European outdoor 100m champion Christophe Lemaitre’s dream of adding the continental 60m indoor crown foundered as the two ‘old men’ of the piece Francis Obikwelu and Dwain Chambers showed him the way in an electricity charged final.
Lemaitre aged just 20 started a clear favourite to strike gold after leading the qualifiers in yesterday’s semi-finals, but what was expected to be further affirmation of his rising sprint status was wrecked as Obikwelu took victory by 0.01 in 6.53 from his fellow 32-year-old Dwain Chambers.
Instead, the French athlete had to settle for the ‘consolation’ of bronze in 6.58 and on this occasion had to bow to his more experienced rivals.
For Obikwelu, in particular, it was a remarkable resurgence to top form after a series of injury problems. The 2004 Olympic 100m silver medallist and 2006 European 100m champion has barely registered at the sharp end of men’s sprinting for some time. Yet he looked impressive through the rounds and rolled back the years to once again produce a top class sprint performance.
His time of 6.53 was a new national record not to mention European lead time and at 32 years and 104 days the Nigerian-born athlete became the oldest winner of this title eclipsing the previous record held by Great Britain’s Jason Gardener. He was also the first Portuguese athlete to win a sprint medal in the 41-year history of the European Athletics Indoor Championships.
“I don’t know how to explain how I feel,” said Obikwelu in the immediate wake of his success. “I’ve had injuries for such a long time and to come back and win is incredible. I was hoping for a top three, but I never thought I was going to win. I knew it was going to be a dangerous final, I’m so happy to compete with a guy like Dwain (Chambers). I’m just full of joy.”
A philosophical Lemaitre said: “I don’t know why it didn’t work out. Maybe, it was the start. In this race if you get one thing wrong you miss out. I’m glad to get a medal but at the same time I’m miserable not to be able to win. I know I had the potential to do it but I failed.”
Inside an atmospheric Palais Omnisports de Paris Bercy expectation was high Lemaitre, the triple European outdoor sprint champion from Barcelona last year, could add another title to what had already been a hugely successful championships for the host nation.
Lemaitre even tried to psychologically impose his will on his seven rivals by making them wait for him to settle in his blocks last. If the aim was to unsettle his opponents, though, it clearly did not work.
The French athlete made his usual sloppy start while Chambers and Obikwelu got away far better. As the race progressed the pair of 32-year-olds opened up a small though noticeable gap on the rest of the field while most eyes inside the stadium were fixed on Lemaitre. Would he charge through the field with his trademark late run to grab gold?
Not on this occasion. The gap never really appeared to narrow and a few strides from the line the Parisian crowd were resigned to the fact that their man would not bring home the gold on this occasion. Instead, it was the high-stepping Obikwelu and Chambers who flashed past the finish line vying for the big prize. With the naked eye it was very difficult to separate the pair who both embraced one another and smiled after the race.
Within a few moments it was announced that the Portuguese had shaded the decision by just 0.01 from Chambers with Lemaitre receiving a hearty cheer for securing bronze. Much credit should also go to Italy’s Emanuele Di Gregorio, the bronze medallist from the last edition of these championships, who snatched fourth in 6.59 – just 0.01 behind Lemaitre.
In fifth the second string French athlete Martial Mbandjock equalled his personal best from the semi-final of 6.61 to take fifth. Brian Mariano (6.64) of the Netherlands claimed sixth with Switzerland’s Cedric Nabe (6.67) and Ryan Moseley of Austria rounding out the other finalists.
But perhaps the final word should go to Chambers, the 2009 champion, who succinctly summed up events in the final by adding: “Today, we have shown the older guys can still run.”