2016 end-of-year reviews – sprints
Men’s 100mThe situation with the men’s 100m wasn’t particularly clear before the Olympics. Justin Gatlin was the world leader heading to Rio with his 9.80 at the US Trials, but his performances weren’t quite as convincing as they were in 2015 and he wasn’t the outright favourite. Not while Usain Bolt was around.
Whatever Bolt does before a major championship doesn’t change the fact that he is always a major factor. 2016 underlined this in many ways. He had contested just three 100m finals during the season before the Olympics, had a season’s best of 9.88 – his slowest ever heading into a global championships – and had to withdraw from the final at the Jamaican Championships, yet most experts still considered him to be the favourite.
Once the Olympics got underway, it was business as usual for Bolt. His semifinal performance – a relaxed-looking season’s best of 9.86 – suggested he had more in the tank. And he did: he went on to win the final in 9.81.
It may not have been Bolt’s quickest or most technically perfect race, but his margin of victory was comfortable as Gatlin took the silver medal in 9.89. Andre De Grasse’s first Olympics brought a bronze medal in a lifetime best of 9.91.
Men’s 200mThe 200m season was an even thinner than the 100m distance. US 400m specialist LaShawn Merritt was fast early, posting a world-leading 19.78 in Nassau in April. The 30-year-old ran another world lead at the US Trials with 19.74 in the semifinals, but Gatlin took a narrow win in the final, 19.75 to Merritt’s 19.79, and they both appeared to be genuine medal contenders ahead of the Olympics.
Usain Bolt, meanwhile, competed just once at this distance before Rio. His 19.89 victory at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London wasn’t one of his fastest runs, but with this being his preferred event, there was little question about who was the favourite for the Olympic title.
As was the case in the 100m, Bolt’s 200m semifinal performance – a relaxed 19.78, laughing with Andre De Grasse at the finish line – promised a lot more. The final was tighter and slower than expected, but Bolt succeeded in taking his third successive Olympic title at the distance.
Equalling the season’s best he set in the semifinal, Bolt was a clear winner in 19.78. De Grasse earned his second medal of the Games, a silver, with 20.02. Five years after he last made it on to a podium for an individual event at a global championships, a delighted Christophe Lemaitre took the bronze medal in 20.12, finishing just three thousandths ahead of Britain’s Adam Gemili.
Things didn’t quite go so well for the US athletes. Gatlin didn’t even make the final, fading to 20.13 in his semifinal, and while Merritt qualified easily for the final, he managed just 20.19 for sixth place.
Men’s 400mWayde van Niekerk didn’t fully show his 400m form before the Olympics. He raced internationally at the distance just three times, recording wins in Rome, Boston and Monaco, but his fastest time before the Olympics, 44.11, came in the heats of the South African Open Championships in Bloemfontein in May, where he didn’t start in the final.
Following his 400m and 200m PBs of 43.48 and 19.94 set in 2015, the South African clocked a 100m lifetime best of 9.98 at the Free State Championships in March, becoming the first athlete to run faster than 10 seconds for 100m, 20 seconds for 200m and 44 seconds for 400m.
LaShawn Merritt won the US Trials in 43.97 and Kirani James posted a 44.08 victory at the Drake Relays in April. But despite not recording a sub-44-second performance ahead of the Olympics, Van Niekerk was still considered to be the favourite for the title.
Van Niekerk kept his cards to himself throughout the rounds in Rio, running 45.26 in his heat and 44.45 in his semifinal, just the fifth-fastest time of the round. James and Merritt were the fastest in the semifinals with respective times of 44.02 and 44.21. But in the final there was no question about the winner.
Van Niekerk crushed Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record of 43.18 and almost broke the 43-second barrier, crossing the line in 43.03. James was a distant second in 43.76 and Merritt took the bronze in 43.85. Just 20 years old at the time, Trinidad and Tobago’s Machel Cedenio finished a surprise fourth in a national record of 44.01.
Women’s 100mFew had heard of her just a couple of years ago, but in 2016 Elaine Thompson established herself as the world’s top sprinter.
With an average winning margin of 0.15, the 24-year-old Jamaican won all seven of her competitions at 100m – including the Olympic Games and four IAAF Diamond League meetings – from early April to early September.
Her outstanding season included four legal sub-10.80 performances; no other woman in the world had more than one.
Although injury prevented three-time world champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce producing her best form, Thompson’s success meant that Jamaica maintained its grip on the global gold medals. Sprint superpower USA will have to wait at least four more years for their first Olympic title this millennium.
Once again, the results of the US Trials weren’t replicated at the major championships. English Gardner, Tianna Bartoletta and Tori Bowie ran 10.74, 10.78 and 10.78 respectively in Eugene, but in Rio they had to be content with 10.94 for seventh, 11.00 in the semifinal and 10.83 for the silver.
Ivory Coast’s Marie-Josee Ta Lou was the top non-US/Jamaican finisher in Rio, clocking a PB of 10.86 for fourth place. But throughout the season, Dafne Schippers was the stronger of the pair with five sub-11-second performances and three podium finishes in IAAF Diamond League meetings.
Women’s 200mThe battle between Dafne Schippers and Elaine Thompson in the 200m was one of the enduring memories of the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, so their rematches in 2016 were eagerly awaited.
In their two early season encounters – at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Eugene and Oslo – Schippers maintained her advantage, finishing 0.05 and 0.71 ahead of the Jamaican. Reports of Thompson picking up a minor injury at the Jamaican Championships strengthened Schippers’ status as the favourite ahead of the Olympics.
But Thompson turned the tables in Rio. And although Schippers pushed hard all the way, she was unable to catch the Jamaican who won by a metre in a world-leading 21.78. As was the case one year earlier in Beijing, Thompson and Schippers finished three metres ahead of the bronze medallist.
After a decade dominated by Allyson Felix and Veronica Campbell-Brown, the 200m has a new leading duo. But up until three years ago – when Schippers was still a heptathlete and Thompson had a PB of 23.73 – few would have predicted their success, so it would be unwise to assume that they will rule unopposed for some years to come.
Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller, for example, could have perhaps challenged for a medal in Rio had she not concentrated on the longer sprint. The Bahamian, though, has suggested she may double up at the IAAF World Championships London 2017.
Women’s 400mJust like the 200m, the 400m in Rio saw a reverse of the top two finishers from the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015.
In the Chinese capital 12 months prior, Allyson Felix defeated Shaunae Miller, 49.26 to 49.67, but this time Miller triumphed in 49.44 to Felix’s 49.51. The drama was even more intense as Miller, having taken an early lead, struggled during the closing stages and fell over the finish line completely exhausted.
Both went to the Olympics undefeated, but while Miller had run three IAAF Diamond League races, Felix’s only major event was the extremely competitive US Trials. Felix handled that challenge perfectly and recorded a season’s best of 49.68 to win in Eugene, while 2014 world indoor champion Francena McCorory and top collegiate runner Courtney Okolo ended up outside the top three in the final and so missed out on an individual place on the Olympic team.
Like most sprints, the 400m has developed into a battle between the USA and Jamaica. The Caribbean nation had the advantage at last year’s World Championships with four runners in the top six, plus gold in the 4x400m. This year, the pendulum swung in favour of the USA as they had three women in the top five in the 400m final and convincingly won the 4x400m.
This event has traditionally been ruled by sprinters, so it was surprising to see 800m specialist Caster Semenya win the IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels. The South African was last at halfway but used her superior stamina to power past a field that included four Olympic finalists.
Mirko Jalava (men’s events) and A Lennart Julin (women’s events) for the IAAF