Monday, December 14, 2009

Final Look Back at 2009

12th IAAF World Athletics Championships - Day Four

With only a couple of weeks left in 2009, it's time to take a final look back on a very interesting season. Despite being a World Championship season, many events seemed to spur only average performances. But, as happens with regularity in this sport, there were those athletes and events that found a way to rise above the "average" and create the kind of excitement found only in the sport of track and field. So to celebrate those accomplishments, I give you my first ever Finish Line Awards.

Athlete of the Year - Usain Bolt

The bulk of Bolt's season was pretty average. Yes he continued to win, but when you've run 9.69 and 19.30 expectations run high. And heading into July with 9.86/20.25 bests, gave little indication that WR performances were again in the offing. But rainy 9.79 and 19.59 performances in Europe showed that Bolt was ready for Berlin, in spite of the fact that he still didn't lead the world in either event - such was the state of sprinting in '09. Once in Berlin, however, Bolt again took hold of the mantle of the world's top sprinter with sizzling WR's of 9.58 & 19.19. With the 100 record coming with a .13 gap over the #'s 2 & 3 100 men of all time. Then with chief rival Tyson Gay once again out of the event due to injury, Bolt simply ran alone to his second WR of the meet and 4th individual in his last 4 championship finals. Nuff said.

Athlete of the Year - Yelena Isinbayeva

Possibly a controversial pick to some given that quarter miler Sanya Richards has gotten the nod on most lists - I'm sure in large part due to Isi's failure in Berlin. However, looking at overall seasons, Yelena dominated the competition, the yearly list, and came back from her Berlin lapse to take down the WR - easily defeating World Champion Rogowska yet again. Competing against generally tougher competition than Richards had, and at a relatively higher level in her event, Isinbayeva rates #1 in my book as she continues to compete in the stratosphere of her event - literally. Her dominance over both the competition and the all time list over this season is on par with that of Sergei Bubka. So I forgive her one hiccup.

Performance of the Year - 9.58, Usain Bolt

Did anyone ever dream that we would see a 9.5 100 METERS? Even in message board "fantasy" competitions among the greatest sprinters that have walked the face of the earth, most sane people have avoided talking about 9.5. So watching Bolt lead from start to finish in Berlin with the clock stopping at 9.58 was as surreal a performance as 29'2.5" was in 1968. When you consider that 9.71 - which would have necessitated a reading of the photo in Beijing - never had a chance, this has to be the performance of the year - and quite frankly the decade.

Performance of the Year - 10.64, Carmelita Jeter

Just as Bolt's best 100 was one dominating race, so was Jeter's 10.64! Nearly flawless in its execution, Jeter ran toe to toe with the legendary FloJo. A feat not yet seen since 1988. Yes, we saw one Marion Jones run 10.65 - but this was at altitude which we know gives considerable aid to sprint races. Eliminating altitude, and taking into account for all intents and purposes that the listed WR of 10.49 was most likely wind aided, Jeter was a hair from the best 100 meters ever run by a woman. Given the "questions" surrounding FloJo, and the disclosures we've had out of the former East Germany, it is not a stretch to say this may have been the best sprint race we've ever witnessed by a woman.

Newcomer of the Year - Alonso Edward

When Edwards ran 20.00 in late July I said, "Alonso who"! Then he ran 20.25 less than a week later into a negative wind (-1.0) and I found myself scrambling through results to see where this young man had come from ! StillnI never considered him a real threat for Berlin. Not with Bolt and Gay leading the way, and Crawford, Spearmon, and Martina headed to Berlin. Yet Edwards was first in his heat in Berlin, and first again in his quarterfinal. He was finally beaten in his semi by none other that Bolt himself before finishing second to Bolt in the final - ahead of super vets Spearmon and Crawford in a sterling 19.81! I know exactly who Edwards is now - and so does the competition.

Newcomer of the Year - Linet Masai

While its not unusual to see young sprinters step up and gain prominence, in distance running it usually takes more time. Distance running typically requires some seasoning. You take your lumps learning tactics, and getting stronger. Learning how to run with different paces, and in different kinds of competitions. Not so for Masai. On one hand its hard to consider her a newcomer given that she ran so well last year as an 18 year old running 30:26.50 for 4th in Beijing. But watching this 19 year old handle to pressure, and intense rivalry with the Ethiopians in Berlin to come through with the gold was something to watch in one so young - and besides, I didn't do a list last year. Regardless, this was as impressive a run I've seen by any young athlete this year not named Alonso Edwards.

