Some said it would be easy but it needed effort all the way. They said the record was so old that Methuselah would have been proud of it. And that it had survived only because it was rarely challenged. It was even suggested that nobody would care whether this little piece of history lived or died.
But this is Brussels, this is Van Damme. These are the most loyal and passionate spectators on the global athletics circuit. People care.
Record falls by two and a half seconds
Kenya succeeded tonight in their attempt to break the World record for the men’s 4x1500m – the oldest of all official IAAF World records – recording 14:36.23 and beating the former mark by just over two and a half seconds.
The 47,000 capacity crowd in the King Baudouin Stadium played a noisy and significant part, urging the record to happen as they stood, clapped and waved their programmes. And when it came to the Kenyan athletes’ thankyous, even the police got a mention.
But here let us remind ourselves that the outgoing record was set by a relatively unknown Federal Republic of Germany quartet in 1977, with a mark even quicker than the collective effort recorded four years earlier by the once illustrious John Walker, Rod Dixon and Dick Quax (helped by the lesser-known Tony Polhill).
But the New Zealanders were disqualified for pacing, outlawed in those days. Walker, Dixon and Quax were trailblazers of their time, each one an Olympic medallist, so for the Germans to have recorded 14:38.8 in Cologne in 1977, compared with the Kiwis’ 14:40.4, speaks volumes for their performance.
The year that the Van Damme Memorial meeting was held for the first time (one day before the record was set). The year that a young Steve Ovett, a future World record holder, made his first global mark with his victory at the inaugural IAAF World Cup in Dusseldorf.
The year that Elvis Presley died. The year that Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev took office as Presidents of the United States and Soviet Union.
Hear the echo - how long ago? Carl Lewis and Zola Budd hadn’t been heard of yet. The Olympic boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles were political controversies of the future.
Before Usain Bolt, Yelena Isinbayeva, Sanya Richards, Kenenisa Bekele and all four members of the new Kenya World record team were born. Before the laptop was invented. Before mobile phones went on public sale. Before athletics turned professional.
Brezhnev, Carter, Lewis and Budd have come and gone and so too now, finally, has the Germans’ World record, set by Karl Fleschen, Thomas Wessinghage, Harald Hudak and Michael Lederer. The new holders are William Biwott Tanui, Gideon Gathimba, Geoffrey Kipkoech Rono, and Augustine Choge, who ran in that order.
Rono celebrates before changeover!
Remarkably, perhaps, although the country’s strength in depth is well-known, this wasn’t even Kenya’s strongest squad. Not even close. In the 2009 IAAF Top Lists, Choge is the Kenyan No.1 but Tanui is No.4 among his countrymen, Gathimba No.6 and Rono No.14.
While Haron Keitany (3:30.20 this year) and Asbel Kiprop (3:31.20 this year) were said to be unavailable through injury, it is strange to report that Nicholas Kemboi, Kenya’s No.8, Bethwell Birgen, Kenya’s No.9, were assigned to the Mixed Team, which finished runners-up, while Rono was preferred.
The 22-year-old Rono’s inexperience seemed to tell around the bottom bend, on his last lap, as he prepared to hand over to Choge for the last leg. Waving his arms he seemed not to know where the changeover was but we mistook it, apparently, for an early show of delight. “I knew we were going to break the record, with Choge on the last leg, so I was celebrating,” Rono said.
The prevailing view, prior to tonight, had been that the modern generation of Kenyans would claim the record but Wilfried Meert, the meeting director, was not so sure. Underlining the difficulty of such a challenge in the modern era, Meert said: “We have made a generation of guys who are used to running only behind pacemakers.
“They are no longer used to accepting their responsibility. Many of them can run 3:34/3.35, depending on the wind and conditions, behind pacemakers for 1200m. But, for this record, they have to run alone which makes things much more difficult because they are not used to running alone.”
Fantastic crowd duly rewarded
However, all four ran responsibly, giving a measured performance as they targeted the average 3:39.7 required to equal the record. Looking at their personal bests – Choge 3:29.47, Tanui 3:31.70, Rono 3:32.55, Gathimba 3:33.63 – it appeared that each man had time to play with. But none of them had run with a baton before.
“At first I was a bit worried because I wasn’t used to it and I thought I might drop the baton,” Choge said. “I was really conscious that I had to hold it tightly. Some people were thinking that breaking the record would be easy but it wasn’t that easy. It took a lot of effort and a lot of focus.”
Not only from the athletes. “They were a fantastic crowd,” Choge said. “They gave us a lot of support and a lot of cheering. Everything about the atmosphere here is great. Even when you are coming to the stadium, the escort from the police motivates you to do something great.”
Choge was made aware of such a record only last month. “I didn’t know there was a relay for 4x1500m, or that a record existed, until two or three weeks ago,” Choge said. But the coaches, athletes, agents and Meert got their heads together and the event was put onto tonight’s programme.
He may be the Commonwealth Games 5000m champion, and a former World junior champion at 5000m and cross country, but Choge described tonight as “the greatest moment in my career.”
The record earned every adult member of the crowd a free beer. No wonder they were cheering.
David Powell for the IAAF