Answers from Daegu

Athletics: Emergence of new talent at the Worlds has set the ball rolling for the London Olympics

Even staging the Seoul Olympics in 1988 did not do the trick. More than two decades later, Korean athletes have become international stars in sports like baseball, figure skating and golf, but no Korean athlete could come close to a medal in Daegu.

The nine-day meet did leave at least some imprint on local culture. Up in the green hills north of Daegu, at the annual Buddhist craft market at Donghwa Temple, the artist Shin Jae-soon, who makes traditional Korean paper “hanji” dolls, had created something new for his stand this year: a doll depicting Usain Bolt breaking the tape in victory.

“He won, right?” Shin asked.

Not the 100 meters, he didn’t, but Bolt, the irrepressible Jamaican sprinter, still came away from Daegu with two gold medals and the only world record of the championships as he and his Jamaica team-mates romped to a time of 37.04 seconds in the 4x100 relay.

It was classic Bolt, and it certainly seems likely that he will romp some more at the London Olympics next year unless his nagging Achilles’ tendon problem or some other concern drags him down, perhaps even another gaffe like the false start that spoiled his 100 metres on the opening weekend.

The existing rule, which disqualifies any sprinter immediately after a false start, is highly unlikely to change even after it came under heavy attack in Daegu, where athletes and commentators clamored for more mercy or a return to the previous rule, which allowed one false start for the field.

“I didn’t realise how much I loved that rule until I saw this one,” said Ato Boldon, the sprinter turned commentator. “It’s like an ex-girlfriend or something.”

To his credit, Bolt, who was in favour of the rule change in 2010, did not reverse course and lobby against it. Lamine Diack, president of track’s governing body, said that the International Association of Athletics Federations would not revise the rule for London.

Others, like Frankie Fredericks, the former world champion sprinter from Namibia who was elected to the IAAF council, sounded more open to dialogue.

“I think it’s good for us that the youngsters realise that we are serious with the rules, that even if a Bolt false starts and gets thrown out, nobody can mess with the rules,” Fredericks said. “I think, in that sense, it’s good. But whether it’s good for us to lose one of our marquee sprinters at the final is a different issue. I think it’s one we need to study. What will be fair?”

If fairness is truly the issue, there really are only two solutions. Either every sprinter is allowed one false start, as was the case before 2003, or nobody is allowed a false start, as is the case now.

But no matter how diverting it may seem, the false-start debate is hardly the major issue facing global athletics, which needs to find a way to appeal to the young -- be they athletes in training or couch potatoes in training -- and fast.

Sebastian Coe, the former middle-distance star who is now an IAAF vice-president and head of the organising committee for the London Games, wants to see a more extensive, creative analysis of youth culture worldwide.  “For me, the one thing we’ve got to make much more of an effort with is just to try to understand the landscape that kids are living in,” Coe said. “I don’t think you can, in isolation, rejigger track and field.”  

Doping scandals have repeatedly wounded the sport, beginning in earnest with the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s positive test and disqualification at the Seoul Olympics and peaking again with the Balco investigation that led to the American star Marion Jones’s disgrace and eventual imprisonment.

To speak with athletes of this generation, particularly American athletes, is to realise how much psychological damage has been done. Dwight Phillips won his fourth world title in the men’s long jump at Daegu and has also won an Olympic gold medal, but he believes his low profile in the United States is largely linked to the scandals.

“A lot of times my titles have been overshadowed by the negativity of doping,” Phillips said. “This is my fourth world championship, this is my seventh global title, but people don’t even know about it. They don’t even highlight me most of the times because of negative doping outcomes. So I have to constantly, every year, prove myself. Sometimes people don’t even know who I am.”

But Phillips and others are encouraged by recent efforts, including the IAAF's decision to follow professional cycling’s lead and collect blood samples from every athlete who participated in these championships with the goal of creating a “biological passport” that can be used to monitor parameters and detect significant changes over time.

“If anything, it should have been done a little bit sooner,” said Dai Greene, the British hurdler who won the 400 hurdles here.

“Everybody always talked about the testers being one step behind, so hopefully they’re catching up and they’re on level par at least now.” Experience demands continued skepticism if not defeatism.

There were no positive tests announced during the championships in Daegu, but the anecdotal evidence is encouraging in that mind-blowing performances are becoming increasingly rare. Greene’s time of 48.26 in the 400 hurdles was the slowest winning time in world championship history, as was the American Jenny Simpson’s time of 4 minutes and 5.4 seconds in the women’s 1,500.

Only two athletes in individual events, both women, truly threatened uncharted territory. Mariya Abakumova of Russia had to produce the second-best throw ever -- 71.99 meters -- to win the women’s javelin over Barbora Spotakova, who holds the record of 72.28 meters. In the 100 hurdles, the Australian Sally Pearson’s winning time of 12.28 seconds was the fourth-fastest time in history and just seven-hundredths of a second off the world record. The only downside: It is hard to imagine how Pearson can run a cleaner, better hurdles race than she did in the final.

“I got chills watching,” Phillips said.  The next venue for world championship thrills will be Moscow in 2013, followed by a return to the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing in 2015. London and Doha, Qatar -- yes, Doha again -- are the only bidders for the 2017 championships. The IAAF Council will vote later this year, and Doha’s request to stage them at season’s end in September if selected has been approved by the IAAF.

Coe and the London bid team want to reuse the Olympic Stadium in 2017, assuming they can keep Tottenham Hotspur from gaining control of the venue over West Ham, another London football club, and ripping up the track. (West Ham would keep the track in the stadium.)

For now, however, London is guaranteed only one global athletics championships.  That will come next August during the 2012 Games. Unlike South Korea, Britain is already a track and field nation, and based on the routinely tight finishes in Daegu, the emergence of new champions like Simpson and Grenada’s Kirani James and, above all, on Bolt, it should be quite a meet.

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