There’s never been a World Championships quite like these, and the jury is out on whether that’s a good thing. From the captivating energy of Beijing 2015 to the thronged stands of London 2017, we find ourselves here, in Doha, Qatar, wondering just what the sport and its athletes have done to deserve this.
If it feels a little late for the apex of the athletics year, it’s because it is – two months on from its usual slot to allow athletes compete in conditions that are merely oppressive, rather than downright hazardous.
Though we should reserve judgment on that until after tonight’s women’s marathon, set to take off just before midnight local time.
Temperatures are set to hit 40 degrees in the coming days and with humidity through the roof, it’s no surprise many warning lights are flashing for organisers as marathoners and race walkers prepare to run the gauntlet with their health.
For track and field athletes, it’s a very different story.
The Khalifa Stadium is a splendid structure that will be air conditioned all week and on his first visit there on Wednesday, Thomas Barr was suitably impressed.
“It’s nice and cool and it’s perfect for racing,” said Barr, who is the leading hope on the Irish team of eight. “It’s an amazing stadium and this is the part I love, coming down, checking out the stadium, getting those butterflies and getting ready to race.”
It’s been a solid, if unspectacular, season for Barr to date. The 27-year-old clocked a best of 49.11 during a series of Diamond League outings in the early summer, but while midway through a subsequent block of training Barr strained his calf which kept him sidelined for three weeks.
He’s been back since last month, running well to finish sixth in the Diamond League final in Zurich, and though he’ll need to take a sizable chunk off his season’s best to make the final, he has a habit of finding an extra gear when it matters most.
In 2016 he went to the Olympics with a season’s best of just 50.09 and shocked everyone to make the 400m hurdles final and set the Irish record of 47.97 to finish fourth. A bout of gastroenteritis ruled him out of the 2017 World Championships in London after he reached the semi-final, but last year in Berlin he carved almost a second off his season’s best to win European bronze in 48.31.
“This one has been a long time coming and I’m looking forward to getting going,” he said. “I’ve done all the work so it’s: let me at it.”
Barr is drawn against world champion Karsten Warholm in his 400m hurdles heat at 6:35pm Irish time today, and he should be well able to secure one of the four automatic qualifying spots.
Michelle Finn is the only other Irish athlete in action, the Leevale athlete going in the 3000m steeplechase heats at 5:10pm.
Mark English will get his campaign underway in the men’s 800m heats tomorrow, the 26-year-old a late arrival after falling just shy of the qualifying standard and receiving an invite via the IAAF just last Friday.
English has been brilliant in some races this year, brutal in others – the former when kicking to victory at the Birmingham Diamond League in 1:45.94. However he has also had some shockers after struggling with back issues in certain races, and it’s anyone’s guess what version the three-time European medallist will arrive in Doha. At his very best, he has the capacity to be in a world final.
That will be the plan, the hope, for Ciara Mageean, who will contest the 1500m heats next Wednesday.
The 27-year-old has been in sparkling form this summer, her 4:19.03 mile in Monaco proving she has the ability to be a world finalist if things fall her way.
Phil Healy will be in action in the women’s 200m heats on Monday, and for Ireland’s fastest woman simply being here is a victory, given she broke her foot in April while on a warm-weather training camp in Malta.
It will likely take quicker than her Irish record of 22.99 to advance from her heat, but either way Doha will serve her well with the Olympics now looming into view.
Brendan Boyce will battle the elements along with the world’s best in tomorrow night’s 50km race walk, and while his native Donegal is a long way from Doha in every sense, there are few more willing to suffer than the two-time Olympian, who clocked his personal best of 3:48:13 to finish fifth in the European Cup in May.
Alex Wright will race the men’s 20km race walk next Friday, while Stephen Scullion will be the last of the Irish in action in the men’s marathon next Saturday, where a top-20 finish looks possible.
Phil Healy (Bandon) 200m; Ciara Mageean (City of Lisburn) 1500m; Michelle Finn (Leevale) 3,000m steeplechase.
Alex Wright (Leevale) 20km race walk; Brendan Boyce (Finn Valley) 50km race walk; Stephen Scullion (Clonliffe Harriers) marathon; Thomas Barr (Ferrybank) 400m hurdles; Mark English (UCD) 800m.
Thomas Barr, men’s 400m hurdles heats: 6:35pm Michelle Finn, women’s 3000m steeplechase heats, 5:10pm
BBC 2 from 1:45pm