The astonishing comebacks at the Athletics World Championships

By Helen Owton


It seems to be the year of the comeback at the Athletics World Championships in Beijing. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, widely tipped to lose out to US runner Justin Gatlin, ran a time of 9:77 in the 100m final to beat his rivals and retain his title as world champion. It has been described as the most important win of an already stellar career.

Bolt had been recovering from an injury and had struggled with his form. It appears to have had a sacroiliac joint block, which was restricting his movement and causing him pain in his leg.

This type of injury can be a common problem for athletes, but it is under-researched so treatment and recovery is complex. The fact that Bolt had to overcome this poorly understood condition will make his victory all the sweeter.

British long-distance runner Mo Farah also fought back in the early days of the competition to win the 10,000m in style, notwithstanding one small stumble.

Farah has been engulfed in controversy in recent months after his trainer, Alberto Salazar, was the subject of doping allegations levelled in a BBC Panorama documentary. There is no suggestion that Farah himself was involved in, or had any knowledge of doping, but the intense media scrutiny to which he was subjected would not have made preparation for Beijing easy.


Jessica Ennis-Hill achieved a comeback of a different kind in Beijing. Ennis-Hill returned to athletics this year after having a child. While in my research I acknowledge that sport is a psychologically empowering force for mothers, it can also lead to conflict between the competing roles of athlete and parenthood. And since the London 2012 Olympics, Ennis-Hill has changed both physically and psychologically. It was fascinating to see her new body and self perform. She is an inspiration, having won a gold medal in the heptathlon.

With Bolt, Farah and Ennis-Hill retaining their titles, will any others follow in their footsteps to make their comeback this week?

Caster Semenya

For me, one of the most unforgettable memories in recent athletics history was the women’s 800m at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009. The women gathered themselves for the final. BANG. They sprint out of the blocks and take the bend. Caster Semenya sits behind the front runner, then at 52 seconds into the race, she overtakes to lead from the front. She speeds ahead, breaks away, glances back but the others have no response. She completely dominates the last half of the race and finishes with a time of 1:55:46.

Since this phenomenal performance, instead of being hailed a star, Semenya has been at the centre of huge controversy over her gender and which prevented her from competing until the following year. This has undoubtedly had an impact on her motivation and her personal best time.

Despite the adversity she experienced, Semenya was back at her best, or near it, at the IAAF World Championships in 2011 when she won silver in the 800m. Here’s hoping she can pull through for another astonishing victory this year.

Christine Ohuruogu

Christine Ohuruogu is making a return to defend her 400m world title in Beijing. Over the years, like many athletes, she has experienced injuries – and she was also suspended for a year after missing three doping tests in a row in 2006.

Often talented athletes are pushed into the limelight without being prepared for media attention and being subjected to public scrutiny. Nonetheless, Ohuruogu has a habit of being unpredictable and can pull out fast times when they’re least expected.

Dina Asher-Smith

Dina Asher-Smith, also part of the Great Britain squad, is one of many of the young athletes to watch in the 200m. She broke Britain’s national 100m record earlier this year.

Smoke gets in their eyes

There are some elements of unpredictability ahead for athletics. In 2008, Beijing went to additional lengths to cut down on the city’s infamous air pollution for the sake of competing athletes, but for the IAAF World Championships 2015, this hasn’t happened.

British athletes have been given “pollution packs” but for athletes with asthma, this high level of pollution can alter the airways’ responsiveness and can cause long-term damage.

In 2008, human rights activists highlighted the fact that child athletes’ civil rights, legal rights and above all, their human rights are ignored in China. Amid the individual performances, there are certainly some more opportunities for new and evolving stories to be developed at this World Championships.

UPDATE: the original version of this piece misstated the name of Justin Gatlin, and claimed Semenya broke the World Record in 2009. She did not.

The Conversation

Helen Owton, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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