MonteCarloIn the penultimate chapter of their annual look back at the past season, statisticians A. Lennart Julin (SWE) and Mirko Jalava (FIN) survey the key action in the Middle Distances.
The 800m has been an event searching for an identity for some years now. There seems to be a group of up to 20 runners in which just about anyone could turn up winning a global title. Typically the last four championships have had four different winners – Rachid Ramzi in 2005, Alfred Kirwa Yego 2007, Wilfred Bungei 2008 and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi 2009 – none of which was seen as the favourite, or even a favourite, in advance.
For Bungei and Mulaudzi the successes were almost paradoxical as they both after about a decade in the world elite without winning a major title struck gold in years when they were not in their best form. Of course they fully deserved their titles but it felt more as "lifetime awards" than as proof of current supremacy.
What has characterized recent 800m running has been the lack of runners with the ability and confidence to take charge of races with the goal of molding them according to their liking. Instead the event has been almost completely dominated by hesitant "wait-and-see" tactics, especially in the championship situation.
Two years ago two exciting young talents emerged that seemed on the verge of recharging the event – Kenya's David Rudisha and Sudan's Abubaker Kaki. Both appeared to have the necessary physical and mental tools to put their opponents under serious pressure all the way.
Especially Kaki seemed to thrive on the philosophy of relentless forcing of the pace right from the gun and he had immediate success when entering the international scene: Still a junior in 2008 he won the World Indoor title and then opened the outdoor season with a spectacular 1:42.69 World Junior record win at Bislett. However, at the Beijing Olympics he had forgotten his recipe of success: He let the other runners set "the race agenda" and was duly eliminated in a slow semifinal.
But Kaki learned his lesson and was back with a vengeance in 2009 putting together four impressive wins (Doha, Rabat, Hengelo and Turin) before going all out for a really fast time at Bislett. Unfortunately he was struck to the ground already after hundred metres by a sudden hamstring pull, an injury normally only seen among sprinters.
Luckily the injury was not too severe and Kaki managed to return to decent form winning the final tune-up meet for the Worlds – Monaco – in 1:43.50. But in Berlin Kaki suffered another case of bad luck in the semis: Comfortably running at the front – as he should - going into the second bend his foot got caught by the runner behind and Kaki was thrown off balance tumbling to the ground. So his World Championships ended limping off the track.
David Rudisha also started 2008 brilliantly running five meets in 1:43-1:44 winning three and losing two narrowly to Kaki. But then due to injury his season came to an end already in early June so he missed the Olympic opportunity. But just as Kaki did Rudisha returned in good form in 2009 coming into Berlin with wins in Ostrava as well as both the Kenyan Championships and Trials.
However, in Berlin he seemed to make the same mistake as Kaki in Beijing, i.e. getting himself involved in the tight "tactical" kind of racing where he had to chop his huge natural stride to maneuver. In the end he paid the price missing to qualify by place by 0.07 and to qualify by time by 0.14. (Instead the last man into the final was the would-be-winner Mulaudzi!)
But Rudisha learned his lesson fast and realised that his way of running 800m is to take full advantage of his stride, i.e. he should not be caught up in any congestion and he should keep the pace "honest". Acting according to that plan the post-Berlin 800m-season was totally dominated by Rudisha. He ran in Zurich, Brussels, Rieti and the World Athletic Final and got 4-0 vs Mulaudzi, Yego, Som, Borzakovskiy and Symmonds who were No 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7 in the Berlin final.
Especially the Rieti race was memorable as Rudisha really went for a fast time there. Following the pacemaker through an opening lap of 49.6 Rudisha poured it on down the backstraight hitting 600m in 1:15.8 and kept his stride all the way to 1:42.01!! The fastest time in the world since Wilson Kipketer set the current World record 1:41.11 in August 1997 and surpassed only by three other runners ever (Kipketer four times, Coe and Cruz once each).
And remember: Despite having been spotted as future greats already two years ago both Kaki and Rudisha were still only 20 years old in 2009. Having added lots of valuable experience in 2008 and 2009 they should be able to really revitalize the 800m in coming years transforming it from recent lacklustre into one of the most exciting events in the programme!
Because their example will force also everybody else to raise their game if they want to stay competitive.
