This is a brief or maybe not so brief account of a truely fantastic trip to the Athletics World Championships in Berlin last week. We spent 2 days at the championships - Wednesday and Thursday. It was a fantastic experience and I’d highly recommend a trip to a major championship to any of our senior and juvenile athletes interested in the sport.

This level of competition is special and the atmosphere is electric. The European Championships are on in Barcelona in race week next year (end July). Check it out at http://www.bcn2010.org/. My reading of the ticket situation is that you can get a reasonably good ticket for €120 for the full 6 days in zone C. Not bad compared to Berlin prices where we paid more than that for 2 days. So you could buy a couple of tickets, take the family to Barcelona for a week and different family members go to the athletics each day! Anyway, here's the low-down on Berlin.

Myself and Pádraic travelled out last Tuesday morning, catching the Citylink bus from Craughwell at the unearthly hour of 1.30am to get the 6.00am Ryanair flight to Berlin. Arriving in Berlin around 9am, we quickly got our U-Bahn/S-Bahn day tickets and hopped on the S-Bahn armed with advance instructions on the route from Mark and Orlagh who had travelled out a day earlier.  The Berlin rail system is fantastic – you are waiting only 3 or 4 minutes for a train to take you to any part of the city and can travel all you like that day for the incredible price of €6.50. If that were Irish Rail or Bus Eireann, you’d be waiting much longer than 3 minutes and you’d be paying multiple times that price. In fact we only had to buy one day ticket as our athletics tickets for Wednesday/Thursday also entitled us to free travel on the rail system. Mark met us at the nearest station to the apartments and took us to our new home for the next 3 nights. A huge thank you to our benefactors in the Galway athletics community who provided us with such fantastic accommodation in the heart of the city!

Anyway, back to the athletics. We didn’t go to the stadium on Tuesday because we thought we’d never get tickets – turned out it was easy to get them earlier in the week because they were priced a little high to get the local fans in, but they dropped the prices later in the week and got full houses. We got the trustworthy U-Bahn on Wednesday morning and arrived at the Olympic Stadium, named as such because it hosted the 1936 Olympic Games – which were intended to showcase Hitler’s supreme race but sabotaged a little by an American athlete named Jesse Owens who took home 4 Olympic titles! The stadium was fantastic as you can see by the picture above. If only we had this type of facility in Ireland, just think of what stars we could produce. If there are any Celtic Tiger millionaires reading this, ones who put their money in the mattress rather than the banks or property or shares, we want one of these in Craughwell and will be very happy to name it after you in exchange for a suitable donation! 

Before I go on, I should mention Olive Loughnane's fantastic silver medal in the 20k on the previous Saturday. Unfortunately we were not in Berlin to witness this incredible achievement. It comes after years of hard work and dedication from Olive and she is an example to all our young athletes of the courage and determination that is required to get to the top.

Olive and her sister Anne gave a talk to members of Craughwell AC's juvenile club and I can still remember some of her remarks that she made regarding talent at a young age - that when she was a teenage athlete there were several athletes in her club who were more talented but didn't have the same determination that she had. She stuck at it and made it to elite international levels and now has become only the 5th Irish person ever to have a World athletics medal in senior competition. Remarkably Olive's sister Anne (a member of Craughwell AC!) also has a World medal for race walking - having won silver in the World Youth Championships in Canada a number of years ago. I don't think any family in Ireland can lay claim to having two World athletics medallists in the family!  
 

The men’s high jump qualifiers were on Wednesday morning. Check out some of the photos here, most of which are of an American jumper named Tori Harris.

Reason I have several photos of Harris below is that I was impressed by this promotional video he made for the high jump and I was hoping he'd take a medal! 

Check out his cool promotional video at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tINnWbqx6Y

The series of photos below are actually of different jumps - i just arranged them in a different order. Harris takes off from very far out from the bar as you can see.

   
   
 Not sure exactly what's happening in the last jump above. Looks like a suicidal jump from here!!

