American pair came Cuba's prodigiously talented Dayron Robles (13.46 in 2005) with a world age-19 best of 13.11 ahead of Liu Xiang (13.19) ... who would, just three days later in Lausanne, rock the world of athletics.

Rome, Italy
14 July 

All four jackpot contenders survived the third round before a 40,000 crowd, the headlines being seized by Jeremy Wariner who took another significant step towards becoming the fastest ever 400m runner. Having run 43.91 in Paris six days earlier, the 22-year-old Texan progressed to 43.62, a time bettered only by Michael Johnson (whose World record stands at 43.18), Butch Reynolds and Quincy Watts. Some thought Xavier Carter, the second quickest 200m runner of all time at 19.63 and a 44.53 400m performer, might trouble the Olympic and World champion but he tied up in the last 30 metres and was left over ten metres behind in 44.76.

Asafa Powell maintained his extraordinary standards with another 9.85 100m, winning by a good two metres; Sanya Richards took the 400m in 49.31 ahead of a personal best 49.65 by Novlene Williams with Vanya Stambolova cutting her Bulgarian record to 49.91; and Tirunesh Dibaba's sub-58 sec last lap in the 5000m (14:52.37) proved too fierce for Meseret Defar. 

Although the chance of sharing the main jackpot had gone, Kenenisa Bekele still had plenty of incentive in the 5000m as he was up against Isaac Songok, who had beaten him in Oslo, and steeplechase king Saif Saaeed Shaheen who has long believed he could become the world's best also at this distance. The race was the deepest ever for quality as ten men broke 13 minutes and Bekele proved he is still no 1 as he burst clear for victory, easing up, in 12:51.44. Qatar's Kenyan-born Shaheen set an Asian record of 12:51.98 with Songok third in 12:52.39. Tariku Bekele lowered his Ethiopian junior record to 12:53.81 and needed to as his even younger compatriot Abreham Feleke set an astonishing World youth best of 12:54.19. 

Four others joined Bekele as potential candidates for the subsidiary $500,000 share-out for five wins out of six. Irving Saladino (first round 8.45m Long Jump) turned the tables on Ignisious Gaisah although it was close as the Ghanaian reached a national record 8.43m in the fifth round, while Andreas Thorkildsen's final round Javelin Throw of 90.34m was too much for Tero Pitkämäki. Blanka Vlasic high jumped 2.00m to win on countback over Tia Hellebaut, who tied her Belgian record, and Susanna Kallur scored her finest 100m Hurdles victory to defeat world leader Michelle Perry in a personal best of 12.52. 

In other events, Amine Laalou comfortably held off redoubtable opposition to set a Moroccan 800m record of 1:43.25, and Daniel Kipchirchir Komen ran his quickest ever time of 3:29.02 to pip World champion Rashid Ramzi in the fastest 1500m of the year. The latter, who had led at 1200m in a World record threatening 2:46.27, had to settle for an Asian record of 3:29.14. A notable Steeplechase, won by Paul K Koech in 7:59.94, saw Daniel Lincoln break Henry Marsh's 1985 American record with 8:08.82 in fifth place.  

Zürich, Switzerland
18 August
  

A World record drought which had lasted nine years came to an end, as indeed did the fabled Letzigrund Stadium itself, at this edition of the Weltklasse. Asafa Powell was the athlete responsible as, for the third time, the 23-year-old Jamaican clocked 9.77 for 100m. Intrinsically it may have been his best run yet, for the wind reading was 1.0m/sec as against 1.6m in Athens last year and 1.5m in Gateshead in June, although Zürich’s 410 metre altitude (compared with 138m and 155m respectively at the other venues) is an advantage. Never before, in the electronic timing era, has an athlete produced three identical World record marks. Had he dipped for the finish line he might have set a new record, but he wasn't under any pressure even though behind him Tyson Gay - whose pre-2006 best stood at 10.06 - clocked 9.84. That not only took the American to fourth equal on the world all-time list (or third equal if Gatlin's 9.77 is rescinded - NOTE. Justin Gatlin (USA): on-going legal process regarding possible sanction for anti-doping violation) but with a 19.70 200m to his name, later reduced to 19.68, he became the fastest ever combination sprinter. 

