Pole vault winner Renaud Lavillenie in Ostrava (© AFP / Getty Images)
David Rudisha once again used the IAAF World Challenge opener in Melbourne to launch an awesomely successful 800 metres campaign, his winning time of 1:44.33 on 3 March presaging a series of superb runs which culminated in his Olympic gold medal-winning World record of 1:40.91.
Usain Bolt, too, dropped into the series to dramatic effect, producing one of four world-leading times at his home World Challenge meeting in Kingston on 6 May with a 100m in 9.82, but then, at the Ostrava meeting on 26 May, he experienced the ‘failure’ of victory in his slowest 100m time in five years, 10.04.
Ostrava also offered French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie, who had already won at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships, the opportunity to offer an ominous glimpse of things to come – that is, golden things at the European Athletics Championships and Olympics – as he managed a world-leading effort of 5.90m.
The great Haile Gebrselassie was obliged to relinquish his London 2012 Olympic Games ambitions after his relative failure at the Hengelo meeting, the scene of so many of his past triumphs – a turn of events he accepted with customary class.
At the other end of the age range, the World Challenge aided and abetted the rise of two outstanding young 800m runners in Ethiopia’s 18-year-old Mohammed Aman, who produced a victory in 1:43.51 in Daegu, and Burundi’s 19-year-old Francine Niyonsaba, seventh in the Olympics, who followed up her startling win at the climactic Samsung Diamond League final in Brussels in a personal best of 1:56.59 with victory in the Rieti meeting in 1:57.65.
Melbourne, Australia, 3 March
David Rudisha opened his season with an imperious victory in the 800m, clocking 1:44.33 in what was his third Melbourne meeting win in a row. While his previous times may have been faster - 1:43.15 in 2010 and 1:43.88 in 2011, it was the manner of this win which spoke most eloquently.
“I wanted to run and feel how the pressure felt,” said Rudisha. “It was good. I’ll go back to Kenya now and train. I know what I have to work on.”
The rain appeared to relent for the Kenyan, and also for home athlete Sally Pearson, the World 100m Hurdles champion, who won faultlessly in 12.49 for her fourth-fastest time ever, and better than her personal best at the start of 2011. Pearson then won the 200, equalling her personal best of 23.02.
Home runner Craig Mottram had time to wave his fist in triumph and yell in elation as he completed the final 200m of a 5000m victory in 13:18.58, which confirmed his selection for the Olympic Games.
Kingston, Jamaica, 6 May
World champions Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Carmelita Jeter lived up to their billings as they produced world-leading times at the JN Jamaica International Invitational in front of a nearly packed national stadium.
Bolt suffered the distraction of two false starts before opening his Olympic preparation with a time of 9.82 in what was his first 100 metres on Jamaican soil since 2008.
"It is a good start I would say," Bolt said. "The end of my race is the best part so I was trying to work on the first part of my race, the first 40 metres, but as I run and get fitter it will all come together."
Blake, the World 100m champion, had his best ever 200m season-opener in 19.91. Nickel Ashmeade, Blake’s high school teammate, had won last year but this time was second in 20.09 with Warren Weir third in 20.21.
US sprinter Jeter braved the lionesses’ den to win her third straight women’s 100m in 10.81 despite strong home opposition. There was a fourth world-leading performance in the women’s 400m where home town girl Novlene Williams-Mills caught the Jamaican-born American star Sanya Richards-Ross 30 metres from the line to win in 49.99, her best ever start, while Ross ran an early season best of 50.11.
Kawasaki, Japan, 6 May
Despite heavy rain at the Seiko Golden Grand Prix, the three invited superstars - Liu Xiang, Allyson Felix and Amantle Montsho - dominated their events as expected. China’s former World and Olympic champion won the 110m Hurdles in 13.09, and Montsho, the reigning World 400m champion, finished more than a second clear over one lap of the track in clocking 50.52 in what was her second race of the season.
Felix, running her first individual race of the season, won the 100m in 11.22. "I know where I am now and what I need to improve, so I am excited to start working on things," she said.
Ponce, Puerto Rico, 13 May
Javier Culson delivered again in front of his home crowd with a 2012 world-leading 48.00 in the 400m Hurdles.
A packed crowd of 11,500 stood to watch local hero Culson, who responded with the second fastest time of his career. "This race is very special for me and it gives me a lot of motivation in my preparation for the Olympics,” Culson said. “This is my hometown and I am really happy to run a fast race for my people. I will continue to work hard to hear my national anthem sung in London."
American hurdler Ryan Wilson upset the expected rivalry between the Olympic champion and World record holder Dayron Robles and World champion Jason Richardson with a fine win in the 110m Hurdles.
Wilson finished with the same time as Richardson, 13.43, but won by dint of a thousandth of a second.