Most Overlooked Athlete - Kenenisa Bekele

Double World Champion at 5000 & 10000, with a championship record in the latter. World leader at both distances. Bekele was clearly, IMHO, the second best athlete in the sport this year, but we spent little time talking about him with Bolt and Gay rewriting the sprint codes. Bekele didn't rewrite the distance record books this year for one simple reason - he already owns them! When you've already got the records and set the standards, you reach a point where your excellence is taken for granted. That is where Bekele finds himself - and where Bolt will be shortly should he be so lucky. Bekele goes about the business of being the best distance runner on the planet with such ease that we now take him for granted. But make no mistake, we are still watching something special whenever he takes to the track.

Most Overlooked Athlete II - Tyson Gay

I have to add one other athlete here, because in any other year, a sprinter running 9.69 & 19.58 would be headline news. Unfortunately his 19.58 came after we saw Usain Bolt run 19.30 in Beijing and his 9.69 came after his 9.71 loss to Bolt's 9.58. So Tyson has been running in one long 6' 5" shadow! Yet quiet as its been kept, Tyson had a better season on the clock than Bolt did in the 100, running 9.69, 9.71, and 9.77 while Bolt's #2 time on the year was 9.79. And Gay's 19.58 is the fastest opener ever in the event by anyone - including Bolt. But getting caught in the slipstream of a 9.58 has a way of rendering other performances moot - not to mention a second lowering of the 200 record. And for the second year in a row, injury prevented a head to head run with Bolt over 200 meters. So Gay finds himself an afterthought for most after running 9.69/19.58.

Most Overlooked Athlete - Valerie Vili

All Valerie Vili does is win! Since she won the World Cup in 2006, the only thing she hasn't won was the World Athletics Final in '07 where she was 2nd. Seeing as she won the World Championships that same season I think I can forgive her that! This year was no exception as she once again won the World Championships and dominated the yearly list. Unfortunately for Vili, while she has few contemporary peers, she faces the ghosts of Eastern Bloc Past - as so many women do in their pursuit of track and field excellence. Because like so many women its nearly impossible to match the athletic feats of the former Eastern Bloc - and a once doping China in the distances - rendering the pursuit of world records an impossible task. Add the fact that the "strength" events tend to be a bit less glamorous to most, and Vili's steady stream of excellence tends to get overlooked.

Most Overlooked Performance - 9.69, Tyson Gay

A year ago Usain Bolt ran 9.69 to take Olympic Gold. Bolt's visa was given a stamp as "Alien of the Universe" and videos of his race were viewed over and over and over. His picture was everywhere and he became THE face of track and field. Fast forward a year, Tyson Gay equals the 9.69 and only the true fans of the sport understand its significance. Unfortunately for Gay equaling the best performance of 2008 became moot on the heals of the best performance of 2009! Yet only Bolt - one time - has run faster in history. In a society obsessed with the "best", number two just isn't quite enough.

Most Overlooked Performance - 77.96m, Anita Wlodarczyk

The women's hammer throw is a relatively new event, with the IAAF beginning the ratification of marks in 1995. So unlike most of the women's weight events, the Ghosts of Eastern Bloc Past, don't rear their ugly heads here. Leaving an event where contemporary competitors can still chase world records. A feat Wlodarcyzk did quite well this year, moving first to #5 all time in Cottbus before taking a nice chunk off the previously three year old WR with her 77.96 bomb in Berlin. Unfortunately for Anita, the shadow cast by the 6' 5" Bolt obscured all in Berlin and Wlodarczyk's record became an afterthought in spite of being set in the most visible competition the sport offered all season.

Most Overlooked Event - Men's Long Jump

While the men's 100 garnered the majority of the headlines this year, the long jump began a rise from the doldrums. Dwight Phillips became =#5 all time soaring 8.74m (28' 8") and had several stirring duels above 28 feet with former World and Olympic Champion Irving Saladino. Godfrey Mokoena set an African Record at 8.50m (27' 10.5") leaving him just short of 28 ft and Sebastian Bayer just missed the German Record going 8.49m. Add Mitchell Wyatt (8.43m), Salim Sdiri (8.42m) and Yahya Berrabah (8.40m), and we have an event that is becoming very competitive again at a high level.

Most Overlooked Event - Women's 1500

Maybe it's because I'm very excited about the strides made by US women in this event this year, but the event just didn't seem to get the attention that I thought it deserved this year. Americans aside, Maryam Jamal and Geleta Burka had some outstanding runs this year. Add the fact that eight women ran under 4 minutes this year - three of them American. AND throw in that Shannon Rowbury picked up bronze in a hotly contested World Championhips - with sub 4 runners Jamal, Burka, Dobriskie, and Willard all in the race - and I expected more from the distance crazy US media.

Those are my biggest memories of 2009 - and my first Finish Line Awards. I'm now looking forward to what should be a very exciting 2010.

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