It has been a while since I have made a blog entry, as I’ve been fairly busy with other things (namely getting a new job with my old employers at AW and setting up my new website), so I figured I’d write about disappearing. More specifically, athletes who come from nowhere, win one big title or have one good season, then go back to obscurity afterwards, never to be seen or heard from again.
As ever, I’ve compiled a list of such athletes. It’s not an exhaustive list, and to try to limit it somewhat, I’ve restricted it to athletes who won gold at a major championship (World, Olympic or European) without winning any other major medal of note before or after.
Obviously, no one expects every athlete to have the longevity of the recently retired Haile Gebrselassie or Merlene Ottey, but it makes you wonder what the reasons are behind being a flash in the pan. Most of the time injury will be a big factor in athletes being unable to maintain their best form. Other times, the stars will fall perfectly in line for athletes and with a little bit of luck they’ll achieve something they know is a true one-off and so lose motivation in the years that follow. And sometimes drugs can be the reason for a ‘dream’ season.
But without getting too bogged down with the whys and wherefores of these one-hit wonders, here’s a brief summary of a select few.
10. Edward Sarul
Having finished 11th at the 1982 European Championships indoors and out, the Polish shot putter wasn’t on anybody’s radar as a potential champion just 12 months before the inaugural IAAF World Championships. But in 1983 Sarul added almost two metres to his PB, throwing a then national record of 21.68m and backing it up at the World Championships with a winning throw of 21.39m. In the years that followed he never came close to replicating that form, finishing a lowly fifth at the 1986 European Indoors with 19.73m.
9. Pamela Jelimo
The only reason Jelimo has not ranked higher in this list is because she is still young and active, so has a chance of getting back to her best. But the Kenyan undoubtedly warrants a mention for the stark contrast between her 2008 season and the years that came before and after. No one had heard of Jelimo before 2008, but she came out and dominated the 800m, winning all of her races (including Olympic gold and the Golden League title), and ran 1:55s and 1:54s with regularity; times that even the great Maria Mutola would only approach once or twice during her long career. And to top it all off, Jelimo was just a junior, smashing the world junior record that had stood since 1993.
But in 2009 she just squeaked under two minutes and only won one race before dropping out of the World Championships. 2010 has been even more of a low-key year and with a best of 2:01.52 she is ranked just 74th in the world.
8. Xu Demei
Like waiting for a bus, after years of no gold medals at the IAAF World Championships, suddenly two popped up in quick succession at the 1991 edition in Tokyo. But while shot champion Huang Zhihong went on to win many more major championship medals, javelin gold medal winner Xu Demei – who threw 68.78m to win – pretty much disappeared afterwards. With a throw of just 59.98m, Xu failed to make the final at the following year’s Olympic Games in Barcelona.
7. Jong Song Ok
The marathon is an event that often throws up a surprise winner, and there are many examples to choose from – 1993 World Championship winners Junko Asari and Mark Plaatjes, 2007 World champion Luke Kibet, and 1992 Olympic champion Hwang Young-Cho. But Young-Cho’s compatriot, Jong Song-ok, is my choice for this list.
Most of the more knowledgeable athletics fans had never heard of Song-ok before the 1999 World Championships. Up until that point her career highlight had been a second-place finish at the 1996 Pyongyang marathon. But for one day in Seville in 1999 Song-ok was unbeatable and at the World Championships she defeated the likes of 1996 Olympic champion Fatuma Roba, 2001 World champion Lidia Simon, 1995 World champion Manuela Machado.
The following year Song-ok finished 12th at the Pyongyang marathon.
6. Avard Moncur
When Michael Johnson retired after the 2000 Olympics, it left a bit of a void in the men’s 400m with no heir apparent ready to step into his shoes. Of course no one expected there to be a second coming of Johnson straight away, but equally the lack of star quality in the event was just as unanticipated.
Far from being a USA-dominated field as had traditionally been the case in this event, the 400m final at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton featured athletes from Mauritius, Saudi Arabia and Grenada. But it was Bahamian Avard Moncur who came away with gold in a time of 44.64. He dipped under 45 seconds a few more times during his career, but never improved on his 44.45 PB after 2001. Since 2008 Moncur has not broke 46 seconds for the 400m.