Just as – or perhaps even more than – the 800m the 1500m has "suffered" in recent years. Here the reason is very obvious: The retirement of Hicham El Guerrouj after his Olympic triumph in 2004. Because – unlike when former dominant Nourreddine Morceli retired four years earlier – there was no one ready to take over the front role like El Guerrouj did (or rather had already done).
The El Guerrouj era was a period when fast races were a general commodity and with him running those 3:26's or 3:27's several other runners were "dragged" below 3:30. In the World All-Time list no less than six of the other nine on the top-10 have their top marks from races won by El Guerrouj. So it is really no wonder that the sub-3:30 marks have been few and far between since El G retired: two in 2005, three in 2006 and nil in both 2007 and 2008!
That doesn't mean that there were no runners capable of sub-3:30 in those years, but they were lacking someone "showing them the way" like El Guerrouj did for almost two Olympic cycles. The Kenyan duo of Augustine Choge and Haron Keitany obviously knew this and already in the opening of the 2009 international season in Doha in early May they made a serious commitment to dip under 3:30.
They only missed by less than a second and in their next attempt about a month later at the Berlin Golden League an almost three year long drought ended as Choge ran 3:29.47 thus becoming the first sub-3:30-runner since Bernard Lagat in August 2006 - and Keitany was just 21 hundredths from joining Choge.
And still there was a strong sense that neither Choge nor Keitany was the foremost Kenyan 1500m runner at the moment. That title instead belonged to Asbel Kiprop who had finished 4th in Osaka at age 18 and 2nd in Beijing last year. And Kiprop did indeed provide by far most impressive 1500m race of 2009 – and perhaps also the most impressive since El Guerrouj retired!
The site was the Rome Olympic Stadium and the occasion was the Golden Gala on 10 July and it was right from start apparent that Kiprop was a man on a mission. Unfortunately for him the organisers had chosen a totally inexperienced runner for the crucial role as first pacemaker - Victor Kipchirchir – who ran his very first (?) international race. As could be expected Kipchirchir panicked at the start sprinting away and after a blistering opening he slowed down drastically but still was leading the race.
The splits – 53.2 for the first lap and 60.3 for the second – tells the story in an eloquent way. When Kipchirchir stepped off the track the runners were at a 3:45-pace! The second pacesetter Vickson Polonet realised that and put on a new burst of speed to try to save the race. But Kiprop was now aware that too much had been lost and blew by Polonet already with 450 metres to go.
The third lap was covered in 55.5 and Kiprop had a huge lead, but then the effects of the highly erratic pacing began to catch up with him. The knee lift started to disappear and the following runners who had avoided the most brutal pace changes began to quickly close the gap. Especially so Moroccan former 800m-specialist Amine Laalou who actually seemed well on his way to snatch the win from Kiprop. But the latter sensed the danger and amazingly managed to find a faster gear again to stave off Laalou's challenge winning in 3:31.20 to 3:31.56.
This race by Kiprop was certainly worth at least 3:28 if the fartlek-like pacing had been replaced with anything at least slightly resembling reasonable pacing and one could only pity Kiprop that the chosen pacemaker was completely unsuited for his task. Good pacemaking is a craft that needs practice to master and it is inexcusable to give the task in major race like this to someone completely inexperienced.
Kiprop himself never seemed to recover – at least not mentally – from his frustrating Rome experience. In the Berlin final his tactics were disastrous: In a slow race he was almost last at the bell which left him with the impossible task of passing more than ten equally fresh runners on the final lap. Of course he failed and had to be content with 4th place while the gold medal went to ex-Kenyan now Bahraini Youssef Saad Kamel who ran a tactically sound race to take full advantage of his 800m-speed in the finishing straight.
Judging from the composition of the Berlin final the strong African dominance in the long distance events seems to be also creeping into the 1500m. Just six years ago in Paris there were nine Europeans in the final, in Helsinki 2005 they were reduced to five, in Osaka 2007 to four and this time in Berlin Mehdi Baala of France was the single European finalist!
Just like in the 5000m and 10,000m the only nation going against this trend is the USA who has continuously increased its presence in the 1500m World Championships final: From zero in 2003, to one in 2005, to two in 2007 and to three in 2009.
