Lashinda Demus

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."


Three U.S. golds, bang-bang-bang

DAEGU, South Korea -- An American woman hadn't won the 1500 meters at the track and field world championships since 1983. Those were the very first worlds, in Helsinki. And the winner of that race was the one and only Mary Decker. That's how long ago it was. In the high jump, an American man hadn't won a medal at these championships since 1991. Not just gold, any color. Twenty years.

An American woman hadn't won the 400-meter hurdles in 16 years.

Jennifer Simpson won the 1500, Jesse Williams won the high jump and Lashinda Williams the hurdles in bang-bang-bang fashion here Thursday night.

The rapid-fire string of victories, while cause for celebration in the American camp, pushing the U.S. into a tie with Russia for the lead for overall medals here in Daegu, with 12, also underscores the incredible conundrum that is the U.S. track and field program.

The United States produces, and keeps producing, world-class track and field athletes. But it does so in about as haphazard a way as one could imagine.

There is no bureau, no directorate, no anything responsible for finding, shaping, organizing a path from high school to college to the world championships to the Olympics. To generalize, it all kinda-sorta just happens.

That explains why, systemically, the United States of America can go 20 years without producing a medalist in the high jump. Why nearly 30 years can pass without a medal in the 1500, which is just astonishing. Anyone ever been to Boulder? Flagstaff? Mammoth Lakes?

There is no federalized sport system in the United States, and this is not to suggest there should be. Instead, the fantastic efforts of individual American athletes on a night like Thursday -- which tend to draw comparisons to the glory days of the U.S. track program -- obscure the structural problems that get in the way of what could be.

Because if the United States ever got serious, really serious, about winning in track and field -- watch out.

As it is, it's simply a matter of talent and moment.

The men's shot put here Friday night could be epic; of the 12 guys in the field, four are American. In the long jump, Dwight Phillips went a season-best 8.32 meters, or 27 feet, 3 3/4 inches, to lead everyone in qualifying Thursday morning; that final is Friday night, too. So is the women's 200; three of the eight in that final are American.

Meanwhile, the women's high jump on Saturday could be Brigetta Barrett's coming-out party on the world stage.

Talent and moment.

Simpson is a former steeplechaser. She used to be known as Jenny Barringer; she got married last year. She had the flu earlier this summer and came here with virtually no pre-race hype. In the semifinal, though, she showed was here to run. In the final, she ran easily and fluidly in and then kicked strong to the line, crossing in 4:05.40.

In the moments after she realized that she had won, Simpson looked simply stunned. Later, she asked rhetorically, "Wouldn't you be if you won a gold medal?"

She added, "I had another little Prefontaine moment," a reference to the 2009 Pre Classic in Eugene, Ore., when she was still in college at Colorado, and ran a 3:59.9 1500, breaking the NCAA record by more than six seconds.

"You know, I'm coming down the homestretch, and I'm thinking, 'How did I get here?' But it was just an incredible feeling, and I knew coming off the curve that I had another couple of gears and I thought, 'I'm going to be really hard to beat now.' "

Williams roared through the early rounds of the jumps without a miss. That proved critical.

Throughout, he knew what he was up against -- his own, and American, history.

These were his third world championships -- he had also competed in Helsinki in 2005 and Osaka in 2007 -- but the first time he had made a final. He is a self-styled high-jump history buff; he also knew full well that the last time Americans had medaled was in Tokyo in 1991, when Charles Austin won gold and Hollis Conway bronze.

Moreover, Williams came to Daegu as the presumptive favorite -- his jump earlier this year in Eugene, Ore., of 2.37 meters, or 7 feet, 9 1/4 inches, was the best anywhere.

Until he got to 2.37 here Thursday, Williams didn't miss; he was clean all the way to 2.35. Everyone else kept missing.

At 2.37, only he and Russia's Aleksey Dmitrik were left. By the time the bar was raised to that height, Dmitrik had already missed three times. Again, Williams -- zero.

If Dmitrik could clear 2.37, it would be a new game. But he couldn't.

Williams tried to clear but couldn't. No matter. The gold was his.

"I knew that 20 years ago, Charles Austin won it in Tokyo, and I knew that I could re-live what he lived, today," Williams said. "It's unbelievable, because the U.S. has so much talent in the event."

Dick Fosbury, the 1968 high-jump gold medalist who is now president of the World Olympians Assn., said in an e-mail, "This is fantastic news and I am so happy for Jesse," adding that he had been asked repeatedly recently about Russian jumpers and pointed out that the Americans, in Williams, had a guy who "could win this or medal."

He also said, "While we were disappointed in the Beijing results," Williams finishing 19th and not even making the final, "I really felt we could be back at the top by 2012. And now we are."

Demus, meanwhile, has been around for nearly a decade. She is a two-time world sliver medalist, in 2005 and 2009.

In 2007, she gave birth to twin boys, Duaine and Dontay. In winning Thursday in 52.47, she ran the best time in the world this year and broke the American record, 52.61, set by Kim Batten at the 1995 world championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Lashinda Demus had a ready answer for her success. "Only the strong survive in this game," she said, and there's no one stronger than her mother, Yolanda.

Yolanda Demus is a big fan of games such as Angry Birds. If you practice, Mrs. Demus said, you get better at them. So, she told her daughter, get out there and master the hurdles the way I have mastered Angry Birds.

You want a system? That's a system.

"She listens to every word I say," Mrs. Demus said. "That's one good thing about her. She listens."