Our end-of-year event review series concludes as statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava look back on the best sprint performances of the year.
When it comes to men’s 100m sprinting, 2017 most likely was the end of a memorable era. Not simply because Usain Bolt said his official goodbye with a bronze medal at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 but because the other four sprinters that have spoiled us with extraordinary performances for more than a decade – Justin Gatlin, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay and Yohan Blake – have also reached the twilight of, or even ended, their careers.
Between 2005 and 2015 this quintet produced all but two of the 40 legal sub-9.80 performances of all time. No new sub-9.80s have been witnessed in the past two years and in the three preceding years only Gatlin (six times) and Bolt (twice) have managed it. So the writing has been on the wall for some time and it should be no surprise as superfast sprinting takes it toll physically.
Gatlin, Bolt and Blake finished first, third and fourth in London but they were not as outstanding as before, but rather on par with the other finalists. So when the 2019 World Championships in Doha comes along, a new generation should have taken over the reins. The interesting question is whether it will include athletes who are able to match the performance levels of the fantastic five.
Who are the main candidates? The two most obvious names from those born in the mid-1990s are world silver medallist Christian Coleman and Olympic bronze medallist André De Grasse. Coleman ran 9.82 this year, a time only the aforementioned five sprinters have surpassed in the past six years. De Grasse – who missed London due to injury – ran 9.69 wind-aided, a time only Bolt and Gay have ever surpassed regardless of conditions.
With Usain Bolt choosing to pass on his favourite (and best) distance in his final season, the 200m at the World Championships looked to be a match-up between Canada’s Olympic silver medallist De Grasse and Olympic 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk who was attempting the tough double.
An untimely injury in July kept De Grasse out of London while Van Niekerk, in his sixth race in as many days, found himself involved in an a blanket finish with Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev and Trinidad & Tobabo’s Jereem Richards in the 200m final. The photo finish showed Guliyev to be the winner by 0.02 from Van Niekerk who had an 0.001 (!) advantage on Richards.
It was a first ever senior global 200m medal for each, but their background couldn’t have been more different: Guliyev was in his first global final as a 19-year old in 2009, Van Niekerk was a two-time world 400m champion while Richards was a complete newcomer on this stage. The 23-year-old came into 2017 with a 20.58 PB set three years earlier, ran 20.31 indoors in March, 19.97 outdoors in May and his 20.05 in the heats was actually the overall top time in London.
Richards is definitely an exciting prospect for the future but he needs to look out for at least two US runners, neither of whom he faced in London: Coleman, the 100m silver medallist, and Noah Lyles.
Coleman set a 19.85 PB and defeated Richards twice in collegiate competitions. Lyles missed the main part of the summer due to injury but took an impressive 19.90 win at the Shanghai stop of the IAAF Diamond League in May and returned in September to win the IAAF Diamond League final in 20.00 with Guliyev third.
Van Niekerk is well on his way to becoming an all-time great. While his victory at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 was an upset, his world record from lane eight at the Olympic Games in Rio was sensational. And now, at the 2017 World Championships, the South African used his trademark 'slowing down less in the closing stages' to emphatically retain his world title.
Traditionally the USA has dominated the event but in the past seven global finals they have averaged just one participant. A pivotal moment came at the 2012 Olympics which was run with no US finalist while Grenada’s Kirani James became first runner from outside the USA to go sub-44.
Since then, the score for 'USA vs the rest of the world' in new sub-44 runners stands at 1-5. The all-time standing is 10-6 in favour of the USA but the trend is clear.
In London the USA had to be content with an eighth place in the final for their latest rising star, Fred Kerley, who improved from 45.10 to 43.70 over the course of the year.
In August, Kerley paid for a brutally tough season where he ran 25 competitive 400m races from February to June: 15 individual races – the fifth fastest was 44.11, the slowest 45.21 – plus 10 relay legs. Van Niekerk on the other hand came into London with just six 400m appearances of which only two were sub-46.
Is a US revival in the cards? With collegiate demands behind him, Kerley should be a regular main player on the global scene while the country’s depth – 44.51 for fifth at their 2017 championships – is impressive. But improving championship ability is necessary: all three US runners were some half a second slower in London than at their trials.
The opposition will remain formidable. The next four who followed Van Niekerk across the line in London – Steven Gardiner, Abdalelah Haroun, Baboloki Thebe and Nathon Allen – were under 22 at the time of the final so most likely will be around, and even better, in the future. And let’s not forget Kirani James, who missed 2017 due to illness or Isaac Makwala, sidelined by illness from the London final.
