The 2011 World Athletics Championships took place recently in Daegu, South Korea, and James Sullivan was in the stadium for all 9 days of action. Here he gives his own personal take on the championships, with the most memorable moments, the Irish performances and some Korean oddities being among the areas discussed.
After five days in Seoul, I set off on a 2 hour bullet train journey southeast to Daegu to attend the 13th IAAF World Athletics Championships. The competition began in 1983, and now takes place biannually, bringing the very best in world track and field together over 9 days of competition. In terms of global television viewers, the championships are the third largest sporting event in the world, after the Summer Olympic Games, and the FIFA World Cup, and this year’s edition is the first time the event has taken place on mainland Asia.
The championships got off to a rather bizarre start when a sprinter by the name of Sogelau Tuvalu took to the start line for the preliminary round of the Men’s 100 metres. Just 17 years of age, and weighing over 20 stone, Tuvalu, a shot putter from American Samoa, was entered to compete against some of the fastest men on the planet (Don’t ask me why he was entered for this particular event!). His training regime for the championships was reported to be an intensive one month programme, and he entered the starting blocks not wearing spikes, a serious rookie mistake for a sprinter. As the gun fired, this well built chap was lazy out of the blocks, recording the slowest reaction time of all seven runners. As it turned out, this was of little importance, as the Samoan could have jumped the gun by a whopping four seconds and still finished at the rear of the field. The poor man was completely out of his depth and eventually, after what felt like a painful eternity, crossed the finish line in a time of 15.66 seconds, a new personal best. I was personally close to tears of laughter watching this, but one has to ask the question, is there not somebody in the whole of American Samoa who can run 100 metres quicker than this? 15.66 would struggle to be competitive in a girls Under 12’s Athletics Victoria track meet!
However, the endeavors of Sogelau Tuvalu were quickly forgotten once Usain Bolt took to the stage. The multiple Olympic and World Champion and world record holder for 100 metres and 200 metres was understandably the star attraction for many casual fans visiting the stadium, and was fully expected to win gold in the blue-ribboned event, the men’s 100 metres. However, as has been widely publicised by now, Bolt made an absolute hames of the start in the final and reacted before the starting gun was even fired, recording a negative reaction time. Under the current rules an athlete is disqualified if he/she false starts once. No second chances. The entire stadium literally gasped at once when the red card was shown to the showman from Jamaica, and there were even a few spectators who got up and exited the stadium before the race took place. There has since been too much talk about the false start rule, and the fact that the IAAF are even considering changing it, shows nothing but pure disrespect to every other sprinter in the competition. Just because the most famous athlete in the world was unable to control himself for a few split seconds does not justify modifying the rules. There have been lots of sprinters who have false started in major competitions before Bolt, and not an eyelid was batted. The rules are the same for everybody, no matter how fast or slow, popular or unknown somebody is. The person I sympathise with the most during all of this is Johan Blake. The man became world champion and yet his achievement was completely overshadowed by nonsensical debates about the fairness of the false start rule!
However this was one of the few low points of Daegu 2011, a championship which provided many memorable moments and performances. Firstly, there was Sally Pearson’s stunning gold medal run in the women’s 100 metres hurdles. The Australian stormed to victory in a blistering time of 12.28 seconds, the fastest time since 1992, putting her fourth on the all time list. However, without trying to say too much, in the eyes of most people this was a world record performance.
If Pearson provided the performance of the week, then the women’s and men’s 400 metres provided arguably the races of the championships. In the women’s event, Amantle Montsho of Botswana and Allyson Felix of the USA went toe to toe down the home straight. Felix closed significantly towards the final stages, but Montsho held on to claim the gold ahead of the popular American in a personal best of 49.56 seconds, with Felix also recording a lifetime best with 49.59. In the men’s race, Kirani James, from tiny Grenada, took the gold medal just days before his 19th birthday, in a personal best time of 44.60 seconds, overtaking disgraced American LaShawn Merritt in the last 10 metres of the race. For athletics fans this was the right result given Merritt’s controversial past, having recently served a 21 month doping ban.
Another highlight of the championships was the emergence of European sprinting. Kevin Borlee of Belgium took a well deserved bronze medal in the men’s 400 metres, Christophe Lemaitre claimed the bronze in the men’s 200 metres, running a sensational 19.80 in the process, and most significantly of all, Dai Greene of GB took gold in the men’s 400 metres hurdles, beating everybody around him from the USA and the Caribbean. Who says Europeans can’t sprint eh?
Other memorable moments included the men’s 10000 metres, where unheralded Ethiopian Ibrahim Jeilan stunned the overwhelming favourite Mo Farah of Great Britain with a devastating finishing kick over the final 100 metres; the men’s 200 metres, where Bolt finally got his act together and took the gold medal in 19.40 seconds, one of the quickest times in history; the women’s 400 metres hurdles, where Lashinda Demus came within just 0.13 seconds of the world record on her way to gold for the USA; the women’s high jump which saw a great battle between Anna Chicherova of Russian and Blanca Vlasic of Croatia, with the former snatching the title on count back after both athletes cleared 2.03 metres; the men’s 4×400 metres relay, where the South Africans came extremely close to defeating the perennial victors, the USA in a thrilling race; and the men’s 3000 metres steeplechase, not so much for the race, as it was possibly the most mundane of Daegu 2011, but rather for Ezekiel Kemboi’s antics as he crossed the finishing line from lane 7, and proceeded to spend the next five minutes doing what can only be assumed to have been a poor form of Kenyan dance!
