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Friday, January 01, 2010

Top Ten of the Decade #1

So what's my top fan experience of the decade?

The 2001 IAAF World Championships.

The moment Edmonton was announced as the hosts, I called up Track & Field News Tours and signed up. They had nothing on the tour yet, but decided they'd be willing to take money. I was psyched for the first (and as yet only) Worlds held in North America.

Originally, I was going to go by myself and take my luck with the roommate lottery, but I ended up with the best roommate I could ever have. My old high school coach went with me.

Edmonton is likely the least interesting city that's ever hosted a Worlds. I met some Edmontoners (Edmontonians? Edmontonese?) two years later at the Boston Marathon and they apologized for their city's boringness. I told them they had nothing to apologize for, as Edmonton was really a small town of a million people. (For that matter, the entirety of Canada is a small town.) What it lacked in glitz it more than made up for in warmth.

The stereotype of the friendly Canadian was borne out while I was there. Here's an example. The city has a light rail system going from downtown to Commonwealth Stadium with a few stops along the way. During the championships, it was free. Bob and I looked at the stations and determined they weren't cleaned up for the Worlds; they simply had never been dirty.

After bumbling around the new city for a while, we finally found our hangout, the Sherlock Holmes pubs. You always want to go where the locals go, and we met a lot of them.

For the most part, we slept, went to the pub, and went to the stadium. I even saw to the 50k walk. At the start, I think I was literally the only English-speaking person in the stadium who wasn't an employee. Out on the course I saw some people with an Aussie flag and chatted with them. One of them asked another "So how long is this supposed to take?" "Oh, about four hours." "Four hours? I thought it would be more like 30 minutes." "They're walking fifty bloody K!"

In retrospect, they might have been among the most doped Worlds in recent memory. They were held in the wake of the Sydney rumor that a double-digit number of athletes with positive tests had been allowed onto the US team, a rumor that turned out to be true. The Edmontonmen's 100 meters saw Maurice Greene (probably doped) beat Tim Montgomery (admittedly doped). The women's 200 meters saw the sudden emergence of Kelli White, who turned state's evidence two years later. The men's 200 meters were won by Konstantinos Kederis (almost certainly doped). Natalya Sadova won the women's disc and then lost it due to a positive for a stimulant (and in 2006 got nailed for steroids), turning it over to Elina Zvereva who had her own ban in 1992, and women's shot champ Yanina Korolchik got hit with a two-year ban in 2003. Ali Saidi-Sief lost his silver medal in the 5k when his sample came up positive for steroids. And the women's 100 meters had five of its eight finalists banned or implicated in doping (Marion Jones, Kelli White, Zhanna Block, Ekaterini Thanou, Chryste Gaines).

But that's not as much of a downer as you'd expect. What would be a real downer is if we didn't know about these, or if no one cared. It was the early days of WADA, and something did go right.WADA had just come up with an EPO test, and it made a difference. Olga Yegerova, who suddenly went from above-average to great in 2001, had tested positive for one part of the test earlier in the summer but the other part hadn't been administered and she got off on the technality. This did not sit well with the public, and Paula Radcliffe was at that moment most famous for creating headlines saying what everyone was thinking. Yegerova won the 5k, but all 50,000 people in attendance erupted in a hailstorm of boos. It was a moral victory for fair play, and one that did not go unnoticed by the sport's leaders.

I'm virtually certain the EPO test had a major effect on the 2001 Worlds. Steeplechaser Brahim Boulami finished only 10th but set a WR 16 days later, which seems very suspicious--especially considering he failed an EPO test the following year when he broke his own WR. Another odd occurrence was Khalid Khannouchi's DNF in the marathon, blaming a slow pace. Sureyya Ayhan, not yet well known, had a strange blip in her improvement curve.

All track, all day. A special daily track-meet section in the newspaper. Meeting people from all over the world, and spending ten days with one of my closest friends. It just doesn't get any better than that.

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