By Jonathan Gault
October 4, 2019
DOHA, Qatar — This was the night we had been waiting for.
For a week, empty stands, brutal weather, and the biggest doping story of the year had cast a pall over the 2019 World Athletics Championships. The Worlds is supposed to be a celebration of track & field; instead, it felt more like a funeral for a struggling sport.
On Friday, however, the stage was set for a night that could, if not wholly redeem these championships, at least provide one shining memory. For the first time all week, the lower bowl of Khalifa Stadium was full, fans even spilling into the aisles as the tarps used to camouflage the meet’s attendance issues were rolled up (the biggest tarp, blocking off the stadium’s second level, remained). They were here because it’s the weekend, because free tickets were given out, and because Qatar’s biggest star — reigning world champion Mutaz Essa Barshim, who trained as a teen at Aspire Academy, housed in the same complex as Khalifa Stadium — was scheduled to contest the men’s high jump final. The opportunity was there for one of those nights, the Doha equivalent of Super Saturday at the 2012 Olympics.
And man, did the athletes ever deliver. For 30 magical minutes, anyone in the stands in Doha or watching on television around the world could soak in an atmosphere worthy of a World Championships.
It began in the women’s 400-meter hurdles. Billed as a battle between world record holder Dalilah Muhammad and rising 20-year-old star Sydney McLaughlin, the expectation was that the world record, which Muhammad set at the US championships to on a wet track in Des Moines in July, could fall once again.
In Des Moines, the race was over by 300 meters; in Doha, Muhammad once again led off the turn, but with noted closer McLaughlin just three meters back, the outcome remained in doubt. And McLaughlin did close. By hurdle 10, McLaughlin had stolen back a meter, and in the dying seconds of the race, she stole back another.
But Muhammad, her brow furrowed in an expression of absolute focus, was not to be denied. Both women, well clear of the field, leaned simultaneously, for the world title and the world record; Muhammad got there first in 52.16, with McLaughlin just .03 shy of Muhammad’s previous WR in 52.23.
It took a beat for the crowd to register the moment’s significance, but once WORLD RECORD flashed on the video board in big white letters, they rose to the occasion and gave Muhammad the roar she deserved.
The race brought to an end a season for the ages for Muhammad, and a remarkable rookie campaign for McLaughlin, who beat Muhammad twice and lost just two hurdles races — both to Muhammad world records. An irrelevant event just five years ago, the women’s 400 hurdles is now one of the best in all of track & field because two transcendent talents are pushing each other to their limits.
Muhammad, when asked why she kept breaking the world record, summed it up nicely.
“If I want to stay competitive in this event, I have no choice,” Muhammad said.
— IAAF (@iaaforg) October 4, 2019
Kenyan Streak Continues
Just minutes later, we saw the closest finish of the championships, a Kenyan warrior with a growing legend using his last breath to defend his country’s legacy. In each of the past 22 global championships, a Kenyan-born man has stood atop the men’s steeplechase podium, but with Conseslus Kipruto, the world and Olympic champion, largely sidelined by an injury to the talus bone in his foot — the same injury that ended the season of US Olympic silver medalist Evan Jager — it looked as if a changing of the guard was in order.
With Kipruto gone, Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali and Ethiopia’s Getnet Wale had split the five Diamond League steeplechases this year, and though Kipruto returned late in the year, his threat appeared muted, dropping out of two races and finishing no better than fifth in his two others.
Kenya’s hopes rested on Kipruto’s shoulders, and it felt that way for every step of the final, with Ethiopians Wale, Lamecha Girma, and Chala Beyo teaming up to keep the tempo close to 8:00 pace, Beyo eventually dropping out once his pacing duties were complete. Yet Kipruto, who wanted this title so much that he built a pool in his backyard so he could aqua-jog while rehabbing, withstood it all.
Since Kipruto replaced the legendary Ezekiel Kemboi as king of the Kenyan — and thus, the world — steeplechase ranks with his 2016 Olympic title, he has not lost a race of true significance: three Diamond League final victories, plus world, Commonwealth, and African titles. He was determined not to allow that streak — or his nation’s run of dominance — come to an end.
He trailed the unheralded Girma off the final barrier, yet Kipruto, as always, had one last gear. Just as the line was approaching, Kipruto leaned out and stretched his right arm forward. It was close, almost impossibly close — Kipruto had led for perhaps a tenth of a second before hitting the line — but it was enough: Kipruto 8:01.35, Girma 8:01.36. The world’s steeple superpower had another gold medal, and before embarking on a victory lap with his Kenyan teammates and a supersized Kenyan flag, Kipruto took a seat on the first barrier, formed an invisible monocle with his left hand and drew a circle around the screaming crowd with his right, reminding them that the king had never truly left. In his country’s moment of need, he had prevailed over Ethiopia’s would-be conquerors.
“I was there to save the event [for Kenya],” Kipruto said.
Alone, those two races alone represented a stellar night of track, but in the field, there was a man shouldering an even greater burden than Kipruto. Mutaz Essa Barshim has been the Qatari face of these championships ever since waving the IAAF flag to ceremonially grab the baton from London and close the last World Championships in 2017.
He was the perfect choice. Born and raised in Doha, Barshim was not an imported mercenary, like so many of Qatar’s top athletes, but a true homegrown talent, and 2019 fell right within his prime. But after an undefeated 2017 season that included a world title in London, Barshim, now 28, injured his ankle attempting to break Javier Sotomayor’s 2.45-meter world record at a meet in Hungary in July 2018. When he finally returned to competition in June, he looked positively ordinary, and entered Worlds with a season’s best of just 2.27m, which ranked tied for last in the 31-man field. Yet Barshim cleared all four bars in Tuesday’s qualifying — including a season’s best 2.29m — and was at his best when he needed to be in tonight’s final.
The crowds in Doha have been small this week, with no more than a few thousand on hand for the 100-meter finals, but they have had a truly international feel, in part due to the large migrant worker population in Qatar, some of whom were bused in by event organizers. Tonight, however, there were large blocks consisting of nothing but white thobes, the long robe-like garment commonly worn by Qatari citizens, with a critical mass in front of the high jump pit.
With every one of Barshim’s attempts, the crowd grew louder, cheering clearances over 2.27m, 2.30m, and, on the third attempt, 2.33m. He made again at 2.35m, but as the bar rose to 2.37m, he still trailed Authorised Neutral Athlete Mikhail Akimenko of Russia for the gold. And then, just minutes after Kipruto’s lean at the line, Barshim lined up for his first attempt at 2.37m and showed how high he — and the sport — could fly.
He took off, arched his back over the bar, cleared it easily — the highest jump by any man in 2019 — and landed to an ear-splitting roar around Khalifa Stadium. Neither Akimenko nor either of the two other competitors still alive in the competition could answer. Barshim had his second straight world title and Qatar had its champion.
It was a moment, the kind that IAAF president Sebastian Coe claims that these championships were brought here to produce.
“I have seen the joy in these people’s eyes,” Barshim said. “They’re the champions tonight, not me…I believe this will change something, this will spark something for the nation.”
Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. But for at least one night, this felt like the truly great international sporting event that everyone who loves track & field knows the World Championships can be. Let’s hope there are more to come.