LONDON — If you don’t know the rules of steeplechase, here’s a quick crash course, and crash is the word because spills are not uncommon. The runners run 3000 meters. That’s 1.8 miles. There are 28 barriers — that’s the precise word — and seven water jumps.
If you know who Horace Ashenfelter is, call the producers at Jeopardy. You can win a lot of money.
If you don’t, which means you’re not one of Mr. Ashenfelter’s relatives or, otherwise, an all-consumed track and field geek, this: in the biggest surprise of the 2017 IAAF track and field world championships, which wound to a close Sunday, bigger than Justin Gatlin winning, bigger than Usain Bolt and Mo Farah losing, an American, Emma Coburn, won the women’s steeplechase, immediately followed across the line by another American, Courtney Frerichs.
Coburn became the first American, male or female, to win gold in the steeple at a global championship since Ashenfelter won the men’s steeplechase at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.
Americans had not gone 1-2 at a distance event at the World Championships or Olympics since the Stockholm Games in 1912.
These championships came to a rousing end Sunday night with a serenade to Bolt, a 400-meter stroll around Olympic Stadium organizers called a "lap of honor." It won't be the same. And as the 2,200 athletes from 203 national federations (along with coaches and delegates) prepared to scatter back around the world, they leave knowing that these surely were the last of these IAAF championships as track and field has known them for years and years.
This starts, of course, with Bolt and Farah, who made their last competitive performances on the red track here. But so much more:
— London, which put on the 2012 Olympics, makes a great stage for a track and field meet. The stands were almost always full; organizers reported 10-day total ticket sales of 705,000. Hero the Hedgehog proved a creative and interactive mascot, on par with Berlino the bear in 2009. The primary serious strike: the boos from the crowd directed against the U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin, which frankly proved inexcusable.
Referring to the full crowds, IAAF president Seb Coe said at a wrap-up news conference Sunday night, “Going forward we have to make sure we are giving the athletes the opportunity to compete when possible in front of full stadia. When we get that right, this sport is unassailable.”
As for the boos, Coe said: “I don’t like to see athletes being booed. But the public do feel strongly about that.
“In a way, the athletes took the lead." Referring to the first bout of boos, amid the men's 100, he said, "I thought the dignified way Usain dealt with the situation took some of the tension out of the situation by the time we got to the medal ceremony the following day.”
— The IAAF must take up changes to the sport’s presentation (10 l-o-n-g days — really?) and its calendar, particularly looking ahead to the next edition of the worlds, in 2019 in Doha, Qatar, in late September and early October of that year, followed by the 2020 Olympic Games, which will feature the track meet in August.
— These changes come as the IAAF, while acknowledging the global nature of its many constituencies, seeks to move — and appropriately — toward a 21st century sports-business model of governance and away from one rooted in personality politics, commissions, committees, working groups and task forces. “My instinct is, yes, there is still a long way to go. But,” Coe said, “there is a confidence.”
— Along with these governance issues come fundamental issues of integrity tied in significant measure to the competition itself; in turn, these can reflect directly on IAAF credibility. Essentially, these issues turn on one question: what is fair? Of course, the Russian doping matter remains to be resolved — 19 “authorized neutral athletes” competed here, Mariya Lasitskene winning women’s high jump and Sergey Shubenkov taking second in the men’s hurdles. In the women’s 800 on Sunday, South Africa’s Caster Semenya won in a 2017 world-leading 1:55:16, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba taking second in 1:55.92, American Ajeé Wilson grabbing third in 1:56.65. Let the vexing debate over gender identity resume (if this is new to you, Google Semenya and Niyonsaba). At the same time, consider this, from a different folder in the equity file: earlier Sunday, 37-year-old Inês Henriques of Portugal won the inaugural 50-kilometer women’s race walk, in 4:05.56. For this, she won $160,000 — the standard first-place prize here of $60,000 plus a $100,000 bonus for a world-record. It’s a world record only because this was, again, the inaugural 50k race walk and thus the winning time was bound to be a world record. Seven women started this race; four finished; of the other three, one was DQ’d and two did not pass 48k in the necessary time of 4 hours and 17 minutes. Is it fair that Henriques wins $160,000 for a race in which seven started (three from the United States, two from China), four finished — yet just to get into the heats of the women’s 100 meant being one of the 47 best in the world? Define “fair.”
