News29 Dec 2011

2011 End of Year Reviews - Sprints


Bolt runs to fastest 100m of 2011 (© Gladys Chai van der Laage)

Monte CarloStatisticians A. Lennart Julin (SWE) and Mirko Jalava (FIN) conclude their 2011 annual review with a look back at this past season’s action in the Sprints.

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This event has in the last few years gone through a completely unforeseen revolution statistically at the top levels. Whether it is something to be called a Bolt (or Powell?) effect is open for discussion but it is a fact that sub-10 times which previously were achieved on only special occasions by only a select handful of athletes now are almost viewed as “run-of-the-mill” marks. To be regarded as a true elite performance you have to venture into the 9.80s.

Some illustrative figures: After varying between five and nine (average 7.4) per year during the decade 1998-2007 the number of sub-10.00 runners (only legal wind counted) have been 14, 11, 13 and 20 in the last four years! Looking at sub-9.90 the corresponding numbers are between zero and five (average 2.2) in 1998-2007 followed by six, four, seven and finally in this year 10!

It is always amazing to see those kinds of patterns where a long period of statistical stability is followed by sudden development burst. Usually those cases have been seen in either field events (caused by technical innovations) or in distance running (some runner leading the way by attempting a pace no one else has dared previously). But in the 100m? An event where everybody always has run as fast as possible not having time or opportunity to worry about any mental barriers or “too fast” splits!

And there are no new “techniques” or significantly improved tracks or shoes to explain it. Why then are the top 100m runners of today about a tenth faster than they were just four or five years ago? That Usain Bolt might be “the talent of the millennium” can explain his brilliant record runs, but it doesn’t explain that also “everybody else” in the elite group is running significantly faster than their predecessors as late as 2006/2007.

A part of the explanation can perhaps be found in the new approach in Jamaica, who has always had the teenage talents but where only a select few that acquired scholarships to US colleges did progress to establish themselves on the senior world stage. It seems that Asafa Powell ushered in a new era in 2003/2004 by becoming the first “homegrown” world class sprinter from Jamaica.

Powell was then followed by Bolt and now it seems that every Jamaican talent prefers to stay and develop on the island rather than rushing off to the US at the first opportunity. Having the role models at home to try to emulate is an enormous advantage and with the medal and record success in recent years just about every young Jamaican who feels he has some sprint talent will be extremely motivated to exploit that talent.

The big breakthrough in 2011 for Yohan Blake is probably just the latest – not the last – example of the Jamaican new wave. That he got the Daegu gold when Powell (who beat Blake in the Jamaican Trials) was forced out by injury and when Bolt false started in the final is ample illustration of the depth of top sprinters in Jamaica. The new 4x100m Relay World record underlines this.

The major opponents to the Jamaican domination come from former World leader USA who however is struggling somewhat when it comes to finding someone capable of challenging for the 100m gold medals. Tyson Gay had another injury- troubled year and Walter Dix seems to be more of a 200m runner.

So they might even be more worried by the wave of sprinters coming out of the smaller Caribbean nations apparently inspired by the Jamaican example. Out of the ten best in the Daegu semifinals no less than seven came from the Caribbean area (Jamaica, Trinidad, St Kitts and Antigua with a combined population of about four million!). Trinidad and St Kitts also joined Jamaica in the top-6 at 4x100m.

By the way: What has happened to Cuban sprinting? They are not part of the Caribbean new wave despite having a great tradition with the likes of Enrique Figuerola and Silvio Leonard. Where are their heirs apparent?

Another – at least temporarily – lost sprint tradition is that of Nigeria. In the 1980s and 1990s they had athletes like Chidi Imoh, the Ezinwa twins, Seun Ogunkoya, Olapade Adeniken, Deji Aliu et al and the Nigerian all-time list has Imoh in just eighth place despite having run 10.00. In 2011 there were only two Nigerians in the world top-100 (at 10.21 or better). The tie for 28th place for Egwere Ogho-Ogene at 10.06 is also somewhat flattering as his second best mark in 2011 was 10.23.

