Friday 19 January 2018

Running man: Athletics needs ultimate show-stopper Bolt now more than ever before

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

IF THE International Athletics Federation (IAAF) wasn't indebted, if not practically indentured to Usain Bolt two years ago, they certainly are now.

The languid Jamaican reprieved his Olympic heroics to light up Berlin with two new world records at the 2009 World Championships and though he is not expected to hit the same warp-speeds in Daegu over the next eight days, the 13th World Championships will undoubtedly be another 'Bolt Show'.

Due to injuries last year, the most recognisable athlete on the planet is calling this his 'comeback season'.

Bolt (25) leads this year's 200m rankings (19.86 seconds) but has only run 9.88 for 100m, yet recent events indicate just how invaluable he is to his sport right now.

The depth of talent at any 'Worlds' immediately preceding an Olympics is often a bit thin as athletes take precautions not to exacerbate injuries and two of Bolt's main 100m rivals -- Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell -- are out injured.

Two more who were faster than him this year, America's Michael Rodgers and Jamaican Steve Mullings, recently failed drugs tests, and among his surviving opponents is former double world champion Justin Gatlin (USA), himself just back from a drugs ban.

Like it or not the stain of doping still blights the sport, even though every athlete competing in Daegu will undergo blood testing.

After the highs of Berlin, the wisdom of taking the event to a non-athletics stronghold like South Korea, plus an unhelpful time-zone for European viewers, has also raised eyebrows.

This week's botched IAAF election -- senior vice-president Sergey Bubka, the legendary pole-vaulter, lost his seat on the ruling council only to be re-elected after a quick revote was ordered, the error blamed on a glitch in the electronic voting system -- gave further fodder to the sceptics and conspiracy theorists.

So athletics needs a good, clean week of spellbinding drama and is blessed to have sport's ultimate showman.

Bolt's playful personality somehow combines bombast with loveability, so no one blinked when he rocked up this week, promising new celebratory antics and wondering why Manchester United haven't signed him yet!

Yet he isn't the only superstar in town and the dilution of his sprint duels may yet help to highlight others.

Britain's double European champion Mo Farah is undoubtedly one, after taking his training to another level by moving to Oregon to work with the legendary Alberto Salazar.

Not only is Farah leading the world 5000/10,000m rankings but at several Diamond League meetings this year he stayed on and put in a training session on the track afterwards.

Whether he can beat the best Ethiopians and Kenyans, including the legendary Kenenisa Bekele, is one of these championships' great draws.

Ireland will also have a particular interest in the men's 800m as Kenyan superstar David Rudisha is coached by Br Colm O'Connell from Mallow.

The men's high hurdles showdown is a fascinating battle as American David Oliver leads the rankings, Cuban Dayron Robles is the Olympic champion and China's Liu Xiang is back after injury.

As Derval O'Rourke notes, the women's equivalent has been a bit of a lottery all summer, apart from Australia's dominant Sally Pearson.

As ever, expect the Leevale star to produce her seasonal best in the championship arena.

Olive Loughnane's silver medal in the women's 20km walk was Ireland's highlight two years ago and expect her to be in the mix again on Wednesday.

A family bereavement has, sadly, forced Ireland's other top race walker Robert Heffernan to return home and David Gillick is out injured.

Cork's Ciaran O'Lionard is one Irish newcomer to watch. He has shaved chunks off his PB in several distances this summer and qualified at 1500m.

But first into action today are Ireland's two world-class steeplechasers.

Fionnuala Britton went to Kenya to train last year, but hooking up with top triathlon coach Chris Jones seems to have been the key to her new-found strength and speed and she is joined by another Wicklow woman with a remarkable story.

Steph Reilly's US scholarship career didn't quite work out.

Now 33, she coaches at Bryant University in Boston and credits finding her best form ever with a new work/life balance after having two children since 2005 and being coached by her husband and fellow-Providence graduate Paul Reilly from Loughrea.

•Channel 4 has live daily coverage. Daegu is eight hours ahead of Ireland so most heats are in the early hours of the morning our time. Most finals are between 11.0-1.0 daily.

Irish Independent

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