5. Snežana Pajkić
When athletes finish seventh in their heat at a major championships, it is usually safe to assume that they will not do much damage in the final – especially when the athlete in question is one you have never heard of. Similarly, very few athletes set PBs in tactical championship races. But Snežana Pajkić turned both of those theories on their head at the 1990 European Championships.
It may not have been a final for the ages, yet there were still some quality athletes in the field – like Olympic champion Doina Melinte – who should have been able to take advantage of such a race. But it was Yugoslavia’s Snežana Pajkić who seized the opportunity and became the surprize champion. Her national record of 4:08.12 set in that race still stands.
4. Nouriah Mérah-Benida
Pajkić is not the biggest surprise female 1500m champion. That accolade belongs to Nouriah Merah-Benida – the 2000 Olympic champion. Unlike the 1990 Europeans, this field was stacked – Olympic 5000m champion and three-time World 1500m champion Gaby Szabo, double Olympic champion Kelly Holmes, multiple World silver medallist Violeta Szekely, World Cross champion Kutre Dulecha, 1997 World Champion Carla Sacramento, and world leader Suzy Favor-Hamilton.
Mérah-Benida was a little-known Algerian athlete, who had achieved some fast times but not much else. In a little more than four minutes and five seconds, however, Mérah-Benida’s life was transformed as she became the Olympic champion. Apart from a few good performances in 2006, she never came close to replicating her feat from Sydney.
3. Yuriy Krymarenko
There were several surprise winners at the 2005 IAAF World Championships in Helsinki – due in so small part to the terrible weather – but the most notable was high jump champion Yuriy Krymarenko. The Ukrainian started the year with a best of 2.23m and set a PB of 2.33m early in the 2005 season.
One month before the World Champs, Krymarenko finished just third at the European Under-23 Championships, so he was not expected to do much damage in Helsinki. But with a third-time clearance at 2.32m, he won a surprise world title. Just days later, competing in his first competition as the reigning world champion, Krymarenko finished just sixth at the World University Games. At his three appearances at major championships since Helsinki, Krymarenko has never got past the qualification stage.
2. Peter Rono
Such is Kenya’s strength in depth at distance running, it’s not too unusual for Kenyan distance runners to have one great year and then never come close to topping it. 2001 World 5000m champion Richard Limo, 1996 Olympic steeplechase champion Joseph Keter and 2001 World 10,000m champion Charles Kamathi are just a few examples, but the most memorable example is 1988 Olympic 1500m champion Peter Rono.
British duo Steve Cram and Peter Elliot had been tipped to win gold, while not much was expected of Rono, who didn’t make it past the semi finals at the previous year’s World Championships. But the 21-year-old caused one of the biggest upsets of the Games to walk away as the champion in 3:35.96.
1. Paraskeví Patoulidou
It is the kind of thing that Hollywood sports film flops are made of. Big favourite falls – literally – at the final hurdle, with the small-town girl coming through to steal a surprise victory. USA’s Gail Devers had won her secondary event, the 100m, earlier at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, so it was generally assumed that she was a shoo-in to win her best event, the 100m hurdles. The fact that Greece had an entrant, let alone a medal contender, in the sprint hurdles went pretty much unnoticed.
Paraskeví Patoulidou squeaked through each round, finishing fourth in her heat, third in her quarter-final and third in her semi-final. Given that she had reduced her PB from 13.07 to 12.88 by this point, it was assumed that Patoulidou had no more room in which to improve. She had already become the first Greek woman ever to make a track final at the Olympics – becoming the first Greek female Olympic track medallist seemed a dream too far.
Gold for Devers, meanwhile, seemed a certainty. And it remained so for the first 90 metres of the race as she built up a sizeable lead over the rest of the field. Then disaster struck and Devers hit the final hurdle, losing momentum and tumbling to the ground. Patoulidou had put together the race of her life and came through to sneak the gold medal in another huge PB of 12.64. Devers, despite her fall, still managed to clock 12.75 (faster than the UK record), but it was little compensation for missing out on Olympic gold.
Patoulidou ditched the hurdles after 1992. She attempted a switch to the long jump and the sprints, but never again came close to the dizzying heights of a major championship gold.