Zürich’s Inspiration Games — Another Virtual Foray

Pedro Pablo Pichardo occupied the TJ’s driver seat from his first jump. (INSPIRATION GAMES WELTKLASSE-ZÜRICH/MARCELINO ALMEIDA)

ZÜRICH, SWITZERLAND, July 09—What’s a little rust among friends? Or among athletes deprived of meet sharpness by a pandemic? Track fans with tongues hanging out and desiccated at the roots got competition to cheer for from the Inspiration Games—a concept the Weltklasse organizers developed when it became clear nothing like an actual Diamond League meet was possible right now.

The Swiss called their invention “a meeting filled with optimism, joy and hope, uniting athletes around the globe and celebrating the sport they love” and went virtual with a slate of 8 events delivered from 7 sites spanning 9 time zones and tight 3-athlete fields. Races were synched with newly developed technology for broadcast and streaming and used split screens.

Triple jumper Pedro Pablo Pichardo in Lisbon stood out with the quality of his series, bounding out to 57-1w (17.40) with a 2.3 aiding wind for the win over Americans Christian Taylor and Omar Craddock. The Portuguese winner was never headed after going 56-5¼w (17.20) (2.8) on his first. Powerful second and third phases marked his best in round 2 and he added wind-legal efforts of 56-1¾ (17.11) in frame 4 and 56-4 (17.17) on his last. Craddock, World Ranked No. 5 the past two seasons, got out in front of fellow Florida Gator alum Taylor’s 54-0w (16.46) opener with his 55-11 (17.04) second jump. Wind readings for Craddock (at Mt. SAC’s new stadium in Walnut, California), were all legal while Taylor (in Bradenton, Florida) had aiding breezes at his back throughout.

Looking fast on the runway in his second comp since Doha last fall—though perhaps lacking peak snap on his phases—World and Olympic champion Taylor leapt 55-10¼w (17.02) on his third. After two fouls Taylor’s sixth looked like a threat to Pichardo but measured 56-8w (17.27) (4.2 wind), and the former Cuban claimed the day.

“Despite the adversities caused by this pandemic, I felt strong [in his first meet since February] and I think I achieved a good result here today,” said the winner. “Despite the difficulties with training, I feel this was a really good competition, and I’m pleased with my performance.” He also collected $10,000 in prize money. The $10K/$6K/$4K distribution for all events delivered at least some income for athletes after the plethora of COVID meet cancellations.

Said Taylor, “I want to be positive. It was progressive. Last week it was 16.75 [54-11½ in nearby Montverde] so to come out here and jump 17.27 is moving in the right direction.”

With just 8 events on offer, winning twice was possible for just one athlete and Allyson Felix, sprinting in Walnut, got her double in two non-standard events. Now in her second bounce-back year after the birth of her daughter, Felix, 34, looked to have the slowest first 50 or so versus vaunted rival Shaunae Miller-Uibo in Bradenton and Swiss star Mujinga Kambundji in storied Letzigrund Stadium, but fought well through a -2.6 in the stretch to prevail well clear with a 16.81 clocking from SMU’s 17.15 (-2.5 wind) and Kambundji’s 17.28.

Tianna Bartoletta’s handoff to Felix set up a win for the U.S. 3(!) x 1. (INSPIRATION GAMES WELTKLASSE-ZÜRICH/KIRBY LEE)

It was not easy to assess the quality of a solo time over an uncommon distance in the wind, and Felix, too, was unsure how to react. “It was very strange and it felt like sort of practice—but not even [practice] because there’s really no teammates or anything,” she said. “It’s hard to challenge yourself, so I think that the big thing was running solo. I missed [the feel of head to head racing]. I don’t think there’s anything that can compare to that. But I love this sport and so any chance to get out here and run, it’s been a long time, I’m all about it.”

To finish the day, Felix anchored a victorious U.S. 3 x 100—bet you’ve never seen one of those before—squad timed in 32.25, over a Kambundji-anchored Swiss trio (32.50) and a Netherlands group (32.94) that ran in Papendal with 2-time 200 world titlist Dafne Schippers handling the last leg.