2009 World Lists - [800m][1500m]
The reigning 2007 World champion Maryam Jamal of Bahrain was in good form during the season only suffering one loss in the 1500m distance before the Berlin World Championships. The 25-year-old who had been disappointed in Beijing finishing only fifth there, bounced back well in the 2009 summer crowning her season with another World title. 25-year-old Kenyan World champion Janeth Jepkosgei was also in Berlin to defend her title but in very different conditions than Jamal. Jepkosgei had finished in second place behind junior countrywoman Pamela Jelimo at the Olympics and this time there was another junior, 18-year-old Caster Semenya of South Africa, who had surprised with a world leading 1:56.72 at the African Junior Championships. Semenya conquered in Berlin and Jepkosgei took the silver despite having very few races under her belt before Berlin.
The 2009 season in women’s 800m started with a very open field. The Olympic champion Jelimo was far from her 2008 form and also lost to Jepkosgei at the Kenyan World Championships Trials and came to Berlin only having run 1:59.49, more than five seconds slower than her African record 1:54.01 from 2008.
With Jepkosgei running only a couple of modest races at the start of the season, there wasn’t a clear leading name in the event before Semenya did her big run at the African Junior Championships. Russians no surprise were well visible in the world list early. 1500m specialist Anna Alminova ran 1:57.86 in the heats of national championships in July and 24-year-old Mariya Savinova won with a 1:57.90 personal best in Moscow in July.
Semenya, who didn’t run any major races in Europe prior to Berlin, completed each round at the World Championships as the winner and went on to set a national record 1:55.45 for the gold medal. Jepkosgei timed her form well setting a season’s best 1:57.90 and 28-year-old Briton Jennifer Meadows ran the race of her career to finish in third place in a 1:57.93 personal best. Among those who didn’t make it to the final was 27-year-old American Maggie Vessey, who made quick progress in 2009. Vessey won a couple of big races in Eugene and Rome before setting a big personal best 1:57.84 for the win in Monaco. But it didn’t go well in Berlin for the American who was unable to advance from the semifinals. Olympic champion Jelimo didn’t make it either, as she did not finish her race in the semifinal.
Russia tops this event with 19 athletes in the world top 100, USA has 14 and Ukraine 10.
Maryam Jamal started her outdoor season well winning her only 800m race in a season in Hengelo clocking a 1:59.98 season’s best in early June. The former Ethiopian lost to former countrywoman Gelete Burka in her first 1500m race of the season in Lausanne, but then returned to top form winning the rest of three races before Berlin in Rome, Athens and Monaco clocking fast times under four minutes in each one. A 3:56.55 world leading season’s best was more than enough to make her the number one favourite for the World Championships.
Elsewhere Burka was almost equally convincing also recording three sub 4-minute times in addition to being to only one to beat Jamal prior to Berlin. But there were plenty of surprises in the 1500m final in Berlin. The first big surprise came before the final with Anna Alminova failing to move on from the semis. The 24-year-old had convincingly won the European Indoor Championships in March and had run a 3:58.41 personal best in July.
30-year-old Spaniard Natalia Rodriguez had done absolutely nothing before the World Championships, but a 4:03.73 season’s best in the semifinals was enough to suggest she could be a factor in the final as well. But Rodriguez did a bit more than what’s allowed on the track using her elbows a bit too much during the race. The 2009 European Indoor Champs silver medalist behind Alminova had a great sprint finish to beat Maryam Jamal to the line, but it was clear from the moment she crossed that line she was going to be disqualified and lose the gold medal. 300 metres to go she had clearly pushed Ethiopian favourite Gelete Burka out of her way and that even wasn’t the only push by the Spaniard during the race. Burka had her race spoiled and finished in 10th place with Jamal winning her second straight World title in 4:03.74 just barely fighting off challenge from Briton Lisa Dobriskey. The 25-year-old hadn’t shown all her cards before Berlin and clocked a 3:59.50 personal best in Zürich after the World Champs. Another 25-year-old, American champion Shannon Rowbury took the bronze to add spice to the event with two new athletes rising to the medal podium in Berlin.
The United States has 18 athletes in the world top 100, Russia has 15 and Great Britain nine.
2009 World Lists - [800m][1500m]