Series27 Jul 2023

Shocks and surprises from past World Championships


Marius Corbett, Dani Stevens, Christine Arron, Yuriy Krymarenko, Kim Collins (© AFP / Getty Images)

It’s not just the global superstars and big favourites who win medals at the World Athletics Championships.

In the past 40 years of championship action, there have been many surprise performers who have been just as shocked as anyone to find themselves on the podium.

Here are just some of the many examples.


Marianne Dickerson – women's marathon (1983, Helsinki)

Before lining up for the marathon at the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki, USA’s Marianne Dickerson had only ever contested two races at that distance.

She’d finished no higher than third in either of her two previous marathons, both of which were held in the US. In fact, all of her races up until this point in her career were held in the US. But Dickerson was not overawed by competing outside of her home nation for the first time or being at a World Championships. Instead, she excelled.

From the early stages, Dickerson was part of the lead group. Although Norwegian legend Grete Waitz eventually made a break from the rest of the field, Dickerson fared best of the rest and came through to take silver in a lifetime best of 2:31:09.

It remained her only ever appearance at a global championships. But what a way to make the most of an opportunity.


Great Britain & Northern Ireland – men's 4x400m (1991, Tokyo)

The night before the final it was all decided. The team order for Britain would be Derek Redmond, Kriss Akabusi, John Regis and Roger Black.

On the morning of the race it was all changed. Akabusi and Black, old buddies, had the idea of switching things up to unsettle the United States, Olympic and defending champions. The new plan was to put Black – individual silver medallist by a whisker behind Antonio Pettigrew – on the first leg to give the USA a shock and establish a lead.

The US quartet, who had spoken beforehand about setting a world record, was satisfactorily unsettled with the last-minute reveal.

Derek Redmond, John Regis, Roger Black and Kriss Akabusi of GB after winning 1991 world 4x400m gold in Tokyo

Derek Redmond, John Regis, Roger Black and Kriss Akabusi of GB after winning 1991 world 4x400m gold in Tokyo (© Getty Images)

Black duly delivered a first-leg lead to Redmond, and although the latter was passed by Quincy Watts, who would win the Olympic title a year later, he did enough to keep 200m specialist Regis on Danny Everett’s case all the way to the final exchange.

The individual gold medallist embarked on the final leg with Britain’s 400m hurdles specialist Akabusi in close pursuit. Akabusi waited until the final bend before launching an offensive which carried the day as he crossed the line to win by 0.04 in a European record of 2:57.53. It was, as Black later recalled, “pure joy”.


Sally Barsosio – women's 10,000m (1993, Stuttgart)

There were many surprising things about Sally Barsosio’s performance in the 10,000m at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart.

Her running style was one of them. Her age – just 15 years old at the time – was another.

In the final (this was in the days when there were rounds of the 10,000m; the athletes had contested the heats just two days prior), the young Kenyan’s inexperience was apparent. But so too was her talent. Barsosio was one of the few runners able to keep up with Chinese duo Wang Junxia and Zhong Huandi.

But Barsosio’s unorthodox running style and erratic movements broke the flow of her opponents; so much so, Elana Meyer walked off the track as she had been caught too many times by Barsosio’s spikes.

Sally Barsosio winning the 10,000m at the 1997 IAAF World Championships

Sally Barsosio winning the 10,000m at the 1997 IAAF World Championships (© Getty Images)

Barsosio was shown a yellow card during the race, but went on to claim bronze in 31:15.38. She was disqualified shortly after the race, but was reinstated on appeal.

Four years later, still a teenager, Barsosio won the world 10,000m title in Athens.


Marius Corbett – men's javelin (1997, Athens)

Marius Corbett, a 21-year-old farmer’s son and former provincial rugby player from South Africa, had won the world U20 title in 1994 but his progression had been slowed by two years of injury.

He started 1997 by setting PBs of 82.76m and 83.90m in domestic competitions, but he didn’t win any competitions outside of South Africa, and he only advanced to the World Championships final after placing 10th overall in qualifying.

Marius Corbett in the javelin at the 1997 World Championships in Athens

Marius Corbett in the javelin at the 1997 World Championships in Athens (© Getty Images)

In the final, Corbett’s opening-round throw of 76.58m didn’t promise much. But an astonishing second-round African record of 88.40m propelled him into first place. That remained the best mark of the final, but he backed it up in round three with an 87.40m effort – a mark that would have also been enough for gold.

It was his country’s first world title since returning to international competition in 1992 following the ban imposed 30 years earlier because of its apartheid policy.


Kim Collins – men's 100m (2003, Paris)

There was much speculation ahead of the men’s 100m in Paris over who would emerge with gold. Could the Olympic champion Maurice Greene of the United States win a fourth title? Or had he been effectively overtaken by compatriot Tim Montgomery? Might they both be usurped by European champion Dwain Chambers?

None of these options came to pass. Greene failed to negotiate the semi-finals. Montgomery; temporarily the world record holder, was fifth.

Kim Collins (far right) wins the 100m at the 2003 IAAF World Championships in Paris

Kim Collins (far right) wins the 100m at the 2003 IAAF World Championships in Paris (© Getty Images)

Chambers finished a downcast fourth, beaten to bronze by his British teammate Darren Campbell. The latter clocked the same time, 10.08, as second-placed Darrel Brown of Trinidad and Tobago became, at 18, the youngest world medallist in the event.

And gold? Gold went, gloriously, to Kim Collins of St Kitts and Nevis, running his own race in lane one and crossing in 10.07.

In 2002 St Kitts and Nevis issued two sets of stamps to mark Collins’ victory at the Commonwealth Games. After he became its first world champion, the country marked 25 August as Kim Collins Day.


