Usain Bolt of Jamaica leads Noah Akwu of Nigeria and Isiah Young of the United States in the Men's 200m Round 1 Heats on Day 11 of the London 2012 Olympic Games on 7 August 2012 (© Getty Images)
Statisticians Mirko Jalava (FIN) and A. Lennart Julin (SWE) round off their ‘End of season’ event category reviews, which cover all athletics disciplines, highlighting the best performances which have taken place across our sport in 2012, with SPRINTS.
In the men’s sprints 2012 marked return to business as usual with Jamaican Usain Bolt repeating his Beijing 2008 triumph in London with three more Olympic gold medals. But it was refreshing at the same time, because the gap to the others has shortened with the main man behind the 100m/200m world record-holder being countryman Yohan Blake.
The start of the 100m season was intriguing with both Bolt and Blake posting fast times from the start. Bolt started this season clocking 9.82 in Kingston in May, the fastest opener of his career. Blake commenced with a 9.90 in Kingston in April and then posted a 9.84 in George Town, Cayman Islands. Both had already proven they were in shape, but they would only meet once in this distance before the Olympics.
World record-holder Bolt ran two more fast wins in Samsung Diamond League meetings, winning in 9.76 in Rome and in 9.79 in Oslo. But the first real race of the season between the two main men ended in Blake’s triumph in a world-leading 9.75 at the Jamaican Championships, the first true win for the 22-year-old over Bolt in addition to Daegu where the world record-holder was disqualified. In London the duo won their heats and semi-finals easily, but in the final Bolt proved that he is still the man in this event, winning clearly in a world-leading 9.63 ahead of Blake’s 9.75 for the silver.
Thirty-year-old Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic champion, made a successful return to the Games with a 9.79 season’s best for the bronze. The American just held off countryman Tyson Gay, who timed a 9.80 season’s best – the fastest ever non-medal-winning time at the Olympics. This marked another Olympic disappointment for the 30-year-old as he was one of the favourites in 2008, but could not reach the final then because of an injury.
Blake went on to set a big personal best after London, winning in Lausanne with 9.69 which makes him the equal second-fastest all-time (with Gay) behind Bolt’s 9.58 World record. With a final win in Brussels with 9.86 in September, Bolt closed his season having won six out of seven finals and Blake was almost equal with eight wins out of nine competitions, closing his season with a fast win in Zürich clocking 9.76.
United States is the best country in this event with 31 athletes in the world top 100. Jamaica is second with 20 and Trinidad & Tobago third with six.
The 200m season was very different as usual. The starting point was not similar to the 100m either as Bolt managed to retain his 200m World title in Daegu, but training partner Blake led the world lists that season with his fabulous 19.26. This year, Bolt decided not to run the 200m before the Jamaican Trials in June, while Blake ran only one race prior to the National Championships, finishing in 19.91 in Kingston.
At the Trials Blake soared to another huge win in a 19.80 world leader, winning narrowly ahead of Bolt, who clocked 19.83 for the second place in his first final of the season. But if anyone thought Bolt was not in form, their doubts soon vanished in the heats and semi-final in London with the world record-holder showing that he would be hard to beat in the final.
It was a close one, but Bolt’s second straight individual Olympic double was never in doubt as he clocked a world-leading 19.32 for the win – the third-fastest time of his career and just 0.13 seconds off his three-year-old world record. Blake wasn’t far away in this event either winning his second silver medal of the Games in a 19.44 season’s best, the second-best mark of his career. Blake continued his season with one more competition and a fine 19.54 win in Brussels while Bolt won two more, clocking 19.58 in Lausanne and 19.66 in Zürich.
Fellow Jamaican Warren Weir was the surprise bronze medallist in London in a big personal best of 19.84 while other Jamaicans made sure the country’s dominance of 200m did not go unnoticed. Nickel Ashmeade (19.85 PB) and Jason Young (19.86 PB) did not even make the Olympic team.
United States is the top country in this event with 38 athletes in the world top 100. Jamaica has 14 for the second place while Great Britain has six for third.
The 400m season was decided between two athletes – the 2008 Olympic champion from USA, LaShawn Merritt, and Kirani James of Grenada, the reigning World champion. Merritt was stronger early in the season, but James timed his form beautifully and ran his four fastest times of the season in August.
