Felix Sanchez

Rainbow fingernails stir it up

There was a terrific track meet Thursday at Luzhniki Stadium at Moscow. But the central action came -- unsurprisingly -- courtesy of Russian pole vault diva Yelena Isinbayeva, underscoring the controversy over Russia's new anti-gay law. It all started when Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro posted an Instagram picture of her fingernails painted "in the colors of the rainbow," with the hashtags #pride and #moscow2013. Also, Swedish sprinter Moa Hjelmer ran in the heats of the 200-meter heats with her nails painted in rainbow colors as well.

Isinbayeva, who got her gold medal Thursday after Tuesday's captivating pole-vault action, told reporters, in English, "If we allow to promote and do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys.

"Everything must be fine. It comes from history. We never had any problems, these problems in Russia, and we don't want to have any in the future."

Green Tregaro is one of the world's best jumpers, a consistent top-10 performer; she is due to return to the track Saturday for the high jump finals. Isinbayeva said even painted fingernails were out of place.

14th IAAF World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013 - Day Six

"It's unrespectful to our country. It's unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different from European people and other people from different lands. We have our home and everyone has to respect (it). When we arrive to different countries, we try to follow their rules."

Isinbayeva's comments in defense of the Russian law, which prohibits the promotion of homosexuality to minors or holding gay pride rallies, need to be fully understood in context.

Who thinks that someone of her stature made such remarks without the full support beforehand of the leading authorities in Russia? After all, she is due to be the honorary mayor of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games athletes' village.

This, too: the demonstration by the Swedish athletes makes for an interesting test. There were no immediate reports of Green Tregaro being arrested. Nor, for that matter, Hjelmer.

Back to the track:

In the same way that Isinbayeva captivated fans Tuesday night with her victory in the pole vault, the men's high-jump thrilled fans Thursday, with Ukrainian Bohdan Bondarenko coming out on top in a duel with Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim, Canada's Derek Drouin and Russia's Ivan Ukhov.

For the first time since 1995, a 2.35-meter clearance in the high jump -- 7 feet, 8-1/2 inches -- would not even be good enough for a medal.

Bondarenko's winning jump: a championship-record 2.41 meters, or 7 feet, 10-3/4 inches.

Barshim and Drouin tied for bronze last year in London; here, Barshim took silver, Drouin, bronze. Ukhov, last year's gold medalist, settled for fourth. American Eric Kynard, the 2012 silver medalist, took fifth.

With a huge contingent of fans from Ukraine on hand, in their blue and yellow shirts, Bondarenko, seventh last year in London, made three tries at a new world record -- 2.46 meters, or 8 feet, 3/4 inch -- but no go. It was quite a spectacle; he wore one yellow shoe and one red.

In the men's 3,000-meter steeplechase, Kenya's Ezekiel Kemboi continued his dominance with an 8:06.01 victory.

14th IAAF World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013 - Day Six

If track and field were more of a mainstream sport, particularly in the United States, Kemboi would be a dream. As it is, in many precincts, he is a virtual unknown. Amazing, considering he has two Olympic golds and, now, three world championship golds.

For this race, Kemboi showed up with a Mohawk. He is a character and celebrated his win -- which he ensured with his typical kick into overdrive down the homestretch -- with, per usual, a dance, using the Kenyan flag as a makeshift skirt.

Under his singlet, it turned out, he was wearing a shirt that proclaimed he was wearing his victory -- he had a certain confidence, apparently -- to Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and deputy William Ruto, "my heroes my kings I love Kenya."

Kenya's Conseslus Kipruto -- he's just 18 -- took silver, in  8:06.37, and France's Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad bronze 8:07.86.

As a measure of their county's dominance in the event, check out the rank of Kenyans in top 10 in the order of finish: 1, 2, 4, 7.

Meanwhile, Evan Jager of the United States ran fifth in 8:08.62, the best finish for an American man since Mark Croghan in 1993. Jager's marked the fastest fifth-place time, ever, in a 3,000-meter steeplechase at a world championships.

Jager now has the three fastest 3k steeple times in American history. And he has only run the event 12 times.

"I'm definitely happy with how far I've come, and I'm excited for the future," Jager said. "But I really wanted a medal. I wanted it real bad."

