Male Athlete of the Year -- Usain Bolt
As this year comes to a close and an eye is cast back on the great performers of 2008, no star shone brighter than Jamaica's Usain Bolt. Some pundits will try to convince you (and themselves) that there are others deserving of this honor, but this race is as one-sided as many of Bolt's races.
His performances on the track speak for themselves: He won three gold medals at the Olympics in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay, setting world records in all three. His incredible 9.69-second world-record in the 100m was his second in the event in a four-month span. On the year, Bolt had seven 100m races where he ran 9.85 seconds or faster and five 200m races where he clocked 19.85 or faster, dispelling any notion that he was a one-meet wonder.
More so than those remarkable runs, Bolt deserves this award for breathing life into a sport whose pulse had weakened.
Heading into the Beijing Games, the sport had fallen to a distant third on the popularity scale. Gymnastics had darlings like Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson to enrapture the public, and swimming had Michael Phelps, the biggest star of the Olympics. Meanwhile, track and field limped to China with no marketable superstar and still rife with doping scandals.
Phelps' record eight gold-medal haul at the Water Cube during the first week of the Games cast a long shadow over the Bird's Nest across the Olympic Green. But Bolt ran out from underneath that shadow with his spectacular 100m. For days, people wondered how fast he could have run had he not begun celebrating 25 meters from the finish, and whether Michael Johnson's great 200m record was in jeopardy.
Indeed it was.
Four days after breaking the 100m record, Bolt answered all questions when he ran through the finish and clocked in at 19.30, eclipsing Johnson's 12-year-old mark of 19.32. Two days later, Bolt ran an incredible 8.9-second third leg of the 4x100m relay to power Jamaica to a gold medal and world record in 37.10 seconds. And just like that, "Lightning Bolt" had stolen some of Phelps' thunder.
Those three races made Bolt a global icon and went a long way toward healing track and field's wounded image. Perhaps more importantly, they captured the public's imagination. Watching the 6-foot-5 Bolt break a barrier once thought to be impossible makes one wonder: How fast can man actually run?
At the very least, it makes you wonder if Lightning will strike twice in 2009.
Newcomer of the Year -- Abubaker Kaki
Four years ago, Abubaker Kaki was a soccer goalie. Now, he is one of the world's premier young middle-distance runners.
Kaki, who was first noticed at a high school race in 2004 where he finished 24th, began training shortly thereafter with coach Jama Aden and the Sudanese national program in Khartoum, the capital of war torn Sudan. He showed flashes of brilliance in 2007, winning the 800m in a Sudanese national record 1:43.90 at the All-African Games, but 2008 was his breakout year.
At just 18 years and 262 days old and competing in just his first season on the European track circuit, Kaki became the youngest indoor world champion in history in March when he won the men's 800m in 1 minute, 44.81 seconds. The time was just one tenth of a second off Joseph Mutua's African indoor record.
On June 6, Kaki won the Bislett Games Golden League meeting in Oslo by running 1:42.69, a new World Junior Record. The previous record (1:43.64) was set by Japheth Kimutai of Kenya in 1997. A month later, Kaki won the 800m at the World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland with a time of 1:45.60. Kaki made his Olympic debut in August, finishing eighth in his heat in 1:49.19.
Comeback performer of the Year -- Angelo Taylor
Perhaps no athlete has a greater appreciation of what it takes to become an Olympic champion than American Angelo Taylor.
As a 21-year-old fresh out of Georgia Tech in 2000, Taylor earned his first berth onto the Olympic team and came back from Sydney with a gold medal in the men's 400m hurdles. Four years later, Taylor made his second Olympic team but went to Athens injured and was eliminated in the 400m hurdle semifinals.
Determined to make another run at Olympic glory but struggling to make ends meet, Taylor found himself working eight-hour shifts as an electrician last year, heading to the track to train after work. In July, Taylor qualified for his third Olympics along with Kerron Clement and Bershawn Jackson. At the U.S. Trials the threesome predicted an American sweep in Beijing. But no one figured it would be Taylor leading the event's first medal sweep since 1960.
The 29-year-old Taylor won his second 400m hurdles gold in a personal-best 47.25 seconds, the seventh-fastest time in history. For good measure, he picked up a second gold medal as a member of the winning U.S. 4x400m relay team.
Best performance -- Kenenisa Bekele
Usain Bolt wasn't the only double winner in Beijing. Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele was the preeminent distance runner of the 2008 Olympics, winning gold in both the 5,000m and 10,000m races.
First up was the 10,000m on the third night of the Games. The first half of the race was run in a respectable 13 minutes, 48.5 seconds. A large pack separated itself from the field and the pace quickened thereafter. The lead was traded among brothers Kidane and Zersanay Tadese of Eritrea, marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, and Micah Kogo of Kenya. With about 425 meters to go, Bekele made his move to the front and seemed to increase his lead with every long stride.
