If you’re the glass-half-full type, the sport is on the road to redemption with a cast of new stars determined not to be dragged under by years of graft, suspicion and finger-pointing. Next year’s world championship will take place in Doha, where several events will take place after midnight to counter the stifling heat, which won’t help suspicions of political opportunism and other shenanigans.
For now, however, the sport is basking in outrageous good fortune best exemplified by the weekend feat of Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway, the charismatic teen phenomenon who claimed European 5000m gold – attempting to high-five his brother along the way – less than 24 hours after he became the youngest athlete (17) to ever win the 1500m title. It was among the greatest stories in the event’s 84-year history.
Already the youngest sub-four-minute miler in history, Ingebrigtsen is banging hard at the door to be Bolt’s successor, if not in showbiz appeal, certainly in speed and style and world renown. To do so, however, he must first beat the Kenyans at their game. It promises to be a tantalising duel, especially as he will have to go faster.
Another youngster, Armand Duplantis, the US-raised teen, stunned the Berlin crowd when he became the youngest man ever to clear six metres, setting three world junior pole vault records along the way. He cracked a remarkable 6.05m to claim gold. Only two men have gone higher, one of whom (Renaud Lavillenie) managed just 5.95m in Berlin. The other was the great Sergey Bubka.
At 18, Duplantis has time – and good genes – on his side. His dad is former vaulter Greg Duplantis and his mum is ex-Swedish heptathlete Helena Hedlund.
There is no shortage of heirs to Bolt’s sprint throne. Commonwealth Games champion Akani Simbine has announced himself, but look out for these other fast men to smoke the track in the season to come:
British sprinter Zharnel Hughes, who recently ran the fastest 100m in the world, clocking 9.91sec; Noah Lyles of the US who has personal bests of 9.88sec for the 100m and 19.65sec for the 200m; Lalu Muhammad Zohri of Indonesia, who won gold at the under-20 world championship (for which his home was instantly renovated, on orders of the president); Christian Coleman, the world indoor record holder for the 60m with a 9.82sec 100m best; and, Ronnie Baker of the US who last year produced a wind-assisted 9.86sec over 100m.
Remarkably, there is no Jamaican “phenom” on the horizon, with Kemar Bailey-Cole and Yohan Blake already long-established.
Elsewhere, the new wave is represented by 400m star Nigeria-born Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain, who was the gold medalist at the 2015 world youth championship and won silver at the 2017 world championship.
World-class athletes are busting out all over, and South Africa is not exempt. Caster Semenya, Wayde van Niekerk, Luvo Manyonga and Simbine are front and centre, but beyond them are several other local athletes threatening to crash the party.
Durban-born Carina Horn recently became the first SA women sprinter to dip under 11 seconds for the 100m, although at 29 she may have crested.
Rikenette Steenkamp, a sports science student in Pretoria, recently broke the 20-year-old record for the 100m hurdles. Given that she wasn’t happy with her race, she may go faster still.
Clarence Munyai’s 19.69sec 200m best in March eclipsed the SA record of Van Niekerk and, aged 20, he threatens to go quicker. Last season he was the fastest junior 200m runner in the world, and seventh of all time.
Sokwakhana “Sokkies” Zazini is another local prodigy, having won 400m hurdles gold at the under-18 world championship in Nairobi, finishing almost three seconds clear of the runner-up. He’s no slouch in the 400m either with a 46.20sec personal best.
Having recently featured at the athletics World Cup in London, designed for the eight leading athletics countries, South Africa is well placed to build on recent momentum.
Everywhere, new talent is flourishing, demanding the sport’s administrators do the same.
Say it quietly, but a world without Bolt’s majesty might not be too bad.