The photo below shows one of the competitors in the decathlon long jump which was in progress at the same time as the high jump. The decathletes did 5 events on Wednesday and 5 more on Thursday - the crowd were in awe of them!

The crowd were glued to all of the field events and in particular the high jump and long jump. Television doesn’t half do the field events justice – it focuses on the track and gives scant coverage to the field events.

That is if TV even bothers to cover them – if you had BBC or Eurosport you got to see some of the action but RTE didn’t bother their heads to even provide highlights.  

 
 

 We wrapped up the morning after the men's 110m hurdles in the decathlon. These men must have incredible strength - competing to world standards in event after event. Often they had only just completed one event when they were back on the track for the next one - minimum rest. I'd say after the two days that they'd sleep for a week.

All of the morning session’s events were qualifier rounds or decathlon events. About 2pm, the action broke for the middle of the day and resumes about 6pm. Whether that’s because it gets too hot or whether its to give the tourists a chance to spend some money downtown, I don’t know but it was ideal to go away for 3 hours and head back for the evening.  

 We U-bahned it around the town for a while and later on jumped on the U6 to get back to the stadium for Gillick’s semi-final. On the 20 minute trip across town, an athletic looking American girl hopped on the train at one of the stops, wearing a USA tracksuit. She looked a little familiar and then I recognised one of her companions who had been interviewed on German TV the night before - her mum!
 The athletic looking girl was Sanya Richards, the newly crowned 400m World Champion. So after much silent deliberation whether it would be silly and rude to ask her for her autograph on a crowded train, I pushed through the crowd and asked “Are you Sanya”, to which she happily beamed “yes” . So I congratulated her and got her to sign my daily program which had the results of her victorious 400m race from the day before.

The race program was fantastic, for the tiny sum of €8 you got an information-packed week’s program and a free daily program which was published each day containing results from all of the previous days, the current day’s schedule and interviews/articles on some of the events – all printed in both English and German. 

 Anyway, we were hurriedly making our way back to the stadium now because Gillick was about to run his 400m semi-final. A text from Mark “hurry on, he’s on the track, you’ll miss it”.

We lost valuable seconds when the German security searched our bag on the way in, commenced our own 400m sprint from the security gate to the stadium when “bang” the gun goes and we miss Gillick in the first semi. Blast it! But we had just PB'd for 400m so at least that was something! And we got in to see the remaining 2 semi-finals and cheer when their slower times helped Gillick to make the final (yes 3 semi-finals were held – don’t tell your English teacher!). 

Next up on a bumper evening for Irish athletics action, Derval O’Rourke in the 100m hurdles semi-final. Written off by most as not having a hope of making the final, her funding cut in half last year by Athletics Ireland, injured for part of the year, Derval showed what guts and determination can do when she powered through her semi-final to finish in 3rd place in a super time of 12.73, just 0.01 seconds outside her National Record!

A fantastic performance, which was good enough to make the final!

 Our near neighbour Paul Hession was in action next in his semi-final. Despite a gallant effort, sadly for Paul he will have to wait another 2 years for the Holy Grail of making the World Championship or Olympic final – where a PB was required to get through to the final. But a fantastic performance nonetheless – to come here with legitimate chances of making the World final and becoming the fastest European sprinter is a huge achievement.

Image
Gimme a H-E-S-S-I-O-N!!

Like Olive, Paul is an inspiration to all of the young athletes in Galway and we are all behind him in his dream of making a major championship sprint final ... hopefully at the next worlds.

    

Just prior to Paul's semi-final, some Jamaican guy named Bolt was running his semi-final. Don't know what all the fuss is about, he's only barely ahead in this shot!!

The evening's entertainment proceeded with the men's 1500m final, a closely fought affair where Kamel from Bahrain triumphed in a time of 3.35.93. In the adjacent picture, the object to the left of the runners is a suspended camera.

This is suspended with 3 lines from 3 sides of the stadium and is an amazing piece of technology, whizzing around the curve on that side of the track, descending downwards for a close-up of the sprint start, high jump and hammer throwing, chasing the athletes on the track ... very impressive.

