Philip Barker

When World Athletics President Sebastian Coe visited Tokyo’s rebuilt Olympic stadium for the first time, he admitted: "I saw a stadium that will be a fitting venue for a future World Championships in track and field."

He told the Reuters News Agency: "It is our ambition, with the support of the municipalities and the local federations, for us to come back to this great city as soon as we possibly can."

When the Tokyo 2020 Olympic competition finally begins, it will be almost 30 years since Tokyo last hosted the World Athletics Championships.

"The dazzling success of the World Championships was the flame that ignited the rest of the season," claimed then-World Athletics supremo Primo Nebiolo.

Tokyo had bid for the 1985 World Cup, later known as the Continental Cup, but lost out to Australian capital Canberra.

Tokyo then targeted the 1991 World Championships. Perth, West Berlin and Los Angeles also did so.

The host-city vote was taken in March 1987 at an International Amateur Athletic Federation Council meeting in Rome.

"We chose Tokyo, but all other candidates had also met the conditions we set," Nebiolo said. As it turned out, the 1991 World Championships were the last to be held on a quadrennial basis.

A new, chip-less urethane track was installed, but otherwise to television viewers the stadium appeared just as it had during the 1964 Olympics.

Japan's National Stadium has been revamped ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©Getty Images
Japan's National Stadium has been revamped ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©Getty Images

The World Championships were held in the last week of August and attracted 1,551 athletes from 164 nations.

Mel Watman, author of a highly regarded encyclopedia of athletics even wondered if it was "The greatest ever".

It certainly began at a momentous time in the world.

A dramatic coup unfolded in Moscow in August 1991, and many wondered whether the Soviet Union would attend. In fact the attempt by hardline communists to oust Mikhail Gorbachev failed, and a Soviet contingent did march in for what proved to be the final major athletics event contested by the USSR.

In fact, race walker Mikhail Shchennikov was a central player in the first medal event.

The men’s 20-kilomere walk made its way through the streets of Tokyo on a rainy first morning.

Meanwhile the heats of the men’s 100 metres had also begun in the National Stadium as the walk reached its climax.

"Approaching the stadium, neither was aware of the chaos that awaited them. Officials had clearly forgotten about the walkers", said Athletics Weekly magazine.

Italy's Maurizio Damilano and Shchennikov entered to be confronted by officials hurriedly pulling away starting blocks and other equipment for the 100m. The official report talks of the walkers "sidestepping athletes assembled for the last of the men's 100m heats."

There was further drama when Shchennikov "spurted past Damilano believing it to be the finish. Damilano was aware there was still a full lap to complete continued at a strong pace and Shchennikov, once he realised his error, was never able to offer a challenge."

Britain's men's 4x100m relay team ended the 1991 World Championships in style ©Getty Images
Britain's men's 4x100m relay team ended the 1991 World Championships in style ©Getty Images

Shchennikov admitted, "I made a big mistake at the end but anyway Damilano was the best in this race."

The 10th and final 100m heat was delayed for 26 minutes.

The following day the final took place in temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius with humidity at 57 percent.

World record-holder Leroy Burrell of the United States was the pre-race favourite. Burrell was a star of the Santa Monica Track Club but it was the club's most famous son, Carl Lewis, who stormed home in a new world record 9.86sec. "He passed us like we were standing still!" said silver medallist Burrell. His time was also inside the previous best and the first six all dipped inside 10 seconds.

"Lewis is a god" declared the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. "A world record in the greatest 100m race of all time!"

Lewis admitted at the time, "I wasn’t confident I could win it but I knew I had a shot."

Four of the finalists in the race were back in action the following day in the heats of the 200m. Lewis for his part was involved in the event which the official event review identified as "the highlight in a host of brilliant performances". He had won the long jump at every major meet since the first World Championships in 1983, in a streak of 65 victories.

Lewis predicted that Bob Beamon’s world record set at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico would be in jeopardy.

In the fourth round he soared out to 8.91 metres. It would have been a new world record but for the wind.

In the next round, the wind had dropped for Mike Powell.

His leap of 8.95metres made a field event front-page news. "I knew the world record was within my grasp as soon as Carl Lewis had made his jump," Powell would claim.

