By Ian Chadband
LONDON (Reuters) – Omar McLeod brought the smile back to Jamaican sprinting as he powered to the 110 meters hurdles title at the World Athletics Championships on Monday before dedicating his triumph to Usain Bolt.
Following the shock defeats of Bolt and Elaine Thompson in the 100 meters events, McLeod, another overwhelming race favorite from the Caribbean island, made no mistake as he added the world crown to the Olympic title he won last year.
The 23-year-old dominated the race, winning in 13.04 seconds, a meter clear of the defending champion Sergey Shubenkov, the Russian who was competing as an ‘authorized neutral athlete’ with his country’s federation still banned from international athletics.
“He’s still legendar! Usain, brother, this is for you!” McLeod, who had celebrated by running across the track afterwards to hug his mother in the London Stadium, told the crowd afterwards.
Shubenkov, who clocked 13.14, was the first Russian to win a medal in London while Hungary’s Balazs Baji took a surprise bronze in 13.28.
World record holder Aries Merritt, of the U.S., who won the Olympic title in the same stadium five years ago, started strongly but faded into fifth place in 13.31 seconds.
It was a majestic triumph for McLeod, now the dominant force on the hurdles circuit, after a weekend of huge disappointment for his sprint-loving compatriots as they failed to get a 100m gold for the first time since 2005.
“I really wanted to keep the Jamaican flag flying,” he said afterwards.
“This one is so special, honestly. There was a lot of pressure coming in, but I channeled it positively. It’s totally different to last year (in Rio) when we had Usain and Elaine winning, which I used to propel me.
“I didn’t have that this time so I really wanted to come out and shine my own light.”
He did just that with a performance that left the silver medalist Shubenkov sighing afterwards: “The Jamaican is just too fast.”
Indeed, as the only top-flight hurdler who has broken 10 seconds for the 100 meters as well as 13 seconds for the 110 meters hurdles, the only worry for McLeod these days is to ensure he does not go too fast between the barriers.
On this occasion, just as in Rio last year when he became the first Jamaican man to win a sprint hurdles gold, he offered speed with total control from the gun.
It was a consummate display that demonstrated why he has lost just once all summer, and only then when he suffered a bout of cramp in a Diamond League meeting in Paris.
With not a breath of wind in the stadium, McLeod was third-fastest away from the blocks but was initially matched by Shubenkov and Merritt.
Once he hurdled into overdrive, though, his pursuers could not get close to him but Shubenkov, who was not allowed to compete at last year’s Olympics because of the IAAF ban on Russia, still was not happy with silver.
“I’m so frustrated. I struggled over the last few hurdles but was leading for the first half so that’s the frustration,” he said.
“I’m just happy to be competing at the world championships and to get a medal. Last year was a disaster, not just because of the Russian ban, so I’m happy to be back winning a world medal.”
There was nothing but complete surprise from the bronze medal winner Baji, who roared through the field over the final five meters to snatch his reward with a desperate dip at the line.
It was a reward for the 28-year-old’s years of slog which had seen him win 15 Hungarian titles but never a global medal. “I can barely believe what has happened,” he said.
“A bronze is way beyond expectations. It’s a dream come true.”
For Merritt, it was also an emotional night as he momentarily threatened to complete one of sport’s great comeback stories by winning the world title two years after undergoing a kidney transplant.
“It feels great to be back in London where I won Olympic gold. The crowd greeted me very warmly. Of course, I am not happy to be in lane nine but just being in the stadium is enough for me,” said the 32-year-old.
“I am not even meant to be running, so I’m more happy to be here than not be here. I am back on the world stage, that’s the main thing.”
(Reporting by Ian Chadband, editing by Mitch Phillips)