 

 Next on the agenda was the eagerly awaiting 100m hurdles final where Ireland's Derval O'Rourke was again in action. Having almost PB'ed in the semi-final earlier on and having exceeded the entire Irish population's expectations, the pressure was off Derval for the final and the omens were good. Before the semi-final she had nervously paced over and back behind the start line. This time she looked more relaxed. She was quoted earlier in the year to the effect of ... you know if I make the final, anything can happen, I'm not beaten too often. And she sure proved this on the day. She blasted out of the blocks in lane 1 to get an immediate head-start on her opponents. We were sitting about 40m up the track and the photo below shows her in the lead at the 4th hurdle - thats exactly 38.50m up the track.

   

It was a stunning performance by Derval, one which will certainly silence her critics and the sceptics and hopefully restore her sponsorship and ISC funding to their maximum levels.

Next event on the track was the 800m women's final where the South African teenager Caster Semenya ran away with the race to win by 2.5 seconds in what is reportedly the biggest ever margin in the women's 800m at a major championships. Its terrible for all of the participants in this race that there are question marks over the victory - any doubts about the South African's eligibility to run should have been cleared up by officials long before Berlin.

Almost done with day 1 and just have to mention the event which triggered hysteria amongst the watching German support - the men's discus competition. Prior to the competition, local hero Robert Harting who is based in Berlin and who was placed only 4th or 5th in the 2009 ranking, was quoted as saying words to the effect ... I may not have the best distance this year, but this is my stadium and noone is going to come to MY stadium and beat me in front of my OWN people! Entering the final round of throws, Harting was in 2nd place and about to eat his words, trailing the Pole Malachowski who led by almost a metre with a throw of 69.15m (which was a National Record for Poland). On his final attempt, Harting slung the discus a huge distance. The crowd roared their approval. Waiting anxiously for the official measurement, the electronic scoreboard showed 69.43m to put the German into the lead by less than a foot.

The crowd erupted. Harting sprinted across the grass towards the 100m finish line. A flock of photographers sprinted after him, their cameras hopping up and down as they puffed and panted their way towards the 100m finish. The Pole picked up the discus, one final attempt, big heave but clearly dropped short of the German's throw.

The crowd went into overdrive, the stadium's foundations shook to their core, Harting sprinted back across the track towards what he refers to as the Harting Corner, the sweaty photographers did likewise, Harting reached the corner, grabbed his singlet at his chest and ripped into 2 and threw it aside. The crowd roared even louder. Berlino (the teddy bear mascot) trots over to the frenzy, goes to high-five Harting, Harting ducks under the high-five, grabs Berlino and throws him over his shoulder, Berlino clings on for dear life! Amazing stuff and certainly the German highlight of Wedneday. Here's Harting ripping his shirt and Berlino recovering a little on Harting's back!

   


 

So after a fantastic day of entertainment on Wednesday, Thursdays action offered a whole lot of excitement also with 3 more Irish in action – Chamney, Cragg and O’Keeffe – and the women’s high jump final and the men’s 200m final to look forward to also. The latter two events are probably the two most hyped events of the championships so it was a great day to be in the stadium.

 

A word of warning before I continue. If you don't particularly like athletics, stop reading at this point as this article is getting rather long! 

 

I had picked different tickets for day 2 in order to be closer to the high jump area and 200m – so opted for some seats near the start of the 200m. They turned out to be perfect for both events. In the morning though, the stadium wasn’t awfully full so we slipped into a different section to have a closer look at the men’s pole vault qualification round. From here we also watched Chamney’s 800m. Tomas Chamney seems to be a real character – he has a couple of interviews on www.flotrack.org which are good fun. In fact, if you’re not already aware of that website, check it out. It has loads of interviews and race videos, mostly US stuff but a good bit of Irish videos up there also.

