Sally Pearson of Australia crosses the line in the women's 100 metres hurdles final (Getty Images) © Copyright
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2011 - End of Year Reviews – Hurdles

Monte CarloIn the fourth installment of their eight-part 2011 ‘End of Season’ review, Statisticians A. Lennart Julin (SWE) and Mirko Jalava (FIN) take an in-depth look at the HURDLES.

Men -

110m Hurdles

In 2010 this event was completely dominated by David Oliver who won all his 15 competitions and ran between 12.89 and 13.02 on no less than seven occasions – arguably the greatest season ever in the event, only rivalled by Dayron Robles in 2008 with 14 meets, seven at 12.87-12.97 but two losses).

But in 2010 both Robles (the 2008 Olympic champion) and Liu Xiang (the 2004 Olympic champion) battled injuries (Liu for the third year in a row) and only competed sparingly. However, with those two hopefully returning to their previous form a tremendously exciting three-way battle for supremacy was expected in 2011. After all, that trio was also the top-three of all time in the event, the only athletes to have ever dipped under 12.90.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. Oliver after a promising start with 12.94 in the Eugene stop of the Samsung Diamond League and a clear win in 13.04 at the US trials was obviously not fully fit when he joined the European tour in early July. He never won a meet and after narrowly loosing to Robles in the Paris Diamond League (both 13.09) he never ran faster than 13.19 for the rest of the season!

With Liu still nursing the Achilles tendon that has bothered him since 2008 and never joining the European tour, those great three-way battles never materialised. Robles was the dominant runner in Europe but usually ran 13.10 or thereabouts. The most notable thing in the pre-Daegu weeks was the rise of Jason Richardson who hade just snuck onto the World Championships team by finishing one-hundredth of a second in front of Terrence Trammell in the battle for the third place at the US Trials.

Richardson seemed to find a new “groove” in late July and in the last two Diamond League events he won convincingly in Stockholm and lost by a mere 0.04 to Robles in London – on both occasions leaving Oliver about a metre behind. But it still didn’t prepare observers for what would happen in Daegu where Richardson ended up crowned World champion.

However, to a large extent that triumph was due to strange circumstances as Robles actually finished first but was disqualified for impeding Liu in the lane to the right. It appeared that Liu had been on his way to pass the Cuban when being almost “grabbed” by the hand on Robles’ flailing left arm. Richardson two lanes further in never was affected and most likely would have got bronze if the interference between the other two hadn’t happened.However, now – due this unprecedented (body contact not resulting in a fall is not uncommon in this event but has never before caused such tough “legal action” in a major meet) DQ – Richardson instead got the gold as Robles was disqualified for his infringement and as the undisputed sole victim Liu wasn’t compensated for being impeded. (From the fairness point of view the race ought to have been declared void to be re-run without Robles.)

In the post-Daegu season the 25-year-old Richardson did prove that he now belongs to the elite group by running four races in 13.04-13.16, only losing to Robles (twice). But it has been a much longer journey to this status for Richardson than for Robles who was also born in 1986. And this despite the fact that it was Richardson who won the World Youth title in 2003 with Robles eliminated already in the heats.

The 110m Hurdles remains very much a US property like it has been all through athletics history. In 2011 the USA had six in the top-10 and even more amazingly 15 in the top-24 (i.e almost two thirds!). One can wonder why this tradition has survived into this day and age while the US has lost their similarly strong grips upon e.g. especially the Pole Vault but also the 400m!

400m Hurdles

This is an event that seems to be looking for a new forerunner creating a renaissance for getting into the low-47’s. Looking at the world all-time list the top-six has remained untouched for 13 years and the latest modification to the top-10 occurred five years ago. Typically the gold and silver at the World championships went to runners – David Greene and Javier Culson – that had just 48.20 and 48.32 as their top times in 2011.

The only thing approaching something that could be called consistency at sub-48 was the first half of the year by L. J. Van Zyl who dipped under that barrier twice at home in South Africa (47.66 and 47.73) and twice in Europe (47.91 in Rome Diamond League and 47.65 in Ostrava).

The only other sub-48 times came in the US trials where Jeshua Anderson, Bershawn Jackson and Angelo Taylor had a blanket finish at 47.93-47.94; in the Monaco Samsung Diamond League where veteran (the 2000 and 2008 Olympic champion) Taylor got 47.97; and in the Pan-American Games where Cuba’s Omar Cisneros at high altitude lowered his previous yearly best by considerably more than a second to 47.99.

But those five sub-48 runners didn’t impress at all in Daegu where Van Zyl was third, half a second behind the winner; Jackson was sixth and Taylor seventh while neither Anderson nor Cisneros was even close to advancing from the semi-finals. The rather lacklustre current situation is also illustrated by former Olympic and World Champion Félix Sanchez who at age 34 was fourth in 48.87 missing the bronze by merely 0.07.World champion Greene impressed mostly by his consistency by running between 48.20 and 48.47 in six out of nine meets and never finishing outside of the top-3. But to challenge for the Olympic gold on home soil next summer Greene almost certainly must raise his game considerably. Discounting the boycotted 1980 games the slowest winning time in the last ten Olympics is 47.82 (way back in 1972 when it was a World record) and the average golden time is 47.45!!

The Olympic magic will almost certainly bring out some sub-47.50’s next year but it is very hard to tell by whom. Will it be the “old guard” through the likes of Jackson, Taylor and Kerron Clement (miserable season in 2011)? Or through some youngster suddenly bursting out of the US collegiate scene? Or through a steadily improving runner like South Africa’s 21 years old Cornel Fredericks? Or will Trinidad’s Jehue Gordon fulfill the promises he awoke when at age 17 finishing fourth in 48.26 at the 2009 Berlin Worlds? That mark, however, is still Gordon’s PB, now two years later.