While the other runners gave chase, none were able to match Bekele's 53.4-second final quarter and the Ethiopian cruised to a two-second victory in 27:01.17, an Olympic record. With the gold medal, Bekele joined Paavo Nurmi (1920, '28) of Finland, Emil Zatopek (1948, '52) of Czechoslovakia, Lasse Viren (1972, '76) of Finland and Gebrselassie (1996, 2000) as two-time winners of the Olympic 10,000m.
Even though Bekele had failed in his attempt to win the 5,000m at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and 2003 World Championships in Paris, it became clear after his 10,000m victory in Beijing that there would be no denying a second gold medal. Bekele took control of the 5,000m final about midway through the race and continued to press the pace. On the bell lap, again there was no contest. Bekele closed with a 54.0 final 400m and rolled to another Olympic-record victory in 12:57.82.
Bekele is the sixth man to win both the 5,000m and 10,000m gold medals at the same Olympics, joining Hannes Kohlemainen (1912) of Finland, Nurmi (1924), Zatopek (1952), Viren (1972, '76) and Miruts Yifter (1980) of Ethiopia.
Most inspirational performance -- Bryan Clay
No other athlete at the Olympics needed to win three events and finish second in three others just to win one gold medal. Such is the life of a decathlete and American Bryan Clay, who led from the first event and carried that advantage right through to the 10th on day two, earning his first Olympic gold medal and the title "World's Greatest Athlete."
Clay, a silver medalist in Athens in 2004, opened the Beijing competition in a driving rainstorm but still managed to run 10.44 seconds in the 100m for 989 points. He finished second in the long jump at 7.78m/25-6? , threw a personal-best 16.27m/53-4? in the shot put to take a 145-point lead. Clay had a subpar high jump, clearing just 1.99m/6-6? but managed a 48.92 in the 400m to close the first day ahead by 88 points. He opened the second day of competition with a 13.93 in the 110m hurdles, tacking 56 points onto his lead. Clay followed with the best discus throw in the field at 53.79m/176-5, then cleared 5.00m/16-4? in the pole vault and a throw of 70.97m/232-10 in the javelin to take a 479-point lead into the final event.
With his victory all but assured, Clay, 28, entered the 1,500m needing 625 points to break Roman Sebrle's Olympic record or two fewer to eclipse Dan O'Brien's American standard. But exhaustion got the best of him and Clay ran a conservative 5:06.59 to secure his gold medal and place in history as the 11th athlete and fourth American to win decathlon medals in two Olympics.
Unsung performance -- Dayron Robles
Ordinarily, a setting a world record and winning Olympic gold in the same year would earn an athlete top honors for the year. But in 2008, the accomplishments of Cuba's Dayron Robles remarkably take a back seat.
Robles entered the year on a collision course with China's Liu Xiang, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 110m hurdles. Their anticipated showdown in the 60m hurdles at the World Indoor Championships in Barcelona never materialized as Robles was disqualified for a false start. But as Liu laid low during the outdoor season, Robles was building momentum. On June 12, Robles broke Liu's world record in the event, winning the Golden Spike meet in Ostrava in 12.87 seconds.
At the Beijing Olympics, anticipation of a Robles/Liu showdown in the final was at an all-time high. But Liu was forced to pull out of the Games in the opening heat due to an Achilles tendon injury. Robles went on to comfortably win the gold medal, posting a time of 12.93 seconds in the final.
Most dramatic performance -- Steve Hooker
In a remarkable display of poise under pressure, Steve Hooker of Australia went from an Olympic spectator in 2004 to Olympic record holder in the pole vault. The 26-year-old cleared the final four heights on his last attempt, including 5.96m/16-6? to break Tim Mack's Olympic record by a centimeter.
Hooker found himself in a duel with Yevgeniy Lukyanenko of Russia when the bar moved to 5.80m/19-0?. After Hooker missed his opening attempt at the height, Lukyanenko cleared it with no trouble. Hooker missed a second time, as did the remaining competitors, Derek Miles of the U.S. and Dmitry Starodubtsev of Russia -- Denys Yurchenko of Ukraine cleared 5.70 (18-8?) and still was eligible at greater heights but withdrew with an injury and got bronze.
Hooker made the most of his final try, clearing the bar to raucous applause. Miles and Starodubtsev both missed, transforming the competition to a one-on-one showdown. At 5.85m/19-2?, both Hooker and Lukyanenko missed their first two attempts. Hooker cleared his third, putting pressure on the Russian, who also responded.
That moved the bar up to 5.90m/19-4?, and again both men missed their first two attempts. In round three, Lukyanenko jumped first and missed, opening the door for Hooker. On his last jump, he sailed over the bar, shed the pole and raised his arms in triumph as he fell into the pit. He jumped off delirious with emotion. He quickly found his coach, who jumped the wall, ran onto the track, and leaped into Hooker's arms.
With the competition won, Hooker set his sights on Mack's Olympic record of 5.95m. But in sticking with the only way he knows how to do things -- the hard way -- Hooker didn't clear his historic jump until his final attempt.
