Chinese athletes couldn’t quite deliver their presents on time to celebrate the 70th birthday of the People's Republic of China on Tuesday, with walkers Hong Liu and Rui Liang getting to the party prematurely with victories last weekend and Gong Lijiao arriving late after shot put gold on Thursday.
No matter, they were still welcome guests to the festivities with Gong’s gold being arguably even more cherished than her two compatriots as China had been primed for women’s javelin favourite Lyu Huihui to stand on top of the podium on Day 5 in Doha, coinciding with China’s National Day, only for the luckless Lyu to finish third.
Looking for a timely triumph to herald, local TV at home made Gong’s defence of her title headline news, get athletics even more attention in the mainstream media in the wake of the recent boost to the sport from the knock-on effect of the IAAF World Athletics Championships Being 2015 and the Diamond League in Shanghai.
However, retaining her title – and emulating the feat of her compatriot Huang Zhihong who won back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1993 – was certainly a much harder deal than getting her initial win two years ago in London, when Gong also started as the big favourite, both metaphorically and physically considering her 110kg frame.
On that occasion she reached 19.94m to defeat her nearest rival, Hungary’s Anita Marton by a comfortable 45cm.
Difficulties before delight
This time around, it was much, much closer, and it wasn’t Marton – who was to eventually finish fifth – who pushed her but Jamaica’s Danniel Thomas-Dodd, whose last round 19.47m was just eight centimetres shy of Gong’s winning fourth round effort of 19.55m.
“The distance is a bit low and it was worse than I expected. I was lucky,” appraised Gong, sobbing with delight and relief after taking the gold medal albeit with the shortest winning distance in IAAF World Athletics Championships history.
“But it’s great to finish the season with a win at a major championship and despite the difficulties of the competition, this gives me a lot of confidence going forward to next year and the Tokyo Olympics.”
Gong herself has thrown farther than she did in Doha in no less than four other competitions this summer, including winning the Diamond League title in Zurich at the end of August with a world-leading 20.31m.
However, despite not fulfilling her own high standards in Doha, she was far from unhappy and content to provide a sanguine assessment of her performance.
Pressure cooking during competition
“You have your ups and downs. I have had them in the past and I know I’m not invincible. What I plan to do now is relax for a little while and the focus on building up to the Tokyo Olympics.”
“I felt under pressure because my main rival (Thomas-Dodd) was close behind me. I thought that if she had made a longer throw (than Gong’s fourth round effort, which was followed by a foul in the fifth) then it would be difficult to overtake her (with her last attempt).”
In the end it proved to be a moot point – and Gong took her head-to-head account against Thomas-Dodd to 13-1, with the only time the Jamaican has finished in front of Gong being the IAAF World Indoor Championships when they finished second and third respectively – as Gong had clinched the gold medal before she entered the circle for the last put of a tense and engaging competition which saw the putters enjoy being the sole focus of attention in the Khalifa Stadium for the final two rounds due to a hiatus in the late night programme.
The victory also took Gong’s 2019 tally to 13 wins in 14 outings this year, including a win at the Asian Championships in the same stadium back in May.
Like in 2019, Gong only suffered one loss in each of the 2017 and 2018 calendar years and has elevated herself to the position of the world’s most dominant women’s shot putter during the last three years after her fourth place at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games acted as a spur to raising her game even further even though she had also won medals at the three previous IAAF World Athletics Championships in Daegu, Moscow and Beijing.
History in the making?
The next big challenge on the horizon is to now confirm her current supremacy at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
No Chinese putter, of either gender, has won an Olympic title although Gong is among three women who have come close, taking the silver in 2012 with Huang in 1992 and Sui Xinmei in 1996 also finishing second, so making another little piece of Chinese sporting history beckons.
“I have been throwing for 19 years, since I was 11, and I have yet to achieve my dream and that’s to win at the Olympic Games, that’s why I’m hanging in there,” added Gong.
"The Rio setback hit me pretty hard at the time. It came after I had got medals in Beijing and London, I had high expectations, but I didn’t recognise myself when I saw a video of that competition. It took me a long time to walk out of that shadow,” said Gong, who has mentioned in the past that she cried all the way to the airport in Rio before taking her flight home.
“But that disappointment also motivated me to work harder. What happened in Rio is why I have improved since then.”
Phil Minshull for the IAAF