Femke Bol and Karsten Warholm (© AFP / Getty Images)
As this extraordinary year draws to a close, we look back at the key moments of 2020 in each area of the sport. The series continues today with a review of the hurdles disciplines.
Women's 100m hurdles
It is hard to find a simple explanation but the hurdle events turned out to be probably the most affected by the pandemic and its consequences. In 2019, 65 athletes dipped under 13 seconds. This year that number plummeted to just 17, a decrease of 70%.
That reduction was most conspicuous at the top end as last year's entire top-10 went missing in 2020. So it was just logical that the 2020 world-leading time of 12.68 would have sufficed for just 16th place on the 2019 world list.
Most of the top names in 2019 had indeed competed indoors this year but when it became clear that the Tokyo Olympics wouldn’t transpire they chose to give the whole outdoor season a pass.
One major reason for the large drop was that the US, the dominant hurdling nation, left a large void in the lists. In 2019 the US had 29 sub-13 hurdlers; in 2020 just two. In the end Payton Chadwick was the top US hurdler, finishing as sixth on the world list with her winning 12.78 from the closing Diamond League meeting in Doha.
That left the event to the Europeans who ended up occupying the top-five positions on the world list. The top position went to Nadine Visser of the Netherlands who was the only athlete to dip under 12.70 - which she did twice - and who demonstrated consistency by winning eight out of her nine meets.
The biggest improvements came from Hungary’s Luca Kozak who lowered her PB by 0.15 to a new 12.71 national record and Cyrena Samba-Mayela of France, who chipped 0.27 from her career best to 12.73, before her 20th birthday.
Men’s 110m hurdles
Indoors things looked rather promising with Grant Holloway clocking a 7.38 world lead over the 60m hurdles in his only final of the indoor season. This was just 0.03 shy of his 7.35 US indoor record set in 2019. Behind Holloway things looked about the same as in 2019, but of course in the hurdles things always get more serious in the outdoor season but because of the Covid-19 outbreak, that didn’t happen this season.
Holloway only started his season in late July and his two international appearances, the Herculis meet in Monaco and the Gyulai Memorial in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, where he clocked 13.19 and 13.22, were far from his best. The year concluded with 2019 world silver medallist Orlando Ortega sitting atop the season's list with his 13.11 from Monaco. The Spaniard competed only four times outdoors, winning each time, but the world-leading performance was the slowest in 33 years when Greg Foster clocked 13.17 in Lausanne to lead the world in 1987. The American won three consecutive world titles in 1983, 1987 and 1991.
Briton Andy Pozzi was close behind in Monaco in 13.14, equalling his personal best from 2017 and also won major races in Turku and Rome. The 26-year-old American Aaron Mallett lowered his personal best in a major way in 2020, beginning the year with a 13.37 lifetime best from 2017. He clocked 13.15 to win in Doha in September.
Women's 400m hurdles
The pattern here is similar to that for the 100m hurdles, with a major drop-off in the top standards compared to 2019. The number of sub-55 performers fell from 17 last year down to just four in 2020.
Like in the other hurdles event the absence of US hurdlers was striking. Last year Dalilah Muhammad, Sydney McLaughlin, Ashley Spencer and Shamier Little took the top-four positions on the world list – this year none of them raced in the event. The leading US performance this year appears to be 58.83, well outside the world's top-100 for 2020.
So, as in the 100m hurdles, Europeans dominated the event, occupying seven of the top eight positions on the world list. And just like in the 100m hurdles the list leader came from the Netherlands where Femke Bol, having just turned 20 and in only her second year in the event, emerged as a strong future challenger to the US athletes.
Despite her age and limited experience, Bol ran her races like a seasoned veteran, always sticking to her own even paced plan. She never panicked despite losing ground early in some races, confident in her ability to come through strongly in the second half.
In July 2019, Bol took the European U20 title in 56.25 and then in October ran 55.32 in the heats at the World Championships in Doha. This year she ran six races, winning them all. She clocked sub-55 in each of her appearances and sub-54 twice.
Men’s 400m hurdles
The men’s 400m hurdles was one of the most impacted events of the season. Most of the stars were absent from the track, but that didn’t mean that fast times were lacking. Karsten Warholm, the winner of the last two world titles, opened in June with a 33.78 world best in the 300m hurdles in Oslo, despite running alone. Then the 24-year-old put together a show that fans will remember for a long time. The Norwegian started with a 47.10 performance in Monaco and then set a European record of 46.87 in Stockholm, just 0.09 seconds shy of Kevin Young’s 46.78 world record which has stood for 28 years.
Warholm easily won each of his six races in 2020, with the thinnest winning margin a whopping 1.52 seconds. He now holds four of the world's 10 fastest performances all-time - only Rai Benjamin of the US, with two, has more than one. In just three seasons Warholm has collected 17 sub-48 performances, already eighth all-time. Considering that 2020 was so short, he will likely soon pass all others with the exception of Edwin Moses, who broke that barrier a massive 45 times.
Mirko Jalava (men’s disciplines) and A Lennart Julin (women’s disciplines) for World Athletics