The World Championships wrapped up last weekend. Last week things got off to an exciting start, as I detailed in our halftime report. Below I continue the analysis by looking at the last four throwing finals: women’s hammer, women’s shot put, and both javelin finals.
This sport is exciting to watch again
Nine days of intense action in Budapest reminded a lot of fans, myself included, how dramatic and entertaining the sport can be. Nick Garcia and I talk occasionally on the podcast about how much we love the sport, but watching some competitions can be a painful experience. I was reminded of this when reading an article looking at the genesis of the recent rule changes in baseball, which have resulted in more action and a faster pace. Theo Epstein, the former general manager of the Red Sox and president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, who masterminded those franchises’ first championships in 86 and 108 years, admitted he had started to find the sport boring: “Some of those World Series games were taking so long, I found myself channel surfing.” It took baseball a while to get support in implementing change, but on all accounts it has been successful.
The heart of athletics still is one of the best products out there, and the World Championships put that on display. Athletics still needs to figure out how to better capture that feeling and replicate it across the spectrum from the grassroots up to the elite level. A few things that really helped out in Budapest: large crowds, underdog stories, historic champions, back and forth lead changes, and more. Also what worked were technical advances that help you follow the action in more detail: better screen presentation of rankings and live results and live streams of each event (when the World Athletics site wasn’t down).
Arguably the field events led the way as well, which shows me that making athletics more entertaining isn’t about cutting events and adding more fanfare. That often justs distracts from the action going on and it’s the same logic that brings you silly mascots that try to steal attention rather than mascots that shine a bigger spotlight on the athletes. There are also athletes that are sore losers and accuse their competitor of doping or being one-hit wonders. Again, that draws the focus away from where it should be. I think the key is focusing on the roots of the sport, understanding what makes it special, and focusing on that. That’s what baseball did. Simple things like helping fans follow the action better add a lot more value that taking away action.
With those thoughts out of my system, let’s start to actually discuss the action that took place in Budapest.
Women’s hammer throw
After four exciting finals to start the week, the women’s hammer final somehow seemed underwhelming. Not because the level was bad, but because a lot of the hammer action unfolded before the final even started and it’s hard to follow up all the underdog stories and records from the first events.
As mentioned, the qualification round had a lot of drama and was perhaps the most interesting of the championships. One the one hand Hanna Skydan pulverized her six year old personal best by nearly two meters to be the surprise leader in qualifying. On the other hand, two major contenders were casualties. Defending champion Brooke Andersen, hindered by a shoulder injury, failed to advanced as she managed only 67 meters after two fouls and another throw that hit the cage. Four-time World Champion, three-time Olympic champion, and world record holder Anita Wlodarczyk was hoping to get back on track after an injury in 2022 and slow start to 2023. However her struggles continued as she threw just 71.17 meters in qualification for 13th place. She now holds the distinction of having the farthest throw not to make a world championship final, a title which likely gives her no solace.
The ups and downs continued in the finals. Camryn Rogers came out in round one with a big throw of 77 meters, essentially putting the competition out of reach of anyone. At the back of the pack Olympic medalist Malwina Kopron fouled out, eliminating Poland’s chance at a medal. In between Deanna Price started with two fouls and struggled to find her rhythm just like Rudy Winkler did after foul trouble in the men’s competition. She eventually climbed to bronze position, but in general doesn’t seem to have the same feeling she had in pre-injury in 2021 when she broke 80 meters. But by making it back on the podium she put the world on notice that she is still in the picture and make progress. Fellow American Janee’ Kassanavoid also won her second straight medal, this time a bronze.
With all the casualties in the women’s hammer, the event was going to be defined as much by who wasn’t there as who was. But Camyrn Rogers did her best to put in a dominating performance and remind everyone of her current form, and the strength of Canadian throwers in Budapest. She held the lead from start to finish and ensured an amazing men’s and women’s hammer throw sweep for Canada. Actually, to put it more accurately, it was a sweep for one small corner of Canada. Rogers and men’s champion Ethan Katzberg grew up just 50 kilometers apart near Vancouver. Adam Keenan (11th) and Rowan Hamilton (13th) all are from just further afield. A lot of people asked me about Canada’s support and coaching structure that led to these medals. They have some systems in place, but I don’t think that’s the main reason they are doing well. This is the classic story of how a few successful athletes raise expectations and push each other to new levels. Expect more to come in the future.
And while Rogers and Katzberg both have gold and have some commonalities, they also have some differences. Katzberg came into the meet with a big peak and flashy result. Rogers, on the other hand, wins through consistency. Her blue collar work ethic keeps pumping out 77 meter throws like she’s working on an assembly line. Throughout the season she’s had 11 competitions in a narrow range from 76.12m to 78.63m. Her winning result was actually 8 centimeters under her season opener in April. Her average result has been 77.20 meters, so it was only fitting that she threw within two centimeters of that to win.