Elaine Thompson was unbeaten in the 100m in 2016, which she crowned by winning the Olympic title in Rio. The start of the summer of 2017 was similar and everything pointed towards another major title for the 25-year-old Jamaican as the IAAF World Championships approached.
She won all six finals prior to London, including a world-leading 10.71 at the Jamaican Championships in June, the same time that propelled her to Olympic gold and a scant 0.01 slower than her personal best set in 2016.
In London, however, Thompson was among the unlucky athletes struck by illness. Despite those problems, she was able to run in the final, but well below her normal level, finishing fifth in 10.98. After London, Thompson continued where she left off prior to the World Championships, winning races in Birmingham and in Brussels to take the IAAF Diamond League title.
Behind Thompson, there were several athletes who could have challenged for a medal. The two strongest were Marie Josée Ta Lou from Ivory Coast, who was fourth in both the 100m and 200m in Rio and this season finished second in most meetings where Thompson won. The other was Dafne Schippers, who won 100m silver at the 2015 World Championships.
In London, however, it was 27-year-old Tori Bowie, the 2015 world bronze medallist and Olympic silver medallist, who triumphed, winning her first major individual title in 10.85. Ta Lou took silver in 10.86 to equal her personal best and Schippers the bronze in 10.96.
Here, Bowie began the season in convincing fashion, first winning in Gainesville in 22.09 and then 21.77 in Eugene at the Prefontaine Classic, the fastest performance in the world in 2017. That, however, was more or less Bowie’s season over the distance. She finished third at the US Championships to earn a place on the London-bound squad, but did not start her heat there.
The second fastest athlete in the world was Shaunae Miller-Uibo, who broke the 22-second barrier for the first time. The 23-year-old Bahamian first ran a wind-aided 21.90 in April and then set a 21.91 national record in Eugene for second behind Bowie. Schippers, meanwhile, was not as fast as she was prior to Rio last season, but did win her last two pre-London meetings in Oslo (22.31) and then Lausanne in 22.10, a season’s best.
In the London final Schippers led off of the curve and held on to take her second consecutive world title in 22.05, another season’s best. Marie Josée Ta Lou won the silver in 22.08, a national record, while Miller-Uibo, who almost caught the leading duo at the finish line, won her first major 200m medal in 22.15. The Bahamian went on to win in Zürich in 21.88, another national record, to grab the IAAF Diamond League title.
The United States was the top country in the women’s 400m with three sub-50-second athletes and another at exactly 50.00 on their World Championships team. The main favourite was, however, Miller-Uibo, the Olympic champion.
The Bahamian was strong in the three races she competed in prior to London, winning each with sub-50-second runs. She started with a 49.77 win in Shanghai, followed by 49.86 in Székesfehérvár, Hungary, and 49.80 in Rabat. The 23-year-old was second in Beijing two years earlier.
As the defending world champion, Allyson Felix did not have to compete at the US Championships. She only raced twice over 400m, winning at the Racers Grand Prix in Kingston in June in 50.52 and then at a much bigger arena, clocking 49.65 at July’s IAAF Diamond League meeting in London.
Other US runners in London were Quanera Hayes, who won the US title in a 49.72 personal best, Olympic 4x400m champion Phyllis Francis, who clocked 49.96 at the US Championships, and 21-year-old Kendall Ellis, who finished third at the US Championships with a 50.00 personal best.
In the London final, Miller-Uibo started too fast, leading the race by a wide margin early before fading badly in the final 20 metres to ultimately finish fourth in 50.49. Francis emerged as the surprise winner in 49.92, a personal best and the third sub-50 performance of her career. Salwa Eid Naser, a 19-year-old from Bahrain who took the 2015 world U18 title, produced a major surprise with her runner-up finish. The youngster had only run 50.59 before the World Championships and in London broke the national record in every round: 50.57 in the heats, 50.08 in the semi-finals and 50.06 for silver in the final. Felix was third in 50.08, her first World Championships bronze over the distance after taking gold in 2015 and silver in 2011.
Miller-Uibo bounced back quickly, winning in Brussels with a 49.46 world leader to take the IAAF Diamond League title. Eid Naser clocked 49.88 for second, an Asian U20 record and her first foray into sub-50 territory.
Mirko Jalava (women’s events) and A Lennart Julin (men’s events) for the IAAF