Series06 Jul 2023

Greatest World Championships moments – 30 to 21


Greatest World Championships moments - 30 to 21

To mark the 40th anniversary of the World Athletics Championships, fans from all around the world were asked to vote for the greatest moments from the past four decades of championship action.

Thousands of fans took part, and the votes have been counted. Following the first instalment on 30 June, here we continue the countdown of the 40 greatest World Championships moments – as decided by followers of the sport.

Twenty different countries from all six continental areas are represented in the top 40. Moments from all 18 past editions of the World Championships feature in the countdown.

The next instalment of the countdown will be published on 13 July, with the final top 10 being announced on 19 July.

But now, without further ado, the countdown continues with moments 30 to 21.

30 – Ottey’s late arrival prompts Jamaica to women’s 4x100m gold (1991, Tokyo)

Katrin Krabbe of Germany had already won the 100m and 200m titles at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo before lining up in the women’s 4x100m final as part of a strong quartet.

The Soviet Union, equally potent, had as anchor leg runner their newly established world indoor champion Irina Privalova.

But as they went up against Jamaica in the final, there was a new factor in play. While Krabbe and Privalova had run in the heats, Merlene Ottey – third in the individual 100m behind Krabbe and Gwen Torrence – had been kept for the final.

Merlene Ottey in Tokyo in 1991

Merlene Ottey in Tokyo in 1991 (© Allsport / Getty Images)

In her absence, Merlene Frazer had run the anchor leg as Jamaica finished first ahead of Nigeria and the Soviet Union. She stood to make history as the youngest world champion if the team, with Ottey subbed in, could win, as she turned 17 years and 248 days old on the night of the final.

And lo, it came to pass, as Jamaica – with Ottey in her element – won gold in 41.94 from the Soviet Union in 42.20 and Germany in 42.33.

The other members of the winning quartet were Dahlia Duhaney, Juliet Cuthbert – who had finished sixth in the individual final – and Beverly McDonald.


29 – Trinidad and Tobago beat US to gold in men’s 4x400m (2017, London)

Maybe it had something to do with the track at London’s Olympic Stadium. Five years after earning men’s 4x400m bronze for Trinidad and Tobago at the London 2012 Games, Jarrin Solomon and Lalonde Gordon were back in the same arena for the 2017 World Championships.

And this time, after a remarkable final, they ended up once again on a global podium – now on the top step.

Lalonde Gordon and Fred Kerley fight for the finish in the men's 4x400m final in London

Lalonde Gordon and Fred Kerley fight for the finish in the men's 4x400m final in London (© Getty Images)

Two years earlier in Beijing, Trinidad and Tobago had taken world silver behind the United States, but as the field broke from their lanes in London they were several metres adrift as the defending champions, with Gil Roberts holding the baton, held a three-metre lead over Britain, with Spain third.

Jereem Richards moved up to challenge, but by the second handover Roberts had opened up another three-metre gap as he handed to Michael Cherry, with Richards passing to Machel Cedenio.

The latter trimmed the US lead by the time of the final handover, but Fred Kerley, the US anchor runner, got away with a metre lead from Trinidad and Tobago’s last man, Gordon.

Earlier in the season Kerley, still an amateur, had broken the NCAA 400m record by running 43.70. Gordon’s personal best had been set back in 2012 - 44.52. But the relay is always greater than the sum of its part, hence its enduring fascination.

As the hugely talented but relatively inexperienced Kerley tightened up in the finishing straight, Gordon cruised past him to win by three metres, clocking a national record of 2:58.12.


28 – Freeman’s defence of world 400m title presages Sydney 2000 glory (1999, Seville)

When Cathy Freeman missed the bulk of 1998 through injury, it checked a career that had been delivering in spectacular fashion since, as a 16-year-old, she had become the first indigenous Australian to earn a Commonwealth Games gold medal as part of the 4x100m team at the 1990 Auckland Games.

Four years later in Victoria, the same competition marked her coming of age as a senior championship achiever as she won the 200m and 400m. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics she ran her fastest ever time over one lap, 48.63, in taking silver behind Marie-Jose Perec of France, who won in an Olympic record of 48.25.

