By Alison Wildey
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Injury is a risk for athletes who regularly push their bodies to the extremes in the never-ending search for faster, higher, stronger performances and post-Olympic 2013 seems to have been a particularly bad year for casualties.
The exertions of competing in last year's Games have left many battered and bruised, so the world championships in Moscow have been hit by a string of absentees and the event has been at risk of becoming more about who is not competing than who is.
For twice-Olympic 1,500 meters champion and London 2012 organizer Sebastian Coe it was only to be expected.
"Athletes that have emerged from a big Olympic year tend to be injury prone. We've lost people along the way this year and the doesn't surprise me," he told a news conference in Moscow last week.
"When I came out of my 1984 Olympic campaign, my father, who was my coach, described training me the following year like training an eggshell because an Olympic year is hard.
"It is mentally and physically bruising," added Coe, who struggled with injury the year after retaining his Olympic 1,500 title in Los Angeles.
"You do more things and you do them with greater intensity in an Olympic year."
The Moscow casualty list includes Kenya's Olympic and world 800 meters champion David Rudisha and twice world marathon winner Abel Kirui, Jamaican Yohan Blake - the 2011 100 meters gold medalist - and Olympic 1,500 champion Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria.
The heptathlon was particularly hard hit with the three London medalists, Britain's Jessica Ennis-Hill, Lilli Schwarzkopf of Germany and Russian Tatyana Chernova all missing due to various ailments, leaving unheralded Ukrainian Ganna Melnichenko to win her first major title at the age of 30.
Plenty of athletes have arrived in the Russian capital seemingly held together with sticking plaster.
"Am I the same as I was last year? I think physically I actually feel a little more worn down," Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton told a news conference before winning the world title.
"You see a lot of Olympic champions not at this meet. I think it does take a toll on your mind and your body."
For an athlete, competing at the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of their career and the thing that makes the years of training and sacrifice worth it.
Consequently, many struggle to maintain that level of performance and some may never attain it again.
Of those athletes in Moscow, few will expect to emulate the heights that were so joyously witnessed by thousands over 10 glorious days in London's Olympic stadium.
"This year the results were relatively slower than we had in previous years. It's just because of the Olympics. Many of the athletes still feel tired and drained after the tough preparation and high-grade competition at the Olympic Games," U.S. men's coach Mike Holloway said.
However, there is always an exception to the rule and unsurprisingly, the sport's biggest superstar Usain Bolt proved to be just that, though he was not quite as sharp as four years ago in Berlin where he set world records in the 100 and 200 meters after winning both titles at the 2008 Olympics.
"After Olympics people are tired, they put their bodies through a very strenuous period last year," said U.S. 110 hurdles world record holder Aries Merritt.
"When it (the world championships) falls after Olympic year I think people suffer - though that wasn't the case in Berlin when Usain Bolt was able to do amazing things a year after Beijing."
However, even the world's greatest sprinter was more workmanlike than 'wow' when winning the 100 meters final in 9.77 seconds on a stormy night on Sunday.
Sadly for those who do win gold in Moscow, their moment of glory will be tainted by those asking what might have been.
Heptathlon champion Melnichenko's total of 6,586 points was a personal best but it was also the lowest winning score in the history of the world championships.
Ethiopia's new 800 meters world champion Mohammed Aman has inevitably been faced with questions about the absence of world record holder Rudisha who has a knee injury.
Aman could finish only sixth in the Olympic final when Rudisha smashed his world record in what was essentially not a race but a two-lap time trial against the clock for the tall Kenyan.
"I am very sad for him because injuries are very hard on athletes," said Aman, who is no slouch himself and the only man to have beaten Rudisha since 2009.
"I am very sorry for him, but I don't do sport for Rudisha, I do it for me. I didn't say that because Rudisha is not involved, that the gold is for me. I didn't say that because there are some very strong athletes here."
(Additional reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ed Osmond)