Three highlights from the opening weekend at the IAAF World Championships
For athletics fans, the opening weekend of this year’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing provided plenty of drama. A few key takeaways from the first three days of action:
1. Top Marathoners Can’t Take the Heat
The men’s marathon, the first event of the championships, was a sober reminder that, of all the external factors that can impact long distance races, none is more debilitating than hot weather. Unlike the major annual races, championship marathons generally take place in summer where warm, humid conditions can produce unexpected results and decimate even the strongest of fields.
So it was on Saturday morning in Beijing, where temperatures and humidity levels were already in the low 70s before the gun went off. In a race featuring most of the biggest names in marathoning, the eventual winner was a relatively unknown teenager from Eritrea named Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, whose 2:12:28 finishing time is downright pedestrian compared to what it takes to win Boston or New York. (How slow was this race? At the 5K mark, the man leading wasn’t even an official competitor, but an entrant in a local 10K fun run, which had started at the same time.)
67 runners lined up at the start in front of Yongdingmen Gate and 25 did not finish, including Dennis Kimetto and Wilson Kipsang, the men responsible for the two fastest marathons of all time. Kipsang later tweeted, “I gave it my all, but the heat got the better of me and I had to drop out. Thanks for all the support.”
2. Mo Farah Might Actually Be Unbeatable
While the pre-race favorites crashed out of the men’s marathon on Saturday morning, the men’s 10,000 meters on Saturday night affirmed what we already knew: Mo Farah is among the best track runners of his generation. In his sixth consecutive gold medal performance at a major championship, the 32-year-old Briton defeated the cream of East Africa’s running talent with a blazing 54-second last lap to separate himself from a Kenyan trio who had worked together to push the pace.
Farah’s winning time of 27:01.13 was the fastest he’d ever run in an Olympic or World Championship final–races that normally tend to skew more tactical and favor strong finishers. Geoffrey Kamworor, Paul Tanui, and Bedan Karoki, the three Kenyans who finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th, respectively, shared the lead for most of the race in the hope of taking Farah out of his comfort zone and not allowing him to employ a “sit-and-kick” strategy.
It didn’t work. While the Kenyans were successful in forcing a fast race in warm conditions, they were not able to break Farah, who had the lead going into the bell lap and finished strong for the win.
Farah will no doubt be the favorite again in Saturday’s 5,000 meter final, where he will attempt to complete the 5,000/10,000 double–a feat he already accomplished at the London Olympics in 2012 and the Moscow World Championships in 2013.
Perhaps more than anything else, it is Farah’s versatility that makes him so unstoppable; in his 30s, he has shown that he can run world-class times in almost every distance. As Nicholas Thompson noted Monday in an article on newyorker.com, “He’s stronger than anyone who’s faster than him, and he’s faster than anyone who’s stronger than him.”
3. Bolt Takes Round 1
Leading up to these world championships, no matchup was more hyped than Usain Bolt vs. Justin Gatlin, two star sprinters who have each won gold at the Olympic and world championship levels. For most of this season, however, it looked as though Gatlin was the man to beat; at age 33, with two doping bans behind him, the controversial New York native has been dominating the competition of late, with multiple Diamond League victories and a 28-race unbeaten streak. The Jamaican world record holder, on the other hand, has been struggling to find the form that made him the greatest sprinter of all time.
Even in the lead up to Sunday’s 100-meter final, Gatlin appeared to be the clear favorite, winning his preliminary round and semifinal races comfortably, while Bolt stumbled in his semi-final to finish in a tie with Canadian phenom Andre De Grasse.
The final was a different story.
Gatlin was quickest out of the blocks, but Bolt had a decent start of his own and was able to bear down on the American in the final third of the race. With about 20 meters to go, Gatlin began to overstride and lose his form, as Bolt crossed the line one-hundredth of a second before his rival.
It couldn’t have been any closer. If this race is any indication, Thursday’s 200-meter final will likely be a thriller as well.