Freeman earned her first global title at the 1997 Athens World Championships, but then she was stopped in her tracks.

When she returned in 1999, however, the best was still to come.

Cathy Freeman in action at the 1999 World Championships in Seville

Cathy Freeman in action at the 1999 World Championships in Seville (© Getty Images)

Freeman finished 1999 unbeaten, and made a convincing defence of her world title in Seville, coming home in 49.67 ahead of Germany’s Anja Rucker in 49.74.

A year later Freeman’s career would reach a historic peak as she lit the Olympic cauldron at her home Sydney Games before winning the 400m gold.


27 – Kluft’s long-anticipated global breakthrough in heptathlon (2003, Paris)

There was never any difficulty seeing Swedish heptathlete Carolina Kluft coming at the 2003 World Championships in Paris; it’s just that there was no stopping her once she got there.

World U20 champion in 2000, European U20 champion in 2001, world U20 champion again in 2002 in a world U20 record of 6570 points, then senior European champion in Munich - improving her world U20 mark to 6542.

Earlier in 2003 she won the world indoor title with a championship record, and the European U23 title, also with a championship record. And all the while carrying her small, stuffed mascot - Eeyore. Not for luck, apparently, but to remind herself that sport should be fun.

She exemplified that throughout her career. Surely Tigger would have been more suitable?

Carolina Kluft celebrates her world heptathlon win in Paris

Carolina Kluft celebrates her world heptathlon win in Paris (© AFP / Getty Images)

Paris marked Kluft’s breakthrough at senior global level as she became only the third woman to break the 7000-point barrier as she totalled 7001 to finish ahead of France’s 1999 world champion Eunice Barber, who would leave Paris with gold in the long jump but had to settle for silver in the heptathlon with 6755.

Kluft set six personal bests out of seven events, including a 1.94m high jump and a 200m in 22.98.

During the long jump she was one foul from elimination after overstepping on her first two efforts, but recorded the best jump of the day, 6.68m, on her final attempt.

The mark of a true champion. The following year the Olympic title in Athens would be hers. And for a while she became one of very few athletes to hold all five available international titles - in her case Olympic, world outdoor and indoor, and European outdoor and indoor.


26 – Pearson beats the Daegu hoodoo to set 100m hurdles championship best (2011, Daegu)

Sally Pearson of Australia had won the Commonwealth 100m hurdles title in Delhi the year before the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, so she already knew what it was to win a big event.

By the time she lined up to seek another gold at the 13th World Championships, however, she was under an unexpected pressure that had been established by the successive failures of those who had featured on the front cover of the daily programme - as she did on the day of her final.

And by the eighth day the initial joke about a "hoodoo" had hardened into certainty.

Pearson’s compatriot Steve Hooker, the defending men’s pole vault champion, had exited without completing a successful jump in the opening day’s qualifying, while on day two, calamitously, Jamaica’s world champion and world record-holder Usain Bolt was disqualified from the 100m final for false-starting.

On day three, Cuba's Dayron Robles was stripped of gold for bumping an opponent in the 110m hurdles, and on day four world record-holder Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia failed even to win a medal in the women’s pole vault.

Day five’s featured athlete, Russia’s Olga Kaniskina, had bucked the trend in winning the women’s 20km race walk, but when Pearson became the front-cover photo of choice three days later there had still not been a featured track and field athlete who had managed to live up to their billing.

That changed in exactly 12.28, as the Australian 100m hurdler claimed a first global gold.

Sally Pearson en route to the 2011 world title in Daegu

Sally Pearson en route to the 2011 world title in Daegu (© Getty Images)

It was a championship and area record that had effectively put her in a different race from her rivals, the best of whom, Danielle Carruthers of the United States, took silver in a personal best of 12.47.

Pearson’s immediate reaction was to hare over to the barriers. She needed to grab a copy of the daily programme with her face on the front cover so that she could brandish it at the cameras.

A year later in London she would add the Olympic title; but Daegu was where she had turned the vital page.


25 – Devers does the double, winning a close 100m as well as the 100m hurdles (1993, Stuttgart) 

Gail Devers arrived at the 1993 World Championships as the reigning Olympic women’s 100m champion, but the resurgent form of Jamaica’s Merlene Ottey offered a potent challenge, one which fully manifested itself in a coruscating final where both appeared – and believed – they had won.

