No world records were set at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Lausanne on Thursday night, which was held in an old stadium marked out for destruction. And yet people still managed to enjoy themselves hugely. How was this possible?
The answers are manifold, but they could probably be condensed into two words: atmosphere, and doubt.
This is a personal view. Over the last 25 years I have covered athletics events in many parts of the world, the majority of them in Europe, which has always been the heartland of athletics’ annual events.
Lausanne, through the Athletissima meeting which this year celebrated its 40th anniversary, has long been one of the most satisfactory elements of the sport’s summers.
This is due in no small part to the venue, which is no small venue, but no giant venue either - the Stade De La Pontaise.
From Lake Geneva it is a quarter of an hour’s drive away, most of it uphill. As your coach passes the station, with its proud centrepiece of the Olympic Rings, and then winds its way through narrowing streets until the Stadium floodlights are in view, you get occasional glimpses of the lake, now distant, still glittering in the early evening sun.
Athletes and media alike alight right alongside a venue which was built in 1904 and renovated in 1954, when it hosted five games during that year’s FIFA World Cup finals, including the semi-final when Hungary beat Uruguay 4-2.
Michael Jackson performed at the Stadium during three of his world tours. U2 played here. The Rolling Stones played at a sell-out concert in the Stadium in 2007.
But its days are numbered, even if the exact number has been shifting considerably since the Municipality decided in 2006 to upgrade the city’s sporting facilities under the monicker of a Metamorphosis project which was given the green light after a vote in 2009.
The original shape of the programme involved building a new football stadium combined with an indoor swimming pool in the south of the city, and to the north, a new athletics stadium with an indoor sports hall.
Accordingly an international competition was run by the city of Lausanne which resulted in GMP Architekten presenting a sumptuous vision which also included a boarding school.
But then the financial situation took a dip, and the city authorities decided to cut their cloth accordingly, ditching the grand vision and working instead on a plan for two cheaper new stadiums.
The latest thinking is that the Stade De La Pontaise will be demolished and replaced with a football-specific stadium, with athletics being re-located to the tiny Stade Pierre de Coubertin situated next to Lake Geneva. It will have new stands and a possible temporary expansion, with a regular capacity of 6,000 and a possible increase to 12,000 when required.
As for when the bulldozers will finally do their worst with the old Stadium, estimates vary. The latest official suggestion is 2021. Ask locals, and they just smile, and shrug.
The sad fact is that, no matter what the city fathers do to the Stade by the lake, it will never match the unique feel of the Stade De La Pontaise.
From an athletics point of view, the track seems to encourage swift times. During my visits I recall seeing Jason Gardener break 10 seconds for 100 metres here – still something of a rarity for British sprinters – with a time of 9.98sec.
Going back to the meeting shortly before the 1996 Atlanta Games, I saw Roger Black lower his British 400m record to 44.37 in Lausanne shortly after his victory in Olympic Trials also featuring Iwan Thomas, Jamie Baulch and Du’aine Ladejo.
It proved to be a perfect night of fine tuning ahead of an Olympics where he successfully re-focused himself as an athlete to take silver behind Michael Johnson of the United States.
Until a couple of weeks ago, when he pulled out of the Paris and Lausanne Diamond Leagues with a persistent leg injury, Usain Bolt was due to race again at the stadium which he has always celebrated for having one of the best “curves” in the world – a curve he used to the full in 2012 when he set his stadium record of 19.58 there.
On the night, however, it was the 19-year-old who trains with Bolt and who has just successfully switched his nationality from Anguilla to Britain, Zharnel Hughes, who used the curve best to win, despite being drawn in lane two.
The stadium, with a capacity of just over 15,000, was full. It was just the right size to create maximum atmosphere.
As mentioned, there was no strained announcement In Lausanne from any athlete before this 40th anniversary meeting regarding world record aspirations.
When Genzebe Dibaba failed in her second attempt to break her elder sister’s world 5,000m record - at Oslo last month on the same track where Tirunesh had run her time in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics - her immediate reaction was that she wouldn’t be seeking the record again anytime soon.
She looked and sounded despondent, although much of the cause of her “failure” was a fitful wind in the Bislett Stadium which, despite the very best efforts of the organisers in moving the event to the most suitable spot in the arena, even at the expense of the pole vault, blew her and the world’s best high jumpers adrift of their highest ambitions.
What do you get, as a spectator, with a world record attempt? The fleeting excitement of watching a digital display as an athlete passes across the finishing line or rises from the sand. Or in the high jump and pole vault events, of seeing them hit the deck with the bar shaken but not stirred.
And if that digital moment is not afforded immediately, then the there is nothing but a kind of suspension of emotion involved. Do we celebrate or commiserate? There is nothing in between.
This strange test event occurred at Rome’s Stadio Olimpica in 1998, when Algeria’s Hicham El Guerrouj sought to break Noureddine Morceli’s world 1500m record of 3min 27.37sec.
All the timechecks along the way indicated he was on for something remarkable. But as he crossed the line the nightmare scenario for all timing companies came to pass - this was the only occasion in the meeting when the displays remained obdurately blank.
