One characteristic of champions is that they often find a way to win, even when they shouldn’t. Goals against the run of play, the passing shot at full stretch on match point, willing oneself across the line or over the bar.
Conselsus Kipruto and Mutaz Essa Barshim provided wonderful examples one after the other on day eight of the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019. Each of these champions came to Doha facing uphill battles to retain their titles. Injury had laid both low in recent times. Both faced stern competition from worthy opponents. Yet both won.
Kipruto, at least, is making a habit of this. Last year he won the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich, again snatching victory from what seemed inevitable defeat.
That night Kipruto beat Soufiane El Bakkali despite losing a shoe on the first lap, twice conceding a break to his opponent, losing ground at the final water-jump and trailing off the final hurdle.
Despite all that – or, perversely, could it be because of all that – Kipruto somehow got himself to the line centimetres ahead of a despairing El Bakkali. Nobody saw that coming, least of all El Bakkali, whose arms were spread acclaiming a victory which had just evaporated before his own eyes.
At the Khalifa International Stadium, El Bakkali was once again one of Kipruto’s ‘victims’, but it was Lemecha Girma who took the biggest hit. He had gained the upper hand once he and Kipruto got past the Moroccan athlete down the back-straight. He led at the water-jump, led at the final hurdle. Then Kipruto really got to work, grinding down his opponent stride by stride and diving desperately to get to the line a hundredth of a second to the good.
This all came after an injury-blighted build-up which restricted Kipruto to just four races this year: two DNFs, a fifth and a seventh.
Barshim’s problem was the serious ankle injury he suffered mid-2018 which required surgery and lengthy rehabilitation. He was competing on home soil in Doha, but came into the competition with a season’s best of 2.27m.
Barshim faced strong opponents, men not inclined to concede him either victory or even misplaced sympathy. He was here to be beaten and it seemed any number might do it.
Qualifying brought a season’s best of 2.29m, a mark that was improved to 2.30m in the final after first-time clearances at 2.19m, 2.24m, 2.27m and 2.30m.
Things then started to unravel, or at least show signs they might. Barshim needed all three tries to get over 2.33m, a height Mikhail Akimenko and Maksim Nedasekau cleared first-up. Barshim now trailed and had to once again go higher than he had all season if he wanted to win.
To the delight of a packed stadium, Barshim boomed over 2.33m on the final attempt, then got 2.35m at the first. He had the lead, but lost it again as Akimenko retained his perfect record with a first-time clearance.
Barshim had to do it all over again at 2.37m. He did, again soaring clear with room to spare. When Akimenko could not match him, Barshim had secured a victory which, even a few days ago, looked out of his reach.
There have been other examples here. Kelsey-Lee Barber had endured a mediocre qualifying competition and five mediocre throws in the final before she produced a gold medal throw on the final attempt. Coach and husband Michael Barber had suggested she lengthen her run-up for the final throw and not over-reach.
“Trust the feel. Trust the rhythm,” was the mantra. Barber did and leapt from fifth to first and a gold medal.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won her fourth world 100m title here. The Jamaican star wasn’t returning from injury but from childbirth. She met strong opponents, took their best, and came out on top with a world-leading 10.71.
Finding a way, finding a way.
Christian Taylor also won a fourth world title in the triple jump. He fouled his first two jumps and even with his third got not much closer to the take-off board than being in the same stadium. His next effort was a 17.86m which put him into the lead and he improved to 17.92m to take out the win.
When things were going wrong, when teammate and perennial rival Will Claye was way out in front, Taylor still found a way to win.
So, too, did Muktar Edris in the 5000m. The man who closed the Mo Farah era by defeating the great Briton in the 5000m in London two years ago had done precious little this year. He faced opposition from younger teammates Selemon Barega and Telahun Bekele, as well as Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Canada’s Mo Ahmed.
A little more than three seconds covered the first six in a blanket finish. Yet it was again Edris who prevailed. He found a way to get to the line first, when form and logic said he shouldn’t have.
Again, give the last word to Conselsus Kipruto.
“At championships, I always believe that experience counts for a lot,” he said. “It’s not about shape. I set my mind and my heart very well. When I got to the start line, I told myself, ‘I’m going to do it’. This strong mentality helped me with the race.”
Len Johnson for the IAAF