Britain’s 2012 World indoor silver medallist Tiffany Porter dominated the women’s 100m Hurdles in 12.79.
Long Jump and sprint World medallist Tianna Madison was the most versatile and successful athlete of the night, taking the women’s 100m and 200m in personal bests of 11.01 and 22.37, as well as third place in the Long Jump with 6.48m.
Daegu, South Korea, 16 May
Ethiopia’s 18-year-old World Indoor champion Mohammed Aman came very close to his national record in the venue for the previous year’s IAAF World Championships as he won in a season’s best of 1:43.51, with another extraordinary young talent, Kenya’s 17-year-old 2011 World Junior champion Leonard Kosencha, second in 1:44.74.
Kirani James commanded the 400m race from the start. In the same stadium where he was crowned World champion last year, the Grenadian was in a clear lead after 300 metres and finished strongly to win in a season’s best of 44.72.
In the 110m Hurdles, Aries Merritt – destined, like James, to end his year in blazing glory – won in 13.21. Justin Gatlin, the 30-year-old 2004 Olympic champion, took the 100m in a quick 9.93. In the women’s 1500m, Kenya’s Eunice Sum won in 4:05.99, a world-leading time and personal best.
Kellie Wells appeared to lead from the start in the 100m Hurdles, and celebrated the win after the race, but did not notice Dawn Harper had stolen the victory with a strong finish in a 12.65 season’s best, against Wells’ 12.66.
Rio, Brazil, 21 May
Yarisley Silva, Cuba’s 24-year-old pole vaulter, indicated her growing ambitions as she jumped 4.60m to beat the local favourite and 2011 World champion Fabiana Murer for second time in a week. "These competitions have been very positive for me. I was able to reach my goals. I still need to be more fluent at 4.70m," said Silva.
Silva’s compatriot Aexis Copello, a World bronze medallist in 2009, won the Triple Jump with 17.17m
Ronald Julião took inspiration from performing in the Estadio Joao Havelange, venue for the 2016 Olympic Games, as he produced the best performance by a Brazilian athlete in the 28º Grande Prêmio Brasil/Caixa de Atletismo when winning the Discus competition with a national record of 65.41m.
Maurren Maggi, the 35-year-old 2008 Olympic Long Jump champion, continued her winning streak after recording 6.85m in Sao Paulo by with a 6.69m effort.
Ostrava, Czech Republic, 26 May
Usain Bolt recorded his slowest career time in a 100m final since he added the distance to his international repertoire in 2007. The multiple Olympic champion won in 10.04, 0.22 slower than he had run in Kingston earlier in the month, after trailing the 2003 World champion Kim Collins for 60 metres.
"I did not feel very comfortable,” said Bolt. “I wasn’t nervous, but it obviously wasn't the right day today. I cannot explain what happened, I have to talk to my coach and look on the tape. I can just say, I wasn't as explosive as I should be and as I normally feel."
Home Javelin throwers Barbora Spotakova and Vitezslav Vesely took full advantage of the supportive atmosphere.
Spotakova, the Olympic champion and World record holder, produced the furthest throw seen in 2012, 67.78m, which also broke the meeting record of 67.72 set by Germany’s Christine Obergfoll four years earlier. "It is a wonderful feeling," said Spotakova. "I was hoping to win here, but to achieve also the world lead and meeting record is fantastic. I fulfilled all my goals. I hope some metres more are left for other meetings."
A little more than two hours later, the evening's Czech domination of the event continued when Vesely produced a season’s best of 85.67m to defeat a field which included Norway’s double Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen, who managed 84.72m.
In the Pole Vault, it was advantageous to take jumps as late as possible after the wind settled down. This proved to be a winning strategy for Renaud Lavillenie, who did equal amounts of passing and jumping in the early going. His second-attempt success at 5.78m, followed by a first-leap clearance at 5.83m brought him victory, but he wasn’t finished.
The Frenchman then asked for a world-leading 5.90m and succeeded on his third attempt, after which he had three unsuccessful tries at 6.00m. "It was great start to the season, the first competition and I have already done a world lead," said Lavillenie. "It was a little bit difficult to jump because of wind. I believed I could jump six metres because I felt very good on 5.90."
Britain’s Tiffany Porter won the 100m Hurdles in a Golden Spike meeting record of 12.65.
Sanya Richards-Ross of the United States held off Olympic 400m champion Christine Ohuruogu to win in 50.65, with the Briton recording 51.19.
Kenya’s Olympic 800m champion Pamela Jelimo won here in 1:58.49, but South Africa’s Caster Semenya’s charge from the back over the final 80 metres took her through almost the entire field before finishing second in 2:00.80.
