One of the strongest casts of the current international indoor season has been assembled for tomorrow evening’s Norwich Union Grand Prix at the National Indoor Arena (NIA), a venue which little less than a year ago played host to the spectacular 9th IAAF World Indoor Championships.
One of the many stars from ‘Birmingham 2003’ who will be returning to the NIA on Friday (20 Feb) is Mozambique’s Maria Mutola, who won her fifth World indoor 800m title at those championships. The reigning Olympic champion, who last summer retained her outdoor World crown and became the first athlete ever to win the IAAF Golden League Jackpot outright, returns to Birmingham as peerless in her field of running as a year ago.
With an impressive unbroken winning streak of twenty-two 800m races to her credit, including her two outings this winter in Glasgow and Karlsruhe, Mutola is on a determined, and seemingly unstoppable, drive to a sixth World Indoor title when the 10th IAAF World Indoor Championships are held in Budapest, Hungary at the beginning of next month (Friday 5 - Sunday 7 March). Only one athlete, Javier Sotomayor has so far amassed six World Indoor medals but the Cuban’s total of High Jumping medals was composed of ‘just’ four golds, plus one silver and one bronze.
True, another superb Cuban athlete, Ivan Pedroso should hopefully be vying for a sixth gold in Budapest but after recent injury his best this season of just 8.01m in the Long Jump doesn’t warrant the limelight that is centred on Mutola’s bid for unmatched golden greatest.
Mutola comes to Birmingham as the world season’s leader at 800m with a time of 1:57.48 is nearly two seconds ahead of her nearest challenger in the world, Jolanda Ceplak of Slovenia, the World Indoor record holder.
1000m ‘head to head’ with Holmes
However, in the NIA on Friday Mutola will instead race the 1000m at which she does hold the World record (2:30.94), and while it is perhaps too much to hope that she will improve on that time, in her present form her clocking should definitely be quicker than when she last ran the distance indoors, last winter in a time of 2:34.61.
Extra impetus for a fast time should be gained by the presence of Mutola’s house-mate and training partner Britain’s Kelly Holmes, the World outdoor 800m silver medallist, who with gold medal aspirations of her own - for the World 1500m gold - in Budapest will still be smarting from her defeat over that distance in Stockholm last week (12 feb).
Gardener set to fly again
The men's 60m offers another home athlete of star quality, as Jason Gardener who equalled of his own European record (6.46 seconds) in Karlsruhe at the weekend is in action.
However, of all Brits on show tomorrow it will be Birmingham's Ashia Hansen appearance in the women's Triple Jump which will draw most attention as she is back after almost a year out following surgery. Memorably it was on this same runway last winter that Hansen bounded to the World Indoor title. On Friday she will be usefully challenged by Magdelin Martinez, Italy's bronze medallist from last year's outdoor World Championships in Paris.
A special Ethiopian goodbye
In the men's Two Miles, Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, 30, who set the World best for the distance at this meeting last year (8:04.69) is billed to be running his last indoor competition in Britain before a permanent switch to the roads after the Athens Olympics this summer. There are sure to be hoards of flag carrying Ethiopians in the crowd to wave and cheer goodbye to their hero, who is still the reigning double Olympic 10,000m champion.
Enthusiastic support will also be pointed in the direction of Geb’s younger compatriot’s Kenenisa Bekele, 21, the current World 10,000m champion as he sets foot on the boards of an indoor track, for only the second time in his career, to run the 5000m.
Jones at the double
World indoor and outdoor champion Dwight Phillips (USA) goes in the men’s Long Jump but with all due respect to his amazing talent, it is the women’s Long Jump which will attract the most attention of the two broad jumps, as it marks the return of USA’s Marion Jones to the landing pit for the first time since her bronze at the Sydney Olympics. Jones’ opponents include 1999 World champion Niurka Montalvo of Spain, and Greece's European indoor champion Niki Xanthou.
Jones, a three-time Olympic sprint champion will also have an outing at the 60m dash and will be pressed hard by World Indoor champion Zhanna Block of Ukraine, and Olympic 100m bronze medallist Tayna Lawrence of Jamaica.
Then there is the women’s 3000m start list, which like that for the longest men’s race is topped by an Ethiopian star of the highest calibre, this time World indoor record holder and World Indoor 3000m champion Berhane Adere, who also took the outdoor 10,000m title in Paris last summer. Romania's Olympic 5000m champion Gabriela Szabo, World Indoor bronze medallist Meseret Defar (ETH), and World outdoor 5000m champion Tirunesh Dibaba (ETH), and Britain's Jo Pavey, head an impressive line-up.
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