When I left Beijing at the conclusion of the 2008 Olympic Games, the overall feeling was it could be the permanent host after such an impeccable showing. The IAAF World Championships hosted by the Chinese capital of 21 million this week were a reunion for me with the Bird’s Nest National Stadium, still the premier sporting venue on the planet. If I weren’t ecstatic about Beijing being named the host of the 2022 Winter Games already, multiply that by 10 – or ‘shi,’ as they say here.
There’s nothing like being the first to do something, and these Championships were full of them. The image of 19-year-old Ghirmay Ghebreslassie winning the marathon and the first gold for Eritrea, then wiping away tears at the press conference was unforgettable. There was also the first-ever gold medal for Slovakia -won by Matej Toth in the 50-kilometer race walk, and Egypt’s first medal in history- the silver around the neck of javelin thrower Ihab Abdelrahman El Sayed, who finished behind Kenyan Julius Yego, breaking ground in an event not established with his country, along with 400-meter hurdler Nicholas Bett.
Then there were the Americans. Tianna Bartoletta returning to the top of the podium in long jump after 10 years and being away from the event. Christian Taylor switching his jumping foot just before Worlds and coming up with the second-longest triple jump in history to win the gold medal. Ashton Eaton setting the world record in the decathlon. Aries Merritt winning bronze in the 110 hurdles just three days before a kidney transplant. Allyson Felix winning a ninth-career gold in a new event-the 400.
We saw familiar faces on the podium from the likes of Mo Farah, Jess Ennis-Hill and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, plus new ones like Dafne Schippers and Danielle Williams. And who can forget the man whose image is recognizable in the remotest of villages and darkest of jungles on Earth. Three more gold medal performances from Usain Bolt.
The energy in the Bird’s Nest before Bolt’s 100-meter final was the paramount of what it means to witness a sporting event. However, unlike every other final he’s been in, Bolt found himself without the loudest ovation during the introduction; that was reserved for China’s Su Bingtian, who set a national record in the semifinal and became the first Asian to reach a 100 final. He finished last, but became a national hero. Six days later, he ran the third leg of a silver medal-winning 4-by-100 relay.
“China will play a huge development in our sport going forward,” Lord Sebastian Coe said during his introductory press conference as IAAF president Sunday. “They were very keen to establish some progress in both track and field. It was very pleasing to see a Chinese team win a medal in the relays. It’s a very important way to end the Championships.”
In a familiar pattern, Beijing now passes the torch to London, site of the 2017 IAAF World Championships. Farah, Ennis-Hill and others will be seeking glory at home, and let’s hope the British capital can raise the bar once more.