But Nigeria is not alone in Africa in having problems at the moment with producing world class sprinters. Despite the West African roots of the successful US and Caribbean sprinters nothing is currently coming out of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon etc. The top African 100m runner was instead Zimbabwe’s Long Jump specialist Ngoni Makusha who won the US collegiate title in 9.89 and who reached the semis in Daegu.

In Europe the leading nation has for a long period been the UK but it seems that they now have been replaced by France thanks to two exceptional youngsters: Christophe Lemaitre and Jimmy Vicaut. Lemaitre (age 21) had four national record installments from 9.96 to 9.92 and finished fourth in Daegu, and Vicaut (age 19) ran 10.07 with no wind in the European U20 final (which he won by 0.34!!) and was sixth in the Daegu final.

And yes, Bolt once more heads the world list for the year, despite clearly not being in top shape. He was undefeated coming into the World Championships but he had been forced to work noticeably harder than usual to win his races: in Rome Asafa Powell was just 0.02 behind, in Ostrava Steve Mullings 0.06 and in Monaco Nesta Carter 0.02! And it wasn’t until his very last race of the summer – In Brussels – that Bolt managed to reach the top position statistically. Before that he was in fact just No 6. on the 2011 world List!

All this – and the false start DQ in Daegu – will most likely provide the greatest motivation possible for the winter training necessary to reclaim the position as undisputed ruler of the 100m. It was conspicuous how this summer - when not feeling 100% - Bolt completely avoided clashing with training partner Yohan Blake outside the World Championships. Would Bolt really have been capable of beating Blake in Daegu?


The 200m year was just about to be summarised as “fairly quiet” with only the Samsung Diamond League final in Brussels remaining. The pre-Daegu season had been dominated by Bolt and Walter Dix who never met but who had fairly comfortably won three Diamond League meets each: Dix was the winner in Doha (20.06, won by 0.26), Eugene (20.19, by 0.07) and London (20.16, by 0.27) while Bolt triumphed in Oslo (19.86 by 0.57), Paris (20.03 by 0.18) and Stockholm (20.03, by 0.44).

When the two finally met in the Daegu final it was basically “no contest” as Bolt – visibly wanting to make up for his 100m fiasco – powered to a 19.40 dash. That was the fourth fastest time ever behind only his own World records in 2008 and 2009 and Michael Johnson’s legendary 19.32 at the Atlanta Olympics. Dix finished three metres behind despite missing his PB by a mere hundredth of a second.

Actually the major story coming out of this final was Christophe Lemaitre of France lowering his PB by 0.36 to 19.80 taking the bronze medal just half a step behind Dix. This race also confirmed the contention that the 200m is a distance suiting Lemaitre’s talent even better than the 100m. It is not hard to envision him dipping under 19.50 in a not too distant future.

But that doesn’t mean Lemaitre will be able to claim the No. 1 spot on default whenever Bolt – four years Lemaitre’s senior – decides to call it quits. Because then were will almost certainly be Yohan Blake, just half a year older than the Frenchman. And it was Blake – who had focused all year on the 100m and not even entered the 200m in the Jamaican Trials – who provided the 200m moment that rendered the “fairly quiet” descriptor for 2011 completely obsolete.

Because in Brussels Blake – after a rather hesitant start – stormed down the finishing straight to stop the clock at 19.26 – just seven hundredths slower than Bolt’s magnificent World record from the 2009 World Championships! Everybody was flabbergasted and speechless. A Bolt World record so close to being broken by someone else!? Who had dared to dream about such a scenario happening even within the next few decades?

Blake with this race lowered his PB by 0.52 and his 2011 best by 1.07! In one strike he went from 13th to second all-time and from 25th to first on the year list. But is he really as close to “vintage Bolt” as the nominal gap of just 0.07 seconds between their top times seems to indicate? The answer is: Not quite!

Because the numerical comparison of Bolt’s 19.19 in Berlin and Blake’s 19.26 in Brussels doesn’t tell the whole story. One important difference is that for Bolt it was the eighth race in just six days while Blake came to Brussels after having four full days of rest since his last competition. But the most significant factor was the track. However, not the synthetic material but the wideness of the bend!

