He may have spoiled the party, but essentially Ramil Guliyev is what sport is all about – renewal, renovation, change, the future. Except, in this case we didn’t see the future coming. We are a conservative species; we cling to the same old certainties.
But honestly, did you really think Usain Bolt was going to keep on winning and winning, until even you got bored with it? At least, Bolt decided to call time, but unfortunately, not before time (and Justin Gatlin) called on him.
Guliyev, formerly of Azerbaijan, but now running for Turkey upset the 200 metres pre-race favourites Wayde Van Niekerk and Isaac Makwala in last night’s World Championships final. And he did it by stealth. We were all so locked into the possibility of Van Niekerk, signalled as Bolt’s successor and the latest saviour of athletics emulating Michael Johnson from Gothenburg 1995, and winning the 200/400 metres double; or we just wanted popular hero Makwala to stick it to the guys that made his life and latter-day career such a trial this week, by stopping him running the 400 metres final, because of an alleged infectious disease; and then making qualifying for this 200 metres final a test of endurance rather than of sprinting.
Makwala, doubtless fuelled by the anger he spoke of many times in the last two days, blasted out his blocks, but began to fade as soon as he hit the finishing straight. At which point, Van Niekerk, belying his poor run in the semi-final, was leading, as he did until the final five metres. But Guliyev was swooping like an avenging angel, and put the hero to the sword at the line.
The 27 year old Guliyev, a former European junior champion, switched nationalities in 2011, saying, “I chose Turkey, because there’s not much enthusiasm for athletics in Azerbaijan, and there’s no good facilities”. He had had an excellent run in the semi-final, and thus should have been at last a dark horse to win, but even those celestial seers, the bookies had only got him as fourth favourite. He made a nonsense of all of those prognoses, winning in 20.09sec. Van Niekerk only just held off Jereem Richards of Trinidad & Tobago for silver, both clocking 20.11sec. The photo-finish gave the refined story, the margin in favour of the South African – one thousandth of a second! Makwala faded to sixth.
For a public and press so inured to the tradition of US and lately Jamaican sprinters running away with the medals, with the occasional incursion of the likes of an Allan Wells or a Linford Christie, it is inevitably a shock when an Azeri-born Turk carries off a glittering prize. But there is a precedent, of a sprinter from an even tinier nation winning an international sprint title – Kim Collins of Saint Kitts & Nevis winning the 100 metres at the World Championships in Paris 2003. The French sports daily L’Equipe celebrated the victory by printing a spoof map of world sprinting powers on its front page, showing the tiny Caribbean islands as a gigantic continent, with the USA shrunken to the size of an atoll.
No such surprises earlier in the evening. After only taking bronze when many, including your scribe thought she would win the 1500 metres on her international debut at the distance, Caster Semenya went back her speciality, and underlined the doubts that many have about her competing in the first place, when she wheeled into the finishing straight in third place in her 800 metres heat, and while all around her were running, as we used to say, ‘eyeballs out’, she merely raised her stroll to a jog and glided into the lead, to take an easy qualifying win in 2min 01.33sec.
With critics of British athletics lining up to condemn a disappointing series of performances this week, leavened only by Mo Farah’s exploits, Lynsey Sharp and Shelayna Oksan-Clarke raised a glimmer of hope of another medal with assured runs to qualify for the semi-finals of the 800 metres, where they were joined by the youngster Adelle Tracey, as a fastest loser. But, given the presence of Semenya and Kenyan Margaret Wambui, the best the Brits can hope for is bronze, and there is much longer way to go than the simple two laps of the race before they beat the African pair.
Laura Muir’s much-vaunted challenge to win medals at both 1500 and 5000 metres has all but evaporated. She was beaten on the line to the bronze medal by Semenya in the shorter race, and finished exhausted, albeit qualifying as a fastest loser in the 5000 heats last night. There was a time in the not so distant past when it was a commonplace for British men to dominate the 1500 metres. The drought for the last decade or two may be coming to an end as Chris O’Hare and Jake Wightman qualified confidently for tonight’s semi-final. Dina Asher-Smith went one better, and qualified automatically for tonight’s women’s 200 metres final.
But it was Ramil Guliyev who had the last, decisive word.
(photo: © Getty Images for IAAF)