Women –

The women’s hurdles witnessed a great season in both the 100m and 400m events with the World record under threat in both. The Daegu final in the 400m Hurdles was a great one and there were some other good performances, but the spotlight was still always on Australian Sally Pearson’s domination in the shorter 100m Hurdles event. The 25-year-old was unthinkably good winning races with a big margin throughout the season and especially in Daegu where she was just unstoppable.

100m Hurdles

The Queensland athlete has always been versatile and still competes in flat races during the early season in Australia maintaining great speed. Pearson, who competed as a gymnast before turning to athletics, has attended major championships as a sprinter as well. She won the bronze medal at the 2004 World Junior Championships in the 100m while finishing fourth in the 100m Hurdles and also set her 100m personal best 11.14 in the Osaka 2007 World Championships heats, making it all the way to the semifinals then.

Before Daegu Pearson had won one major medal, a silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but it was clear well before the 2011 World Championships that she could do better there. Pearson’s season before Daegu was untarnished in international competitions beginning in Lausanne at the end of June. A narrow wind-aided win there in 12.47 ahead of American Danielle Carruthers’ 12.48 started a series of competitions that will be hard to duplicate. The Australian won the next meet in Birmingham 10 days later, clocking an Oceania Area record 12.48 with Carruthers again in second clocking 12.52. Two meets were left before the World Championships – in Monaco she won in 12.51 and in London clocking 12.58.

In Daegu Pearson was just phenomenal. Already in the heats she showed that she was on a different level. Her performance in heat two, run into a headwind of 0.6 m/s, was something that’s very rarely seen at World Championships level. Pearson won the heat in 12.53 with a huge margin of 0.54 seconds before the 2006 World Indoor Champion (60m Hurdles), Derval O’Rourke of Ireland, finishing in 13.07 in second place. Of course then come the semifinals and one knew what to expect, but the Australian delivered a bit more again crushing her own Oceania record in the second semi clocking 12.36, beating reigning Olympic champion American Dawn Harper, who finished second, by 0.38. Another impossible race, but of course she would just get better in the final. There was no doubt who would win the race if Pearson would finish without crashing, but to get so close to the world record, just 0.07 seconds off, was still a surprise. She won in 12.28, making her the fourth athlete on the world all-time list.

Americans Carruthers and Harper both set personal bests in 12.47 for second and third place respectively, but neither could even think of beating Pearson. The super hurdler’s perfect record was only ruined in the last meet of the year in Brussels where she hit the sixth hurdle and fell down unable to finish the race. She had won two more meets after Daegu, in Zürich and Zagreb.

The United States is a clear number one in this event with 34 athletes in the world top 100. France has eight for second and Jamaica and Russia are tied for third with seven each.

400m Hurdles

In the 400m Hurdles the early season looked quite even for the top athletes. Czech surprise name Zuzana Hejnová was the early world leader having won the Paris Samsung Diamond League meet with a fast 53.29 national record. This was the second NR of the season for the multi-talented Czech, who also finished seventh at the 2011 European Indoor Championships in the Pentathlon. But her form went downwards after this meet and Hejnová was disappointed with just a seventh place finish in Daegu.

With the Czech out of the picture the track was open to the usual suspects. The reigning Olympic and World champion from Jamaica, Melaine Walker, had a very different start to her season. Walker did set a season’s best 53.56 with a third place finish in Eugene in June, but then lost by almost two seconds to Hejnová in Paris finishing fifth.

Another 28-year-old, like Walker, American Lashinda Demus was coming to the season hungry. Following a promising World Junior Championships gold in 2002 she had progressed to a World Championships silver in Helsinki in 2005. But after that she had to wait another four years before entering her next World Championships in Berlin 2009. She was a clear favourite there having run 52.63 in the last meet before the championships, but was comfortably beaten by Walker, who clocked a 52.42 Caribbean record for a clear win before Demus, who captured her second silver in 52.96.

2011 was another story altogether as Demus set an early season’s best 53.31 in Eugene in June, but did not run another fast race after that before Daegu. This strategy paid off as she ended up winning in Daegu with an American record 52.47, just 0.13 behind Yuliya Pechonkina’s (RUS) World record 52.34 and third place in the world all-time list behind the Russian and Walker.

A surprise bronze medallist in Daegu was Russian Natalya Antyukh, who made a successful move from the flat 400m to the hurdles right before the Berlin World Championships where she finished sixth. The 30-year-old had run the 400m hurdles as a junior and went on to win the European Championships in Barcelona last year in a fast 52.92 personal best. But it was still a surprise for her to win a medal as she had only run a 53.75 SB before the World Championships and got close to that in the final with 53.85.

Another disappointed athlete in the Daegu final was 24-year-old Kaliese Spencer, who repeated her fourth place finish from Berlin. While her result in Berlin was a good one, in Daegu she must have been very disappointed. Following a very well balanced early season with several fast races Spencer hit the jackpot in the last meet before Daegu in London winning in a super fast personal best 52.79. But it was not going to be her day in Korea as she first struggled to get to the final and then finished fourth in 54.01, well behind Antyukh.

United States is the number of country with 26 athletes in the world top 100. Russia has eight for second and Jamaica and surprisingly Japan are tied for third at seven.

Note: This year Julin covers the men's side of the action and Jalava the women's.