Canadian Dylan Armstrong won the Shot Put with a 21.29m beating Poland’s defending Olympic champion Tomasz Majewski, who reached 21.01m.
Hengelo, The Netherlands, 27 May
Such has been the athletic record of Haile Gebrselassie at the Fanny Blankers-Koen Games in recent years that the little Ethiopian has earned the nickname ‘Mr Hengelo’. But on this occasion the Hengelo experience was unrewarding for the 39-year-old multiple Olympic and World champion, whose hopes of qualifying for a fourth Games in London in what doubled as the Ethiopian 10,000m trial ended in failure.
“It’s OK. I am not disappointed,” said Gebrelassie, with his habitual dazzling smile after finishing seventh in 27:20.39 on an evening of high temperatures. With one of the three London 2012 places already effectively booked by the defending champion, Kenenisa Bekele, the field was bidding for the two remaining places which went to the winner Tariku Bekele – Kenenisa’s younger brother – who clocked 27:11.70, and Lelisa Desisa who was 0.28 slower.
Poland's Adam Kszczot won the 800m in 1:43.83 in a race where six athletes broke 1:45.00, and Kenya’s Nixon Chepseba excelled in the 1500m, which he won in 3:29.90. Great Britain’s former World Triple Jump champion Philips Idowu won with 17.31m, a stadium record.
Rabat, Morocco , 28 May
A crowd of 30,000 spectators created a festive atmosphere in the Prince Moulay Abdellah stadium, where the highlight of the evening was the 5000m victory earned by Kenya’s Vincent Chepkok in 12:59.28, the fastest time of the season at that point and also a meeting record. "This meeting marks the beginning of my season, I am happy with my performance," said the 23-year-old who has a 12:51.45career best from 2010.
Ukraine’s Olga Saladuha produced another outstanding performance on the night as she won the Triple Jump with a leap of 14.75m, second farthest of the season behind Colombia’s Katrine Ibriguen (14.95m), who on this occasion was second with 14.48m.
Ethiopia’s 18-year-old phenomenon Mohammed Aman beat the stadium 800m record by more than a second as he won in 1:43.58 but he was pushed all the way by another precocious talent, Kenya’s 17-year-old Leonard Kosencha, who finished just 0.02 behind.
Morocco’s Abdelaati Iguider, the World indoor 1500m champion, won his specialty with a time of 3:34.39 but had to work hard for it over the final 15 metres. There was strong competition from Algeria’s Taoukif Makhloufi who finished second in 3:34.76 while another Moroccan, Bensghir Yassin, a former World junior champion, finished third in 3:34.76.
Moscow, Russia, 12 June
Mariya Savinova’s impressive 800m victory was the highlight of the Moscow Challenge which served as a test event for the 2013 IAAF World Championships, which will be held from 10-18 August.
The 2011 World champion Savinova offered a clear indication of her fitness in the Luzhniki Olympic Stadium, which was due to undergo extension renovation and a track replacement after the meeting, as she won in 1:57.95. Her compatriot Elena Arzhakova was second in 1:58.28 while another Russian, Irina Maracheva, was third in 1:58.71.
With Anna Chicherova watching attentively from the tribune, her compatriot Svetlana Shkolina took the High Jump victory with a 1.98m leap before bowing out at 2.01m. In the Pole Vault, Polish veteran Przemyslaw Czerwinski beat Germany’s Bjorn Otto on countback at 5.60m.
Madrid, Spain, 8 July
Cayman Islands’ Kemar Hyman of the Cayman Islands capped the Meeting de Madrid 2012 with an outstanding performance in the 100m as he shattered his personal best of 10.04 by recording a national record of 9.95 in his heat, before winning the final in the same time.
Performing in Madrid for the second consecutive year, Belgium’s 2010 European 400m champion and World bronze medallist Kevin Borlée earned a fine win in the 400m, although Britain’s Martyn Rooney pushed him to the line, as they clocked 45.09 and 45.17 respectively.
The 24-year-old Borlée commented: "After my 44.56 national record at the Belgian champs (on 16 June) I’m doing hard training again. I’m having some back problems and my physiotherapist is working on it but it won’t be a barrier thinking of the Olympics, I hope.”
Berlin, Germany, 2 September
Six Olympic champions in individual events were competing at the ISTAF meeting in the Berlin Olympic Stadium, and the most popular victory by a London gold medallist came from Berlin’s own Robert Harting, who extended his unbeaten run in the Discus to 33 competitions in front of an appreciative home crowd of 55,565 spectators.
Harting, who describes the Olympic Stadium as "my living room", drew huge applause as he opened with a 61.12m and then produced the biggest throw of the day with 67.40m to collect his 33rd straight victory. Berlin’s favourite son continued with efforts of 64.81m, 66.92m, 66.54m and 65.93m.
