10 World Championsip Gold Medalists with the Most to Prove in 2012
Samantha Stosur, Kevin Harvick and the Buffalo Bills provided three more examples this weekend of one of sports' enduring truths: Just because you won, it doesn't mean you're the best.
Nowhere is this more accurate than in track and field.
In this sport—where the difference between a gold medal and a fifth-place finish can be a literal blink of an eye—there is always room for argument over who is really the best. Zero-tolerance rules regarding false starts and fouls increase the likelihood for a fluke circumstance in which a world leader is absent from a championship event. And because the Olympics are only held once every four years, and the World Championships every two years, there is no official annual stage on which the world's best track athletes are crowned.
This means that the person who crosses the finish line first, or clears the highest height or reaches the longest distance isn't always the one we call the best.
A week removed from the 2011 Track & Field World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, a number of athletes who won gold medals there still have a ways to go before being considered truly the best at what they do.
Here are 10 gold medalists from Daegu with a lot to prove in 2012:
Kirani James (400 Meters)
Following a star-making effort in Daegu, the 19-year-old world champion now has to answer whether he can hold up during a professional schedule.
College track athletes are notoriously worked harder than pros in terms of practices during the pre-summer schedule. But now that James has left the University of Alabama for the big leagues, he'll be dealing with a different kind of animal in terms of traveling to different countries, plus the freedom to manage his life and his money on his own.
On the track, James will be running with a giant bulls-eye on his back.
He looked phenomenal in his first Diamond League meet after the WC, though, beating LaShawn Merritt (USA) and Jermaine Gonzales (Jamaica) convincingly in a season-best 44.36 seconds in Zurich, Switzerland. That gave James three of the five fastest 400-meter times in the world this year and clinched the DL season title.
James owned the 400 meters this year, but next year he'll face a new list of professional demands, as well as a field of runners who have now made him the prey instead of the predator.
Vivian Cheruiyot (5000 Meters, 10000 Meters)
With two World Championship gold medals (5000m, 10000m), a Diamond League title (5000m) and the fastest time in the world in the 5000 meters, Cheruiyot put together a body of work worthy of an IAAF World Athlete of the Year award for 2011.
And yet there's still a sense that she didn't earn it against the toughest competition.
That competition would be Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia. She was ranked No. 1 in the 5000 last year, as well as in '08, '06 and '03; and ranked No. 1 in the 10000 last year, as well as in '08, '07 and '05. Dibaba pulled off the 5000/10000 double gold at the '08 Olympics and at the '05 World Championships. But she missed most of 2011 with injuries, leaving the door open for Cheruiyot's career year.
When Dibaba returns to the track, she will represent the dragon Cheruiyot has to slay.
Jason Richardson (110-Meter Hurdles)
Represents: United States
Whether it's due to doping, a race-day disqualification or some other form of technicality, no elite track athlete feels completely at peace with "winning" a gold medal when they didn't cross the finish line first.
Richardson's 110-meter hurdle gold at the World Championships came courtesy of first-place finisher Dayron Robles (Cuba) being DQ'd for obstruction.
Granted, Richardson had already bested Robles head-to-head in an earlier heat in Daegu, and he'd been running as well as any hurdler in the world in the weeks leading up to the WC final. But look at it this way: the hand-to-hand contact with Liu Xiang (China) that ultimately cost Robles his gold medal had to have thrown him off his game, too, yet he still beat Richardson and everybody else to the line.
The fact that Robles came back and beat Richardson cleanly at last week's Diamond League meet served as another reminder that Richardson's world championship doesn't exactly make him the champion of the world.
Brittney Reese (Long Jump)
Represents: United States
Reese is the LeBron James of the long jump. She has the obvious talent, she has the stats, and she has the accolades that come with being the class of her sport. The only difference is she has multiple championships.
But similar to LeBron, Reese also has so much potential to be better. As a result, her technique and commitment to improvement constantly fall under scrutiny.
Reese sailed 6.82 meters (22 feet, 4.5 inches) to capture her second World Championship gold medal, her third major title to go with golds from the '09 WC and the 2010 World Indoor Championships. So far she's been winning on talent with flawed technique, but she could reach all-time great status once she steps her game up.
Yohan Blake (100 Meters)
Blake's unofficial "Fastest Man in the World" title has been weighed down by two asterisks. One, he hasn't yet performed on the Olympic stage (Kim Collins and Tyson Gay are the only WC gold medalists in the men's 100 meters who haven't accomplished the same feat at the Olympics). And two, Usain Bolt wasn't on the track when Blake won at the World Championships.
As far as initial responses go, Blake couldn't have done much better than the personal-best 9.82 time he posted last week in Zurich while beating Asafa Powell (Jamaica) and Walter Dix (USA).