Twenty-year-old James took control of the 400m during the 2011 season and maybe many were waiting for the youngster to the take next step this year. A 44.80 world junior indoor best and undefeated 2011 season (he did not finish the NCAA indoor final) capped with the World title in Daegu were a stepping stone to bigger things in 2012, but it did not all go smoothly at the start.
With James’ fastest competitor, Merritt, running fast races before the Olympics, the Grenadian athlete was maybe not the No.1 favourite for the win in London. Merritt was convincing, winning the early Diamond League meet in Doha in a fast 44.19 world leader, improving on that with 44.12 at the US Trials, but his luck took a turn for the worst in Monaco.
The last race before London ended in an injury and although Merritt appeared on the track in the Olympic heat, he could not finish and the dream to retain the Olympic title was gone. On the other hand, James – still 19 years old at the time – was in great shape, winning his semi-final in a fast 44.59 season’s best and in the final there was no question about the winner. James won his second major title, clocking his first ever sub-44-second result 43.94, also the Caribbean record.
Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic, at just 18 years old, crowned a fine season with an Olympic silver medal (44.46) in addition to the World junior title he won in Barcelona. Santos’ 44.45 from Hengelo in May moves him to third place in the world junior all-time list behind world junior record-holder Steve Lewis’ 43.87 and James’ 44.36 from 2011.
Lalonde Gordon from Trinidad & Tobago emerged as the surprise bronze medallist in London clocking a huge PB 44.52 in the final. The 24-year-old’s personal best prior to the Olympics had been only 45.02, so he cut half a second off his best to win a medal.
United States is the best country with 30 athletes in the world top 100. Jamaica has 10 for the second place and Great Britain seven for third.
As with the men, this event has in recent years developed into a dual for supremacy between the USA and Jamaica with the rest of the world looking on.
At the 2012 Olympics the match-up between these two nations more or less ended in a draw with Jamaica taking gold and bronze individually and the US taking the 4x100m relay and lowering the 27-year-old East German World record by more than half a second – perhaps the most astounding performance of the London Games!
But the individual gold still eluded them and just like four years ago in Beijing it was Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce who came out on top.
Before this year Veronica Campbell-Brown prioritised the 200m but had still managed to acquire a five top-four finishes at global championships. This year the 100m was her focus, but it still wasn’t enough to earn her more than the bronze medal in London just ahead of American pair Tianna Madison and Allyson Felix.
Since her Long Jump triumph as a teenager at the 2005 World Championships, Madison hadn’t legally surpassed 6.60m outdoors in that event, but in 2012 the 26-year-old reinvented herself as a sprinter. After reducing her indoor 60m PB to 7.02 and winning World indoor bronze, she went on to break 11 seconds on seven occasions, culminating with 10.85 in the Olympic final to miss out on a medal by just four hundredths.
Jamaica and the USA not only filled the top five places at the Olympics, but the two nations also had nine of the top-12 in the 100m world list. At first glance it appears that the current dominance of these two nations will remain unchallenged for a few more years, but nothing lasts forever.
The Jamaican situation looks quite worrying because in 2012 they relied on exactly the same top quartet – Fraser-Pryce, Campbell-Brown, Kerron Stewart and Sherone Simpson – as in the previous Olympic year 2008. And only the Olympic champion set a PB this year. The contrast is striking to the situation among the men where the old guard of Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Michael Frater and Nesta Carter has been supplemented by the likes of Yohan Blake, Nickel Ashmeade, Warren Weir and Jason Young.
The US will also need to rejuvenate their sprint corps for the next Olympics as Carmelita Jeter is now 32 while Madison and Felix both turned 26 this summer. But they have a much wider basis of up-and-comers and a large pool of hidden talents that could develop into late bloomers.
The theme of hidden talents in the US extends to the likes of Murielle Ahouré, who decided to compete internationally for her country of birth Ivory Coast but who for all intents and purposes is a product of the US high school and collegiate system. Until this year she had not done much of note, so it was a real surprise when she very narrowly lost to Veronica Campbell-Brown (7.04 to 7.01) at the World Indoors. Ahouré, who turned 25 this year, had suddenly arrived on the world stage – reinforcing it later in the year with a sub-11 clocking and a place in the Olympic final.