The medals table was topped yet again by the USA, who claimed 12 gold, 8 silver and 5 bronze. To say that I was sick of hearing the Star Spangled Banner would be a gross understatement. To make matters worse, I had to endure the Russian national anthem on 9 occasions, and Kenya’s a further 7 times. With 28 of the 47 gold medals going to these three countries, I became increasingly desperate to hear something else, anything else. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to hear God Save the Queen. Anything but the Star Spangled Banner please!
From an Irish perspective there were some fantastic performances, along with some disappointments. The most impressive achievement was by Deirdre Ryan in the women’s high jump. Less than one month before the championships she jumped an Irish record of 1.93 metres, which gave her the B-Standard for Daegu. In the qualification round she went better and cleared 1.95 metres, giving her a place in her first global final. In the final itself, she cleared 1.93 metres at the first attempt and was agonisingly close to clearing 1.97 on her final attempt. She finished the competition in a tie for 6th place, the best ever performance by an Irish high jumper in the history of the world championships. Ryan’s performance also is living proof that B-Standard athletes should not be overlooked, as is done so often by the Olympic Council of Ireland, when selecting the Irish team for the Olympic Games. Deirdre Ryan didn’t achieve the A-Standard before the championships, and if such strict criteria was imposed for Daegu 2011, then we would never have witnessed an Irish athlete mix it with some of the all time greats such as Blanca Vlasic and Anna Chicherova. Hopefully, this result will force a change of attitude among the powers that be ahead of the London Olympics next year.
Another Irish athlete who came of age in Daegu was Ciaran O’Lionaird, who qualified from both his heat and semi final of the 1500 metres, earning himself a place in the final, the first Irish man to qualify for the final of the metric mile since Niall Bruton in 1995. The “Bullet with the Mullet” as he is affectionately known, acquitted himself well against his more illustrious opponents, and in the final, was not out of his depth, eventually finishing in 10th place. At only 23 years of age, there is a lot to look forward to from Ciaran over the coming years. Hopefully he keeps the mullet, it’s become quite a hit in Korea!
The women’s 4×400 metres relay provided another impressive Irish performance. The Irish quartet of Marian Heffernan, Joanne Cuddihy, Claire Bergin and Michelle Carey smashed the Irish record by almost three seconds, recording a time of 3:27.48. This placed the team 12th in the World, just 1.47 seconds off qualification for the final. And considering there was a mix-up at the start where time was lost, there is certainly more that can be taken off that national record, perhaps at the London Olympics next year, which Ireland are now well on their way towards qualifying for. Given our size, and lack of participation numbers, Ireland don’t often qualify relay teams for major championships, so our 4×400 team finishing 12th in the world is certainly an achievement that can’t be downplayed.
However there were also some disappointments for the Irish team. The silver medallist from the previous World Championships in Berlin, Olive Loughnane, struggled badly in soring temperatures and 88% humidity and finished down the field in 16th place in the 20Km Walk. Paul Hession was another athlete who had a poor championships by his own high standards. The Galway athlete has been a model of consistency over the last few years, narrowly missing out on the 200 metres final at Osaka 2007 (12th place), the Beijing Olympics in 2008 (10th place), and Berlin 2009 (10th place). However on this occasion, he could only finish in 4th place in his heat and failed to qualify for the semi finals.
However, the biggest disappointment from an Irish perspective centred around Cork sprint hurdling heroine, Derval O’Rourke. The two time European silver medallist and former World Indoor champion had high hopes of becoming the first Irish sprinter to qualify for back to back World Championships finals, after her 4th place finish in Berlin two years ago. O’Rourke had previously commented on how well her preparations had gone this summer, and how this was the first season in years that hadn’t been interrupted by injury or illness. In the heats, everything looked to be going to plan, when she eased her way into the semi finals in second place, barely breaking a sweat. For her semi final I was sitting by the start line, the place where myself and some friends sat in Barcelona last year when she won the European silver medal, something that I was hoping would provide a good omen. However, when the women came out of the tunnel for the semi final, there was no sign of Derval at all, leaving myself with a feeling of pure disbelief. It wasn’t until about half an hour later that I heard what had happened. When warming up for the semi final her calf tightened, and no matter what the physio tried, nothing could be done in time, and she was forced to withdraw. One can’t help but feel devastated for her, considering how much time and energy would have gone into preparing for these championships, only for it all to be taken away by cruel bad fortune. As it turned out 12.84 seconds was good enough to qualify for the final, a time that Derval would have been expecting to run without any problems. While a medal would have been highly unlikely, given the times ran by the top 3 athletes, there’s no doubt that she would have been competitive and ranked highly. But these things happen in sport, and she will no doubt come back stronger for it. Hopefully at the Olympic Games next year she will get the opportunity to show the world just how fast she can go.