The Brussels track is built with the maximum wideness allowed by the IAAF rules while the Berlin track used the standard format. The difference in the radius of lane one is almost four metres and directly comparing Bolt’s lane five in Berlin with Blake’s lane seven in Brussels the difference is about six metres (41 vs 47 m). Especially at the speeds at which Bolt and Blake operate such a difference in radius probably equates to a couple of tenths in the times run.

So Bolt still rules the 200m event but he certainly needs to be on top of his game if he wants to keep his advantage of a couple of metres over Blake. Any other serious challenger to Bolt’s supremacy has not yet presented himself. Walter Dix, the top US runner, was 0.30 behind Bolt in Daegu and 0.27 behind Blake in Brussels (despite lowering PB to 19.53!).

After his silver medal in Berlin 2009 at age 19 Alonso Edward was also expected to be up there, but the Panamanian has had serious injury problems the last two years and now instead belongs to the large group usually running in the 20.30-20.50 bracket.  However, Edward is still young (just a couple of weeks older than Blake) and should thus be regarded as belonging to the “new generation” to watch out for in the future.

Just like Lemaitre, US collegiate champion Maurice Mitchell, Jamaican Nickel Ashmeade (fifth in Daegu, twice sub-20) and Ramil Guliyev, formerly of Azerbaijan, now competing for Turkey. Guliyev due to the switch of allegiance missed Daegu but it should be remembered that he ran 20.04 already two years ago at age 19!


This is an event that “always” has been a definite US property. Both statistically and in the championships it has been something of a rather evenly matched dual between the US and “all the rest of the world”. In an average modern year list the US has occupied half of the top-10 positions including the coveted No. 1 position and in the global championships they often have taken two of the three places on the podium.

But recently this balance seems to have started to swing in favour of “the rest of the world”. In the last two World championship years (2009 and 2011) the US only had two names in the top-10. The “world is catching up” feeling was especially strong in Daegu where the US entered four runners (reigning World champion LaShawn Merritt plus three) but only Merritt managed to reach the final!

Which if one goes a little deeper in the analysis wasn’t really that surprising. Because it turns out that the US “production line” of new 400m stars appears to have slowed down considerably in recent years. At first this didn’t show as they had people like Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt still dominating at the very top. But with Wariner more and more troubled by niggling injuries they were very lucky to have Merritt back from suspension at the very last moment – otherwise there would not have been any US runner at all in the Daegu final!

But of course the new situation in the 400m is not only due to US regress but also to “the rest of the world” raising their game. This has happened in two areas especially, the Caribbean and Europe, while Africa is still very much a “sleeping giant” in this event just like in the 100m. The talent pool is there – as proven by former stars like Innocent Egbunike (Nigeria), Gabriel Tiacoh (Ivory Coast), Gary Kikaya (Congo), Samson Kitur (Kenya) and Davis Kamoga (Uganda) – but in Daegu they had no finalist and only two (out of 24) in the semifinals.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Central America area which provided no less than 50 % (i.e. 12 of 24) of the Daegu semifinalists: Three from Bahamas, two each from Grenada and Jamaica and one each from Trinidad, Cuba, Dominica, Virgin Islands and Costa Rica! The most amazing story of all is that of Grenada who with a population of less than 100,000 brought two runners all the way into the final.

And not only that: Grenada struck gold as Kirani James – two days before turning 19 – after a strong finish drive managed to pass reigning champion Merritt just in time before the finish line: 44.60 vs 44.63. James confirmed his world No. 1 position a week later at the Samsung Diamond League finals when he defeated Merritt once again and more clearly: 44.36 vs 44.67.

James has been regarded by many as the future of the event – even been called a Bolt of the 400m – ever since taking the World Youth silver with 46.96 in 2007 not yet turned 15. That contention grew stronger as he every year added another global medal: World Junior silver 2008, World Youth gold 2009 and World Junior gold 2010. Now he has the World senior gold also and is thus only missing the Olympic gold to have a complete collection. But to also achieve that James will need to improve further into the very low 44s or even high 43s.

