The US remains an athletics superpower despite Jamaica's Bolt from the blue

Americans top medals tally with14 gold at World Athletics Championship

By By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Wed 27 Jul 2022, 5:19 PM

The World Athletics Championship has just ended this past weekend in Eugene, Oregon, nearly a year after the delayed Tokyo Olympics. As expected, the United States topped the medals tally – as it did at the Olympics – with 14 golds. But that is where similarities between the two events end.

At the Olympics, the US topped the table by a whisker in the gold medal tally, winning 39 golds to China's 38. Hosts Japan came in third with 27 golds. The Chinese and Japanese gold tally was helped by a wider swathe of sports (33 in all), including events such as shooting, gymnastics, diving, table tennis, badminton etc.

The World Athletic Championship, on the other hand (or leg) is a pure track and field meet. So the medals table looked very different. With only 48 medalling events at stake, it threw up a different kind of table with top-placed US (13 gold, 9 silver, 11 bronze) followed by Ethiopia (4+4+2), Jamaica (2+7+1), and Kenya (2+5+3). China came a distant fifth with 2+1+3 and Japan even further down at ninth with 1+2+1.

India, which turned in its best ever Olympic performance at Tokyo with 7 medals, including its first ever track and field gold in javelin, took only one silver at Eugene, in the same javelin event. Overall, 86 countries medalled in the Olympics; only 40 did so at the world championships, with a record 29 countries winning at least one gold medal.

This suggests that it is hard to get a measure of a nation's sporting prowess without a drastic overhaul of the system. There is little doubt that the US also remains the world's sporting superpower, particularly when it comes to pure athletic ability, but a wider swathe of sports levels out the field a bit. Judo, Karate, and Taekwando accounted for 31 gold medals at Tokyo, so countries with a culture of these sports would stand to benefit you would think. Beach volleyball and trampoline made the cut in Tokyo.

Naturally, critics of this system have asked when sports like cricket and kabaddi – which could give countries such as India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka a leg up – will be included in the Olympics. Will the US, China, and Japan cry foul? If tennis can be an Olympic sport, why not squash or racquetball? Why not Lacrosse? And chess? Where should it end?

Which is why Eugene was such a brilliant spectacle. There is nothing like track and field events to bring out pure athletic ability, and this was proved day after day over ten days, as athletes across the world competed in barebones events that did not require complex rules or tools, guns or boats, gloves or rackets, bats or balls: Simply, who will run faster, or jump or leap or throw higher, longer, farther.

On evidence, the US is still way ahead of other countries, particularly in the sprints. American men won the gold in 100m, 110m hurdles, 200m, and 400m. But other countries are catching up. Jamaica is now a genuine threat in sprints, in part a legacy of Usain Bolt, with Caribbean women dominating the 100m, 200m, and 400m. In some of the longer distances, the field is spread out.

A familiar question at such meets is whether genetics influence athletic ability. While both the scientific and sporting communities acknowledge it is one of the factors, genes alone does not a gold medal mint. There is so much else that goes into it and this is demonstrated repeatedly at world meets.

For instance, East Africans (from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda) are often seen as dominating middle and long-distance running, thanks among other things to genetic markers, a rich legacy and training ecosystem. But at Oregon, Great Britain’s Jake Wightman won the marquee 1500m race, and Norway’s Jakon Ingebritson won the 5000m ahead of a clutch of East Africans after narrowly missing gold in the 1500m, which he had won in Tokyo.

In fact, even within Africa, a vast and diverse continent, the purported East African dominance of middle and long-distance races is often challenged by runners from Maghren countries, particularly Morocco and Algeria. At Oregon, Moroccan Soufiane El Bakka won the 3000m steeplechase ahead of his Kenyan and Ethiopian rivals.

When it comes to the men’s sprints though, the US had a blast from the past, winning almost everything in sight after a decade of Usain Bolt's domination left Jamaica with a significant legacy. In fact, their dominance almost eclipsed the astonishing feat of 400m hurdler Sydney McLaughlin, who blew away all her rivals and her own world record by some distance. It was intense drama over ten days, but Americans were very much centerstage. A still rich college athletic system, the likes of which no country has (world records are set in US college meets) means the American dominance in sprints is set to resume after the Bolt from the blue. - The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

Jamaica is now a genuine threat in sprints, in part a legacy of Usain Bolt, with Caribbean women dominating the 100m, 200m, and 400m. In some of the longer distances, the field is spread out.

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