It is true there were caveats and legitimate excuses but the bald facts should still sting: Great Britain will fly home from Portland later on Monday without a gold medal having endured their worst performance at a world indoor championships in a decade.
Four years ago, before the London 2012 Olympics, the British team left the championships in Istanbul with nine medals, including two golds. This time the 23-strong team had to settle for a solitary silver and two bronze medals. It was only the second time since 1997 that they have not returned from the championships with at least one title. It left them 16th in the medal table, below Bahrain, Venezuela, Burundi and New Zealand.
There were mitigating circumstances. The event was later in the year than usual, and most athletes have only Rio on their minds. Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and Katarina Johnson-Thompson are recovering from niggles, while Mo Farah has opted to run the world half-marathon championships in Cardiff next weekend. Even so it is not the best look for British Athletics in an Olympic year.
The highlight of the weekend from a British perspective was the performance of Robbie Grabarz, who took a silver in the men’s high jump. The 28-year-old has endured a desperately bumpy ride during the past two years after a career-threatening knee problem. But now, indisputably, he is back in the big time after a success he rated as better than winning bronze at the London Olympics. “I’m ecstatic, I’ve lost my voice, I just can’t quite believe it,” Grabarz said.
“It was more exciting than winning bronze at London 2012 because I really feel like I’ve earned this one. I was expecting to do what I did at the Olympics but it’s been a really long four years since then.”
In 2014 Grabarz feared his career was over after surgery on a knee that was completely “knackered”. The operation was supposed to take 45 minutes. It lasted over three hours. He had two bursas and some cartilage removed, while his tendons were also scraped and his bone shaved. When he returned he wasn’t able to jump 1.80m “for a million pounds”. Those days were, by his own admission, among the most depressing of his life.
But this weekend was one of the happiest. As the competition progressed, Grabarz went steadily up the heights and breezily through the gears from 2.20 to 2.25 to 2.29m. At this point there were still eight men left in the competition, including Britain’s Chris Baker, who eventually finished eighth after three fouls at 2.29m. But Grabarz was confident he had more in the tank. He approached the bar like someone trying to convince himself to walk over scorching hot coals. There were big slaps of his hands. Then his head began to nod deeper and deeper. He started muttering to himself. And then his mind and body took him to a different place.
When he gracefully arced over the bar he was briefly in the lead but, even though the Italian Gianmarco Tamberi surpassed him with a jump of 2.36m, Grabarz was not too disappointed. “I’ve performed better than I did indoors in 2012 and my mental shape is probably stronger now, so I’m in a good place before the Rio Olympics,” he said.
There was disappointment, though, for Dina Asher-Smith in the women’s 60m as she was forced to withdraw from the final with a tight hamstring. The talented 20-year-old felt she was in shape to beat her PB of 7.07sec, which would have put her in the medal mix, but she made the decision not to run after her semi-final.
While Asher-Smith received treatment, the American Barbara Pierre made the most of an explosive start to win gold in 7.02, ahead of Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands (7.04) and Elaine Thompson of Jamaica (7.08), with Britain’s Asha Philip fifth in 7.14. Elsewhere Steph Twell was a brave sixth in the women’s 3,000m, the same position as Dan Bramble, who leapt 8.14m in the long jump.
One of the biggest cheers of the weekend was for the American athlete, Boris Berian, who led from the gun to win the men’s 800m. Just over a year ago he was working in McDonald’s and sleeping on his friend’s couch. Now he has gone from Golden Arches to a gold medal.
There was further success for the US on the final day as the 18-year-old high jumper Vashti Cunningham, daughter of the NFL great Randall, advertised her talent by winning gold, while Mo Farah’s training partner Matt Centrowitz took the 1500m. But for British athletes the championships were mostly best forgotten.
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