With attendance records and a classic showdown between Kenya and Ethiopia in the middle and long distance events, the final Under 18 World Championships of the International Association of Athletics Federation came to an end at Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi. This was the last U18 World Championships event for the IAAF, which is moving to a different format of regional competitions starting next year, and hosting it in an African capital was a fitting tribute to a continent that has constantly contributed some of the best track and field athletes in the world. The U18 IAAF has a long tradition of being a tournament that showcases great promise; the athletes who perform to the top of their abilities here will likely become international legends later, such has been the case with Jamaican track star Usain Bolt. This event has been organized every two years since 1999, and it is only the second time an African city is the host; the first was Marrakech in 2005.
During the opening ceremony, the President of Kenya proudly announced that entrance to Kasarani Stadium would be free for the Championships; as such, the various competitions enjoyed the presence of many fans who rooted for the national athletes. Kenya was the very first country to take the highest medal count at the inaugural event in 1999. Kenya would once again take the top of the medal table in 2009, and the only other country to have taken the highest medal count more than once is the United States, which happens to be the current champion. For IAAF President Sebastian Coe, holding this event in a Kenyan city was a way to pay respectful homage to a country that has given so much to the world of track and field. Not only has Kenya constantly made important contributions towards towards athletics, but the inclusion of an athlete refugee team to compete in a world IAAF championship was easily coordinated with a country that has been giving shelter to thousands of displaced Africans since the 1990s.
When it comes to international track and field competitions, the world knows that Jamaican athletes tend to dominate short distance races while Kenyan and Ethiopian runners excel at longer distances. With the local crowd cheering them on, Leonard Kipkemoi Bet and Cleophas Kandie Meyan took the top medals of the final 2,000 meter steeplechase event, but up-and-coming Ethiopian runner Selemon Barega earned gold in the 3,000 meter race and left the silver and bronze to Kenyan competitors. Ethiopia also earned gold in the 800 and 1,500 meter events, which means that Kenya now has some very strong athletics competitors in their Eastern Africa region. Although competitors from these two track and field rivals electrified the crowd on the final day of the tournament, South Africa made history by finishing with the highest medal count.
African athletes were the most visible at the podium, but there were interesting situations brought on by teenage athletes from other nations. Brittany Anderson of Jamaica set an astonishing world record for the 100 meters race with hurdles. Juan Castro of Costa Rica, a young man who barely qualified for the Championships at the last minute, impressively came in fourth position during the 800 meters race. Maria Vicente of Spain not only took the heptathlon gold medal with ease but also with lots of style.
Athletes from more than 100 countries traveled to Kenya, a powerhouse nation in track and field athletics, to participate in the IAAF U18, though there were a few notable absences. Despite concerns cited by Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States, there were no security issues during the Championships. The US Department of State rates Kenya as a critical nation in terms of terrorism linked with Al-Shabaab, a radical and violent armed group that operates in the border region with Kenya. These seven nations are major contributors to the IAAF in terms of athletes, and thus their absence has been very disappointing. In a letter to Athletics Kenya, the US Track and Field committee explained that its directors gauged that the cost of providing security for young athletes in Nairobi would be too costly and complex. Athletics Kenya chairman Barnaba Korir called on his government to provide better assurances in terms of security; there has been deep frustration among the sizable athletic community in Kenya with the withdrawals of various countries citing security concerns, particularly since the United Kingdom and the US are considered important allies of Kenya. Moreover, the last IAAF World Championships were held in Colombia, a country that has been marked with violence over many decades.
In the end, Kenya may not have succeeded in capturing the top medal country for the third time in the the two decades that this biennial event lasted; however, hosting the last IAAF U18 World Championships and attracting more fans than on previous occasions proved to the world that Africa will continue to be an important source of athletics.