The circumstances elicited a most unusual noise from the crowd. Had the box been ticked or not? Eventually the displays registered 3:26.00, which went through the Stadium like a rush of adrenaline as everybody was finally cleared to view the event they had just witnessed as A Success, An Amazing World Record Performance.
Dare I say it? The truth is that world records, unless they come in open competition, are rather dull.
Doubt - over who will win. That’s what’s needed. And doubt was what spectators had from start to finish on the latest heady night of competition at the fated Stade De La Pontaise - which was an extended tribute to the judgement and sheer badgering power of Athletissima’s experienced meeting director Jacky Delapierre.
The first Diamond League event of the evening in Lausanne was the women’s discus, all too often tucked away in such a position before most of the crowd have decided it is time to finish off their sausages or burgers and down their beer and get themselves into their seats.
Croatia’s Sandra Perkovic, winner of the Diamond Race in her event for the last three seasons, required just one more victory to secure a fourth. But on this occasion things weren’t quite so straightforward given the presence of the 25-year-old Cuban Denia Caballero, whose personal best of 70.65 metres at the previous month’s Bilbao meet had established her at the head of the season’s rankings.
And the throwers provided suitable drama. Caballero took a first round lead with 66.00m.
But it was another Cuban, 24-year-old former world junior champion Yaimi Perez, who responded first as she took over the lead with a second round effort of 67.06m.
Croatia’s girl then demonstrated the competitiveness which has taken her to Olympic, world and European titles as she matched that effort exactly in the next round, although she remained in second place by virtue of Perez having a better second-best throw.
For all her experience, Perkovic could not advance further, producing fouls in all her three final efforts. Meanwhile Perez effectively sealed the deal with a fifth round throw of 67.13m.
If one Cuban doesn’t get you, the other one will…
Exhibit Two. It looked for most of the men’s 800m that Olympic champion and world record holder David Rudisha was going to follow up his Diamond League win in New York exactly according to plan.
The tall, powerful Kenyan had taken his familiar place at the front once the pacemaker had dropped away in the second lap and he entered the straight having distanced himself from all his opposition - save for the determined little figure of the man who followed him home to take silver at the London 2012 Olympics, Nijel Amos.
The Botswana athlete, gritting his teeth with the effort, moved up to Rudisha halfway down the straight, and as he did so an anxious glance back from the champion whose last two years have been blighted by a succession of injuries was the giveaway sign that the race would go to Amos.
His winning time was a season’s best of 1:43.27, with Rudisha clocking 1:43.76. These times were significant, but they weren’t the main point.
“The race didn’t go as I planned but I am happy with it,” said Rudisha. “Now I have to get back to the drawing board and work on my last 100m.”
Prize exhibit three: the men’s triple jump.
Christian Taylor spent much of last season exercising his options as an athlete as he switched between the event at which he is a reigning Olympic champion and previous world champion, the triple jump, and it’s kindred discipline of the long jump.
Before this season began, this 25-year-old from Fayettville, Georgia, for all his titles, had never entered the 18 metres-plus territory into which only three men had previously ventured - Britain’s world record holder Jonathan Edwards, Kenny Harrison, the US winner of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic title, and most recently France’s Teddy Tamgho, who reached 18.04m in winning World Championships gold in Moscow two years ago.
In the space of the last two months, however, Taylor has now registered three 18m-plus jumps. And if one seeks a reason why, there is a three-word answer - Pedro Pablo Pichardo.
This 22-year-old from Santiago de Cuba announced his arrival in the event’s elite at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Doha on May 15, where he won the event with an effort of 18.06m that prompted a huge response from his American rival in the last round.
Although Taylor fell just two centimetres short of the Cuban on that occasion, the template was set.
And as the events in the Stade De La Pontaise demonstrated again, these two young talents are now set to take the event further into the territory which leads to Edwards’ 20-year-old world record of 18.29m in the course of this, and the next, Olympic, season.
The pattern of the two rivals’ competition in Lausanne matched that of Doha as Pichardo established himself in the lead with a colossal jump, and the American sought to match it.
This time, however, Taylor managed to overtake the Cuban’s seemingly unchallengeable leading mark of 17.99m as he registered 18.02m and 18.06m with his two final efforts as the stadium cooled from the heat of the day.
Taylor reflected with satisfaction afterwards at the way in which he has stepped up his level of performance this season.
“Two jumps over 18m means I am getting more consistent at high levels,” he said. “The goal right now is to keep on improving and to keep the triple jump as an exciting event this year.”
When an event takes on creative tension at the highest level of performance, as this one did, it is the ideal. But even at lower levels of achievement, the combination of a truly open contest in a stadium nicely filled with appreciative souls is the true register of success for a sport about to start searching its own soul anew once either Sergey Bubka or Sebastian Coe has stepped up to fill the place of outgoing IAAF President Lamine Diack next month.
Get these things right, and every athletics meeting will ring like a chord that never disappoints.