I felt it was a mistake for Chamney to compete in both the 1500m and 800m in Berlin. He had the B-standard in both and hoped to make at least 1 semi-final – hard enough to do with the B-standard in a single event and I thought that running a 1500m a few days beforehand would take away from his 800m. Whether that was the case or not, Chamney struggled in his 800m finishing in 5th place in a time of 1.48.09 – over 2.5 seconds slower than his PB of 1.45.41 from a few weeks ago. The photo across shows Chamney on the first curve of the second 400m.    

 Up next, Eileen O’Keefe’s hammer throw. The Germans took a huge interest in all of the throwing events so there was a good buzz around the crowd during this. Unfortunately for Eileen she was well below her best form, throwing her first throw out to 63.20m – significantly shorter than her season’s best of 69.91m. And then disaster struck on her 2nd and 3rd throws when she spun the hammer into the side netting on both occasions to exit the competition. 

    
 
The afternoon session was extremely busy – with men’s long jump qualifiers, the men’s 5000m heats amongst others, and in particular the bumper events of men’s 200m and women’s high jump. I had initially thought we’d slip down from our seats to get a closer look at the men’s long jump qualification round but the stadium was jam packed to capacity – with only a small number of seats appearing vacant on the far side of the stadium. Probably a crowd of over 70,000 inside – you could sense the rising excitement. The men’s 5000m was the first to hold 70,000 minds interest. Bekele lined up in the first heat. It was a privilege to witness such an incredible runner in action. Some of the reports since Berlin say he has now won 24 world titles on track and cross country! Bekele is pictured below in the green singlet prior to the start of his heat, which he comfortably won and later in the week went onto to win what was probably the greatest 5000m race in history where he out-sprinted Bernard Lagat to take the gold.
 However, today the star of this heat was not Bekele but another Ethiopian named  Abdosh. After one lap of the race, it became apparent that Abdosh was way behind the rest of the tightly packed group of athletes – seems Abdosh lost his footing shortly after the start and his shoe came off, so he stopped to put it on. He must have been at least a third of a lap behind. Every time he passed on his 14.5 laps, the crowd gave him a huge cheer. It was almost as if he was running the race on his own and the crowd forgot about who was winning and only wanted Abdosh to get back into the race. He narrowed the gap lap after lap and began picking off a few stragglers, eventually nailing 4 of them. But he ran out of legs to close the gap when the pace picked up for the final few laps. His time was 17 seconds slower than Bekele’s winning time and it was only just now that I see on the IAAF website that they did in fact let him through to the final even though technically he had not qualified – where he finished in 6th place on Sunday. Nice to see that there is honour amongst the officials at this level! 

 Next up was Alistair Cragg’s heat. I won’t say as much about this one, just that it was very disappointing. Alistair started well and was holding 6th or 7th place in the pack for many of the earlier rounds and then just inexplicably drifted off the back of the pack with about 5 laps to go, falling about 20m behind. Then with 3 laps to go, the pack kicked and Cragg was too far back to be able to kick with them. He was quoted afterwards as saying he went to sleep for a lap and fell off the pace then. Surprising for this to happen at this level … when I was racing Tom Porter or James Lundon in 5k’s a few years ago I made sure I never went to sleep as I’d never hear the end of it if they beat me! I would have thought elite runners would have their own Tom or James to worry about! 

 

The crowd were getting noisy at this point – the high jump was about to start. The main contenders were Blanca Vlasic from Croatia and Ariane Friedrich from Germany. Vlasic had won practically every high competition in the world in 2006, 2007 and 2008 leading into the Beijing Olympics – I think her record was something like 40 victories in a row, with many 2+ metre jumps in there. She’s exceptionally tall at 6’ 4” so 2m isn’t all that much over her head actually. Anyway, in the most important competition of her life in Beijing, she was beaten by a Belgian heptathlete named Tia Helebaert.  Financially that wasn’t as important as the next competition – the final meeting of the Golden League where she was in line to win either $1 million or half that if she won the high jump. But to her horror, up and coming German athlete Friedrich spoiled her day and took the honours in the high jump!  So there’s a bit of needle between the two of them. Even though the Berlin program suggested they got along ok, with Friedrich saying she liked to tease Vlasic, I suspect that Vlasic mightn’t be particular pleased with losing a half-million dollar prize because of Friedrich! Friedrich also got one over Vlasic earlier in 2009 when she jumped her PB of 2.06m. Vlasic’s PB was 2.07m from 2008. The world record is 2.09m, so both athletes are pretty close to it. 

