Beyond its high-quality line up, the men’s javelin at this weekend’s Prefontaine Classic (May 27/28) is a reminder of track and field’s unique global reach.
The story of athletics in Eugene, Oregon, is inseperably linked with Steve Prefontaine, the University of Oregon graduate who held every American distance record from 2000m to 10,000m at the time of his tragic death age 24.
He was the preeminent star in an era when the school became renowned for producing exceptional distance athletes under the tutelage of fabled coach Bill Bowerman. A consequence of that incredible era is that they like their runners in TrackTown. The racing at this weekend’s Prefontaine Classic, at Eugene’s historic Hayward Field, will be serious. Quality oozes through every startlist from the 100m to the 10k. Kevin Sully was not using hyperbole when he said the scheduled track showdowns will have a “look of an Olympic Games preview”.
Yet the Pre Classic organisers have not overlooked the field. The men’s javelin line up is not remarkable merely because it contains many of the characters we’re likely to see in the Olympic final come August. It also catches the eye because it highlights the great range and reach of the sport of athletics.
Egyptian Ihab Abdelrahman, 27, Trinidad and Tobago athlete Keshorn Walcott, 23, and Kenyan Julius Yego, 27, each expect to be throwing for gold in Rio. Such a demographic would have been unimaginable in the recent past. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, South Africa’s John Robert Oosthuizen was the only African athlete in the whole men’s javelin field, Cuban Anier Boue the only Caribbean. Neither made the final.
The men’s javelin has traditionally been an event dominated by Europeans – since Cy Young and Silver Bill Miller won gold and silver for the USA in 1952, only their fellow American William Schmidt (bronze in ‘72) had broken up half a century of all European (inc. Russia) Olympic podium parties. That was until Walcott changed everything at London 2012, where he hit the golden jackpot on a blustery night in the British capital. At 19 he was the youngest Olympic javelin champion ever, and also the first non-European winner since Young 60 years earlier.
Two years later Walcott won silver at the Commonwealth Games. The gold medal that day was won by Yego, who last year clinched the world title in Beijing. It was Kenya’s first World Championships field medal. Silver in Beijing went to Abdelrahman, his country’s first ever world champs medal. So much for tradition.
At last weekend’s Golden Spike meet in Ostrava, the African pair – who both call Finland-based Petteri Piironen their coach – were outshone by Thomas Rohler. The 24-year-old German had also beaten Abdelrahman to win at the Shanghai Diamond League the previous week.
Does that mean the axis of power in the men’s javelin is tilting back to the old continent? Not exactly. At the last year’s Cali World U18 Championships (formerly known as World Youths), German Niklas Kaul took silver in the javelin behind Paul Botha, of South Africa. The girl’s event was won by Japan’s Hakura Kitaguchi. Another Springbok, Reinhard van Zyl, holds the championship record – 82.96m from 2011.
It suggests the makeup of the men’s jav’ field in Eugene – which for good measure includes Rohler – is not a blip. If the same players stay fit and in form come Rio we can expect the final to be just as multinational in its makeup. Results from youth competitions point towards this trend continuing in future generations.
So as well as assembling a mouthwatering line up, the men’s javelin in Eugene also delivers proof of athletics’ inherently meritocratic nature. For better and for worse, it is a sport that welcomes into its fold anyone with the talent needed to compete fairly. In the space of three weeks the IAAF Diamond League has gone from Shanghai (GMT+8), to Doha (GMT+3), to Rabat (GMT) and now to Eugene (GMT-8) – 16,700 miles leading from Asia’s Far East to America’s Pacific Northwest.
Tonight and tomorrow, when the world’s finest track and field athletes emerge to compete at a meet named for a man who died 41 years ago, they will evoke not only the sport’s past, but also demonstrate the ever-changing landscape of its present, hinting at a future that none of us can know.
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