Our end-of-year reviews conclude with renowned statisticians A. Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava taking a look back at 2019’s key action in the sprints.
It’s no doubt that Christian Coleman currently is ‘the World’s fastest man. Except for a very narrow loss to Noah Lyles in the Shanghai Diamond League in mid-May when both ran 9.86, Coleman was not just undefeated but never really challenged. His five-meet season included the Oslo (9.85) and Stanford (9.81) Diamond Leagues, the US championships (9.99) and World Championships (9.76 to move to No. 6 on the all-time list) and he usually had about a meter up on his nearest opponent.
Unfortunately he and Lyles never met again at 100m. Lyles, a 200m specialist, had just two more 100m competitions, the Monaco Diamond League where he was beaten 9.91 to 9.92 by veteran Justin Gatlin and the Diamond League final in Zurich which Lyles won clearly in 9.98.
The 37-year old Gatlin did not only beat Lyles once but 15 years after becoming Olympic champion he also prevailed in the tight battle the silver at the World Championships. However, Gatlin had qualified for that final only as a non-automatic qualifier after finishing third in his semi.
Which illustrates how muddled the picture behind Coleman was with “everyone beating everyone”. Another example: André De Grasse took bronze in Doha after a season where his two Diamond League starts resulted in inauspicious fifth place finishes while Xie Zhenye, who was second in both Oslo and the Diamond League final, was eliminated in the Doha semis.
The most prolific 100m runner was Mike Rodgers who at age 34 ran 30 races at 21 different meets dipping under 10.10 no less than 14 times. 2019 was his 13th straight year running 10.10 or faster. And despite being eliminated in the semis in the 100, it was also the year when Rodgers – in the 4x100m – finally got his first ever global gold medal. Perseverance rewarded.
Noah Lyles had already established himself as the undisputed No 1 in the 200m in 2018 after an undefeated season which included four sub-19.70 marks. Except for Usain Bolt, no one else has had four sub-19.70 races in an entire career.
Lyles was impressive also in 2019 running six meets and except for a narrow loss to Michael Norman in the season opener in Rome in early June, he was once more in a class of his own. He always ran well below 20 seconds and always won by between one and three metres. His top time was 19.50 in Lausanne, a new PB that moved him up to No 4 of all-time.
In Doha the other World Championship medals went to André De Grasse (who was the only male sprinter to medal at both 100m and 200m this year) and Alex Quinonez. Defending champion Ramil Guliyev had to settle for fifth this time. During the Diamond League season, however, Guliyev had been the most consistent: He ran all seven races, had four performances at 20.01 or faster, won once (Doha) and finished runner-up four times.
We have been used to a domination of the USA and Jamaica in this event – the two combined for six of the eight finalists at the 2007 World Championships - but things have changed. Doha winner Lyles was the only US sprinter to advance from the first round and for the second straight World Championships Jamaica failed to get a runner into the final.
Divine Odururu and Kenny Bednarek showed exceptional potential with sub-19.80 times during the US Collegiate season. However, that form didn’t survive through October so neither managed to reach the final in Doha. But watch out for them in Tokyo now that both have concluded their collegiate careers to focus on the global scene.
The 400m is something of a national sport in the Bahamas and despite a population of just a third of a million they have collected eight medals in the 4x400m at global outdoor championships since 2000 - including the sensational Olympic title in 2012. Individually there have been two medals, Avard Moncur’s gold in 2001 and Steven Gardiner’s silver two years ago.
As Wayde van Niekerk – the winner of the last three global titles – was still out of action in 2019 after a severe knee injury in a celebrity rugby match two years ago. Instead Gardiner came into the meet as joint favourite with Michael Norman and Fred Kerley.
While the US runners had met three times (Stanford Diamond League, the US trials and Diamond League final) – with Norman winning the first and last encounters – neither had faced Gardiner before Doha. He, however, was undefeated in five meets and had been super impressive in his final tune-up in Chorzów in mid-September where he clocked 44.14 and won by almost two seconds.
In Doha all three qualified easily from the first round but in the semis Norman – the outright world leader with his smooth 43.45 from April – suddenly slowed down in the middle of his race, obviously due to injury. But Gardiner and Kerley both looked in full control in their semis winning in 44.13 and 44.25 respectively.
