Kicking off the 35th World Orienteering Championships in Riga, Latvia was the Sprint Distance event.
Beginning in the morning in Kronvalda Park in the centre of Riga it was a flat, fast and relatively straightforward course to get the athletes underway. Without any major technical challenges, competitors would have to be pinpoint precise to ensure they qualified in necessary top-15 positions, with some big names missing out. In the Ladies race – who started first at 7 am UK time – the GBR women of Charlotte Ward, Alice Leake and Megan Carter-Davies all qualified without any issues, Megan best of the day for the Brits in 3rd. In the Men’s race the story was similar, with Peter Hodkinson initially a worry for missing out, he, Chris Smithard and Kristian Jones all qualified for the final. It was not so lucky for the defending silver medallist in the Men’s discipline, Frenchman Frederic Tranchand, who missed out by just 4 seconds in 17th place. There were a series of mispunches, particularly in Heat C, caused by two similar controls in close proximity, though with no protests upheld, the results stood. In the Women’s field, the only major shock exit was the mispunch of Sabine Hauswith of Switzerland, who would have been challenging for the podium on a good day.
Onto the Final, and the Women again got proceedings underway. The Final offered a far more complex navigational challenge to the runners, with extensive artificial barriers and alleyways opened specifically for the event; yet with no height gain on the course, the running speeds would dictate proceedings just as much. The main issue though would turn out to be the spectators and cars out in the streets. With the organisers not shutting down the roads for the runners, there were continual issues of cars and buses attempting to drive into the tightly-packed arena. This was only exacerbated by the overlapping routes taken by runners leaving the arena for their start, entering the arena to head through the arena passage, and finishing runners. Add to this the chaos caused by the crowded streets, and the public not paying attention to the runners as they were competing (there were numerous instances of athletes colliding with members of the public), it was havoc on the courses.
Charlotte Ward began things for the British Women, and after a slow start, she began to get into her running. As the course opened up towards the end she used her running strength well, but it was just a bit too much to do to fight back into the top twenty at the end of the day. After finishing 4th, she slowly dropped to 24th, two minutes down.
The next GBR Woman was Alice Leake, and again it was a slow start for Alice, but as they entered the tricky middle section of alleyways and barriers, she began to fly. From 19th at the 5th control, she would gain time on her rivals for the top-10 all the way to the finish. Starting just a minute in front of Tove Alexanderson, there would always be a lot of pressure, but Alice had no problems. Alexanderson would best Alice’s leading time by 50 seconds to take the lead at the finish, but Alice would hold on for 8th. The final GBR Woman out into the city was Megan Carter-Davies. Megan started quicker than both Alice and Charlotte but came unstuck exiting the difficult middle section. She tried to gain the lost time back as the legs opened up from short technical navigation into more open, wide route choices, but more mistakes cropped in. Still, it was an admirable performance, and for the youngest member of the team a great sign of things to come, with a 28th here.
Many would try to better Tove Alexanderson’s time, with numerous runners, including one of the main favourites Judith Wyder, all falling around thirty seconds short. But as the heavens began to open and rain spattered the cobbled streets, the Danish favourite and defending champion Maja Alm, pipped her by 17 seconds, denying Alexanderson the one individual World Championships gold medal she has yet to add to her collection.
As the rain intensified and turning into a storm, the Men’s race got underway. The cobbles by this stage had turned slick, and competitors were gingerly taking the corners around the old town. There was initial hope that this would curb the issues of the crowds, but there was no such luck.
Peter Hodkinson got things underway for the British Men and held his own in the tough conditions. A couple of errors crept into his run, though it seemed less problematic than his qualification this morning. Into the finish, he was second, 20 seconds down on the lead of Martin Hubmann (SUI), but would eventually slip to 29th – way down on his 13th from last year. Chris Smithard was next out of the gate, and the script ran similarly to that of his teammate Peter. Though not a disaster, the competition at this level is extremely tight, and Chris would fall to 35th place by the end of the day, just not having his best day in the office – again, way down on last year’s 14th. With both though, they have confirmed their quality, with such placings from sub-optimal performances.
The main British hope of the day had to be the final GBR starter, Kristian Jones. Coming into this race, Kris was one of the hot favourites for the gold medal, and a medal was all he was aiming for. He started well, and despite an early slip, was in touch at the first split. Then, disaster struck. In the complex alleyways in the central section of the course, Kris got confused by a section of mapping which was far from clear and headed inadvertently into a restaurants kitchen – needless to say all those involved were slightly shocked. The lack of clarity on the map can often throw runners, but the glaring error here didn’t only catch out Kris but several others as well. He pushed on regardless and was still in touch, but a bad error on the 16th towards the end of the course cost him that real top result he was after. It would be 10th in the end and a 12 month wait for another chance at the title for Kris.
In the fight for gold though it was nail-biting. With the storm taking down the electrics and TV screen in the arena, it was hard to keep track of each runner in such a furious, fast and chaotic sprint, but Daniel Hubmann stormed into the lead having started with just a third of the field left to follow him 20 seconds ahead of his teammate Andreas Kyburz. So often having played second fiddle to his brother Mattias, today was Andreas’ day, seeing off repeated challenges to his podium spot, and clinching a bronze medal, despite a late charge from Belgian Yannick Michels, who finished a mere 0.6 seconds down in 4th. It was New Zealander Tim Robertson who would pose the biggest challenge to Hubmann though, trading the lead with him the entire way around the course, but just came up short at the end, finishing 1.1 seconds off the lead to take home a thoroughly deserved silver medal and allowing Hubmann to retain his title.
1. Maja Alm, Denmark, 2. Tove Alexandersson, Sweden, 3. Judith Wyder, Switzerland
GBR: Alice Leake – 8th, Charlotte Ward – 24th, Megan Carter-Davies – 28th
1. Daniel Hubmann, Switzerland, 2. Tim Robertson, New Zealand, 3. Andreas Kyburz, Switzerland
GBR: Kristian Jones – 10th, Peter Hodkinson – 29th, Chris Smithard – 35th.
Mixed Sprint Relay:
Tomorrow sees the Mixed Sprint Relay, and the final sprint discipline of the week takes place. GBR will again be going to a medal results, but it will be tough with so many nations on top-form. The team has yet to be released, but we will put it up online as soon as we know it.
Thank you to all those who have got involved on Twitter, hopefully, I will have better WiFi coverage tomorrow.