News31 Dec 2020

2020 review: sprints


Elaine Thompson-Herah and Noah Lyles (© Getty Images)

As this extraordinary year finally draws to a close, we conclude our look back at the key moments of 2020 with a review of the action in the sprint events.

Men's 100m

It was one weird season in the men’s 100m. Most of the top athletes did not race at all while many registered performances far from their best. The world leader was US sprinter Michael Norman who clocked 9.86 in Fort Worth, Texas, in July in his only race of the season. This is the slowest world leading performance since 2003 when Australian Patrick Johnson’s 9.93 led the world.

In 2020 only four athletes broke 10 seconds. That’s the lowest number since 1995, when we had only three. There were 19 in 2019 while 2015 saw the highest number of sub-10 sprinters with 27.

Notably in that Fort Worth race, Rai Benjamin, a 46.98 400m hurdler, placed second with a career best of 10.03. The other athletes to go sub-10 included Trayvon Bromell with 9.90 and South African Akani Simbine with 9.91. This pair were also the only sprinters to have run under 10 seconds twice in 2020.

Simbine, 27, ran a steady season winning all of his five finals including international races in Marseille, Rovereto, Bellinzona and finally a 9.96 win in Rome at the Golden Gala in September. The fourth athlete under 10 seconds was Canadian Andre De Grasse, the 200m Doha 2019 silver medallist, who ran 9.97 in July.

Women's 100m

While Jamaica has lost its grip on the men’s 100m they are still very much in charge among the women. Thanks mainly to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce but also to Veronica Campbell-Brown and Elaine Thompson-Herah, Jamaican women have captured eight of the last 10 global gold medals.

If the 2020 Olympics had been staged as planned they most likely would have made it 9 out of 11 as Fraser-Pryce and Thompson-Herah combined produced the six fastest times of the year.

With winning margins of 0.30 or better in their races, they were never challenged in 2020. Unfortunately they never went head-to-head - if they had it would have been very interesting to see what kind of times would have resulted.

While Fraser-Pryce stayed at home, Thompson-Herah went to Rome and Doha in September where on both occasions she blew away all opposition. 

After almost three years hampered by injuries, Thompson-Herah looked to have regained that ”turbo gear” over the final third of her race, the gear which in 2016 and early 2017 had made it look like times in the 10.6 range were in the cards.

In the US most of the top names took the year off except Sha’Carri Richardson, who last year with 10.75 ran the fastest ever U20 time. She showed consistent sub-11 form despite being as far ahead of the opposition as the Jamaicans had been in their races.

The top European Dinah Asher-Smith did not compete and instead, the main performer on the European scene was 24-year-old Ajla Del Ponte. Previously an 11.30/11.40ish sprinter best known as an important link in the Swiss 4x100m relay team, Del Ponte was a completely different athlete this year, collecting victories in Monaco, Bydgoszcz, Stockholm and Bellinzona and compiled no less than six meets at 11.08-11.20.

Men's 200m

Although the season was not an astonishing one in this event either, Noah Lyles did manage to impress. The 2019 world champion raced three times beginning with a 19.94 win in Clermont, Florida, in July and then clocking a 19.76 world lead in Monaco in August. He continued on to one more meet, winning at the Gyulai Memorial in August in 20.13.

Kenny Bednarek ran four impressive races, all home in the United States. The 22-year-old won in 20.06 in Montverde, Florida, in July, before clocking 20.30 for the win in Fort Worth in July and 20.19 for second behind Lyles in Clermont, also in July. In August he set a personal best of 19.80 in Montverde, clipping 0.02 from his previous best set in 2019 at altitude.

Reigning world 400m champion Steven Gardiner was the third athlete under 20 seconds in 2020, as the 25-year-old Bahamian clocked 19.96 to win the B-heat in Clermont in July. 

Just three sprinters under 20 seconds is the lowest since 2005, when we also had three. The best year was 2018 when 14 athletes dipped under the barrier.

Women's 200m

This was an event with very little action this year, with the top names running just the odd race in a low-key meeting with no real opposition. A survey of the 2019 World Championships finalists provides an illustration:

Champion Dinah Asher-Smith and two others didn’t run the distance at all, three ran just one race, one ran two races and one ran three races. None of the eight broke 23 seconds in 2020 – in 2019 all ran 22.58 or faster.

The top times of the year came in a couple of sprint meets in Florida where Shaunae Miller-Uibo ran 21.98 in Clermont in July and Sha’Carri Richardson 22.00 in Montverde in August.

Men's 400m

This event was easily the most impacted by restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic. There just weren’t any fast races - not in the United States, not in Europe or anywhere else. The fastest time of the year was 44.91 by Justin Robinson of the US in Marietta, Georgia, in August. Michael Cherry, a 4x400m relay world champion in 2019, was second in that race in 44.98.

The third fastest in 2020 was Karsten Warholm with 45.05, which he clocked for the win in Stockholm in August. This was actually an impressive performance, coming just 94 minutes after the Norwegian broke the European 400m hurdles record with a sensational 46.87 run, to complete the best ever single-day 400m/400m hurdles double.

For just two runners to break 45 seconds in a season is shocking even with the circumstances the sport faced this year. The last time that happened was 41 years ago, when just one athlete dipped under 45 seconds in 1979. Coincidentally, that too was a 400m hurdles specialist, Harald Schmid. The West German, 21 and 22 years old at the time, clocked a 44.92 personal best to win the national title in Stuttgart in August. If Warholm wants to match Schmid’s range in the 400m/800m/400m hurdles, he still has work to do. Schmid clocked a 1:44.83 800m lifetime best in 1987 and also ran 20.68 in the 200m that same year. Warholm has yet to debut in the 800m while his best 200m mark is 21.09 from 2016.

Women's 400m

While most top contenders took the season off – or almost-off – there was a ”new generation” that emerged as future top contenders.

In Europe Lieke Klaver and Femke Bol heralded an exciting future in the event for the Netherlands. The 22-year-old Klaver came into 2020 with a 53.18 PB which she lowered by over two seconds to 50.98 after a season where she dipped under 52 four more times. The 20-year-old Bol went from 52.98 last year to 51.13 this year even though she mainly competed in the 400m hurdles.

But the big revelation this year was 17-year-old Beatrice Masilingi of Namibia who introduced herself to the world on 3 October by storming to a decisive win in 50.99 at the inaugural Continental tour meeting in Nairobi.

Masilingi has already moved on from that breakthrough into world class. In mid-December she reportedly improved to 50.44 and 50.42 at competitions in Pretoria.

With those performances Masilingi moved all the way up to the 2020 world lead passing both Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Lynna Irby. Miller-Uibo clocked 50.52 in Florida in early July while Irby clocked 50.50 to win in Monaco in mid-August, almost a full second ahead of 2019 World Championships fourth place finisher Wadeline Jonathas.

Mirko Jalava (men’s disciplines) and A Lennart Julin (women’s disciplines) for World Athletics