Updated 9 August 2008
Ismail Ahmed ISMAIL, Sudan (800m)
Born: 1 November 1984, Halfa
1.93m / 70kg
Coach/manager: Jama Aden
Second born of six siblings (1 sister, 4 brothers)
Ismail Ahmed Ismail made a strange start to his life as an athlete for two reasons. First, instead of gradually moving up in distance, he moved down, beginning as a 3000m runner, turning to 1500m and, finally, to 800m. Second, although he was a middle distance competitor, he kept getting disqualified. A man with an infectious sense of humour, he laughs at those days now.
Having been introduced to athletics at school, Ismail’s talent soon surfaced and he won the National Schools 3000m. But why the 3000m? “My teacher was pushing me in the 3000m because I was tall,” Ismail recalled. “He didn’t really know athletics, so maybe he was thinking: ‘The short guys are sprinters, so the tall one can go for 3000!”
Fortunately for the athlete who would become an Olympic 800m finalist by the age of 19, the experienced eye of Omer Khalifa knew something was wrong. Khalifa, the Sudanese 1500m record holder (3:33.28, 1986) and fifth-placer at the 1987 World Championships, in Rome, recognised that Ismail was running too long a distance.
“The national coach (Khalifa) saw me in the 3000m and told me I had to come down to 800,” Ismail explained. “So I tried 800m and I finished first in the National Junior Championships. After that, they took me to the East African Junior Championships in Addis and I ran 1:55 - I was 6th. It was the year of the World Junior Championships in Santiago and I went to Santiago and ran 1:53 (1:53.14).”
And that was when the trouble started. There was no disgrace in the novice international finishing seventh in his heat but it was in his second event of the World Junior Championships, the 1500m, that he drew attention to himself. He was disqualified for leaving the track and rejoining the race.
However, Ismail’s silver medal over 1500m at the Arab Championships that year - “my first medal” – maintained his enthusiasm and, in 2001, he was sent to the World Indoor Championships, in Lisbon, to gain experience in the senior ranks. He was out of his depth, finishing last in his 1500m heat six seconds adrift of the field (4:02.79)
Dropping back down two age groups, Ismail went to the 2001 World Youth Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, and lined up for the 800m. But he was disqualified there, too, this time for breaking lanes too early. “I didn’t know how to break lanes,” he said. “I didn’t know the rules. It made me feel bad.”
However, in 2002, Ismail began to be noticed for the right reasons. He was fifth in the World Junior Championships in Kingston (1:47.20) in a race won by Kenya’s Alex Kipchirchir (1:46.59). In 2003, by now an 800 specialist, he ran a time almost identical to the one he had in Kingston (1:47.21) but it was not enough to get him past the heats of the World Championships, in Paris. At the 2004 World Indoor Championships, in Budapest, seven months later, he failed to finish in his heat.
In the circumstances, it was understandable that Ismail was not especially optimistic for his prospects at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Did he think he had a chance of reaching the final? “No,” he said candidly. “I just wanted to do my best.” Which is exactly what he did, setting personal best times in his heat and Semi-Final. “So, in the Final, I was tired,” Ismail said, laughing, and trying to justify his last place, seven seconds adrift at the back of the field.
Running 1:45.32 in the build-up to the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, Ismail was optimistic of reaching another global Final. But he suffered an injury training in Helsinki four days before the competition and had to withdraw. Clocking a personal best 1:44.70 in Lignano, in July, it looked as though 2006 was shaping up nicely for Ismail but a thigh injury effectively cost him the rest of the season.
Into 2007, by now, the injury theme had become seemingly never-ending and, hardly competing at all that season, he made no impression. Thankfully for Ismail, 2008 has been a different story. He has run several races, including a 2nd place in the African Championships, 3rd in Doha, and wins in Malmö and Rabat.
Then, with the Olympic Games in Beijing less than three weeks away, Ismail clocked a personal best 1:44.34 for fifth place in an IAAF Super Grand Prix meeting, in Monaco, on 29 July, a race won by Russia’s defending Olympic champion, Yuriy Borzakowskiy in 1:42.79.
Asked how difficult it had been for him to cope during three successive years of injury blows, Ismail said: “I was listening to people talking. They were saying: ‘Ismail is finished’. But I believed in myself. The people in Sudan do not understand athletics and they were saying: ‘This guy will not run again. He stopped three years, that’s too much’.
“Me? I knew I was going to come back. My coach (Jama Aden) was the one talking to me. I ran in the African Championships (2008, in Addis) and I was 2nd. I know I can do it again.”
While Ismail was sidelined, one of the hottest properties in world athletics was emerging – from Ismail’s own country and in his own event. Abubaker Kaki won the 800m at the All Africa Games, in Algiers, and at the Pan Arab Games, in Cairo, in 2007 and began 2008 with a World junior indoor record for 1000m and by taking the World Indoor title over 800m in Valencia.
Was it hard for Ismail seeing this new rising star while he was stagnating? “No,” he said. “I feel good because before I didn’t have someone to push me but Kaki has come and pushed me. We train together. I am training with Kaki and everything is going up. Before Kaki I was training alone. I feel very happy because we are two guys. We train in a bigger group.”
800m: 1:44.34 (2008)
1500m: 3:41.97 (2005)
800/1500m: 2000: 1:53.12/3:48.70; 2001: 1:48.2/ -; 2002: 1:46.36/ -; 2003: 1:46.15/ -; 2004: 1:45.17/ -; 2005: 1:45.32/3:41.97; 2006: 1:44.70/ -; 2007: 1:47.29/ -; 2008: 1:44.34/-
2000 heats World Junior Championships (800m)
2001 heats World Indoor Championships (1500m)
2001 6th African Junior Championships (800m)
2002 5th World Junior Championships (800m)
2003 heats World Championships (800m)
2003 1st Arab Championships (800m)
2003 5th All Africa Games (800m)
2004 3rd African Championships (800m)
2004 8th Olympic Games (800m)
2004 2nd Pan Arab Games (800m)
2006 2nd African Championships (800m)
2008 2nd African Championships
Prepared by David Powell for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008.