The first half of the 21st century’s initial decade belonged to the distance runners, as Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele captured all five IAAF Athlete of the Year awards from 2001-05. The second half of the decade, however, belonged to sprinters, who won four of the five awards, with 800-meter ace David Rudisha breaking the streak in 2010.
2006 – Asafa Powell:
In 2006 the 6-foot-3 Powell was considered a bit atypical for a sprinter, although in retrospect he was somewhat the forerunner of his 6-5 countryman, Usain Bolt. Unusual build or not, Powell dominated the 100 meters in the middle of the decade, setting a world record of 9.77 seconds that he matched twice in 2006, then lowered in 2007. He also won two Commonwealth Games gold medals in 2006, in the 100 and the 4 x 100 relay, won the World Athletics Final 100 meters in 9.89 seconds, and swept the six Golden League 100-meter races to earn a jackpot share of $250,000. He also ran his personal best in the 200, finishing in 19.90 seconds while winning the Jamaican Championships.
2007 – Tyson Gay:
stepped into Powell’s shoes as the world’s top sprinter in 2007, but not by knockout – it was more of a split decision. Powell lowered his world 100-meter record to 9.74 in September, but Gay won their key confrontation at the World Championships. On the year, Gay won 11 of his 12 individual competitions, running in the 100 and 200. He challenged Powell’s world record early in the season, running 9.76 while backed by a 2.2 meters-per-second wind (0.2 mps over the legal limit). Gay then ran into the wind while winning U.S. championships in the 100 (9.84 into a 0.5 mps wind) and the 200 (19.62 into a 0.3 mps wind). His 200 time led the world and was second all-time at that point, behind Michael Johnson’s 19.32.
Both Powell and Gay were unbeaten entering the 2007 World Championships. In the highly-anticipated final, Powell started fast and led most of the way, but Gay passed him in the last 20 meters to win in 9.85 (into a 0.5 mps wind), with Powell fading to third. The 200 final was similar except it was another Jamaican, Bolt, leading early. Gay passed Bolt on the turn and won in 19.76 (into a 0.8 mps wind). Gay and the U.S. team then defeated both Bolt and Powell in the 4 x 100 relay, giving Gay – who ran the third leg – his third Championship gold.
2008-09 – Usain Bolt:
was primarily a 200-meter runner until 2008. But while some Jamaican coaches wanted him to add the 400 to his repertoire, Bolt insisted on focusing on the 100. His work paid off as he ran 9.76 in May, then beat Gay – and topped Powell’s world record – later that month, finishing in 9.72 seconds in just the fifth 100-meter competition of his pro career. He also brought a world-leading 200 time of 19.67 into the Beijing Olympics.
With Gay injured, Bolt’s main Olympic challenger in 2008 was the world record book. In that challenge, Bolt went 3-for-3 in Beijing. He ran a world record 9.69 in the 100-meter final even though he slowed a bit while celebrating well before the finish line. He didn’t slow in the 200 final, allowing him to break Johnson’s record with a 19.30 effort, running into a 0.9 mps wind. Like Gay in 2007, Bolt then ran the third leg on Jamaica’s 4 x 100 relay team, which won in a world record time of 37.10.
Bolt’s 2009 highlight was the World Championship 100-meter final against Gay. The American ran the fourth-best 100 in history, finishing in 9.71, but Bolt broke his own record and prevailed in 9.58 seconds. Although an injured Gay didn’t run in the 200, Bolt remained focused and completed another double-world record performance by winning in 19.19. He added a third gold in the 4 x 100, which Jamaica won in a then-Championship record time of 37.31.
2010 – David Rudisha:
Despite his stunning failure to reach the 800-meter final in the 2009 World Championships, David Rudisha
very publicly set his sights on the world record in 2010. He made a strong bid in Belgium in July, winning in 1:41.51, four-tenths of a second slower than Wilson Kipketer’s 13-year-old mark. But Rudisha backed up his talk in August – in Berlin, of all places, the scene of his World Championship disappointment – edging Kipketer’s mark with a time of 1:41.09. Rudisha later lowered the mark to 1:41.01 in Rieti. Along the way Rudisha also won the Continental Cup 800 meters, the African Championship and the initial Diamond League 800-meter season championship. At 21 (he turned 22 in December) Rudisha was the youngest ever IAAF Athlete of the Year.