Lewis achieved the "greatest long jump series ever" yet had to settle for silver.

China's first World Championship gold came in the shot put, courtesy of Huang Zhihong who threw 20.83m to defeat reigning Olympic champion and world record-holder Natalya Lisovskaya from the USSR.

In the javelin Xu Demei's opening throw of 68.78m was enough to ensure a second Chinese gold.

Algeria’s Hassiba Boulmerka came away from the field in the home straight to break new boundaries in the women's 1500 metres, becoming nation's first female champion. It was hoped the win would signal the beginning of a greater role for Algerian women.

Boulmerka was also the first woman from any African nation to win World Championship gold and the first non-European woman to win on the track in Tokyo.

It proved a golden 24 hours for Algeria.

The men’s 1500m provided an Algerian double. Noureddine Morceli won in dominant style, eclipsing his North African idol Saïd Aouita of Morocco. As he crossed the line he stooped to kiss the track.

"I am not very tired because I am used to running fast," he said. "Aouita has been the athlete of the Eighties, I will be that of the Nineties."

In the women’s 10,000m, Liz McColgan of Britain defied intense humidity and 27-degree heat in a front-running performance that proved the race of her life.

In the men’s 400m hurdles, Samuel Matete's victory came as something of a relief.

Samuel Matete was Zambia's first track and field world champion ©Getty Images
Samuel Matete was Zambia's first track and field world champion ©Getty Images

“I am really tired after so many rounds," Matete said. "I’ve been running so many races. I only had two weeks to rest before the world championships. I’ve been running and running and running.

"One month ago, I was afraid the Zambian Federation would not let me come. I did not go to the trials, but I am very proud to carry the Zambian flag around the stadium for the first time."

It was appropriate that Zambia’s first world title came in Tokyo. At the 1964 Olympics in the same city, the country’s flag was first on display after independence on the final day of the Games.

The 1991 World Championships also held special resonance for Germany as the first major sporting event since unification. That it should come in Tokyo completed another circle.

In 1964, official sporting recognition for East Germany had been effectively agreed in Tokyo.

Katrin Krabbe was from Neubrandenburg, a small East German town which produced more than its fair share of outstanding athletes. She had been the sprinting star at the 1990 European Championships, a farewell event in the blue of East Germany.

Jamaica’s Merlene Ottey was the favourite for gold but it was Krabbe who stormed to 100m gold and later in the week completed the double.

She denied any "East-West rift" between the German athletes.

"It is not the same organised group as before, we are more individual now, before there was more of a collective spirit. We should look at the methods of East Germany when building the new system. We were successful in sport because of how society was organised."

The American magazine Sports Illustrated dubbed her "Katrin the Great" but noted that Krabbe "and many other athletes from the former East Germany are undergoing culture shock".

Within a few months, the same magazine reported her fall from grace after a doping ban.

Katrin Krabbe won a 100m and 200m double, but would soon be banned for doping ©Getty Images
Katrin Krabbe won a 100m and 200m double, but would soon be banned for doping ©Getty Images

In the pole vault, Sergey Bubka continued a phenomenal World Championship streak stretching back to 1983 but it was the last time he would do so in the red vest of the Soviet Union. He won three more gold medals in Ukrainian colours.

No athletic success would delight the Japanese over the next few weeks quite like the marathon. In the 1991 women’s race Sachiko Yamashita took silver behind Wanda Panfil of Poland.

On the ninth and final day of competition came the men’s marathon which began at 7am local time. By the time many were having a late Sunday breakfast, Hiromi Taniguchi had won Japan’s first gold medal.

Great Britain’s 4x400m squad provided the grand finale in a battle royal with the US.

Kriss Akabusi "ran out of his socks" on the anchor leg against individual world champion Antonio Pettigrew to claim a gold which thrust athletics onto newspaper front pages in Britain.

"We will always cherish the magic memories and the splendour of Tokyo 91," said Nebiolo.

In all 29 different nations won medals.

"Never until now has athletics shown such a universal face and world wide distribution of medals", L'Équipe editor Robert Pariente said.

Lord Coe will surely be hoping for something similar over the next few weeks.