Best in the field -- Andreas Thorkildsen
The most dominant performance by a field-event competitor at the Olympics was turned in by Norway's Andreas Thorkildsen, whose superiority was never seriously threatened on his way to earning repeat gold in the javelin throw.
Thorkildsen, 26, took command with his first throw of the final, which registered 84.72m/277-11 and more than two feet further than those of his Finnish competitors Tero Jarvenpaa and Tero Pitkamaki. Thorkildsen improved to 85.91m/281-10 with his second throw and to 87.93m/286-10 on his third.
After no improvement in round four, Thorkildsen put the competition out of reach with a high-arching fifth throw that measured 90.57m/297-1. The mark broke Jan Zelezny's Olympic record of 90.17m/295-10 and was almost four meters better than the best throw of runner-up Ainars Kovals (86.64m/284-3) of Latvia.
Breakout performance -- Samuel Wanjiru
On the surface, a Kenyan finally winning an Olympic gold medal in the marathon isn't incredibly surprising. It was bound to happen sooner or later. But that Samuel Wanjiru, a 21-year-old who took up marathoning only nine months before Beijing, emerged as that champion -- in record fashion no less -- was completely improbable.
Recognition that his kick was inferior to those of his Ethiopian and Moroccan competitors, forced Wanjiru to execute a brilliantly bold race strategy.
Wanjiru went to the front just 100 meters into the race and immediately began pushing the pace. He went through the first 5,000m in 14:52 and by the time he hit the 10K mark in 29:25, he had pared the lead pack down to 10 runners. Wanjiru took his foot off the throttle for 5,000m of recovery time which enabled the chase pack to catch up, but before long he picked up the tempo again and whittled the number of runners around him to five. He hit the halfway mark in 1 hour, 2 minutes, 34 seconds, just five seconds off world-record pace.
Fatigue slowed Wanjiru's pace a bit after that, but by the 30K mark, he had shaken countryman Martin Lel and Ertitrea's Yonas Kifle. Before long, Wanjiru was free of Deriba Merga of Ethiopia and eventual runner-up Jaouad Gharib of Morocco and by the 37K mark was running alone in his pursuit of history. Although he fell short of the world record, Wanjiru's winning time of 2:06:32 destroyed the Olympic record of 2:09:21 set by Carlos Lopes of Portugal in 1984.
Best decision -- Andrey Silnov
At the Russian Olympic Trials, Andrey Silnov placed fourth in the high jump and was left off his country's initial roster. But when the 2006 European Champion quickly followed up his disappointing Trials performance with impressive victories in London (2.38m/7-9?) and Monaco (2.33m/7-7?), Russian team leaders decided to replace a younger, unproven jumper with Silnov.
In Beijing, Silnov rewarded that decision with Olympic gold.
The competition was tight, with six competitors advancing to 2.34m/7-8. Silnov, Stefan Holm of Sweden, the defending Olympic champion, and Great Britain's Germaine Mason each cleared the height on first attempts. At the next height of 2.36m/7-8?, Silnov was the only competitor to clear the bar, doing so on his first attempt. With the competition won, he took three attempts at 2.42m/7-11? -- two of them incredibly close -- but was unable to clear what would have been the No. 2 height of all-time.
Biggest upset -- Tomasz Majewski
Perhaps no Olympic champion entered the Games more unheralded than shot putter Tomasz Majewski of Poland. The 27-year-old had never even thrown 21 meters (68-10?) prior to Beijing while all three American competitors, Reese Hoffa, Adam Nelson and Christian Cantwell, as well as Andrey Mikhnevich of Belarus were all members of the 22-meter (72-2?) fraternity.
But Majewski lived up to his reputation as a big-meet performer.
Majewski had the best throw in the qualifying round, but those who might have thought that to be a fluke began coming around by the third round of the final, when he led the competition with a personal-best throw of 21.21m/69-7. In round four, Majewski PRd again, this time throwing 21.51m/70-7, a mark which held up for gold.
Biggest disappointments -- U.S. 4x100m / field events
For all of its triumphs in Beijing, the United States track team should be remembered as much for its failures.
The 4x100m team dropping the baton in the heats has drawn the most ire from fans because the sprint relay has long been a source of American pride. But more egregious was the performance of the field event squad, which suffered a complete meltdown.
Heading into the 2008 Olympics, the U.S. had never failed to have a finalist in the high jump, long jump, triple jump or discus. In Beijing the United States failed to produce one finalist in any of those events.
Then there was the men's shot put, an event many rightfully believed the U.S. could sweep the medals in. After all, U.S. shot putters had won the last five world championships, indoors and outdoors. Instead, Adam Nelson fouled his first three throws and was bounced from the competition early, and Reese Hoffa, the reigning world champion, placed a dismal seventh. Christian Cantwell was the lone "saving grace," earning a silver medal with his final throw of 21.09m/69-2?.
It was a grim performance all around. Of the 24 spots in event finals open to U.S. competitors, only four were filled, three by the shot putters and one by pole vaulter Derek Miles.
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