Every now and again an athlete’s name will pop in my head that will leave me wondering: “where the hell did they go?” The very nature of track and field – ‘a sport of many sports’ – means that, across all the events, there are hundreds of athletes within the ranks of world class in any given season. Of course not every athlete is expected to become another Merlene Ottey with an international career spanning five decades. But similarly it would be great if athletes’ peak form lasted for more than just one or two seasons.
To have such a short period at the top is disappointing for fans who enjoy seeing world-class performances, but that letdown cannot compare to the sheer frustration felt by the athletes themselves who have to battle with the injuries, illnesses and other issues that often lead to these short-lived international careers.
In the cases of the 13 athletes I have listed below, pretty much all of them are still young enough to make something of a comeback. Whether their bodies and/or motivation allows is another thing altogether. It would be great to find out exactly what has happened to some of these, so if you do happen to know, please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this blog entry.
The young Estonian thrower made a huge impact at the 2006 IAAF World Junior Championships, winning the shot and discus titles with a world junior record of 67.32m in the latter. His dominance of the competition, combined with his imposing build (203cm & 100kg / 6′ 8″ & 200lb) gave the impression that he was the next Big Thing. But since moving to the senior ranks he has seemingly struggled with the senior implements. He is yet to break 60 metres (197 feet) in the senior weight discus and his PB dates back to 2006.
Hunt may be a prime example of an early developer who simply isn’t cut out for the heavier senior throwing implements. Either way, he is at least still active in the sport – maybe his big break is yet to come.
Not many people had heard of Yuliya Nesterenko before 2004, but many knew about her afterwards. The Belorussian sprinter won the women’s 100m title at the Athens Olympics, becoming the first woman since Florence Griffith-Joyner to run sub-11 in every round en route to winning Olympic gold.
But one year later she had lost that air of invincibility and finished a distant eighth at the World Championships, followed by a sixth-place finish at the European Championships. She failed to make the final at the Beijing Olympics and last year she only qualified as a relay runner for the World Championships in Berlin.
The men’s 400m at the 2004 Athens Olympics was all about Jeremy Wariner, the young gun who came from relative obscurity to win gold on the biggest stage. Those who finished behind him went almost unnoticed, but Otis Harris’ silver medal was just as surprising as the 22-year-old American reduced his PB to 44.16, making him the 14th fastest performer in history at the time.
In the weeks that followed those Games, Harris broke 45 seconds two more times before the end of the season, but instead of coming back stronger the following year, his performances went backwards. To date, he has not broken 45 seconds since September 2004.
For years Czech pole vaulter Kateřina Baďurová wasn’t even the most successful athlete in her family unit – her husband, Tomáš Janků, had enjoyed considerable success in the high jump, winning the 2006 European silver medal and the 2006 World Cup gold. But in 2007 Baďurová had a dream season which culminated in the silver medal at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka. Having started the season with a PB of 4.52m, she improved to national records of 4.65m indoors and 4.75m outdoors.
But instead of it being the start of something big, Baďurová was hardly seen competing again after 2007. She cleared 4.35m in a low-key competition in 2008 before crashing out of the qualifying round at the Beijing Olympics.
Not since the days of Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen had Norway enjoyed success in the world of international women’s distance running, but the breakthrough in 2005 of Susanne Wigene looked as though it was the third coming. The former steeplechaser reduced her PBs down to 8:40.23 for 3000m and 14:48.53 for 5000m, but her biggest achievement came at the 2006 European Championships where she won the 10,000m silver medal with a superb 30:32.36.
Just two races in 2007 followed – a 15:24 for 5km on the roads and a 15:24.25 for 5000m on the track in Rome – but Wigene hasn’t been seen competing since.
Kenya has such astounding depth in the distance events, many great athletes come and go with few fans even batting an eyelid. But the one that sticks in my mind is Kenyan-turned-Qatari Nicholas Kemboi. In 2003 Kemboi clocked 26:30.03 for 10,000m, finishing within a few strides of the legendary Haile Gebrselassie at the Brussels Golden League meeting. At the time, it was the fourth fastest performance of all time and with Kemboi being just 19 years old, it seemed as though he had a great future ahead of him.
But seven years on and that performance remains Kemboi’s PB. He dipped under 27 minutes again in 2005, but has not really made the impact that his 2003 form promised, despite having the financial backing of his new adopted country. Last year he failed to finish in the 10,000m at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin.