The two runners stood bewildered on the track for several minutes as the judges deliberated before giving the title to the US athlete by the narrowest of possible margins – one thousandth of a second, 10.811 to 10.812.

Gail Devers and Merlene Ottey fight for the line in the 100m final at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart

Gail Devers and Merlene Ottey fight for the line in the 100m final at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart (© Allsport / Getty Images)

Ottey earned prolonged and sympathetic applause at the following night’s 100m medal ceremony. She had the consolation of winning the 200m title, recording 21.98 to the 22.00 of the Olympic champion, Gwen Torrence of the United States.

Devers wasn't done either, however, and four days later she stood on top of the podium once again, having won the 100m hurdles title in an area record of 12.46. It made amends for her fall in the Olympic final the year before. Her compatriot Lynda Tolbert got the best start but Devers caught her mid race and held off the challenge of Marina Azyabina to take her second title in Stuttgart.

Three years later in the Atlanta Olympics 100m final, astonishingly Devers and Ottey were again given the same time, 10.94. And again the US sprinter got the nod – this time by 0.005.


24 – Muhammad driven to second 400m hurdles world record by rising force of McLaughlin (2019, Doha) 

Dalilah Muhammad had already beaten the 16-year-old world record for the women’s 400m hurdles – 52.34 by Russia’s Yuliya Pechonkina – at the US trials for the Doha 2019 World Championships, lowering the mark to 52.20.

And that was despite having fallen and concussed herself in training 10 days earlier.

When it came to the final in Doha, however, in the vast, air-conditioned space of the Khalifa International Stadium, Muhammad was under such pressure from her 20-year-old compatriot Sydney McLaughlin that she pretty much had to set another world record if she wanted to win.

She did. And she did.

Dalilah Muhammad en route to the world record in the 400m hurdles at the IAAF World Championships Doha 2019

Dalilah Muhammad en route to the world record in the 400m hurdles at the World Championships Doha 2019 (© Getty Images)

Pushed to the line in a remorseless contest, Muhammad dipped for a winning time of 52.16, chipping 0.04 off her record. McLaughlin, meanwhile, earned silver in 52.23 – just three hundredths of a second off Muhammad’s original record of 52.20 – after a performance that hinted at riches to come in future years.

Muhammad left with a second gold after running in the women’s 4x400m where she handed over the baton to McLaughlin – running the third leg – and the team came home in 3:18.92.

Later in Monaco the double gold medallist was voted World Athletics Female Athlete of the Year.

"It’s been a tough year, but it has just come home excellently,” said Muhammad.

"I never ever imagined coming home to this.”


23 – Ice-cold Bubka keeps his nerve to win unprecedented sixth world pole vault title (1997, Athens)

At the age of 33, Sergey Bubka knew that remaining on top of the pole vaulting world was beginning to be a stretch.

But he arrived in Athens for the 1997 World Championships set on an unprecedented sixth consecutive title – and he left with it.

Sergey Bubka in action at the 1997 World Championships

Sergey Bubka in action at the 1997 World Championships (© Allsport / Getty Images)

While the Olympics, as fate sometimes decrees, was not to be the main arena of success for the Ukrainian, albeit that he won the 1988 title, the World Championships pole vault story had been all about him, right from the first edition in 1983.

Having won his first three world titles for the Soviet Union, the break-up of that entity had allowed Bubka to compete in the blue and yellow of his native country for the 1993 and 1995 championships. The colours may have changed but the competitor hadn’t. And on the evening of 10 August, he demonstrated once again the nerve and talent that had proven irresistible to all opponents in every preceding edition.

Like a poker player, Bubka awaited his moment. In at 5.70m, he cleared at the second attempt, as did his main rival Maksim Tarasov of Russia. But while the latter returned at 5.86m, clearing first time, Bubka delayed his own return to the next height of 5.91m, which he cleared again at the second attempt, moving into the lead on countback as Tarasov took three attempts to achieve it.