France – women's 4x100m (2003, Paris)

The United States were strong favourites to banish the memory of their disqualification at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton and earn their fourth world title in this event.

But the French quartet of Patricia Girard, world indoor 200m champion Muriel Hurtis, Sylviane Felix and Christine Arron, European record holder with 10.73, was hugely talented and hugely inspired by the home crowd in the Stade de France.

Sylviane Felix (r) hands off to anchor Christine Arron in the 4x100m relay at the 2003 World Championships in Paris

Sylviane Felix (r) hands off to anchor Christine Arron in the 4x100m relay at the 2003 World Championships in Paris (© AFP/Getty Images)

The excitement was intense as Arron set off on her final leg three metres behind the woman now credited with the individual 100m gold from Paris, Torri Edwards, and overhauled her to set the stadium in ferment.

The French team finished in a national record of 41.78, with the US team of Angela Williams, Chryste Gaines, Inger Miller and Edwards taking silver in 41.83 with Russia third in 42.66.


Yuriy Krymarenko – men's high jump (2005, Helsinki)

At a championships that produced many surprise medallists, Yuriy Krymarenko’s high jump triumph in 2005 was probably the most unexpected.

Few had even heard of the Ukrainian before the World Championships in Helsinki. Despite setting a PB of 2.33m earlier in the season, he’d also had some mixed results, such as his third place at his country’s national indoor championships, and third at the European U23 Championships.

At the World Championships, he only just made it through the qualifying round in 11th place. So by the time of the final, few expected much from the 22-year-old.

Yuriy Krymarenko of Ukraine wins the men's High Jump

Yuriy Krymarenko of Ukraine wins the men's high jump (© Getty Images)

But with several of the medal favourites not performing as expected in the final, Krymarenko capitalised on the opportunity. He was one of eight men to clear 2.29m that day, but the only one to succeed at 2.32m – which was sufficient for gold.

He continued competing internationally for many more years, but didn’t reach the finals in any of the six global championships he contested after 2005.


Dani Stevens – women's discus (2009, Berlin)

After earning two world bronze medals and one silver, Nicoleta Grasu looked poised to finally strike gold in the women’s discus at the 2009 World Championships.

The Romanian launched a second-round effort of 65.20m, which stood as the best mark for more than half of the competition.

But 21-year-old Australian Dani Stevens – ranked 14th in the world before the championships – had other ideas. She uncorked a lifetime best of 64.76m in round four to move into the silver medal position.

She wasn’t finished, though. In the next round, Stevens extended her PB to 65.44m to snatch the lead from Grasu.

Dani Samuels of Australia looks thrilled to win the women's Discus at the 12th World Championships in Athletics in the Berlin Olympic Stadium

Dani Stevens after winning the discus in Berlin (© Getty Images)

Cuba’s Yarelis Barrios, who had been in second place for several rounds, improved to 65.31m in the final round to bump Grasu down another place into bronze.

But no one could catch rising Australian star Stevens, who had progressed from world U18 champion to U20 winner and to senior champion in the space of four years.


Jehue Gordon – men's 400m hurdles (2013, Moscow)

If ever there’s an example of an athlete timing their season peak to perfection, this is it.

Trinidad and Tobago’s 400m hurdler Jehue Gordon had shown many flashes of brilliance, placing fourth at the World Championships in 2009 at age 17, winning the world U20 title in 2010, and finishing sixth at the 2012 Olympics – all before turning 21.

Jehue Gordon in the mens 400m Hurdles at the AAF World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013

Jehue Gordon in the mens 400m Hurdles at the AAF World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013 (© Getty Images)

His 2013 campaign had started steadily, but between May and mid-July he was beaten in all of his races outside of his home country. He also didn’t break 49 seconds for the discipline until his final race before the World Championships, winning in Monaco with 48.00.

By the time he arrived at the World Championships in Moscow, he was in peak form. He won his heat and semifinal, then won gold in the final by just 0.01, clocking a lifetime best of 47.69.


Feng Bin – women's discus (2022, Oregon)

When an athlete competes just once – however well – before a major championships, their form is still difficult to assess.

But at the 2022 World Championships in Oregon, China’s Feng Bin showed that her early season PB of 66.00m – her only competition of the year before the World Championships – was no fluke.

Feng Bin in the discus at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22

Feng Bin in the discus at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 (© Getty Images)

Her opening-round effort of 69.12m immediately put the pressure on pre-event favourite and Olympic champion Valarie Allman. A 68.45m throw in round two from four-time global champion Sandra Perkovic made things even more difficult for Allman.

China’s Feng, meanwhile, didn’t improve upon her opening effort, but watched on as Perkovic and Allman both tried – unsuccessfully – to supplant the long-time leader.


At a glance – other notable surprise performers

  • Donald Thomas – one year after taking up high jump, the former basketball player struck gold at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka.
  • Bai Xue – at just 20 years of age, and competing at her first and only senior World Championships, China’s Bai Xue upstaged the world’s best distance runners to win the marathon in Berlin.
  • Yohan Blake – his 100m triumph at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu was less of a surprise than the circumstances surrounding it. Sprint legend Usain Bolt – the overwhelming favourite for the title – was disqualified for a false start. Compatriot Yohan Blake ensured the title stayed in Jamaican hands, at least.
  • Pierre-Ambroise Bosse – few would have considered the Frenchman to be a medal contender at the 2017 World Championships; he’d finished no higher than fourth in his races before the championships, and he was a non-automatic qualifier for the final. But he ran the race of his life in the final to strike gold.
  • Jake Wightman – all eyes were on pre-race favourite Jakob Ingebrigtsen; all except Jake Wightman’s, as the Brit managed to get ahead – and stay ahead – of the Norwegian ace to win in a PB of 3:29.23.