Close! Men's 800m in Karlsruhe. Marcin Lewandowski got the win. (© Jiro Mochizuki for the IAAF)
Four athletes, a tenth of a second, several thousand fans – it all added up to one great race.
On Saturday night in Karlsruhe, during the first stop of the IAAF World Indoor Tour, the men’s 800m served, in many ways, as a microcosm of the sport.
Because at this time of year, as athletes emerge from their not-so-tranquil hibernation of winter training, tuning into live athletics is a little like picking through a box of chocolates alongside Forrest Gump: you never know what you’re going to get.
As it turned out, that men’s 800m was the unexpected treat of the night. The winning time, 1:46.90, may have been nothing special for athletes of that stature, but that’s what made it all the better. Times, at times, are irrelevant.
Poland’s Marcin Lewandowski held on for all his worth in the home straight to edge USA’s Erik Sowinski by a hundredth of a second, with Spain’s Saul Ordonez and Britain’s Andrew Osagie steaming home to finish inches behind – just 0.11 covered the four at the finish, about one third of the time it takes for a human eye to blink.
And sure, none of them were fully fit just yet – their eyes trained on targets further down the line – but in the tactical chess match that played out on the first three laps, followed by the desperate dash to the finish that followed, all that is wonderful about the sport was on display.
The best news: it’s only just beginning.
What was perhaps most heartening about viewing that race, and all the other action in Karlsruhe, was the splendid ease of doing so.
The meeting overlapped with a Six Nations rugby match between Ireland and France, a game that was mandatory viewing in every Irish household, like mine, with even a modicum of interest in sport. But while previously such a clash would force the athletics nut in the room to run to their laptop to scour the internet (and some questionable sites) for a live stream, this time all that was needed was a single click to the IAAF’s YouTube channel.
And hey presto, more than two hours of world-class athletics played in perfect definition on my phone. In the ever-more-competitive grapple for the attention of sports fans, it became clear that this was a major step forward and one that needs to be embraced with open arms.
The key thing about this time of year: you never expect great performances, so when they come along it makes them all the more impactful.
Like China’s Su Bingtian blasting to victory in Karlsruhe in 6.47, an Asian 60m record, or Genzebe Dibaba hammering to a world-leading 3:57.45 over 1500m, or home hero Raphael Holzdeppe soaring up and over 5.88m to set a world lead in the pole vault.
This time of year – it’s sort of like the mid-term exam your teacher throws at you out of nowhere: no one expects you to be ready, but when you are it’s easy to make a lasting impression.
The Final Countdown
But those who may be flunking their early-season assignments can take heart. There’s still a little over four weeks until the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018, ample time to turn the tables on their rivals and put a shiny, golden visage on the start of the year.
On Tuesday night the IAAF World Indoor Tour rolls on to Dusseldorf, and by the time we’ve said Auf Wiedersehen to that it’ll be Hola to Madrid on Thursday for stop number three. Then many of the world’s best will be shipping up to Boston on Saturday, where the local sports fans will have plenty of top-class contests playing out to take their mind off the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl loss. Then it’s off to Torun, in Poland and Glasgow, the final chances for the world’s best athletes to sharpen their fitness ahead of the final, critical exam of this indoor season: Birmingham.
And the good news for fans: there will be more live streams coming down the tracks in the weeks ahead, bringing live athletics to a phone, laptop or device of your choosing.
So cast it, stream it, project it on to the roof of your neighbour’s house if you must, but whatever the method be sure to tune in as the sport’s titans take their first tentative steps onto the 2018 battlefield. The IAAF website will have comprehensive coverage of each meeting, on-site updates via the live page and for a behind-the-scenes insight into the world’s best athletes, be sure to follow along on the IAAF’s social media platforms. The live stream link for Tuesday night’s action from Dusseldorf is here.
Some will fail, others will flourish, but in the end, that glorious unpredictability is what will make it fascinating.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF