Doha in search of a superstar to drive the sport forward
Exciting contests are in prospect as Middle East’s first World Championships takes off on Friday.
London 2017 marked the end of an era. Doha 2019 will signify the start of a new one.
In the British capital two years ago, a giant of a man who kept the track and field world in thrall for a decade took his final bow. As Usain Bolt hobbled off the track at the Olympic Stadium then, the entire world felt his pain.
His amazing runs, stunning world records and incomparable showmanship are fresh in memory, but time has to move on even for the superman of athletics. The Jamaican has stepped away from the spotlight, dallied a bit in football and entered the world of business, but the sport he so dominated is at a point where it is still searching desperately for the athlete who will carry the torch forward.
The 17th IAAF World Championships, beginning at the magnificent Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, is another stop where the fans and pundits alike will cast their eyes for the next man or woman, the next superstar if you like, who will capture the imagination of the younger generation.
To say athletics is in deep crisis might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but the sport has to tackle its share of problems – doping and corruption to name just two – to stay relevant in a hugely competitive world. Innovation has been the buzzword as the administrators grapple with the issues, but you still need the stars and their rivalries to drive the sport forward. In that context, Doha could well be the launching pad of a few names into universal consciousness.
The long season has thrown up some interesting possibilities and pointers to the future. Fiery showdowns in sprints, titanic tussles in hurdles and distance races, and heavy-duty duels in the field are all forecast in the climate-controlled stadium and if the spectators turn up in numbers, they will have their fill.
Nothing excites a fan like a hot sprinting duel does. And in Doha, it is the men’s 200M that demands attention, thanks to the presence of a certain Noah Lyles. The 22-year-old American has talked big and run fast this year. With a season’s best of 19.50sec, he has even talked of the possibility of a world record. While that might be a bit of a stretch, with Bolt’s mark set at an imposing 19.19, there is no doubt that sparks will fly with Americans Michael Norman (season’s best of 19.50) and Christian Coleman (19.91) also in the field.
“I’ve a very strong chance of winning the 200. I also have a very strong chance of trying to break some meet records,” Lyles was quoted as saying after scorching the tracks at the Diamond League meetings in Paris and Zurich recently. Beyond his speed, his extroverted personality is also appealing to the marketing men and there would be many watching.
In Doha, Lyles will skip the 100M where Coleman is the favourite. The American was under a cloud over missed dope tests, but has put that controversy behind to emerge as one of the favourites in the short sprint. Former Olympic champion Justin Gatlin, who usurped Bolt’s throne in London, could challenge Coleman if he has fully recovered from a niggle that hit him at the Zagreb meeting earlier this month.
The talk of a world record has grown louder with every race in the men’s 400M hurdles. Norway’s Karsten Warholm, American Rai Benjamin and Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba have the ability to go under Kevin Young’s 1992 mark of 46.78sec. Warholm and Benjamin sizzled at the Zurich Diamond League, timing 46.92 and 46.98 respectively, while Samba has a season’s best of 47.27. Warholm, the defending champion, is the favourite but the whole of Qatar would want a Samba victory.
In the field, Christian Taylor will be gunning for his fourth world title in triple jump, but has to overcome the threat from his friend and long-time rival Will Claye, the only man to go past 18M this season. Taylor is the man for the big stages though, as proved by his record of three world titles and two Olympic gold.
Big throws will be needed to win shot put and discus after a season in which giant men have flexed their muscles well. American Olympic champion Rayan Crouser (season’s best 22.74M), Brazilian Darlan Romani (22.61) and Kiwi Tom Walsh (22.44) can make the earth rumble in the shot put circle while in discus, Swede Daniel Stahl and Jamaican Fedrick Dacres, both with massive 70M-plus efforts, are on a different plane.
For the Qatari fans, the focus will be on the high jump pit where Mutaz Essa Barshim is the defending champion, but hasn’t inspired confidence due to an injury-induced break.
In women’s events, sprints have lots to offer, with Jamaicans Elaine Thompson, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Briton Dina Asher Smith ready to turn on the power. After an underwhelming London 2017 campaign, when they won only one gold, Jamaicans will be eager to set the sprinting record straight, with Fraser-Pryce aiming for her fourth 100M gold.
Bahamas’ Shaunae-Miller Uibo has been in red-hot form in the 200M and it augurs well for her prospects in the 400M where Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Nasser is a worthy challenger, having dominated the season so far.
A terrific contest could also be on view in the triple jump where defending champion Yulimar Rojas of Venezuela takes on Olympic champion Catherine Ibarguen of Colombia. Rojas came close to the world record with a 15.41M leap this season, and Ibarguen will have some catching up to do if the Venezuelan brings that kind of form to the Qatari capital.
There will be plenty to pick for athletics fans and if the stars sparkle as they have promised to, then track and field would be eternally grateful for its Doha days.