There were many ups and downs for the Irish team, but I am absolutely proud of the efforts of every one of them, and it was a pleasure to be in Daegu to support them. I chatted to a few of them throughout the week and each of them were very pleasant and friendly, and were very appreciative of the journey made to come and support them.
However, in Daegu, it wasn’t just elite athletes who were the centre of attention, but also us supporters. I have lost count of how many times I was stopped inside and outside the stadium by Korean kids asking for a photo. On one occasion I was even asked to sign my autograph. The locals clearly thought I was competing at the championships, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them the truth and disappoint them. It was absolutely surreal walking around the stadium, being bombarded for photos. Real paparazzi stuff! However this pales in comparison to what some poor chap from Jamaica had to deal with. Over 6 foot tall, dressed in jeans, and with a Jamaican flag hanging over his back, this man was nothing but a passionate athletics fan, and was certainly not competing at the championships. However, to the Korean kids, this personal description could mean one thing, and one thing only….USAIN BOLT! Within minutes of his first photo request, this man was surrounded by somewhere between 100-200 local children, all of whom were jumping up on him, flashing their cameras in his face, screaming like…urm….children, and basically hounding him. The disgruntled Jamaican could do nothing to get away from this fanatical onslaught, and with his friends just laughing their heads off and offering little help, he resigned himself to the fact that he was not going to be left alone and ended up signing autographs and getting photos taken for a solid 15 minutes. Korea is a strange strange place I tell you!
Another interesting thing about these World Championships was the Korean attitude towards security. Like any event, there are different sections in the stadium, entry to each dependant on which type of ticket you hold. Usually there are security personnel at a sporting event to stop somebody accessing an area of the stadium to which one is not entitled, such as the VIP section for example. Daegu 2011, had such personnel of course, it’s just they weren’t particularly good at their jobs. Throughout the championships I waltzed into the VIP section, and athletes section on numerous occasions without a bother in the world. In addition, on one particular evening, I was given a press pass, valid for only the 2nd of September. This gave me access to all the press conferences afterwards. During this I got to put questions to numerous athletes, a very enjoyable experience. However, as the old saying goes, give and inch and he’ll take a mile. After being in the press conference the night before, there was no way on earth I was going back to sitting where I usually was, and so brought my now expired press pass with me and flipped it over so that the date wasn’t showing. No questions were asked, as I eased my way back into the press conference room, seated myself in the front row, and proceeded to ask Mr. Usain Bolt about his possible plans to race the 400 metres after the London Olympics! To say that security was lax would be a massive understatement, but I would have it no other way. The beauty of athletics is that it is a very accessible sport to fans, where athletes are (barring the odd exception) very down to earth, and have no big egos. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I saw Steve Hooker sitting out in the non-athletes section of the stadium, sitting in amongst the supporters. This is something that made Daegu 2011 so enjoyable, and an aspect which will be more than likely lacking at the London Olympics next year.
While security in the stadium may be lacking, one thing that was very stringent in Daegu was anti-doping. Just a week or so before the championships started, the IAAF announced an unprecedented drug testing programme in which every single athlete would be subjected to one mandatory urine test and more importantly one mandatory blood test. On top of this, any athlete could be asked back again for another random blood test. This is of course on top of the normal testing that takes place after each final. It is without doubt the most comprehensive anti-doping programme ever undertaken in sports, and it is something that, in my humble opinion, should be adopted by all other sports also. There will always be those that will slip through the net of course, but it is now becoming increasingly more difficult for those who are willing to take a short cut.
The weather conditions that the athletes had to compete in cannot be ignored. Every day was like a combination of a sauna and steam room. Temperatures were consistently in the mid 30’s and the humidity levels were regularly at over 80%. I’ve never experienced such discomfort in all my life, and the sweat was literally dripping off my face. And I was just a spectator. I can’t begin to understand how difficult it must have been for the competitors, especially those taking part in endurance events. Much respect!
While athletics is not a very popular sport in South Korea, the locals of Daegu did a fantastic job in embracing the championships. Many people, myself included, were worried that the world’s best would end up competing in front of a half empty stadium, but such fears proved to be unfounded. The stadium appeared to be over 80% full on every evening, and the atmosphere was absolutely magnificent. The Koreans have a clear lack of knowledge of the sport, demonstrated by the lack of cheering when household names such as Allyson Felix are called out, but they made up for this with their enthusiasm towards the event. Even the morning sessions had big crowds. I have watched athletics for 17 years and have never seen a morning session as well attended as these championships. Every kid in Daegu must have been in the stadium over the course of the week. The organisers of the event deserve a serious pat on the back, and these championships will no doubt leave a lasting legacy in Korea.
I have had a fantastic two weeks in South Korea, have met some brilliant new people, and have experienced a new culture. The people are among the most polite I have met, and regularly offered their help when they saw me looking very lost and confused, standing at the side of a road with a giant map in my hands. A perception of a country is largely based on what the local people are like, and South Korea achieved a grade of A1 in this department. It is a country that I cannot speak highly enough of and I hope that others who visited for the World Championships will take as many fond memories home with them as I have.
To Korea, kamsahamnida.