 

I was saving my camera’s battery at this point of the day. I was snap happy yesterday content in the knowledge that I would charge the camera last night. Shock and horror when I got back to the apartment and discovered I had left the charger on the kitchen table in Craughwell! So battery conservation was the order of the day. Hence I decided to wait until the higher heights of the high jump before taking any pictures. Then Bolt stepped out onto the track for his 200m final and I risked a few quick snaps – and then the camera shut itself down, just as the high jump was entering its higher levels.

 

    

 Vlasic had entered the competition at the opening height of 1.87m while Friedrich held out until 1.92m. Both cleared 1.92m and then 1.96m on their first attempt. There were 7 jumpers left at this stage but really the whole stadium were only interested in 2. The minor matter of the men’s 200m final interrupted proceedings at this point. Bolt was on his marks. The gun goes off. Bolt seems to start late from lane 5. The gun goes again – false start against the French athlete in lane 2. Some people thought it was Bolt – but he was late starting. Maybe he had flinched and hence his late start. Anyway, the gun goes again for the restart.

  This time Bolt gets away like his trademark lightening symbol, powering around the bend and appearing to overtake the outside athlete in 9 or 10 strides. Over at the high jump, Friedrich is about to take her first jump at 2.02m. The noise level is deafening as Bolt motors past. Friedrich knocks the bar in the frenzy. Bolt tears around the bend, down the straight, away ahead of the rest of the field, across the finish line. 19.20 the clock flashes – a new world record. Such noise. 19.19 the clock now says – warp speed.
Bolt is celebrating as Bolt does. Grabs his National flag and starts a lap of honour, joined by our favourite mascot Berlino on the curve where they both strike a lightening poise for the photographers, the crowd are going wild, momentarily forgetting about the giant battle that is taking place in the high jump. Vlasic has knocked 2.02m. Chicherova the Russian clears it to move into the lead – is a major upset on here. Bolt jogs on, Berlino challenges him to a sprint down the home straight to which he duly obliges.

He’s now up at the high jump side, oblivious to the fact that there is a competition on there. The high jump officials should have held up the competition. Friedrich was there trying to take her 2nd attempt at 2.02m – this is a disaster for her. Usain is driving the stadium insane.

The announcer is spluttering Bolt this and Bolt that, the crowd are roaring. Then the stadium camera zooms in on Friedrich, her face fills the giant screen, she puts a finger to her lips and goes “ssshhh” and smiles.

In that split second, 70000 people fell silent.  It was absolutely amazing – at her command, noisy chaos was replaced by silent calmness. The wild scenes emanating around the stadium disappeared, everyone froze in their tracks including Bolt. In fact Bolt became invisible at this point – no one knew him any more, no one saw him, what world record, Usain who, Friedrich has arrived! The crowd held its breath. Friedrich commences her run in, speeds in to the bar, drives up, over, the crowd began to shout, bar drops, the crowd go “oooooooo”. Two failures at 2.02m, Friedrich is in trouble.

 
 
    Vlasic next. Total opposite to Friedrick, she likes the noise and the chaos. Fair play to the German crowd, they wholeheartedly got behind her with a slow hand clap, gradually speeding it up as she eyeballs the high jump bar. But the clapping had got too fast for her liking, so she starts clapping at a much slower pace, 140,000 hands follow her rhythm, clap …… clap ….. these high jumpers have complete control of the crowd! Clap …… clap …… clap …. clap …. clap…clap..clap.clap.clap.clap… the rhythm speeds up as the 1.93m giant speeds into the bar and soars high up into the air, sailing over the bar at ease. A bit of an upset coming for the home crowd, they had fully expected their Friedrich to win.