’16 World Junior 100 champ and High School AOY Candace Hill—now relocated to LA and training with Kendall Ellis, Rai Benjamin and Michael Norman—got the Americans off to an early lead for her handoff to Tianna Bartoletta despite a case of jitters over teaming with two Olympic gold medalists. “At first I was really nervous running with these two because they were on the World Record 4×4,” Hill admitted. “I said, ‘I can’t mess this up, I’ve got to get the baton around.‘ But it’s a nice opportunity running with them and I hope to be like them one day in the future.”

Bartoletta’s zero-practices pass to Felix may not have been the tightest ever, but it was safe. “My fitness level I’m really happy with, considering I had to have this crazy emergency surgery and a blood transfusion,” the ’16 LJ gold medalist said. “I was happy to get the call to run a 3×1 [laughing]. For us to come together, it’s a great break from training and it validates the progress we’ve been making.”

The meet’s only on-the-same-track running clash was a 100-yard dash among Florida-based Canadian Andre De Grasse, Frenchman Jimmy Vicaut and Omar McLeod, the Jamaican with the unique sub-10/sub-13 100/110H credentials. With empty lanes separating the trio, Rio and Doha double medalist De Grasse closed strong to win in 9.68 from Frenchman Vicaut (9.72) and McLeod (9.87). While not a startlingly fast time, the -3.4 wind had a say in that and the Canadian winner’s time was not out of line with his 10.17/10.15 100m heat/final pairing in Montverde 5 days ago.

In the transcontinental women’s 300H, for most observer’s money Euro 400H champion and Swiss record holder Léa Sprunger started as favorite over Zuzana Hejnová, the Czech two-time world champ (’13 & ’15), who hurdled in Papendal. But American Georganne Moline stole the show with a fast-starting run in Walnut. Absent from competition since February of ’19 and recovering from foot surgery last August, the 30-year-old Arizona alum crossed a split-screen winner in 39.08 over Sprunger (39.25). Hejnová, never really in it, finished in 40.97.

Said Moline, 30, “Coach Harvey and I just tried to treat it as a practice as much as we could, and there was a lot of anxiety going into this race ’cause it’s been a year and a half for me, regardless of no fans or anything. I was able to calm myself down, I just executed the way I wanted and then one of the hurdles I just didn’t trust myself going home and totally stopped my momentum. So that’s a way to learn and move forward.

“It‘s amazing[to be back on the track after surgery]. I promised myself I would never take another race or opportunity for granted and that’s exactly what I intended to do today and that’s what I did. I’m grateful to be here, regardless of the situation.”

After a windy but promising 9.93 opener to best Justin Gatlin on the Fourth of July, 200 world champion Noah Lyles was expected to handle distant opponents Christophe Lemaitre (Zürich) and Churandy Martina (Papendal) in his strong-suit event. The race never looked close on split screen. The 200 was to be the one standard-distance race contested, except Lyles managed not to run 200m. His 18.90 time with a -3.7 wind suggested as much immediately.

While Swiss timing analyzed the apparent clock glitch, Lyles assessed, “It actually felt pretty nice despite getting that full blast of the wind. I feel I set the turn up really nice. I’ve been working on that a lot, using my arm swing to get that momentum to generate around the turn. So I felt that to be honest I set up really nicely.”

Except the distance Lyles covered was only about 185m. The shortage was caused by officials errantly situating Lyles’ blocks on a 400m start stagger after moving the start to Bradenton’s homestraight.” We must wait to learn the soon to be 23-year-old’s current half lap fitness. It promises to be formidable. Lemaitre got the win for the full distance timed in 20.65.

Lyles had to smile after an officiating gaffe cost him the 200 win. (INSPIRATION GAMES WELTKLASSE-ZÜRICH/KADEEM WYNN)

Sam Kendricks and Sandi Morris earned pole vault wins even though both comps showed a rusty tinge. In the men’s Valentin Lavillenie, a last-minute sub for his brother Renaud (thumb injury), no-heighted at 17-7 (5.36) in Aubière, France. Polish Worlds medalist Piotr Lisek, in Karlstad, Sweden, could climb no higher than a seasonal best 18-6¾ (5.66) on his second attempt. Kendricks went far over his first four bars on first attempts. He then needed three at 18-10¾ (5.76) as Bradenton’s tailwind seemed to shift to a crossing angle, and flew over 19-¾ (5.81) on first before missing three times at 19-4¾ (5.91).