Along with Powell, the other three in contention for the main jackpot kept their hopes alive. Jeremy Wariner found 44.20 sufficed for another 400m victory but his winning margin was slim this time as LaShawn Merritt, who had run a World low-altitude 300m best of 31.31 ten days earlier, set a personal best of 44.34. In the women's 400m Sanya Richards also had her hands full as she resisted the challenge of the newly crowned European champion Vanya Stambolova, 50.18 to 50.42, but in the absence of Meseret Defar there was no one to trouble Tirunesh Dibaba in a 14:45.73 5000m. 

Andreas Thorkildsen, Susanna Kallur and Blanka Vlasic lost their chance of being rewarded for winning at five Golden League meetings but Kenenisa Bekele and Irving Saladino stayed in the hunt. Saladino leapt 8.36m for a narrow Long Jump victory, while Bekele was pressed by Isaac Songok's lifetime best of 12:48.66 to register what was at the time a World leading 5000m mark of 12:48.25. 

That women's High Jump, with Tia Hellebaut, suffering an excusable reaction after the excitement of her shock European title win at 2.03m, placing only equal sixth with 1.94m, proved an exceptional contest. Kajsa Bergqvist took the lead with a first time clearance at 2.00m, whereas Venelina Veneva needed a second try, and the Swede looked to have the event sewn up when she followed with a faultless jump at 2.02m while her Bulgarian rival made it only at the final attempt. But it all changed at 2.04m. Veneva cleared her season's best at the first try but Bergqvist was eliminated. Veneva then had the bar raised to a World record 2.11m! 

Hellebaut may have been below par but four newly minted European champions brought off splendid victories: Periklis Iakovakis in the 400m Hurdles (47.92), Christian Olsson in the Triple Jump (17.39m), Virgilijus Alekna in the Discus Throw (68.51m) and Olga Kotlyarova in the 800m (1:58.69). In the men's 800m Bram Som maintained his inspired form, narrowly losing to Mbulaeni Mulaudzi (1:43.38) but setting a Dutch record of 1:43.45 in the process. 

Despite jogging in when he realised the World record had eluded him, Saif Saaeed Shaheen clocked 7:56.54 in the steeplechase, his eighth time inside 7:58 against six by the rest of the world combined. Although now representing Qatar, Shaheen was born a Kenyan and two very young men from that country made their mark in Zürich. Augustine Choge, a junior, won a star-studded 1500m in 3:32.72 and Nicholas Kemboi took the under-23 race in 3:33.72 for a World youth best.


Brussels, Belgium
25 August
 

It had no connection with the six athletes striving, and succeeding, to stay in the race for a jackpot share but the most memorable moment at the 30th edition of the Van Damme Memorial was a World relay record. Instead of the usual 800m race, a 4x800m event was placed on the programme to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a Belgian team setting a World record of 7:15.8 at the former Heysel Stadium. A British team of Peter Elliott, Garry Cook, Steve Cram and Seb Coe had held the current record of 7:03.89 since 1982 and in the intervening years it was assumed that Kenya with its seemingly limitless supply of world class 800m runners would one day take possession. That day arrived at last and Joseph Mutua (1:46.73 for his leg), William Yiampoy (1:44.38), Ismael Kombich (1:45.92) and Wilfred Bungei (1:45.40) gratefully seized the opportunity with a time of 7:02.43. Not that it was any exhibition run; it was a true race with an American team of Jebreh Harris, Khadevis Robinson (1:44.03 for the fastest split), Sam Burley and David Krummenacker also finishing inside the old figures with 7:02.82.

In this penultimate Golden League meeting, tension ran high for the "big four" - and all defeated their nerves as well as the opposition. Despite being left in the blocks, giving away two metres to some of his rivals, Asafa Powell prevailed over 100m in 9.99, and in doing so surpassed USA’s Maurice Greene’s total of 9 wind legal sub-10 second clockings for 100m, which since 1999 has been the best ever single season of that stature by a 100m sprinter; Jeremy Wariner coasted to a 44.29 400m; Sanya Richards took her 400m by a wide margin in 50.02; and Tirunesh Dibaba for once comfortably disposed of Meseret Defar in the 5000m (14:30.63). Her last lap was 58.38 and in an unevenly run race her three fastest kilometre splits added up to a personal best for 3000m of 8:25.28!