Jehue Gordon of Trinidad and Tobago became the island nation's second-ever world champ -- behind sprinter Ato Boldon, now an NBC analyst -- winning the men's 400-meter hurdles, in 47.69, the fastest time in the world this year. American Michael Tinsley finished in a personal best 47.70.

Both men ended up sprawled on the blue track just after the finish line, the race too close to call for a few moments.

Serbia's Emir Bekric, the European under-23 champion who almost seems too big and too tall to be running track -- he looks like a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, or something -- took bronze, in a national-record 48.05.

Felix Sanchez, the 2004 and 2012 Olympic champion, got fifth, in 48.22.

In the women's 400 hurdles, Zuzana Henjova of the Czech Republic, who had served notice all week that she was the one to beat, came through for the gold in 52.84, the best time in the world this year.

Americans went 2-3, Dalilah Muhammad catching Lashinda Demus at the line for the silver. Muhammad finished in 54.09, Demus in 54.27.

Caterine Ibarguen's win in the triple jump marked Colombia's first-ever gold medal at the worlds.

Finally, in the women's 1500 -- the start of which was held for 10 minutes while the men's high jump wrapped up -- Sweden's Abeba Aregawi kicked past American Jenny Simpson, who had led for most of the race.

Aregawi -- who ran for Ethiopia at the 2012 Olympics, finishing fifth -- crossed in 4:02.67, Simpson in 4:02.99. Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba took their in 4:03.86.

Simpson's silver proved emphatically that her victory in the event two years ago at the worlds in Daegu, South Korea, was no fluke.

"I think the last 200 I was almost unconscious," Simpson said. "I just kept telling myself, just run as hard as you can."

Mary Cain, the 17-year-old from Bronxville, N.Y., finished 10th, in 4:07.19.

She said, "I think later tonight I'm going to be really, really angry in a good way, and I think I'm going to be really motivated. I think you guys are probably a little scared. Normally you see me like, 'Oh, ducks, puddles,' but I'm going to go home and I'm going to get into this. I think this is going to motivate me so much for next year.

"Next year there are no worlds. It's just me and learning how to race."


Empty seats everywhere


MOSCOW -- If Luzhniki Stadium were, say, Staples Center, you'd be tempted to say that the crowd that "filled" the seats for the third full day of the 2013 track and field championships was like something you'd see at a mid-season women's basketball WNBA game featuring the Los Angeles Sparks against, say, the Tulsa Shock. That underwhelming.

It was so disconcerting, in fact, that one American business executive sent a text message Monday evening to a reporter friend saying he had a section of the stadium all to himself.

This on a cool, beautiful night when Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica rocked the women's 100 meter finals in 10.71 seconds, winning by an almost unheard-of 22-hundredths of a second; American David Oliver made himself the comeback king in the 110-meter high hurdles in 13-flat; New Zealand's Valerie Adams proved herself, yet again, unstoppable in the women's shot put with a winning throw of 20.88 meters, or 68 feet, 6 inches; and more.

It's embarrassing, no two ways about it, and whether the blame is to be apportioned to the city of Moscow, the Russian government, the IAAF, the fact that it's summer and the Russians are quite naturally at their dachas and someone should have known that when they were planning a world championships for August -- whatever, it absolutely does not reflect well on what is supposed to be the No. 1 sport of the entire Olympic movement.

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If it's this way here, in Moscow, it makes you wonder: what are the attendance figures bound to be in six months in Sochi, down in southwest Russia, for the 2014 Winter Games?

To be super-obvious: Moscow is one of the world's great capitals. Sochi is not. You can get to Luzhniki on the Moscow metro, one of the world's best. You get to Sochi, down in southwest Russia, on the Black Sea, by significant planning. The Sochi airport is not big. Only so many planes can land there in so many days.

These championships mark the beginning of Russia's so-called decade of sport. The 2014 Games will be followed by the 2015 swimming championships in Kazan and then, in 2018, soccer's World Cup.

One suspects the World Cup final, which will be back here in Luzhniki, will draw better than the track championships. Here, through three days, are the official numbers:


Morning -- 9,420

Evening -- 31,895


Morning -- 12,861

Evening -- 40,461


Morning -- 9.350

Figures for Monday evening were not immediately available.

