Coe on Osaka

Osaka’s high notes fail to reach enough ears
By Sebastian Coe
Last Updated: 12:53am BST 04/09/2007

In temperatures hovering around the mid thirties and in strength-sapping humidity, the queue of thousands of chattering young girls stretched for more than half a mile.

Sadly, for the World Athletics Championships in Osaka over the past 10 days, the queue, which looped and doubled back on itself a couple of times, led not to the ticket office at the Nagai stadium but to the Osaka Jo Hall, a large indoor arena.

The focus of their ardour was not world champions Tyson Gay or Carolina Kluft but the chance of a fleeting audience with the lead singer of one of Japan’s most popular boy bands.

After inching their way to nirvana for three hours, they left even more excited. Proud owners of a signed photograph and some well-promoted memorabilia.

On the last day of the World Championships and some time before the women began their marathon around Osaka on Sunday, the queue was already the length of the finishing straight.

A couple of days earlier I asked a small group of the queuers who, having completed their own marathon, sought respite in the coffee shop in the official hotel of the championships, whether they would be paying a visit to the other show in town - the one featuring the world’s best athletes. Not one - although a couple had taken part in the opening ceremony. More worryingly, most of them were blissfully unaware that there was another show in town.
These World Championships, judged narrowly on the athletic fare, were good. A fast track gave us memorable sprinting and a shortened night’s sleep to those of my colleagues who, as members of the Jury of Appeal, had to separate a blanket finish from a photograph in the women’s 100 metres, won by less than a blink of an eye by Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell.

The best single performance in these championships came from Kenya’s Janeth Jepkosgei when she won the 800m.

After two laps of the Olympic 1500m in Los Angeles in 1984, I briefly flirted with the thought of going it alone for the remaining 700 metres, and concluded even quicker that this was no time to do so.

Jepkosgei, having comfortably navigated her heat and semi-final, decided to throw all of her chips on to the table. “I was in great shape and thought I could win it from the front. The challenge excited me,” she told me.

Bravery and sublime talent gave us the best performance over two laps, male or female, I’ve seen for some years and unearthed a talent that is more than worthy of filling the shoes of Maria Mutola, who stepped off the track in the finishing straight just after Jepkosgei made her last physiologically-defying surge for the tape. And, glory of glories, not a pacemaker in sight, if you discount Jepkosgei herself.

That said, these championships judged on other indices fared less well. The overall challenge for athletics is to have a chunk of those girls queuing to meet their musical heroes also forming the kernel of the Caroline Kluft fan club and grabbing from their ranks Japan’s next Olympic heptathlete.

Few young faces were evident in the crowds in either the morning or afternoon sessions, partly I suspect because of the high cost of tickets and partly because there is now a widely held view that nine days is just too long to sustain interest.

In too many of the sessions not enough happens and when it does the atmosphere sinks like a souffle while we wait for the next action.

The event presentation in the stadium was often patchy, leaving the crowd without sufficient information on the large screen along with announcements which often bore no resemblance to what then appeared.

While Kluft, who won her third straight heptathlon title, ran the 800m in the final sequence of events, the crowd could well have been forgiven for wondering if it counted for anything at all, let alone a world title. There may well be contractual strictures from a changing championship format before the next addition in Berlin, but explore these changes we must.

Watching some of the so-called seasoned athletes’ tactics flounder in the men’s middle distances when confronted with races without pacemakers was revealing. Without them in the 10,000m, the race was naturally able to unfold right up to the moment when Kenenisa Bekele struck cobra-like for home.

It was a welcome change from the procession that has become such a hallmark of distance running on the circuit and it makes a very strong case for at least introducing a more balanced quota of pace-made races.

Overall, this was a more polished British team effort. Medal predictions in the relays came off, and Britain ended the championships on a high with a bronze for the women’s 4 x 400m team on the final day of competition.