Great Britain has enjoyed a good run of middle-distance women over the past decade or so, and in 2007 it looked as though another star of the future was set to emerge. Abby Westley improved her 1500m PB from 4:16.23 to 4:08.74 at age 19. She went on to win all of her 1500m races over the following couple of months, including winning the European Cup division 1 title and the European Under-23 gold. Her only 1500m loss of the year came at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka, where she got tripped and lost a shoe. It was a baptism of fire for Westley on her senior championship debut, but hopes were high that she would rebound and come back stronger.
Three years have passed since that great season and Westley has not competed at all since. Her training partner, World Championships silver medallist Lisa Dobriskey, has a great knack of returning after being set back by injury. Hopefully Westley will follow in her footsteps and make a swift return.
The 2006 Athletissima grand prix in Lausanne was one of the greatest one-day meetings in recent history. Not only was it the setting for Xavier Carter’s international breakthrough performance of 19.63 in the 200m, but it also staged an historic 100m hurdles race. Liu Xiang broke the world record with a 12.88 clocking while USA’s Dominique Arnold finished a whisker behind in a US record of 12.90 – a time that also dipped under the previous world record. To break a national record that was co-shared by Roger Kingdom and Allen Johnson takes someone very special.
Arnold had one more race that season before having an erratic 2007 campaign, which was curtailed by injury. He remains the third fastest 110m hurdler in history, but Arnold’s best time from the past three seasons has been a 13.55 clocking.
The Bahamas have produced many female sprinters of note in recent years, so it was something of a nice surprise when in 2007 it looked as though they finally had a speedy male sprinter to be proud of. Derrick Atkins, a distant relative to Asafa Powell, dipped under 10 seconds early in the season and backed it up throughout the summer with fast times on the circuit. His season culminated with a silver medal in the 100m at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka, finishing in-between Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell – no mean feat in itself! Atkins’ time was 9.91, run into a -0.5ms wind. To put that in perspective, it translates to 9.78 with the maximum allowable 2.0ms wind.
But that would be the last time Atkins broke the 10-second barrier. He failed to make the 100m final at the Beijing Olympics one year later and crashed out of the heats at the IAAF World Championships in 2009. However, Atkins did clock a 200m PB of 20.35 last year, and so far this season he has a 10.13 to his name, so he may yet return to his best.
The Commonwealth Games appear something of a Mickey Mouse championships to the outside world, but for those countries involved, it is kind of a big deal. Australia’s Kym Howe won the silver medal in 2002 and seemed to be stuck at the 4.40m level in the years that followed. But the prospect of a Commonwealth Games on home soil in 2006 appeared to give her an extra bit of motivation, winning all of her competitions leading up to the Commonwealths and then winning the gold with an area record of 4.62m.
She returned the following year in even better form and improved her own area records to 4.72m indoors and 4.65m outdoors. But since finishing 11th in the World Championships final in 2007, Howe has been nowhere to be seen on the international circuit.
It is not often that Luxembourg has a world class athlete, so when one does come along fans sit up and take note. After showing good form as a junior, 800m runner David Feigen enjoyed a breakthrough onto the senior scene in 2006 by winning the silver medal at the European Championships and setting a national record of 1:44.81 a few days later in Zürich.
Since then Fiegen’s seasons have been somewhat limited with his fastest post-2006 time being 1:46.03. With the European Championships looming within a few weeks, here’s hoping Fiegen can make it back to the track in time to defend his silver medal.
For an athlete whose rise to the top happened pretty suddenly, Rachelle Smith’s breakthrough in 2005 seemed to go almost unnoticed. Having never before qualified to represent the USA at an outdoor championships, Smith not only booked her place on the team with a 22.22 PB at the US Championships, but she backed it up with the silver medal at the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki.
But despite clocking some fast times in 2006 and 2007, Smith has not made it back onto the US team for any major championships since Helsinki.
Such is the standard of track and field in the US, it’s a pretty tough ask to simply make the team with their ‘first three past the post’ selection policy – especially in Olympic years. The US Olympic Trials always throws up unexpected results, and Melvin Lister’s winning leap in the triple jump in 2004 was one such moment. Up until that point, Lister had mainly been known as a long jumper, but he finished a distant seventh in his specialist event at the Trials so turned to the triple jump.
Having only broken 17 metres on one occasion beforehand – and that was five years prior to 2004 – Lister produced the jump of his life. Recovering from a spot of mid-jump inbalance, Lister leapt out to a staggering 17.78m, putting him at 11th on the all-time list. Two weeks later in London he jumped 17.20m, but that was to be his final 17m+ jump. He bombed out of the qualifying round at the Athens Olympics that summer, and in the years that followed he failed to break even 16 metres outdoors.