Friday, August 28, 2009

Berlin Memories, Part II

Writer/photographer/geography prof Sean Hartnett gives us part II of his Berlin memories.

Sean Hartnett: Now to the track and obvious Berlin headliner, Usain Bolt, and the less obvious historic performances of Kenenisa Bekele. Bolt has become the much needed savior of the sport, and in sharp contrast to some of our recent muscle bound sprints champions, he is a true athletic sprinter along the lines of a Carl Lewis , Michael Johnson, Jesse Owens or Tyson Gay. While the Gay rivalry was dampened by his injured groin, it was ultimately a one man show.

To be fair to Gay, Bolt is something of a physical freak at 6’5” with a sleek athletic build more like a 400-800m runner. It is like you took a top sprinter (be it Gay, Lewis, Johnson and Owens) and copied them at 110% of original size – bigger and better. Once a poor starter, Bolt is much improved such five strides into the 100 (five times that 110% stride length) he already had a meter lead, and the rest was history.

Bolt is obviously a gifted athlete with a solid technical grasp of his events (evident in his flawless relay skills such that he ran the two-pass on the turn third leg of the 4x100), but he is also a virtuoso performer who engages the crowd beforehand, rides the emotional stadium roar through a competition, and salutes the gathered masses with a rock-star encore celebration. Bolt certainly deserved 5-10% of the gate any time he was in the stadium. In almost any other professional sport, he would be rewarded at such a level or higher. From my view, this is a pretty shabby way to treat our sport’s savior. Granted, he has many other income streams (such as record and shoe bonuses), but to award Bolt for his double win less than 10% of PGA champion Y. E. Yang’s take – we won’t have much of a sport to save.

The other end of the track spectrum, produced two historic wins. Admittedly the 5’4” Bekele was almost lost in Bolt’s WR shadow. Bekele first withstood Zerhane Tadese’s persistent pace ratcheting of the second half of the race that systematically dispatched the world’s best distance runners. With a lap to go Bekele burst past Tadese, opening 10 meters on the turn then cruised home to finish off a 26:45 10K, the fastest ever run in a championship competition. Bekele’s 10K win is best viewed from a historic perspective: It was Bekele’s sixth straight World Championship or Olympic gold medal. That is wins in Paris ’03, Athens Olympics ’04, Hesinki ’05, Osaka ’07, Beijing Olympics ’08, and Berlin ’09. No other athlete in any event has amassed such a string of victories. Bekele has now won all twelve 10K races that he has contested in his career.

Bekele also won the 5K on the final day, this time with a very different tactic and a very thrilling stretch-run. With everyone keying on the Ethiopian favorite, Bekele took the lead and ran a rather slow pace until he started to crank up the pace leaving almost the whole field bunched together with a lap to go. A 27 second 200 got rid of most of the competition except defending champ Bernard Lagat. It seemed that Bekele played right into the hands of Lagat when the 1500 meter silver medalist pulled ahead at the beginning of the finishing straight, only to have Kenenisa rally for the win in the final 20 meters. The win gave Bekele the first 5K / 10K double in championship history, adding much to his case as the greatest distance runner of all time.

Not all the track races were as exciting. Both 1500s were rather disappointing with slow pace giving away to a lot of shoving. Two races that exceeded expectations were the men’s steeple where the Kenyan crew pushed a hard pace over the final 2K, and the men’s 110 hurdles which had the dubious challenge of being the race that followed Bolt’s 200 meter WR. While not a super fast time, Terrence Trammell, Ryan Brathwaite and David Payne ran down the center of the track matching stride over all ten hurdles and hit the tape in unison with Brathwaite scoring the win with a deep lean.

Most disappointing was the treatment of women’s 800 winner Caster Semenya. While the South African has competed as in IAAF youth and junior championships, and a month earlier won the African junior 800. My lasting impression of this controversy was 300 meters into Semenya’s victory lap with the South African phenom accompanied by Berlino the show stopping mascot. As they headed up the straight, an IAAF official stood squarely in lane 8 and directed Semenya’s into the inner sanctum of the stadium before she made her rounds with the media. Yes, gender questions have been a part of the sport, but 300 meters into a victory lap was surely not the time or place for the IAAF to step in. This clearly was not the IAAF’s best moment.

Not to be overlooked was the role that the historic Olympic stadium played in creating a memorable championships. This is truly a great sports venue constructed primarily of stone and featuring great sightlines throughout the stadium. The stone architecture triggered thoughts of the 1936 Olympics as much of the structure remained intact. Spared by allied bombers who used the landmark for orientation, the stadium was updated with the requisite luxury boxes and a refreshingly different blue track, but remained much as it was in 1936. This was most apparent when I climbed up the West terrace for award ceremonies and saw the names of the ’36 Olympic champions etched in the stone.

A great venue, large enthusiastic crowds, and captivating competitions made for a great nine days of track & field. Yes, early in the week the meet seemed to drag through endless prelims, but as the meet’s excitement picked up night after night, Berlin 09 will always be remembered as a blur. A 9.58 / 19.19 blur.


Chad said...

Great stuff as always, Sean. Thanks for sharing.

LaFrenz said...

Good stuff Hartnett.