 So Friedrich has one attempt left at 2.02m – a real pressure jump. The noise levels are back up again – everyone has forgotten she likes silence. Maybe Bolt is on the move again?

Camera zooms into again, Friedrich does the “ssshhh” smile again and the crowd obey. Not a whisper can be heard.

A plastic bottle starts rolling down the steps near where we sit, “clunk” “clunk” “clunk” – the noise rang out like gunshots.

An old man is walking slowly up the same steps – everyone stars at him thinking he’s the one making all this noise, about to cost Germany a world title. He picks up the bottle and holds it high to show it wasn’t him making the noise!

Back to Friedrich, she commences her run in, plants and drives up, up, up and over and clear!!!!!! The crowd practically lift the roof. The celebrations for the German discus thrower the other night seem miniscule now.

Friedrich is back!

 
Up the bar goes to 2.04m, Chicherova first to jump, knocks it, Vlasic next, does the "slow hand clap" thing, knocks it, Friedrich next, does the “ssshhh” thing, knocks it, Chicherova next, knocks it (Chicherova doesn't do any “thing” – just jumps!), Vlasic next, does the "slow hand clap" thing, clears it!!!!!! The crowd roar its approval – must be loads of non-Germans here. Friedrich is now in a difficult situation – if she jumps it on her 3rd attempt, she still trailing Vlasic and will have to jump 2.06m and hope Vlasic knocks it. So she passes her last attempt to save it for a go at 2.06m. Chicherova takes her final attempt and knocks it.

 

Up the bar goes to 2.06m, the noise is deafening, Friedrich does her “ssshhh” thing, the silence is deafening.

 

Friedrich runs in a drives up with a huge effort, clears the bar, is coming down, the crowd are on their 140,000 feet, the back of her heel brushes the bar on the way down, the bar drops, 70,000 jaws drop, the crowd are dismayed but cheer Vlasic the victor on this occasion. Vlasic goes on to make 3 attempts at a world record of 2.10 – you would too when there is $100,000 extra at stake! But she doesn’t come all that close to it, probably worn out by the intensity of the competition.  

 

To say the last hour was eventful would be the understatement of the year. It was incredible to witness. To summarise the 2 days, the crowd were marvellous, the competitors were marvellous, the stadium was marvellous. Overall, I think I’d describe it as marvellous! 

 

I should mention too that there were two other finals on in the midst of all of this – the women’s 400m hurdles and the men’s 110m hurdles, where Melanie Walker of Jamaica triumphed in the 400m hurdles in a championship record of 52.42 and Ryan Brathwaite from Barbados triumphed in the 110m hurdles in an incredibly tight race where one-hundredth of a second separated the first three runner. Berlino the mascot did his final and silliest act when he gave Melanie Walker a piggy back down the back straight and wasn’t looking where he was going – running into the back of a truck collecting the hurdles and collapsing on top of the Jamaican. Luckily she wasn’t hurt! 

 

The men’s decathlon 1500m was the final event of the day. Unfortunately for the decathletes, nothing could match the drama of the last hour. Much of the crowd stayed on to see it – probably more as a mark of respect for the decathletes achievements rather than a huge interest in the race because the result was already known from the previous 9 events with Trey Hardee from the USA winning it. In fact, the 1500m times were positively pedestrian for elite athletes – with times varying from 4.12 up to 5.01. Several of our juvenile athletes down to the U14 age group are faster! But then again, these guys had just done 9 other events over 2 days and must be shattered.  Anyway, that’s it - we hopped on the U-Bolt back to the apartment, sorry I mean U-Bahn. We had 1 more night in Berlin, caught a taxi to the airport Friday morning and back in Galway by 3pm … just in time to go to the Community Games in Athlone for the weekend! 

 

{rsg2_display: 27, superclean} 

Friday the 22nd. .