— Past Doha and Tokyo comes the 2021 championships in Eugene, Oregon, the first-ever IAAF worlds in the United States. Combined with the 2020 U.S. Trials at Mt. San Antonio College in Los Angeles and the 2028 Summer Games in LA, along with this essential fact — track and field does not, like football, soccer or rugby, involve significant concussion risk — the sport stands at the threshold of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get big, and especially again in the United States.
— The American market is the world No. 1. Outside of Bolt, the track stars most people can name — and this is anywhere in the world — remain Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson. The last Olympics for each was in Atlanta, in 1996. That’s literally a generation ago. The time is now, building toward LA in 2028 (both Lewis and Johnson have been active in supporting the LA project), to find whoever is next, and to use all the 21st-century brand-building and story-telling tools at hand to reach young people where they live. Meaning, mostly, their phones.
This, Coe said, is what the sport is going to miss most about Bolt, way more than the medals.
“It’s going to be because he has an opinion, he fills a room and he’s of interest to you guys,” meaning the media.
“We need more accessibility,” Coe said. “Some sports do that better than we do.”
Vin Lananna, USA Track & Field’s president, said in meeting with a clutch of reporters Sunday evening, “We have great athletes. We have great stories. We need to tell them better, and more often.”
“Clearly,” said Niels de Vos, director of the local organizing committee, “social [media] is the way forward.”
Consider this story: Majid Eddin Ghazal of Syria — Syria — won the bronze medal Sunday night in men’s high jump.
“I cannot believe what I did today,” Ghazal said afterward.
— Because of the foresight of USATF chief executive Max Siegel, the American federation is not only financially stable but growing and thus more appealing to more business interests who might want to invest: a $36.95 million 2017 budget, up from $17 million in 2011. All the ferocious critics who complained in 2014 when USATF struck a long-term deal with Nike, which runs from 2017 through 2040 and is worth a reported $20 million-plus annually to USATF — during these championships, British Athletics announced it had extended its deal with Nike through 2030. The Guardian reported the deal is thought to be worth about $20 million annually, at current exchange rates.
To close the circle:
Every track and field program in the world would like to be the Americans.
Is USATF perfect? Hardly.
Is there room for constructive dialogue and improvement? Always.
But, let’s be realistic: scoreboard.
As Bolt noted at a late-night news conference, “It’s been a rough championship for a lot of people.” Some 43 countries won at least one medal. The U.S. finished with 30: 10 gold, 11 silver, nine bronze. Those 30 are a worlds U.S. most-ever, two more than the 28 won at the 2011 championships in Daegu, South Korea.
After the 32-medal performance last year in Rio, London 2017 marks the first time since the 1952 and 1956 Games that a U.S. team has won 30 or more medals at consecutive global championships.
The Brits finished the meet with six medals, two gold. Two golds, one from Farah and won in a relay, de Vos said, is “something all the British people can be proud of.”
Just some of the U.S. superlatives from this meet:
Allyson Felix won a record 16th world championships medal Sunday night in the women’s 4x4 relay. She tied Bolt with most world championships golds, 11.
Justin Gatlin and Tori Bowie gave the U.S. the first sweep of the men’s and women’s 100 gold since 2005. Gatlin and Christian Coleman produced the first 1-2 finish in the men’s 100 since 2001.
Sam Kendricks won the first U.S. gold in men’s pole vault since 2007.
Christian Taylor and Will Claye joined Mike Conley as the only American men with three medals in the triple jump.
Mason Finley’s bronze is the first U.S. medal in men’s discus since 1999.
Amy Cragg’s bronze is the first U.S. women’s marathon medal since 1983.
Kori Carter, out in Lane 9, and Dalilah Muhammad gave the U.S. a first 1-2 finish in the women’s 400 hurdles since 1995.
Evan Jager’s bronze in the first U.S. men’s steeplechase medal, ever, at the world championships.
The Jager medal came Tuesday. Who knew that was but precursor to Friday night’s amazing women’s steeplechase?
In Rio, Coburn took bronze, Frerichs 11th. Here, Coburn ran 9:02.58, cutting five seconds off her ownAmerican record and a new world championships record. Frerichs, 9:03.77, set a new personal best by 16 seconds. They are now the sixth- and seventh-best performers in world history.
That’s not even the best part about what they did. This is — Coburn’s sister, Gracie Coburn Willette, watching her win (note, per de Vos — social media). This is the joyful essence of track and field and, leaving London, let it be on this note -- more of this, please: