BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Poland’s sensational 400 meters relay men and inspired British hurdler Andrew Pozzi transformed the final day of the world indoor championships into an athletics celebration as the sport bade a fond farewell to Roger Bannister on Sunday.
A few hours after the announcement of the death of the pioneer who first broke the four-minute mile, the Polish 4x400 meters relay quartet set a world indoor record of three minutes 01.77 seconds.
Karol Zalewski, Rafal Omelko, Lukasz Krawczuk and Jakub Krzewina saved the biggest sensation of the four-day event in Arena Birmingham until the very last track event as they downed a supposedly untouchable U.S. foursome.
Krzewina swept past a tiring Vernon Norwood with a magnificent anchor leg after the Americans had led throughout and had looked on course to break the record themselves.
To add insult to injury, the Poles eclipsed the mark of 3:02.13 set by another U.S. team at these championships four years ago. The silver medallists’ only consolation was also being inside the old mark with 3:01.97.
The sell-out crowd had earlier broken into long applause after a film was screened celebrating the life of the great British hero Bannister, who has died at the age of 88.
Then they celebrated the fitting sight of a home athlete, Pozzi, imbued with a touch of Bannister’s own spirit, battling back from a poor start in the 60 meters hurdles.
The Briton prevailed in the tightest dip for the line in 7.46 seconds, ousting American Jarret Eaton by one-hundredth of a second.
“Roger Bannister was an unbelievable athlete and unbelievable person,” said Pozzi, who has been slogging for nearly a decade hoping for this breakthrough after years of battling injuries.
“I’m very sorry that he has left us but I read one of his quotes today about a gazelle before heading down to the track.
“It said ‘Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up and it knows it must move faster than the lion or it will not survive’.”
Bannister, who remained a keen observer of international miling to the end, would also have loved seeing the breakthrough of 18-year-old Ethiopian Samuel Tefera, who became the youngest-ever 1,500 meters champion as he held off Poland’s Marcin Lewandowski for gold in three minutes 58.19 seconds.
The teenager, who looks to have a sparkling future after breaking the world under-20 record in his first race indoors in January, shrugged that he had no idea who Bannister was.
For Britain’s Jake Wightman, who finished sixth, it was an emotional race. “I heard about Sir Roger two hours before I came down to the track,” he said.
“It’s pretty gutting because I was hoping to have a good run here because it would have been a nice way to properly honor him for his impact on the sport. He paved the way for us all and we all owe him a lot.”
Earlier, another Ethiopian, Yomif Kejelcha, still only 20, successfully retained his 3,000 meters crown in a manner as emphatic as his compatriot Genzebe Dibaba’s win in the women’s 3,000 on Thursday.
Fellow Ethiopian Selemon Barega took silver, missing out on his bid to become the youngest-ever world indoor winner at 18 years and 43 days.
Burundi’s Oregon-based Francine Niyonsaba was in a class of her own in defending her 800 meters title in one minute 58.31 seconds, the fastest time in the world in 2018.
American long jumper Brittney Reese failed in her bid for a fourth world indoor crown, having to settle instead for silver as Serbian Ivana Spanovic produced the best leap of the year, 6.96 meters.
A familiar duel between the world’s top two pole vaulters saw France’s Renaud Lavillenie regain ascendancy over his U.S. rival Sam Kendricks, with a winning effort of 5.90 meters.
The U.S. women took the 4x400 meters crown in a championship record of three minutes 23.85 seconds to secure a sixth gold at the top of the medals table for their team, who took 18 medals in all.
Editing by Clare Fallon