2011 was a fairly weak year statistically with Merritt’s 44.35 from the Daegu heats (!!) being the slowest World leader since 2002 (and the second slowest since 1985). Olympic years always mean a noticeable raise in standards, especially in the US. And remember that Wariner and Merritt are still only 28 and 26 respectively next year! As for candidates to support/supplant those two in an immediate revival of the great US tradition in this event no one is standing out at the moment. Tony McQuay, the US champion in 2011 e.g. has yet to prove himself on the world stage after being eliminated in the heats in his international debut in Daegu.

As for Europe the record levels of 2010 (six at 44.71 to 45.01) were not matched at all this year (only two sub-45.25). But those two – the Borlée twins Jonathan and Kevin – competed successfully on the global stage. In the Samsung Diamond League Jonathan was second and sixth in Paris and Stockholm respectively while Kevin was third, sixth and fifth in Eugene, New York and London. In Daegu Kevin got the bronze, two places and 0.17 seconds ahead of Jonathan. The question that remains to be answered is whether they are capable of also the further improvement into the low 44’s which almost certainly will be necessary to become part of the medal fight in the London Olympics.


The year 2011 in women’s sprints was, more than anything else, the final breakthrough for 32-year-old Carmelita Jeter. The American finally grabbed her first individual World title in the 100m following a disappointing third place in Berlin 2009. Jeter won two titles in Daegu (4x100m relay gold as well) and a silver in the 200m. A long wait ended for Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown too as she finally was able to win the 200m in a World Championships in addition to her two successive Olympic titles in 2004 and 2008. In the 400m Botswana’s only star athlete, Amantle Montsho, became the No. 1 runner winning her last seven finals of the season including the World title in Daegu.


Jeter entered the world elite at a mature age winning her first medal in Osaka 2007 with a bronze in the 100m at 27. She clocked a personal best 11.02 in the final for the third place and then dipped under 11 seconds for the first time in 2008 with a 10.97 performance at the US Olympic Trials. But the real breakthrough came in 2009 when Jeter came to Berlin as one of the favourites having won the US Championships in a wind-aided 10.78 and even a faster wind-assisted time 10.72 in the semifinals. Jeter was not quite ready to win there yet as she won her semifinal in a 10.83 personal best, but was well behind Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser in the final with Fraser clocking a Caribbean record 10.73 and countrywoman Kerron Stewart in close second (10.75) and Jeter third in 10.90. The was a dramatic end to the season as Jeter suddenly found incredible form in September first winning in Brussels in 10.88, then lowering her personal best big time down to 10.67 winning the World Athletics Final in Thessaloniki and then once more clocking 10.64 to win the Golden GP in Shanghai.

So in 2011 Jeter was no longer a challenger, but one of the main forces and she looked like the strongest one this summer. The American raced in 11 finals during the season winning ten of them with only one narrow loss to Campbell-Brown in Shanghai with times of 10.92 and 10.95 respectively. She was the No. 1 pick to win in Daegu especially after a 10.74 wind-aided victory at the US Championships and two Samsung Diamond League meets in Stockholm and London prior to Daegu. Jeter won in 10.90, the same time that had given her the bronze in 2009, into a strong headwind of 1.4 m/s at the World Championships with Campbell-Brown in second place in 10.97.

Twenty-five year-old Kelly-Ann Baptiste from Trinidad and Tobago won her first major medal in third clocking 10.98 and the reigning champion Shelly-Ann Fraser was fourth this time only 0.01 seconds behind Baptiste with 10.99.

Jeter continued her good form even after Daegu winning two more meets in Zagreb and Brussels where she clocked a fast 10.78 in the last 100m race of the season. She was also the fastest in the world this year having won the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene in June with a 10.70 dash.

The United States has absolute dominance in this event with a massive 39 athletes in the world top 100. Jamaica has 11 for second and France and Ukraine are tied for third at five.


The 200m season for women was thin as usual for most top athletes. Many only competed in a handful of races and it was quite hard to say who was strongest before Daegu. There was a surprise world leader from the US Championships where 25-year-old Shalonda Solomon lowered her personal best from 22.36 (2006) to 22.15 winning the US title in style. But the newcomer to the world elite was well below that level four weeks later in Europe placing third in both Monaco and London clocking times 22.63 and 22.85 respectively.