As always, the fine print:

-- The numbers are based on ticket scans at stadium gates. Someone who goes in and out multiple times counts only once.

-- Luzhniki is ordinarily an 81,000-seat stadium. As it has done in prior championships, the IAAF has blocked out blocks of seats to lower capacity. On Saturday and Sunday, capacity was 59,000 -- 43,000 spectators and 16 "accredited guests," meaning VIPS, media, athletes and others. On Monday, capacity was lowered further still, to 50,000 -- 34,000 spectators and 16,000 "accredited guests."

"It's dead. There's no atmosphere," Olympic champion Felix Sanchez told reporters after winning his 400-meter hurdles heat Monday morning.

"It's like day and night compared to London last year," he said, referring to the 2012 Summer Games.

As the attendance figures underscore, the contrast is especially marked in the morning heats.

In London, even the morning sessions were jammed. Here -- there are pockets of fans, in particular Ukrainians, noticeable in their blue and yellow, in the yellow, orange and red seats. Mostly, though, there are reporters and camera crews. Some are complete track junkies and love every single tidbit. Others are here on the off chance something unusual happens.

David Johnson, who runs the Penn Relays each spring and is here as a correspondent for Track & Field News, has been to every IAAF world championship since the first edition in Helsinki in 1983. He said of Moscow, "It feels like the smallest attendance, based on the men's 100 meters, in my experience."

That race, Sunday night, saw the stadium filled to roughly two-thirds capacity even though the biggest star in Olympic sports, Usain Bolt, was in the house. Bolt ran 9.77 to win; lightning struck at precisely the moment he crossed the finish line, creating not just one of track and field's but indeed all of sport's most iconic photographs in not just this but any year.

Luzhniki features an overhanging roof that circles the stadium. "Despite the size of the crowd," Johnson said, "the architecture of the stadium produces a noise beyond the crowd. It's the visual effect that's lacking."

That same overhanging roof, however, makes the scene -- particularly in the mornings -- even more eerie. The public-address system announcements ricochet, unintelligibly, around the empty seats.

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Ticket prices started as low as 100 rubles, roughly $3. Even for Sunday night.

That's right -- you could have seen Bolt run Sunday night for 3 bucks.

Name a better deal in all of sports.

And yet -- the place could only manage two-thirds capacity?

Organizers allege that next weekend, which includes the four relay finals, is sold out. They also said before the event began that they had sold more than 80 percent of the ticket inventory.

Over the weekend, IAAF vice president Sergei Bubka, quoted by Reuters, said the weather might have been to blame:

"It was hot and very sunny and I know for Muscovites -- they always go to their dachas, they go outside, and maybe someone has bought a ticket and they don't attend.

"We insisted very seriously and very strongly regarding a promotion campaign and a lot of money was invested."

Journalist Elliott Denman has also been to every edition of the IAAF championships. A member of the U.S. Olympic track and field team at the Melbourne Games in 1956, he then turned to sportswriting and has been at the business -- one of the best -- for more than 50 years. He called attendance here at Moscow "sparse."

"Like everywhere," he surmised, "people have other opportunities."


The pull of history over the 400-meter hurdles

LONDON -- Virtually everyone, even those who have only a passing knowledge of track and field, knows Edwin Moses. In the 1970s and 1980s, Moses was unbeatable. Literally. He won 122 straight races in the 400-meter hurdles. He won Olympic gold in the event in Montreal in 1976 and again in Los Angeles in 1984; surely the U.S.-led boycott of the Games in Moscow in 1980 was the only thing that prevented him from gold there, too. In 1988, in Seoul, Moses won bronze.

On Monday night, Angelo Taylor -- out in Lane 4 -- felt the weight, the pull, of history. The Olympic champion in the 400-meter hurdles in 2000 in Sydney and again in Beijing in 2008, he had the opportunity to tie or even surpass the great Edwin Moses.

There is a reason the late filmmaker Bud Greenspan used to say that the most interesting stories at the Olympics arrive in fourth or fifth place.

Read the rest at NBCOlympics.com: http://bit.ly/RSzxO2