Five Biggest Things to Watch for at the 2021 World Athletics U20 Championships
August 18, 2021 to August 22, 2021
By Jonathan Gault
August 18, 2021
Hope you’ve recharged your batteries after Tokyo, because the track season is about to get crazy again. We’re about to cram four Diamond Leagues into a two-week span, and as if that isn’t enough, there’s the World Athletics U20 Championships (aka World Juniors) as well, which kick off on Wednesday in Nairobi and run through Sunday.
The seven-hour time difference between the US and Kenya will make it difficult to watch the morning sessions live (they start at 2:00 a.m. ET), but it’s better for the afternoon finals, which usually get going around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. ET. And if you’re going to watch, you may as well learn about who you’re watching because some of the athletes in Nairobi are bound to become some of the sport’s biggest stars in a few years. What do Selemon Barega, Joshua Cheptegei, Faith Kipyegon, and Shaunae Miller-Uibo have in common? All were world U20 champions who went on to win Olympic titles in Tokyo this year.
So here’s your quick guide to the five biggest things to watch for at World Juniors, which will be staged in Africa for the first time.
1) Who won’t be there
Unfortunately, this list is pretty long. USATF announced last month that “due to a number of factors including timing, logistics, and most importantly the health and well-being of our athletes and team staffs,” it would not send a team to World Juniors. The US is hardly alone; Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and Australia are among the track & field powers who will also be sitting this one out. So no repeat of the Athing Mu–Keely Hodgkinson battle from Tokyo in the women’s 800. (And yes, it’s nuts that the Olympic gold and silver medalists are both still young enough to compete in this meet). Fortunately, almost 1,000 athletes from over 110 countries will be in Nairobi.
Also absent: the fans. Due to COVID, the stands will be empty.
All of this is especially sad considering this is probably the biggest track meet ever held in Africa. Kenya had some terrific crowds at the 2017 World U18 champs in Nairobi and this meet was their reward. Except a bunch of the top athletes won’t be there and there won’t be any fans to cheer them on.
2) Sasha Zhoya
If you don’t know Sasha Zhoya’s name, it’s time to learn it as he could be one of the biggest stars of the next Olympics in Paris. While Mondo Duplantis‘ name dominates the pole vault age-group world record book, he does not own the age-14 record, which belongs to Zhoya at 4.92 meters. In fact, until earlier this year, Zhoya also owned the world U18 record at 5.56 meters, which he set in April 2019 (Duplantis’ pb at the same age was 5.51m). All of that is pretty impressive when you consider Zhoya is no longer a pole vaulter.
Nope, Zhoya, who was born and raised in Australia to a French mother and Zimbabwean father (he competes for France), is a hurdler, and he’s coming for Grant Holloway. In 2019, he set a world U18 best of 12.87 in the 110 hurdles (36-inch barriers) and followed that up with a 13.02 this year over the 39-inch barriers (.03 off the world U20 record). He also owns the world U20 record in the 60 hurdles (7.34 over 39-inch barriers). Pros use 42-inch barriers, but if Zhoya, who will run the 110 hurdles over 39-inch barriers in Nairobi, can make the adjustment smoothly, he could be a huge star as a 22-year-old at a home Olympics in 2024.
3) More DSD drama in the women’s 200
It’s a big enough story that the silver medalist from the Olympic 200 meters is running at World Juniors. Then factor in that that silver medalist, Christine Mboma of Namibia, is a DSD athlete (differences of sexual development — she has XY chromosomes with elevated testosterone) and just smashed the world U20 record by running 21.81 in Tokyo and there will be plenty of eyeballs on the women’s 200 in Nairobi.
Mboma, of course, is banned from running the 400 at World Juniors — an event she would have dominated by an even wider margin after running a world U20 record of 48.54 earlier this year — but she will still be the heavy favorite in the 200 and should go 1-2 with countrywoman Beatrice Masilingi (22.28 pb, 6th at the Olympics). Favour Ofili of Nigeria/LSU (4th at NCAAs) is the top non-DSD athlete with a 22.30 pb.
4) The next Polish 800 star?
Poland is carving out quite the tradition in the men’s 800. Adam Kszczot and Marcin Lewandowski, perennially among the best in the world during the 2010s, have given way to 2021 Olympic bronze medalist Patryk Dobek. And now Dobek will have to check his rearview mirror for Krzysztof Roznicki, the European junior champion who ran 1:44.51 earlier this year at age 17. Roznicki has the best pb in the field, but anything can happen in a championship 800 and the home nation has a pair of capable contenders in Noah Kibet (1:45.11 pb) and Emmanuel Wanyoni (1:45.81 pb).
5) Some total studs in the distance races
Let’s take a second to address the elephant in the room. To compete at World Juniors, you must be 19 years old or younger on December 31, 2021. Are there some athletes at this meet who don’t meet that criteria? Almost certainly. Do I know who they are? No. But age-cheating, intentional or not (if you’re born in a rural village in Africa, you may legitimately not know your actual birthday), happens at this meet.
That being said, people need to understand it’s possible to run VERY fast at a young age. People often see a sub-13:00 clocking in the 5000 by a 17 or 18-year-old and think that’s impossible. Well, consider this. Eliud Kipchoge just dominated the Olympic marathon at an official age of 36. 18 years ago in 2003, he ran 7:30 and 12:52. So if you don’t think he ran 12:52 at 18, then you are saying he’s older than 36 right now and dominating the world still.
With that out of the way, it’s worth noting some of the ridiculously fast athletes in the distance races, particularly on the men’s side. Here’s a quick run through of the fastest names:
- Diribe Welteji, Ethiopia, women’s 1500: Welteji won the 800 at this meet as a 16-year-old in 2018 and is moving up to the 1500 in Nairobi after running 3:58 to take second at the Ethiopian Olympic trials in June. Welteji did run in Tokyo, but bombed out in the first round of the 1500, finishing 12th in her heat.
- Zerfe Wondemagegn, Ethiopia, women’s steeple: Wondemagegn ran 9:16 to finish 8th in the Olympic final on August 4. That’s 16+ seconds faster than anyone else in the women’s steeple field.
- Kamar Etiang, Kenya, men’s 1500: If Etiang’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the one who made way for Timothy Cheruiyot on Kenya’s Olympic 1500 squad. Etiang (that’s how his last name is spelled in the entries, but his Wikipedia page and Kenyan media have spelled it “Etyang”) was the runner-up at the Kenyan Olympic trials in 3:33 but couldn’t compete in Tokyo because he had not been tested enough out-of-competition. But he’s eligible for World Juniors and will go off as the favorite in Nairobi.
- Tadese Worku, Ethiopia, men’s 3000: Worku was the runner-up in the junior race at World XC in 2019 and has run a crazy fast 7:34 this year. He’s also run 26:58 for 10,000 as he was 5th in the Ethiopian Trials.
- Addisu Yihune, Ethiopia, men’s 5000: Yihune, who officially turned 18 in March, ran 12:58 to finish 4th at the Ethiopian Olympic trials in June, one spot ahead of two-time defending world champ Muktar Edris. No other U20 athlete has run faster than 13:20 this year.
- Bikila Takele, Ethiopia, men’s steeple: The surprise winner of the Ethiopian trials in 8:09, Takele will look to rebound from a disappointing Olympics where he ran 8:24 and didn’t even make the final.
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