The youngest World Indoor champion in history versus the World Junior champion. The reigning Pan Arab Games and All Africa Games gold medallist against the newly-crowned African champion. Sudan’s probable first superstar of athletics going head-to-head with the new beacon of hope for Kenyan men’s middle distance running. Abubaker Kaki versus David Rudisha. Right here, right now.
In one of the earliest exchanges in what promises to be an 800m rivalry stretching out over many years, Kaki and Rudisha – both still teenagers - take to the ÅF Golden League stage for the first time this season in the Exxon Mobil Bislett Games tomorrow. Throw in also Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, South Africa’s experienced 2004 Olympic silver medallist and former World Indoor champion, and the scene is set for a magnificent contest.
While talk is premature of Wilson Kipketer’s world record falling this season, the ingredients exist for either Kaki or Rudisha to be the next holder of the mark. And nobody close to either would be surprised if, by the end of this summer, at least one of the two joined the sub 1:42 club. It is a club which, for now, has only three members – Kipketer (1:41.11), Britain’s Sebastian Coe (1:41.73) and Brazil’s Joaquim Cruz (1:41.77).
Kaki, 18, Sudan’s first world champion in any sport, clocked 1:43.90 for runaway gold at the Pan Arab Games, in Cairo, last November, and led boldly from the front to win the World Indoors, in Valencia, in March, in 1:44.81. Rudisha, 19, responded by breaking the African Championships record which had stood for 24 years, in Addis Ababa, last month, clocking 1:44.20.
After his latest triumph, in at the Qatar Super Grand Prix in Doha (1:44.36), on May 9, when his victims included his compatriot and world champion, Alfred Yego, Rudisha thought ahead to his coming battles with Kaki. From Oslo, they are due to meet again in the Golden Spike meeting in Ostrava on 12 June There are no echoes here of the 1980s rivalry between Coe and Steve Ovett.
Kaki and Rudisha are not fighting shy of each other. “I am looking forward to running against Kaki in Oslo and Ostrava,” Rudisha said. “I saw his win in the World Indoors and he is very strong. But I am happy to run against him. My shape is good and I am ready for anything.” Rudisha holds the three fastest times in the world this year.
“He has already run some races this season and looks good,” Kaki said of Rudisha. “This will be my first race (at 800m) and I will give my best to make a good race. May the best man win. There is not only Rudisha but a lot of other good 800m guys in the race, like Mulaudzi, who has big experience, and Ugandan Abraham Chepkirwok, who won last weekend in Berlin, and Mohammed Al-salhi, who is a very fast finisher in a slow race.”
At a time when Kenya has been suffering in the shadows of the Ethiopian distance runners, the nation’s riposte has been to throw up two 800m runners of enormous potential, greater perhaps than either the current women’s world champion, Janeth Jekosgei, or the men’s world champion Yego. Eighteen-year-old Pamela Jelimo’s African record breaking exploits made headlines in Berlin. What can Rudisha do now?
According to James Templeton, his manager, Rudisha has lost only two out of more than 40 races, including schools competition, while building a reputation, just as Kaki has, as a championship runner. In between his 2006 victory at the World Juniors in Beijing and his 2008 African Championships triumph, he took gold at the African Junior Championships.
When Rudisha broke the senior African Championships record in Addis, it was the mark set by Sammy Kosgei in 1984 that he erased from the books. That same year Kosgei went on to set a Kenyan and African record of 1:42.28 which stands to this day. But it is another Kenyan, former double world champion, Billy Konchellah, to whom Rudisha is likened and who the athlete says “is a great inspiration to me.”
Like Konchellah, Rudisha is over 6ft tall and possesses a long, graceful stride. The comparisons do not end there. Both began as 400m runners and are members of the Maasai tribe, renowned for its bravery. Furthermore, they hail from the same area – Kilgoris – and their homes are only 10km apart. Kipketer, a Kenyan-born Dane, said of Rudisha: “He has the potential to do great things.”
But the youngster is maintaining a level-head amid the growing media attention on him back home. He will not be drawn in to talk of specific targets against the clock. “At the moment I am trying to improve my time,” he said. “I think that, if the race is fast and the conditions are good, I can run fast times. I would be very happy to run 1:41 but I am focused on winning all my races. I think that is best for me, rather than trying to run a time.”
And how does he react to being labelled potentially Kenya’s next male track star? “I don’t think of it that way,” Rudisha, whose father, Daniel, was an Olympic 4x400m silver medallist in 1968, said. “I am a young athlete trying to improve my performances and establish myself. There are so many good athletes in Kenya and I am happy to be considered one of them.”
Kaki, in the meantime, is adjusting to his new celebrity status. Some 15,000 people flocked to witness his return from Valencia at Khartoum airport and, at the National Stadium, in the Sudanese capital, he sometimes draws up to 5,000 people to watch him train, according to Jama Aden, his coach.
“One day I told Kaki ‘you have been training hard – don’t come to the track tomorrow, have a rest’,” Aden says in a Kaki profile in the latest issue of the IAAF magazine. “Some of the people came over to me the next day and, because Kaki wasn’t there, they said: ‘Where’s Kaki? I have taken two buses to get here and spent a dollar. Why couldn’t you have told us yesterday that he was not coming here today”
Mulaudzi will be eager tomorrow to avenge double defeat by Kaki in the last 12 months, first at the All Africa Games, in Algiers, last July, then in Valencia. On both occasions the South African had to settle for the silver medal. However, between his All Africa Games and Pan Arab wins Kaki had to learn to deal with disappointment as he failed qualify for the final of the World Championships in Osaka. It was put down to nerves.
The South African also has been on the end of a beating from Rudisha. When the Kenyan scored his maiden victory on the Golden League circuit last September, Mulaudzi again finished second. Rudisha’s 1:44.15 that evening, in the Ivo Van Damme Memorial meeting in Brussels, remains his personal best to date.
Like Rudisha, Kaki will race sparingly in the build-up to Beijing. For the Kenyan, the city already holds fond memories following his World Junior triumph and he will be among the favourites to be on the 800m podium in the Bird’s Nest Stadium. For Kaki, another memorable chapter in his country’s sporting history beckons. “I want to be the first Sudanese to get an Olympic medal,” he said. From Bislett to Beijing, the journey begins.
David Powell for the IAAF