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Inspiration Games offers a ‘strange’ experience for world-class athletes

Americans Tianna Bartoletta, Allyson Felix and Candace Hill celebrate after winning the women's 3x100-meter relay.
Americans Tianna Bartoletta, left, Allyson Felix, center, and Candace Hill celebrate after winning the women’s 3x100-meter relay during the Weltklasse Zurich Inspiration Games at Mt. San Antonio College on Thursday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Three runners take their place in the starting blocks for a hurdles race; two are bathed in sunshine, the other shadowed by gloomy skies.

A pole vaulter makes her winning attempt in a stadium so empty and quiet, you can hear her say “Yes” as she clears the bar.

A world-record time in the men’s 200 meters has to be scratched after officials discover the winner started 15 meters closer to the finish line.

To say the Weltklasse Zurich “Inspiration Games” were a bit unusual, as track meets go, would be an understatement.

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The international competition featured world-class talent in seven venues around the globe, from Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut to Zurich, Switzerland. Most of the athletes ran and jumped by themselves, but competed against each other by way of a high-tech virtual format.

Each of the eight events on the program Thursday featured three athletes, with three teams entered in the women’s 300-meter relay. In most cases, thousands of miles and several time zones separated the opponents in a given race.

Starting guns fired simultaneously in different venues as television engineers manipulated the feeds so viewers could watch, for instance, three sprinters go side-by-side on a split screen. Athletes crossed the finish line without knowing if they had won.

“It is a good experience,” French pole vaulter Valentin Lavillenie said. “But it is very strange.”

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Allyson Felix crosses the finish line during the women's 3x100-meter relay at the Weltklasse Zürich "Inspiration Games".
Allyson Felix crosses the finish line during the women’s 3x100-meter relay at the Weltklasse Zürich “Inspiration Games” at Mt. San Antonio College on Thursday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

In addition to Mt. SAC and Switzerland, there were venues in France, Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands and Bradenton, Fla.

Six-time Olympic champion Allyson Felix was a big winner Thursday, taking first in the women’s 150 meters and anchoring her U.S. team to victory in the 300-meter relay. Pedro Pablo Pichardo of Portugal upset four-time world champion Christian Taylor of the U.S. in the triple jump. American Sam Kendricks, a two-time world champion, won the men’s pole vault.

American Noah Lyles appeared to dominate the 200 meters, bettering Usain Bolt’s world record until officials realized that — competing alone in Bradenton — he mistakenly started from the wrong line on the track. Christophe Lemaitre of France was bumped into first place.

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“You can’t be playing with my emotions like that,” Lyles tweeted.

There was no risk of a mix-up in the men’s 100, the only event that had all three athletes in the same place. Andre De Grasse, a three-time Olympic medalist from Canada, pulled away for the win.

As with others in the meet, De Grasse was relieved to compete after months of COVID-19 lockdown, saying: “I’m glad to come out here and get a run in.”

“Inspiration Games” will feature world-class athletes around the globe, including at Mt. San Antonio College in California, competing by way of a coordinated video system.

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Weather was a variable in some races, with sunny skies over Southern California — where Felix ran — but cool, gray conditions at other places. Shifting winds blew across the Florida track.

Most of the venues — except for Karlstad, Sweden, where scattered onlookers used noisemakers — were quiet.

“It feels sort of like practice,” Felix said. “It’s hard to challenge yourself. That’s the big thing running solo.”

For all the oddities, and one major glitch, the meet came off as planned. There were no problems with the timing. Television viewers might have found it difficult to identify a leader on the split-screen, but the broadcast went smoothly enough.

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When organizers first approached her, Lea Sprunger, who took second to American Georganne Moline in the women’s 300-meter hurdles, recalled thinking: “How are they going to do it?” On Thursday, she got an answer.

“I was really curious,” said the Swiss star. “And it actually ended pretty well.”


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