Facing Morris in Bradenton from Walnut, Rio gold medalist Katerína Stefanídi three-missed her opening height of 14-7½ (4.46). Angelica Bengtsson made that setting on second yet failed to get over 14-11½ (4.56), which would have been the Swede’s best since February.

Morris popped over her 14-11½ opener with room to spare and seemed to be pushed rightward across the bar by the breeze at 15-3½ (4.66). She got over the setting on second before missing three times at 15-7¼ (4.76).

“Surprisingly, the wind was mostly a tailwind, then it would be a strong cross for a little while at the end, so I was kind of struggling with it at the end,” Morris said. “But if you’re patient and you wait on it, it would turn to a tail, so I got lucky.

“I haven’t jumped from my full approach since the indoor season, so I was kind of using this as a chance to get off the ground, to get some jumps under my belt and have some fun.”


INSPIRATION GAMES RESULTS

Zürich’s Weltklasse meet after its cancellation as a Diamond League competition (7 sites, July 09)—

(A = Aubière, France; B = Bradenton, Florida; K = Karlstad, Sweden; L = Lisbon, Portugal; P = Papendal, Netherlands; W = Walnut, California; Z = Zürich, Switzerland)

Teams: 1. North America 20; 2. Europe 17; 3. World 9.

100y(-3.4) (B): 1. Andre DeGrasse (Can) 9.68; 2. Jimmy Vicaut (Fra) 9.72; 3. Omar McLeod (Jam) 9.87.

200: 1. Christophe Lemaitre (Fra) 20.65 (Z 0.0); 2. Churandy Martina (Neth) 20.81 (P 0.2);…

c185m (B -3.7) (wrong start line): Noah Lyles (US) [18.90].

PV: 1. Sam Kendricks (US) 19-¾ (5.81) (B) (17-7, 17-11, 18-2¾, 18-6¾, 18-10¾ [3], 19-¾, 19-4¾ [xxx]) (5.36, 5.46, 5.56, 5.66, 5.76 [3], 5.81, 5.91 [xxx]); 2. Piotr Lisek (Pol) 18-6¾ (5.66) (K);… nh—Valentin Lavillenie (Fra) (A indoors).

TJ: 1. Pedro Pablo Pichardo (Por) 57-1w (17.40) (a-c out WL) (L) (56-5¼w, 57-1w, 56-1¾, 51-1, p, 56-4) (17.20w, 17.40w, 17.11, 15.57, p, 17.17); 2. Christian Taylor (US) 56-8w (17.27) (a-c AL) (B) (54-0w, 54-7¼w, 55-10¼w, f, f, 56-8w) (16.46w, 16.64w, 17.02w, f, f, 17.27w) (B); 3. Omar Craddock (US) 55-11 (17.04) (out AL) (W) (53-11¾, 55-11, f, 54-4¾, 55-0, f) (16.45, 17.04, f, 16.58, 16.76, f).

INSPIRATION WOMEN

150: 1. Allyson Felix (US) 16.81 (W -2.6); 2. Shaunae Miller-Uibo (Bah) 17.15 (B -2.5); 3. Mujinga Kambundji (Swi) 17.28 (Z 0.3).

300H: 1. Georganne Moline (US) 39.08 (W); 2. Léa Sprunger (Swi) 39.25 (Z); 3. Zuzana Hejnova (CzR) 40.97 (P).

3 x 100: 1. United States 32.25 (W) (Candace Hill, Tianna Bartoletta, Allyson Felix); 2. Switzerland 32.50 (Z); 3. Netherlands 32.94 (P).

PV: 1. Sandi Morris (US) 15-3½ (4.66) (B) (out AL) (missed 15-7¼/4.76);

2. Angelica Bengtsson (Swe) 14-7½ (4.46) (K);… nh—Katerína Stefanídi (Gre) (W).