At this point Dean Starkey of the United States was the only other interested party, third on countback, although that was where he stayed as he cleared no other height. The crux of the competition was at hand. And Bubka was ready for it.

Tarasov cleared first time at 5.96m, and celebrated mightily. But Bubka passed - to 6.01m.

Here was the moment. Had he gambled rashly?

As he prepared for his first attempt, Bubka’s eyes, piercingly blue in his tanned face, stared down the runway. This mattered. He cleared. Tarasov, who had one failure at 6.01m, passed to the next height of 6.06m. He missed it once. And on his final chance, he missed it again.

Bubka had his sixth world gold, although you would hardly have known it to look at him as he merely allowed himself a grin as he paced towards the pit.

It remains a record of the greatest success in a single event in the history of the World Championships.

The only comparable showing was that of LaShawn Merritt of the United States who won six successive 4x400m golds between 2005 and 2015 - but his first awarded after he ran only in the heats.


22 – Joyner-Kersee arrives with stupendous heptathlon/long jump double (1987, Rome)

Jackie Joyner-Kersee arrived at the second World Championships in Rome as world record-holder in the heptathlon having totalled 7161 points the year before in Houston.

She departed with the first of what would be four global titles at this most exacting and exhausting of disciplines.

The 25-year-old from East St Louis dominated the competition from the first moments, winning three of the four events on the first day.

After opening with a 100m hurdles of 12.91 she then produced the best high jump of the day, 1.90m, and rounded it off with a 200m in 22.95.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee in action at the 1987 World Championships

Jackie Joyner-Kersee in action at the 1987 World Championships (© Allsport / Getty Images)

In the shot put she finished second, on 16.00m, behind the 16.30m thrown by compatriot Jane Frederick.

She opened day two with a massive victory in her specialist single discipline, the long jump, reaching 7.14m – almost half a metre clear of her nearest opponent.

While the eventual silver medallist, Larisa Nikitina of the Soviet Union, made up a little ground by winning the javelin with 55.24m – Joyner-Kersee finishing third with 45.68m – victory was already assured for the US athlete. She closed with an 800m in 2:16.29 to finish with a championship record of 7128 points, 164 clear of her Russian rival.

Three days later Joyner-Kersee produced another stupendous performance in the long jump, where four competitors reached seven-metre territory.

An effort of 7.01m was not enough for Helga Radtke to even get on to the podium as her East German compatriot Heike Drechsler had a best of 7.13m and the Soviet Union’s Yelena Belevskaya took silver on 7.14m.

Joyner-Kersee, meanwhile, was in a different world as she set a championship record of 7.36m to claim a second gold.

Joyner-Kersee was voted as Greatest Female Athlete of All Time by Sports Illustrated for Women magazine. 


21 – Gebrselassie holds off Tergat again for fourth 10,000m title (1999, Seville)

By the time of the 1999 World Championships, Haile Gebrselassie’s track achievements were already enough to have reached the big screen as he starred as himself that year in the movie Endurance, which chronicled his 10,000m win at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The Ethiopian reached Seville seeking a fourth consecutive world 10,000m title. After an acrimonious victory as a 20-year-old over Kenya’s Moses Tanui in 1993, and a win over Khalid Skah two years later, his third victory in 1997 had come against his most famous perennial opponent, Kenyan Paul Tergat, by just over a second.

This time round the battle between the two men was just as intense, with the additional pressing presence of Gebrselassie’s compatriot Assefa Mezgebu.

Once again Gebrselassie’s killing speed over the final 200m proved insuperable as he claimed victory in 27:57.27, with Tergat second in 27:58.56 and Mezgebu third in 27:59.15.

Haile Gebrselassie wins in Seville

Haile Gebrselassie wins in Seville (© Getty Images)

When it came to the 10,000m, endurance was the word for the Ethiopian legend.

A year later, at the Sydney 2000 Games, Gebrselassie became the third man to defend the Olympic 10,000m title successfully, following Emil Zatopek and Lasse Viren, in what will be cherished as one of the great Olympic races of all time. Inevitably it involved Tergat, with the two men sprinting side-by-side, utterly committed to victory, before Gebrselassie managed to edge ahead.

The margin of victory – 0.09 – was smaller than that in the men’s 100m final.