Roger Alton

The right track

Plus: the giants of rugby and their splendidly incongruous digs

The right track
Text settings

Sebastian Coe’s new job as head of world athletics will be a heck of a lot easier thanks to the outstanding World Championships that just finished in Beijing. He has a chance to push athletics back to the forefront of world sport — after all, what is more thrilling than one human being trying to outrun another? The star was Usain Bolt, but even that unassuming giant of a man cannot go on for ever. Athletics needs characters, champions that people can identify with, preferably in the blue--riband events. And Beijing showed there are outstanding athletes waiting to step forward.

Julius Yego took gold in the javelin with a throw of 92.72 metres — just over 100 yards. For those of us who did the 100 yards at school, the finishing line seemed a long way away. Imagine chucking a spear that far. Yego learned to throw a javelin from YouTube when he realised he couldn’t run fast enough: last week he made the longest throw by anyone for 14 years and took Kenya’s first ever field gold.

It was a magnificent championships for the Kenyans, who topped the medals table. Athletics needs winners like the utterly scandal-free David Rudisha, who took gold in the punishing 800 metres: he is a brilliant runner to watch (Coe rated him as his favourite at London 2012). The Jamaicans still dominate the sprints but their women are nowhere near as high-profile as the men because they can never set a world record. This is a big problem for Coe, and it all dates back to the drug-fuelled 1980s, when the Soviet bloc and the USA set the main women’s sprint records, all now 30 years old.

There’s a great character coming through in the 200 metres and he’s British (sort of). Zharnel Hughes from Anguilla is only 20 and finished fifth in the final at his first big championships. Watch him when he takes to the 100 metres too. He talks well and looks great and is a massive prospect.

The most engaging new woman to burst through in the sprints is Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith, bright and bubbly and photogenic, and doing a history degree at King’s College London. Our men’s sprint relay team, who may conceivably finish a final before hell freezes over, said they would have won a medal had Asher-Smith been running the final leg. The enchanting Katarina Johnson-Thompson could take heptathlon gold in Rio; and long-jumper Shara Proctor, also from Anguilla, could improve next year on her silver in Beijing. Britain has riches galore in athletics ready now to step forward when the heroic ‘Sir’ Mo and ‘Dame’ Jess are no longer on the track.

One big worry for Rio is Brazil: the country won one medal — a women’s pole-vault silver — and I can’t think of an Olympics when the hosts were so hopeless at athletics. For Coe there is also still the problem of how to make an athletics session more of a spectacle in an age of minimal attention spans; and the lingering anxiety about doping. But as Coe himself has said, he wants athletics to be about more than drug tests and urine samples. What we saw triumphantly in Beijing was that athletics is about people — and glory.

As a photo-feature in last weekend’s Guardian proved (check out the sublime picture of Scottish lock Jim Hamilton crashing through a miniature village), these fellows in the Rugby World Cup are substantial units. They are also being billeted in some splendidly incongruous places. Tonga have been in Cranleigh, Surrey. The scene in Waitrose must have been quite something when these 18-stone titans wandered the aisles, emptying the shelves of meat as elderly matrons looked anxiously on. Australia are based at Bath University; the All Blacks in Darlington; Fiji in Milton Keynes; and South Africa in Eastbourne, where the pavements are usually mostly filled with mobility scooters. Perhaps the Boks will just get frustrated at the length of time it takes to pop out for a pint of milk.

Written byRoger Alton

Roger Alton is a former editor of the Observer and the Independent. He writes the Spectator Sport column.

Topics in this articleSocietykenyarugbysport