Wang Jianan in the long jump at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Beijing, China

Wang could be China’s next big athletics star

In taking the bronze medal in the long jump on Tuesday, China’s Wang Jianan broke more than one record.

Before the World Championships, Wang – who turned 19 on Thursday (27) – was not considered to be a serious medal candidate. But it’s not as though he came out of nowhere, having jumped an Asian junior record of 8.25m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai in May.

His last three meetings before Beijing – 7.88m in Hengelo, 7.71m in Geneva and 7.89m in Beijing – did not suggest that he’d be capable of reaching the final, let alone challenging for a medal. In addition, Wang was also suffering from a hamstring injury and some technical problems.

But, come the time of the championships, all of that did not prevent the youngster from getting into the record books.

Traditionally, it has been rare for young athletes to win medals in the men’s long jump at global championships. Aside from USA’s 19-year-old Randy Williams winning Olympic gold in 1972 and Jamaica’s 20-year-old James Beckford taking World Championships silver in 1995, the long jump has been the domain of the more experienced athlete.

Not even winning a world junior title – as Wang did last year in Eugene – is a guarantee for making it to a senior championship one year later. Yet Wang did not simply ‘compete’ in Beijing; he qualified for the final and won a medal.

Most world junior long jump champions take longer to break through. 2012 winner and world junior record-holder Sergey Morgunov did not make the Russian team for the 2013 or 2015 World Championships. The 2008 winner, USA’s Marquise Goodwin, took four years to qualify for a senior championships final, while 2006 champion Robbie Crowther made it to the 2011 World Championships but was some way off making the final.

The last man to take a senior medal after winning the world junior long jump title is Italy’s Andrew Howe, who won the 2004 world junior title and then three years later took silver in Osaka with an 8.47m PB.

Wang also became the first Asian athlete to win a medal in the men’s long jump at the World Championships. Two athletes – the latest being Li Jinzhe in Sopot last year – have done it indoors, but before last night’s bronze medal, the best Asian performance outdoors at the World Championships was the fifth place by Saudi-Arabian Hussein Taher Al-Sabee in 2003.

Wang, like the whole Chinese trio in Beijing, is co-coached by Zhao Lei and USA’s Randy Huntingdon, the man who guided triple jump legend Willie Banks and long jump world record-holder Mike Powell. The veteran coach seems to have had a good effect, because Wang’s jumping at the Bird’s Nest stadium was extremely consistent, producing his second, third and fourth best ever jumps in the most important competition of the season.

Born in Shenyang, Liaoning province, on 27 August 1996, Wang started out not as a long jumper, but as a pole vaulter. He moved to the city of Xuzhou in Jiangsu province – some 600km north of Shanghai – to attend an athletics school in 2011 and was introduced to the combined events.

Then, after completing the first – and last – decathlon of his career, at a national competition in Zhaoqing in 2012, the coaches noted his ability to long jump. Ever since that summer, he has concentrated solely on that event.

The then 16-year-old scored a respectable 7063 in the decathlon with senior implements in that competition, the second-best performance in the world among youth athletes in 2012. In addition to the long jump personal best of 7.80m, he also excelled in other events within that decathlon, running 10.88 in the 100m, clearing a PB of 5.00m in the pole vault, and leaping 1.94m in the high jump.

He went on to compete for one final time in the pole vault at the national youth championships, where he won the title with 4.85m. But he ended his season by surprising all of his country’s top long jumpers when winning the national senior title with a PB of 8.04m. Aged 16 years and 26 days, it was his first leap beyond eight metres.

He focused exclusively on the long jump from the start of 2013, and won his first senior Asian title with a 7.95m season’s best in July, but then did not qualify for the final in Moscow at his first World Championships.

Last year started brighter, with Wang jumping his first eight-metre leap indoors (8.02m). Following an outdoor opener and PB of 8.10m, he easily won the world junior title in Eugene with 8.08m.

Having already achieved so much while still a teenager, and now seemingly settled on one event, it will be fascinating to see how far – both literally and figuratively – Wang will go in future.

Mirko Jalava for the IAAF