Finishing sixth at the Olympics behind the Jamaican duo and American trio, Trinidad & Tobago’s Kelly-Ann Baptiste was statistically the ‘best of the rest’ this year with her six races at 11.00 or faster. Meanwhile, 2008 Olympic Long Jump bronze medallist Blessing Okagbare looks to be taking a similar route to Madison by focusing instead on sprinting. The Nigerian lowered her 100m PB in both her heat (10.93) and semi (10.92) to reach the Olympic final.
The 200m is very much the forgotten sibling in the sprint family, and this year the total number of Diamond League appearances by the top five runners from the Olympics was three! All of them were also very early in the season – Campbell-Brown and Jeter finished 1-2 in Shanghai, while Felix won in Eugene. Instead the Diamond League series was won by an athlete who did not even make the final at the US Trials, Charonda Williams.
For the best part of a decade, the event at major championships has been dominated by Felix and Campbell-Brown. With three global titles each, London 2012 was a kind of tie-breaker to decide who should be considered the world’s top 200m runner of the last ten years.
In the end there was no contest. Campbell-Brown finished outside of the medals in fourth place in London, and her season’s best of 22.32 was her slowest for five years. Felix on the other hand had a year that could be ranked as her best ever. She only ran four meets but those were outstanding – she won the Eugene Diamond League in 22.23, won the US Trials in 21.69, won the Olympics in 21.88 and won in Zagreb in September in 22.35, all with big margins. Her 21.69 was an improvement of 0.12 upon a PB that had stood for five years and she now ranks fourth on the world all-time list.
Few would have had predicted that Fraser-Pryce – the explosive runner who appears tailor-made for short distances – would do so well in the 200m this year. But in the Olympic final she held off Jeter, Campbell-Brown and even 400m winner Sanya Richards-Ross in the closing stages. Of all the athletes who doubled up in individual sprint events in London, Fraser-Pryce – with her 100m gold and 200m silver – came out with the best combined result.
Perhaps the most likely candidate to break through to join the top level in the near future is Anthonique Strachan of the Bahamas. At the World Juniors she was outstanding at both the 100m and the 200m, and her smooth long stride appears to be best suited for the longer of those distances.
It is almost impossible to find a more deserving Olympic champion than Sanya Richards-Ross. For more than a decade she had been in the world top-10, and can claim the highest number (currently 46) of sub-50-clockings in history. But at major championships there seemed to be some kind of curse. In 2004, while still a junior, she was sixth at the Olympics; in 2005 she missed World gold by 0.19; in 2007 she missed qualifying for the US team altogether; and in 2008 she had to settle for Olympic bronze. Not until Berlin 2009 did she get her first gold, but in Daegu 2011 she came up short once more and had to be content with seventh place.
So even though Richard-Ross was regarded as the favourite in London, it still was no foregone conclusion. The 400m final was a close one too with just 20 hundredths separating the top four, but Richards-Ross came out on top with a winning time of 49.55.
Since the turn of the century, two nations – the USA and Russia – have dominated the event with nine and 11 runners respectively breaking 50 seconds. They are followed by Great Britain and Jamaica who has had four each at sub-50. But since 2007 it is only Botswana’s Amantle Montsho who has been able to interfere with the monopoly of the top four nations. Montsho got the 2011 gold in Daegu but just missed out on a medal in London.
Despite their depth, Russia has never got an individual gold medal outdoors. This year Antonina Krivoshapka went to the Olympics hoping to change that, but after going off too hard in the final the lactic hit her in the home straight and she wound up in sixth place.
Looking to the future, perhaps the World junior champion – Ashley Spencer of the USA – could be the next to join the world’s senior elite. A hurdler in high school, Spencer didn’t seriously pursue the flat sprints until this year. After running 53.45 indoors, she exploded on to the 400m scene in May by running 51.02 in her very first outdoor competition at the distance.
A couple of weeks later Spencer won the US Collegiate Championships (NCAA) in 50.95 and a further month down the line she improved to 50.50 at the World Juniors, the fastest junior time since Richards-Ross in 2004 and the sixth-fastest junior of all time.
Note: This year Jalava covers the men's side of the action and Julin the women's events.