Despite all eight finalists clocking between 44.13 and 44.77 in the semis the final turned into a one-man-show as Gardiner in his majestic style just strode away to win by several metres in 43.48 climbing to No 6 all-time. Behind him, Kerley was upset at the finish line by Colombia’s Anthony José Zambrano who lowered his 44.55 PB from the semis another four tenths to snatch the silver.
The Jamaicans took control of the 100m sprint early in the season. The biggest duel of the early season was seen at the Jamaican Championships where reigning Olympic champion Elaine Thompson dipped at the finish line to win in a fast world leading 10.73, edging Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who was credited with the same time, in a photo finish.
After that the 27-year-old Thompson seemed to lose her speed. Despite victories at the Pan American Games in Lima and the Paris Diamond League, Thompson never returned to the same level and was not able to challenge Fraser-Pryce at the World Championships.
One big name of the early season was just 19-year-old Sha’Carri Richardson. The American won the NCAA title in 10.75, breaking the 10.88 world U20 record set by East German Marlies Oelsner nearly 42 years earlier. But she too lost her speed since that race and did not make the US team to Doha, finishing eighth at the US Championships final in Des Moines.
In Doha Fraser-Pryce was in her own class. The 32-year-old double Olympic gold medallist (2008/2012) won her fifth individual world title with a world-leading 10.71 after having shown her class in the heats and semifinals. Double European champion Dina Asher-Smith had a good season from the outset and crowned that with a great performance in Doha. She raced in six 100m finals during the season, winning two and finishing second in the rest. In Doha she set a 10.83 national record for silver. Marie Josée Ta Lou won the bronze for Ivory Coast in 10.90 after taking silver two years ago.
The reigning Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo was easily the fastest athlete in the 200m this season. But the 25-year-old Bahamian opted to run only the 400m distance in Doha. She won all four of her 200m meets of the year and clocked a 21.74 world lead and national record in Zürich at the Diamond League meeting in late August.
Furthermore the reigning world champion from London 2017, Dafne Schippers, was nowhere near her usual form. The Dutchwoman barely made it to the 100m final in Doha, but did not start there and did not compete in the 200m. Elaine Thompson, the 2016 Olympic champion and the year’s fastest of the competitors in Doha at 22.00, only competed in the heats and did not start her semifinal. Nigerian Blessing Okagbare, the next fastest with 22.05 in Stanford in June, was disqualified in the heats.
Because of all the missing athletes, there was a lot of space for new names in the Doha final. After already running incredibly well in the 100m, Dina Asher-Smith took command the race and won her stronger sprinting distance in 21.88, another national record and the first major gold medal for the Briton. Competing in her first major championships, in any age group, Brittany Brown of the US won the silver in 22.22, a personal best. Swiss record holder (22.26 in 2019) Mujinga Kambundji took the bronze in 22.51, her first medal in a global championships.
In 2019, the women’s 400m came down to a duel between two athletes, Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Salwa Eid Naser. But with the Bahamian racing sparingly over the distance - she ran four 200m competitions in 2019 and just three over 400m prior to Doha - the pair didn’t face off prior to the World Championships final. The reigning Olympic champion ran a world-leading 49.05 in Gainesville, Florida, in April, won again in Kingston in June in 49.54 then took the national title in July clocking 49.59.
Naser on the other hand was more prolific over the distance. The Bahraini was unbeaten in her 10 400m finals, which included five Diamond League races. The 21-year-old had already won silver at 2017 World Championships at 19 and lowered her national record to 49.08 in 2018. But what she produced in the Doha final was still unprecedented.
For a long time it has seemed that Marita Koch’s 34-year-old world record of 47.60 was impossible to beat, but Naser showed a different view on that in Doha. She won in 48.14, a massive improvement and the third fastest performance of all-time. Miller-Uibo also smashed her own national record in 48.37, 0.6 seconds faster than her previous best set in Monaco last year. Hers was the second fastest runner-up performance ever, behind Olga Bryzgina 48.27 behind Koch’s world record in 1985.
Jamaican Shericka Jackson, who finished third in 2015, won her second 400m bronze with a 49.47 personal best. Haitian-born American Wadeline Jonathas was fourth in 49.60, also a personal best, in her first major championship. Reigning world champion Phyllis Francis was fifth in 49.61, another personal best. It says something about the standard of the competition when the previous champion clocks a career best and loses by 1.47 seconds.
Mirko Jalava (women’s events) and A Lennart Julin (men’s events) for World Athletics