Having won at every meeting so far, this quartet were now assured of at least a share of the $500,000 on offer for five victories in the series, while Kenenisa Bekele (with the world's quickest 5000m of the year at 12:48.09) and Irving Saladino (8.31m Long Jump) notched up their fourth wins to keep alive their financial aspirations. 

Brussels traditionally lays on notable 10,000m races and this year was no exception as Micah Kogo, aged 20 and running only his second race at the distance, uncorked a 58.2 last lap for victory in the year's fastest time of 26:35.63 for sixth place on the World all-time list. Zersenay Tadesse was second with an Eritrean record of 26:37.25. Other classy action included a 19.79 200m by Tyson Gay, thus becoming the first man ever to break 19.85 in three consecutive races, a 10.95 100m by Sherone Simpson, and a World record Pole Vault attempt at 5.03m by Yelena Isinbayeva, the winner at 4.81m. 

Fittingly for a meeting commemorating the all too brief life of a great Belgian athlete, two local stars emerged winners, to the delight of the capacity 47,000 crowd. European champions Kim Gevaert took the 200m in 22.68 and Tia Hellebaut finished first in the High Jump at 1.98m on count-back against Venelina Veneva with Kajsa Bergqvist third to send the fans home happy.

Berlin, Germany
3 September

Tirunesh Dibaba tripped at the final hurdle but the other three contenders for the big jackpot prize cleared the last barrier faultlessly as the Golden League for 2006 reached its climax in Berlin's Olympic Stadium. Asafa Powell, Jeremy Wariner and Sanya Richards thus won almost exactly $250,000 each, made up of one-third apiece of the $500,000 available to athletes who won at all six meetings plus a further one-sixth portion of the other $500,000 on offer for at least five victories. The three big winners shared that bounty with Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele and Irving Saladino, who came away with $83,333 each.

Powell sped to a 9.86 into a slight headwind, his eleventh wind legal sub-10.00 in 2006 ... and he would add a twelfth in the World Athletics Final. His victory also maintained an unbeaten sequence stretching back to July 2005 when he pulled up injured in London. Tyson Gay was second, a good metre down, in 9.96. Wariner, another master of high level consistency, produced his tenth sub-45 400m in a row (no 11 would follow at the World Athletics Final), clocking 44.26 with the seemingly indefatigable Gary Kikaya a fine runner-up in another national record of 44.43. Just to underline the magnitude of Wariner's achievement this year, it was his eighth time inside 44.30 (a ninth came in Stuttgart), a standard which eluded even Michael Johnson. The similarly undefeated Jamaican-born Richards dominated her 400m field to score by over a second in 49.81. Her best run was still to come: an American record of 48.70 in the World Cup. 

Dibaba's was the hard luck story, as her narrow defeat in the 5000m by her arch-rival, Meseret Defar, cost her $125,000! It was a slow race by their standards, Defar getting home by a couple of metres in 15:02.51, but the speed of the last lap was astonishing. Dibaba ran 57.38 but still was outpaced by Defar, whose time of 56.9 would not be disowned by many an international class male distance runner. Ethiopians filled the first four places in this race and the first three in the corresponding men's event where Kenenisa Bekele was out on his own for the last 3000m and finished 50 metres clear of his brother Tariku. A close third was Abreham Feleke (also known as Cherkos), credited with World youth bests of 7:32.37 for 3000m and 12:54.19 for 5000m this season. 

The other subsidiary jackpot winner, Saladino, opened with a jump of 8.35m, his only valid effort but sufficient for success. He will forever rue that single defeat, by just two centimetres to Ignisious Gaisah in Paris, which cost him so dearly. The man from Panama went on to win also in the World Athletics Final and World Cup for a season's total of 15 victories in 16 contests with a worst mark of 8.26m. Elsewhere in the jumping department the Australian Pole Vault duo of Commonwealth champion Steve Hooker and Paul Burgess clearly defeated the best Europe and the USA could offer with clearances of 5.96m (a personal best) and 5.91m respectively, while a lively women's High Jump saw Tia Hellebaut finish ahead of Kajsa Bergqvist after both made 2.00m.

Mel Watman for the IAAF