Blake could successfully avoid crossing paths publicly with Bolt (the two train together) for most of next season, but eventually—likely in London—Blake will have to prove his worth against the "real" Fastest Man in the World in a one-on-one matchup.
Mariya Savinova (800 Meters)
All of a sudden, Savinova has become as the most dangerous comeback artist in middle-distance running.
In the 800-meter final at the World Championships, she ran down Caster Semenya (South Africa) in the home straightaway to take a surprise gold medal. Then last week in Zurich, Savinova came back from about 30 meters behind in the last lap to overtake Alysia Montano (USA) for a Diamond League win.
But is Savinova simply enjoying a hot streak right now, or is she a legit championship-level contender for the long term? Like most of the Russian athletes who won gold medals in Daegu, Savinova disappeared from the summer circuit about a month before the WC to focus on training at home. The respite from international travel surely helped her peak for the most important part of the 2011 season.
Next year, Savinova will be challenged by Semenya, reigning Diamond League champion Jenny Meadows (Great Britain) and defending Olympic champion Pamela Jelimo (Kenya), who missed the WC due to injuries. Can she respond like a champion?
Christian Taylor (Triple Jump)
Represents: United States
Taylor could be the next big thing in triple jumping, or he could just be occupying the throne until Teddy Tamgho (France) is healthy again.
Although he went into Daegu as the NCAA and USA outdoor champion, Taylor wasn't considered a medal favorite. He certified that status by barely qualifying for the WC finals. But then the Florida product popped off a 17.96-meter jump (58 feet, 11 inches) in the finals, giving him the gold medal and the fifth-longest jump in history.
Next year, Taylor will experience that old adage about how it's tougher to defend a championship than to win it the first time. He will be tested by Tamgho, the world leading 22-year-old whose broken ankle kept him out of the WC; Phillips Idowu (Great Britain), the Olympic and WC medalist who will be aiming to make a good showing in front of his home crowd at the London Olympics; and college teammate Will Claye (USA), the bronze medalist from Daegu.
Anna Chicherova (High Jump)
Before this year, Chicherova had a habit of settling in below Blanka Vlasic (Croatia) on the leaderboard in the women's high jump.
Chicherova had silver medals versus Vlasic's golds from the '07 and '09 World Championships, and bronze to Vlasic's silver at the '08 Olympics. She snapped the streak this year, however, beating the superstar Vlasic in Daegu for her first big-time gold medal.
But could Chicherova have done it if Vlasic were fully healthy? A few days before the WC, Vlasic announced that she was pulling out due to a thigh injury. She changed her mind less than a day later, but the bell couldn't be un-rung. The story line of the high jump was that the two-time champion was playing hurt. And even though Vlasic didn't show any signs of injury at the actual event, in the eyes of many, that asterisk still hovers over Chicherova's breakthrough moment.
Ibrahim Jeilan (10000 Meters)
Jeilan's gold-medal win at the World Championships seemed to be reported more as Mo Farah's gold-medal loss. Even pre-meet favorite Farah (Great Britain) told Universal Sports after the race, "I didn't know Ibrahim very much. When I saw Ibrahim coming to follow me, I was surprised."
Jeilan won gold in the 10000 meters at the '06 World Junior Championships and silver at the '08 African Championships. But he has been pretty quiet on the scene otherwise. So is the new champion just a one-sprint wonder or a star with some staying power?
The book on Jeilan is that if he sticks near the lead pack going into the final lap, he's a threat to win thanks to his fast finishing kick. He performs best as an underdog, which is exactly what he'll be in 2012 despite his world championship credentials.
Sanya Richards-Ross (400 Meters)
Represents: United States
Richards-Ross went into the World Championships with more momentum than any female 400-meter runner outside of Amantle Montsho (Botswana). But while Montsho capitalized on her peaking performance to win an individual gold medal, Richards-Ross failed to defend her '09 WC gold and finished seventh. She later salvaged her trip to Daegu, however, by running first leg on Team USA's gold medal-winning 4x400 relay.
So where does Richards-Ross stand going into next year?
Currently she's ranked No. 4 in the world in the 400, but she only won one significant final—a Diamond League meet in London during August—all year. And while Richards-Ross is only 26 years old, she also has a lot of mileage on her legs from running such a grueling event at such a high level for so many years. Then again, you could chalk up her 2011 letdowns to the possibility that she was still a bit rusty after spending most of 2010 away from the track.
Richards-Ross has filled her trophy case with relay gold medals: four from the World Championships, one from the '08 Olympics. What she wants is more individual jewelry. Next year she'll have a chance to claim a career-defining piece of gold in London, but faces a strong 400-meter field as well as her own history of big-stage disappointments.