Women’s javelin throw
Another ride on the roller coaster
It is hard to think of an event more unpredictable from top to bottom as the women’s javelin. Champions seem to come and go every year. Rio Olympic champion Sara Kolak has faded into the crowd, as has Tokyo silver medalist Maria Andrejczyk. American Kara Winger rose up last year to win silver and claim the Diamond League title only to retire. Kelsey-Lee Barber was on few people’s list of favorites when she won in 2019. The fact that she was able to repeat in 2022 might be more surprising than the other names that have faded away.
This year’s competition again featured plenty of surprises. Geographically it was the most diverse of the throwing events with representatives from Africa, Americas, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. There were only 3 finalists were European, the same number that Australia sent to the final. But even Australia’s team featured 3 throwers, from 3 different cities, and with 3 different coaches.
The flow of the competition was a roller coaster as well. Underdog Flor Ruiz opened with a South American record, adding 1.63 meters to her personal best. She seemed in control of the competition until the final round when Mackenzie Little improved to put herself in podium position ahead of Haruka Kitaguchi. Kitaguchi then responded by taking the lead. Kitaguchi has been perhaps the most consistent thrower over the last year and her final effort confirmed that. With her throw she also earned the distinction of being a world youth champion who won a senior world title. That’s the first time it has happened in the javelin, and is a true rarity among all the throwing events.
Chase Ealey had one of the most dominant seasons by a shot putter in the last decade in 2022. She added nearly a meter to her personal best, was undefeated across 11 outdoor competitions, won the Diamond League, won the World title, and had 7 meets over 20 meters. Entering Budapest it seemed that she had come back to earth with 10 competitions avereraging 19.20 meters in 10 outdoor competitions. A qualifying round result of 19.27 didn’t lead me to believe she brought anything different to Budapest that what we’d seen also season.
But boy was I wrong. In the first round of the final she opened up with a massive 20.35 meters. She then extended her lead to 20.43 meters, leading from start to finish. Ealey is back. But where did that come from? I think it is a lesson in how important timing can be. All year Ealey has been as strong and powerful as she was in 2022. But trying to make some technical changes resulted in her loosing her timing and feeling. Just a little bit off and you can lose a big margin in the spin. Six weeks of no competitions before worlds helped her focus her technique again and the results showed.
Speaking of the spin technique, it continues to grow and start to dominate in the women’s competition. By my count only 2 of the top 11 throwers used the traditional glide: Gong Lijiao and Auriol Dongmo. Some more interesting statistics: 18.57 meters tied with Eugene 2022 as the longest that failed to qualify for a world championship final. Gong also captured her amazing 8th world championship medal as well.
And one completely different story to discuss in the women’s shot put: on the final throw Auriol Dongmo launched the shot over 20 meters to put herself into bronze or silver position until it was called a foul. Looking at the video, it is damn close. It may well be a foul, but if you can’t even tell for sure in a super slow motion replay then how is the human eye supposed to catch that in real time? When the game is on the line the officials should really think twice about raising the flag as it should be the athletes deciding the medals. I mentioned the rule changes in baseball earlier and robo-umpires are perhaps the next step there. Is that the way to go in athletics as well? The long jumpers sure don’t think so. Rant over.
Men’s javelin throw
When I think about Neeraj Chopra I think of what the late Rodney Dangerfield would say: no respect. Chopra is the Olympic champion. He’s the wold champion. He’s got the largest social media following of anyone in the sport. He’s competing prime time in the last day of the world championships. And despite all that, most people just mention his performances as a footnote. When Chopra won the Tokyo Olympics many people thought it was a fluke and due more to the slippery runway than his talent. But then he won silver at the 2022 World Championships and now gold in Budapest. He has 3 global medals at age 25. We need to start giving this guy some more respect.
The javelin started off slow with only four throwers breaking 80 meters and a foul by Chopra. In the second round things heated up with another four over the barrier. Chopra took a commanding lead with an 88 meter throw and never looked back. Julian Weber, Germany’s best and last medal hopeful in Budapest, looked to be in medal position most of the competition until Jakeb Vadlejch bumped him off the podium in round 5. Vadlejch picked up his third World Championship medal in the process and left the German throwers (and the entire German team) going home with no medals at the meet.
Chopra’s performance was the first gold by India at a World Championship, but for me even more impressive was that India produced three of the top six finishers in the event. Include the silver by Arshad Nadeem and the Indian subcontintent had 4 of the top 6 throwers, all coming from different training groups. With power shifting west to America in the hammer, maybe we are seeing a more eastern shift in the javelin as four of the top seven women were also from Asia and Oceania.
All of these regional and country trends are intriguing for me. They are the hidden stories but, for me at least, the most interesting stories in Budapest because they show where the sport is heading in the future. I’ve done some more number crunching on the topic, so stay tuned next week for one final post on Budapest where I will take a deep dive on that topic.