Hardly would it have seemed possible a year ago, as she swept all before her with her flamboyant front-running, but World 800m champion Janeth Jepkosgei has contested four races this season and won none of them. Suddenly her chances of becoming Kenya’s first women’s Olympic champion in athletics seem crunched to almost nothing.
The emergence of Jepkosgei’s brilliant 18-year-old compatriot, Pamela Jelimo, has reduced the athlete who clocked the world’s fastest time for four years in 2007 from star-turn to extra on the ÅF Golden League circuit. But perish the thought that she has given up on the idea of winning gold in Beijing next month.
Trailing Jelimo 4-0 in head-to-head competition this season, the 25-year-old Jepkosgei is not giving up yet on gunning down the new two-lap sensation who is seven years her junior. They are next due to face each other in the Meeting Gaz de France Paris Saint-Denis, the fourth of six ÅF Golden League fixtures this season, on Friday 18 July.
Jepkosgei has not finished within three seconds of Jelimo in any of their encounters this season and, asked if she had thought about how she might beat the teenager who has adopted her front-running style in Beijing, the World champion said: “Yes (I have thought about it). There is room for improvement from me – in Paris and in Beijing. I think, if I have the shape, I will do what I did in Osaka (take gold).”
At the World Championships in Osaka, Jepkosgei became the first Kenyan woman to win a global title at a distance below 10,000m. Remarkably, given the prominent role played by the country’s female distance runners since the early 1990s, Kenya is still awaiting its first women’s Olympic track and field champion.
Quicker than at this stage in 2007
The overdue gold medal entry into Kenyan Olympic history should be achieved next month. Will it be Jelimo or Jepkosgei? Although she has been like a dot in the distance in the finish-line photographs of Jelimo’s ÅF Golden League victories in Berlin, Oslo and Rome, as well as in the Kenyan Olympic trials, Jepkosgei is quicker than she was at this stage last year.
Recording 1:58.74 to finish runner-up in Rome, Jepkosgei can take heart from the fact that it was not until after the Golden Gala meeting last season, held in the corresponding week of July that her form picked up. She ran her eight quickest times of the season post-Rome, ranging from 1:56.04 to 1:59.03, winning every race, including the World title, the World Athletics Final, and at the Golden League in Zurich and Berlin.
So, while admitting that it is “a bit disturbing” to see Jelimo so far ahead, Jepkosgei is working to a plan. “Everybody runs their own race – mine is to be in Beijing in better shape,” she said. “This year I want to be able to run low 1:55. I want to run 1:55 to match her.”
She is a good friend of mine
Jelimo has run sub 1:56 four times this season – led by her World Junior record 1:54.99 in Berlin and backed up by 1:55.41 in Oslo, 1:55.69 in Rome and 1:55.76 in Hengelo. How hard has it been for Jepkosgei to watch Jelimo beat her consistently? “It’s a big pressure,” the World champion admitted. “She has energy and she is strong, really strong.”
Was it bordering on the embarrassing? “I don’t feel it because I am still young,” Jepkosgei said. “I have to maintain my running. As for winning and losing, that is sport. Look at (Jeremy) Wariner and (Asafa) Powell.” Both men have had their struggles this season.
The key to who prevails in Beijing may be in whether Jelimo can sustain a long season, which began in April, with the trials for the African Championships. Asked whether Jelimo might suffer burn-out from so many fast races, Jepkosgei said: “I don’t know, it depends on the coach. With a good coach and good communication I think she can maintain.”
Whatever the outcome, the two will remain on social terms. “She is a good friend of mine,” Jepkosgei said. “She is still young, so I think she will get more advice from me. Since last year I came to know her and she was doing the 400m in the juniors. We come from the same area (Kapsabet) so I really took her aside and told her she can run 800.”
It didn’t take long for Jelimo to prove Jepkosgei right.
David Powell for the IAAF