LaShawn Merritt wins the 400m title by almost one second to lead a US sweep with Jeremy Wariner in second and David Neville in third (Getty Images) © Copyright
[Note: A version of this story originally appeared in The IAAF Magazine, Vol 24, No. 2, August 2009.]
Two of the more indelible moments at the 2007 World Championships were produced by a pair of that season’s most dominant athletes.
The first came in the final of the women’s 800 metres, when Kenyan Janeth Jepkosgei produced a sterling 1:56.04 performance, winning by nearly a full second, to cap her sensational breakout season.
Wariner, the defending World and Olympic champion, continued his rise in the 400 metres, winning by more than half a second in 43.45, to become the third fastest ever over the distance. With their sensational victories, the two seemed destined for Olympic glory the following year in Beijing.
But as the saying goes, ‘What a difference a year makes.’
A pre-season favourite for the Olympic title and the AF Golden League Jackpot, Jepkosgei, along with the rest of the athletics world, watched it all be snatched away by an unlikely challenger who hadn’t even contested the event Jepkosgei captured the World title in Osaka. Teenaged prodigy Pamela Jelimo would go on to produce one of the most sensational breakouts the sport has ever witnessed, striking gold in Beijing and leaving her compatriot well behind as the silver medallist.
For Wariner, the challenge hardly came out of the blue. His rival, fellow American Lashawn Merritt, simply came of age and moved up a step from Osaka when beating Wariner to gold, to provide the sport with a head-to-head rivalry that has the potential to be the greatest in a generation.
As Berlin approaches, Jepkosgei and Wariner will be looking to bounce back, yet despite their prodigious talent, history will not necessarily be on their side. In the women’s 800, only two women have managed to win back-to-back titles, and in the men’s 400, only one other man besides Wariner has managed the feat.
Jepkosgei will be aiming to add her name to the short list composed of Cuban Ana Quirot, who took the global crown in 1995 and 1997, and legendary Mozambican Maria Mutola, who after her first title in 1993, took consecutive victories in 2001 and 2003. For his part, Wariner will be looking to edge one step closer to emulating his manager and mentor Michael Johnson, who collected an astounding four straight World titles from 1993 to 1999.
Along with Jepkosgei and Wariner, there is a long list of athletes who’ll be looking to bounce back from Olympic defeat in Beijing to retain their global title from Osaka. On the track they include American Tyson Gay in the 100m, Tero Pitkamaki of Finland in the javelin, Alfred Kirwa Yego of Kenya in the 800m, Bernard Lagat in the 1500m, Kerron Clement in the 400m Hurdles, Allyson Felix in the women’s 200 and Maryam Jamal in the 1500m. On the infield, the spotlight will fall on Brad Walker in the Pole Vault, Reese Hoffa in the Shot Put, Blanka Vlašic in the High Jump, Tatyana Lebedeva in the Long Jump, Yargelis Savigne in the Triple Jump, and Betty Heidler in the Hammer Throw.
But looking back since the World Championships took on their current two-year cycle, the list of athletes who have managed to preserve their World title after suffering an Olympic defeat is quite short indeed. Indeed, only four have managed the feat.
In the 1500, Bernard Lagat, who failed to qualify for the final in Beijing, will be able to look to Nourredine Morceli for inspiration. After racing to victory in 1991, the Algerian was a distant seventh at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, but came back to take his second of three World titles in 1993.
Brad Walker, who no-heighted in Beijing, can console himself in the fact that history’s greatest vaulter, Sergey Bubka, made a habit of bouncing back from Olympic disappointment. In 1992 the Ukrainian no-heighted in Barcelona and in 1996 an injury kept him from advancing beyond his warm-up, but he nonetheless came back to win the World titles in both 1993 and 1997, part of his unprecedented consecutive World championships streak from1983 through 1997.
Reese Hoffa, a distant seventh in Beijing, will be looking to follow the example of recently-retired compatriot John Godina, who successfully defended his title in the shot put in 2001 after taking the bronze in Sydney in 2000.
Czech Roman Šebrle, who was sixth in Beijing, can look close to home for an example to follow. His compatriot Tomas Dvorak defended his Decathlon title in 2001 – his third straight – after finishing sixth at the Sydney Games.
For the others aiming to put Beijing disappointment behind them, they’ll be the ones hoping to set the comeback precedent. But in many of their cases as well, the same holds true: ‘What a difference a year makes.’
As illustrated by his thrilling 100/200 dash double in Osaka, Tyson Gay was the dominant short sprinter in 2007, but with a short recovery period after suffering an injury at the US trials, he landed in Beijing in less than optimal shape. There, he didn’t advance from the semifinals, but if he had, he would had to face Usain Bolt, who wound up redefining the sprints after stealing the spotlight of the entire Olympic Games. Even if he’s back to full fitness this season, he’ll still face the daunting Bolt juggernaut in Berlin.
Clement took the silver in Beijing, an admirable follow-up to his Osaka victory, but he’ll again have to tackle fierce competition from home with whom he shared the Olympic podium. Olympic champion Angelo Taylor will be difficult to beat, while Bershawn Jackson, the man Clement succeeded as World champion, has displayed the most solid early season form thus far.
For Blanka Vlašic of Croatia, who lost on countback to Tia Hellebaut in Beijing, the Belgian may no longer be in the picture, but she’ll face a new rival who has risen quickly through the ranks to emerge as a world beater. Ariane Friedrich has already beaten Vlašic in major head-to-heads, and jumping at home in Berlin, will be difficult to beat.
Allyson Felix’s victory in the women’s 200 was one of the most dominating in Osaka, but she was well beaten in Beijing by Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown, who cruised to her second Olympic title. Already the reigning World champion in the 100, Campbell-Brown is still chasing her first World 200m title, considered by many her better event.
After taking a thrilling victory in the 1500 in Osaka, Maryam Jamal finished more than two-and-a-half seconds behind winner Nancy Lagat in Beijing. In Berlin, the Bahraini will attempt to become only the second back-to-back metric mile champion.
In the Long Jump, history won’t be on Tatyana Lebedeva’s side. Only one woman has ever won consecutive titles in an event which often springs surprises. The same holds true for Cuban Yargelis Savigne in the Triple Jump, where only Lebedeva has managed to successfully defend a World title.
Betty Heidler was among the many surprise winners in Osaka, but with a crowded field of consistent throwers, this year led by Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk, the German will he hoping for some help from the German home crowd expected to pack Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
The task will be a difficult one for Tero Pitkamaki as well, who’ll be looking to comeback from his Beijing loss to archrival Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway and Latvian Ainars Kovals. Not in the Finn’s favor is the fact that only one man, three-time winner Jan Zelezny, history’s finest thrower, has ever managed to retain a title in the javelin.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF
- LaShawn Merritt wins the 400m title by almost one second to lead a US sweep with Jeremy Wariner in second and David Neville in third (Getty Images) © Copyright
- Tero Pitkämäki's acrobatics in Lappeenranta (Paula Noronen) © Copyright
- Jeremy Wariner just manages to hold off a strong challenge from LaShawn Merritt (Getty Images) © Copyright
- Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway competes in the Men's Javelin (Getty Images) © Copyright
- Pamela Jelimo and Janeth Jepkosgei dominate the women's 800m final (Getty Images) © Copyright