Instead all eyes were turned to the usual suspects in this event too. Carmelita Jeter placed second at the US Champs clocking a personal best 22.23 and was much more promising in Europe than the US champion. She even lowered her PB to 22.20 with her victory in Monaco into a slight headwind in her last race before Daegu. And one should never forget the 29-year-old Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown in major championships. The double Olympic champion, still looking for her first World title had run a convincing early season with four wins in five competitions culminating in a nice 22.26 season’s best win in her last competition before Daegu in Budapest. Her only loss had come in early May to countrywoman Shelly Ann Fraser, who was not entered to 200m in Daegu.

The reigning World champion Allyson Felix was of course in the picture too and she didn’t have to run the 200m at the US championships as the defending World champion. Felix had run four races, finishing second in Monaco in a 22.32 season’s best behind Jeter.

In Daegu Campbell-Brown finally came through in the World Championships as well finishing with the gold medal and time 22.22, a season’s best, to a strong headwind of 1.0 m/s. Jeter seemed to catch up with the Jamaican midway to the final straight, but could continue her sprint to the finish line winning the silver medal in 22.37. Felix was very fast in the last 20 metres, but in the end fell well short of winning her fourth consecutive World title and got the bronze instead this time in 22.42. Solomon, a World junior champion in 2004, enjoyed a fine début to the world level with a fourth place (22.61). Jeter came up with yet another good performance running one more race in Zürich in September where she won in a fast 22.27.

The United States dominates this event too with 39 athletes in the world top 100. Jamaica has 13 for second and Russia seven for third.


In the 400m it was time for Amantle Montsho of Botswana to take over. The 28-year-old, who lives and trains at the IAAF High Performance Training Centre in Dakar, Senegal, dipped under the 50-second barrier for the first time three years ago when she won the 2008 African Championships at high altitude in Addis Ababa in a 49.83 national record, but it took her some time to be accustomed to the major championships. She made the Olympic final in the same year and also the 2009 World Championships final in Berlin, but finished eighth in both.

Montsho, whose mother owns a safari business back in Botswana, made her first breakthrough late last season when she won the inaugural Continental Cup in Split clocking a season’s best 49.89 equalling her low altitude best from Berlin World Championships semifinals in 2009. She continued to win the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October 2010 and pretty much picked up where she left off in the 2011 season.

She did finish second in the first two meets, a tight 0.08 loss to Allyson Felix in Doha (50.33-50.41), and again in Rome, 49.81 to 50.47. But after that it was all Montsho. She went on to win the rest of her eight finals of the season (and the two heats and two semifinals as well). Eugen, Oslo, Lausanne and then a 49.71 national record win in the last meeting before Daegu in Monaco.

Felix, the winner of the last three 200m World titles, was going to start in the 400m distance for the first time in major championships. This was interesting because Felix had actually run under 50 seconds for the first already in 2007, but always opted for the shorter distance in big meetings. In 2011 she didn’t have a perfect record, but that 49.81 win in Rome and a victory at the US championships did give some thought of her standard this season.

There were plenty of other runners in the picture too. The world leader before Daegu (and after) was actually 32-year-old Russian Anastasiya Kapachinskaya, the 2003 200m World Champion, who clocked a fast 49.35 personal best to win the Russian title in Cheboksary. The reigning World champion from 2009, American Sanya Richards-Ross, was also in the spotlight having won in a season’s best 49.66 in London just three weeks before Daegu.

But the World Championships did not go well for all the favourites as Richards-Ross was already in great trouble in the semifinals only qualifying as the last athlete as the second fastest loser. Felix and Montsho on the other hand were impressive in the semifinals and surprisingly so was 23-year-old American newcomer Francena McCorory, who clocked a 50.24 personal best to win her semifinal. In the final Montsho started fastest and also lead the field to the front straight. She seemed to fade a bit in the final 20 metres, but Felix could not finish fast enough to catch Montsho who brought Botswana its first gold medal in World Championships history with a 49.56 national record. Felix clocked a 49.59 personal best for the silver medal and Kapachinskaya was third in 50.24 ahead of McCorory (50.45). Richards-Ross was way back in seventh place almost two seconds behind the winner.

The United States is the top country with 23 athletes in the world top 100. Russia is second with 14 and Jamaica third with 13.

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

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