Nevertheless, the most impressive victory was produced by the Olympic 110m Hurdles champion Aries Merritt, who clocked 12.97 to eclipse a meeting record held jointly by USA’s Roger Kingdom, who ran 13.02 in 1989, and Great Britain’s Colin Jackson, who equalled that time five years later.
Merritt revealed after his race that he had done a training session with Harting. "He taught me the discus and I taught him the 110m Hurdles!" joked the American.
Berlin was once again the one-day meeting that attracted the largest number of spectators this year. Dry and partly sunny weather provided excellent conditions for Germany’s major athletics meeting.
The other Olympic hurdling champion, Felix Sanchez, also won his event, clocking 48.89 in the 400m Hurdles. "It was very hard,” said the 35-year-old who had added a second Olympic gold eight years after his win at the 2004 Athens Games. “I feel tired after a long season. I need to rest and I now want to relax on the beach."
Three days after beating Olympic champion and World record holder David Rudisha in Zurich, Ethiopia’s 18-year-old World indoor 800m champion Mohammed Aman took another victory in 1:43.62.
Olympic Shot Put bronze medallist Reese Hoffa beat the 2012 Olympic champion Tomasz Majewski with an effort of 21.37m. "I have been strong all year except at the Olympic Games. I need to do a better job at the major competitions," reflected Hoffa.
South Africa’s Sunette Viljoen, disappointed to be fourth in London 2012 with 64.53m, beat all three Olympic Javelin medallists with an effort of 67.52m.
The women’s Discus took place a day earlier in Elstal at the old 1936 Olympic Village. Cuba’s Yarelys Barrios won the event with 66.59m, her second best result ever.
Zagreb, Croatia, 4 September
Hometown girl Sandra Perkovic, whose London triumph in the Discus Throw was the first athletics Olympic gold for Croatia, offered the ideal homecoming performance five days after capturing the Samsung Diamond League's Diamond Race Trophy, breaking the meeting record she had set two years’ earlier with a throw of 65.79m.
The 22-year-old dominated at the Hanzekovic Memorial meeting, opening with 65.40m, hitting the winner in round two, and again throwing beyond 65 metres in round five, the obvious appreciation of a near-capacity crowd at the Sportspark Mladost. "I wanted to throw 70 metres, but that’s OK,” said Perkovic. “I have to leave something for next season."
Olympic 200m champion Allyson Felix also earned a meeting record with 22.35 in her first 200m since the London final.
Another Olympic champion living up to expectations was the surprise London 1500m winner Taoufik Makhloufi. The Algerian broke from the tightly knit pack with 350 metres to go before getting the victory in 3:32.58.
Tomasz Majewski left the Croatian capital as the only individual Olympic champion in the field to face defeat and again it came at the hands of Reese Hoffa, who underscored his 2012 role as the world’s finest shot putter in one-day meetings with a best of 21.80m. It was Hoffa's fifth straight victory since London, and his 11th in 13 competitions since mid-April. The men's Discus Throw was won by Britain’s Lawrence Okoye with an effort of 67.25m.
Rieti, Italy, 9 September
Valerie Adams, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Svetlana Shkolina made the headlines at the 42nd edition of the Rieti meeting.
New Zealand’s double Olympic champion and Samsung Diamond League winner Adams capped her impressive season with a meeting record of 20.77m in the women’s Shot Put, producing three more throws of more than 20m.
Nineteen-year-old Niyonsaba, seventh at the Olympic Games, registered her second big win in the women’s 800m, clocking a 1:57.65 just two days after her shock win at the Brussels Samsung Diamond League meeting where she set a new personal best of 1:56.59, the third fastest time ever for a junior.
As in the Belgian capital, Niyonsaba took the scalp of Olympic and World champion Mariya Savinova, who finished a distant second in 1:59.16.
High jumper Shkolina cleared at her first attempt all the way up to 2.01m, which proved too much for her Russian compatriot and Olympic champion Anna Chicherova. This year’s surprise Olympic 1500m champion Taoufik Makloufi missed his 800m best by 0.03 as he won in 1:43.74.
Kenya’s Silas Kiplagat, the 2011 World Championships silver medallist and 2012 Diamond Race winner, continued his great post-Olympic season by scoring his third consecutive win in another sub-3:32 time, 3:31.86, following his Samsung Diamond League wins in Lausanne and Brussels.
Australia’s Collis Birmingham produced a major surprise by taking the victory in the men’s 3000m in 7:37.77.
Rieti inaugurated the brand-new blue track which will play host to the European Athletics Junior Championships next July.
NB – Serious flooding in Senegal caused the cancellation of the final IAAF World Challenge meeting, which had been scheduled to be in Dakar on 12 September.
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF