Letsile Tebogo wins the 100m title in a world U20 record in Cali (© Marta Gorczynska)
We knew he was good. We just didn’t know he was this good – a young sprinter of such rare and precocious quality that everyone watching had no choice after the race but to reach for comparisons with the greatest to ever do it.
At the World Athletics U20 Championships Cali 22 on Tuesday (2), Letsile Tebogo of Botswana produced a truly jaw-dropping display of sprinting to smash his world U20 100m record and retain his title in 9.91 (0.8m/s), a peerless performance that had so many wondering – here and around the world – if they were looking at the next Usain Bolt.
Or perhaps the first Letsile Tebogo.
There were two reasons the 19-year-old drew such comparisons, even if they’re so often as unfair as they are misguided: it was based on his astonishing athleticism, first and foremost, but also his mid-race antics.
After a bullet start, Tebogo left his rivals trailing, his long, fluid stride gobbling up the blue track as he powered away at a pace no U20 athlete – not even Bolt himself – has ever run. With 30 metres to go, it was already celebration time, and Tebogo raised his right hand and began wagging a finger at his nearest rival, Jamaica’s Bouwahjgie Nkrumie, looking across at him – smiling – all the way to the finish.
Given all of that, surely he wouldn’t trouble the world U20 record of 9.94 he’d set at the recent World Championships in Oregon? Well, he could and he did, clocking 9.91 to come home clear of Nkrumie (10.02) and South Africa’s Benjamin Richardson (10.12), with Thailand’s Puripol Boonson denied a medal by just one thousandth of a second – clocking 10.12 in fourth.
The first question to Tebogo after: why the celebration?
“The statement was to come out and enjoy the race,” he said. “If somebody took it as disrespect, I’m really sorry. I saw the fans and (it was so) everybody watching at home can enjoy the race – to remind them a little bit about what Usain Bolt did back in the days. He’s my idol – the person I look up to.”
Tebogo has never met the Jamaican but the world record-holder is certainly now aware of the young Botswanan, having tweeted about his race shortly after.
“It’d be a very great pleasure for me to meet him,” said Tebogo, who is the latest among many world-class sprinters to emerge from Botswana in recent years. He said their rise is “because of the discipline, the dedication” among their athletes.
He had gone into the race knowing he was operating at a different level to his rivals.
“I saw they were scared of me, but I was also scared of them,” he said. “When the gun went off I had to make sure I made the best start of my life and it was the best start of my life. I didn’t plan (the celebration) but as soon as my first step I knew the title was mine. I didn’t worry about the time. I didn’t look.”
Asked what he could have run if he went all out, Tebogo said: “9.80”, which begged the question: why didn’t he run all out?
“We have more races to come, we didn’t want to go that far,” said Tebogo, who will enrol at the University of Oregon in the months ahead. “But this is my year as a junior, we have to leave (the record) here for the next generation to come and break it.”
Back-to-back wins for Konate, Vilagos and De Klerk
Elsewhere, another world U20 champion successfully defended his title in the men’s long jump, where Erwan Konate of France took gold with a world U20 lead of 8.08m, which came in the fifth round. Cuba’s Alejandro A. Parada took silver with 7.91m, while Brazil’s Gabriel Luiz Boza took bronze with his sixth-round effort of 7.90m. USA’s Curtis Williams set a PB of 7.86m to take fourth while, in fifth, Reece Ademola broke his Irish U20 record with 7.83m.
In the women’s javelin, Serbia’s Adriana Vilagos produced the most dominant performance of the week so far, unleashing a championship record of 63.52m to take gold. Silver went to the host nation, with Valentina Barrios delighting the Colombian crowd with her national U20 record of 57.84m. Bronze went to Uruguay’s Manuela Rotundo, who showed her clutch mentality by moving into the medals in the final round with 55.11m.
“To set a championship record and personal best are equally meaningful,” said Vilagos, who also won the world U20 title in Nairobi last year. “I really wanted to get close to my PB and I threw it two times, so I’m very happy.”
South Africa’s Mine de Klerk retained her world U20 title in the women’s shot put, her third-round effort of 17.17m handing her victory ahead of Turkey’s Pinar Akyol (16.84m), who won her second consecutive silver, and Poland’s Zuzana Maslana, who took bronze with a PB of 16.06m.
“I didn't have the best qualifying so I was a little bit nervous but once I threw the first shot all the nerves just rolled off my shoulders and I enjoyed it,” said De Klerk, who is doubling this week with the discus. “It wasn't the best opener, but I was still happy with it and I just wanted to improve on every throw, and that's what I did.”
The men’s shot put final saw a riveting three-way showdown between USA’s Tarik O’Hagan, Jamaica’s Kobe Lawrence and Germany’s Tizian Noah Lauria, with O’Hagan taking gold with a PB of 20.73m.
O’Hagan seized command in round one with 20.30m, but Lawrence took over the lead in the second round with 20.36m before Lauria shot to the front in round four with 20.40m. But O’Hagan struck right back, throwing 20.73m to place one hand on the gold. Lawrence improved to 20.58m in the fifth round to take silver, with Lauria consolidating bronze in the final round with an improvement to 20.55m.
“It's one of the best feelings I've ever had,” said O’Hagan. “I've been waiting for this for the past four years. But the job's not done. I still have the hammer on Thursday so we'll see if I come out with two medals. That will be an even better feeling.”
Emmanuel triumphs over 10 events
Meanwhile, the Netherlands looks to have another combined events star on its hands after a near-flawless two-day performance from Gabriel Emmanuel, who smashed the Dutch U20 record to take gold with 7860 points, adding 455 to his PB.
Emmanuel shot into an 84-point lead over event favourite Jacob Thelander of Sweden on day one after setting PBs in the 100m (10.68), 400m (49.46) and long jump (7.30m) and he continued his dominance on day two, clocking a PB of 13.83 in the hurdles, throwing 47.46m in the discus and clearing 3.70m in the pole vault before throwing 54.89m in the javelin. That left him with 118 points to spare over Thelander heading into the 1500m and, given his PB was just 11 seconds slower than Thelander’s, it seemed unlikely the Swede would overturn the deficit.
And so it proved. Emmanuel faded badly over the final 200m as the thin air of Cali left him breathless, but his 4:57.72 was less than five seconds down on Thelander’s 4:52.92, giving him a 90-point overall winning margin. Thelander took silver with 7770 with fellow Swede Elliot Duvert taking bronze with a PB of 7622.
There was a thrilling finale to the mixed 4x400m as USA and India fought it out for gold on the final leg, with USA breaking its own championship record, clocking 3:17.69 to India’s 3:17.76, an Asian U20 record. Jamaica took bronze with 3:19.98.
USA’s first three athletes – Charlie Bartholomew, Madison Whyte and Will Sumner – ensured that anchor runner Kennedy Wade had a comfortable lead as she set off around the bend, but a blazing first 200m from India’s anchor Rupal saw her run on Wade’s shoulder around the final turn. Rupal tried to surge past in the home straight but Wade found something extra to hold on.
The women’s 800m semifinals proved as hard-fought as always, with only the top two from each race automatically advancing. Switzerland’s Audrey Werro led from the front to win the first semifinal in 2:01.25 ahead of Slovenia’s Veronika Sadek. The second semifinal saw Britain’s Abigail Ives edge USA’s Juliette Whittaker by two thousandths of a second in 2:01.92, with Kenya’s Nelly Chepchirchir also advancing in third with 2:02.03. In the third semifinal USA’s Roisin Willis made no mistake, leading all the way and kicking off the front to win in 2:02.49.
In the men’s 110m hurdles semifinals, gold medal favourite Matthew Sophia of the Netherlands had to endure some nervous moments after hitting multiple barriers, one of which caused a severe stumble, but he maintained his balance and composure brilliantly to come through and win in 13.43 (0.3m/s) ahead of Jamaica’s Demario Prince, who set a PB of 13.58. Antoine Andrews of Bahamas was the quickest overall qualifier, winning his semifinal in 13.39 (0.3m/s), while Australia’s Tayleb Willis was also victorious in 13.62.
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics