Tomorrow’s battle between 1500m champion Hicham El Guerrouj and 10,000m winner Kenenisa Bekele in the men’s 5000m final on Saturday (28 Aug)is an enticing one in so many ways: both men are chasing doubles which resonate with significance for Olympic history; both men were superb in their gold medal winning finals; both have incredible turns of speed over the final lap; and between them they have run the first (Bekele) and tenth (El Guerrouj) fastest times ever.
El Guerrouj is aiming to become the first man since Paavo Nurmi in 1924 to win both the 1500m and 5000m, while Bekele is chasing a 5-10k double that hasn’t been done at an Olympic Games since another Ethiopian Miruts Yifter won both in Moscow in 1980.
If Bekele wins, he will succeed, not only ‘Yifter the Shifter’ but such famous distance running names as Kolehmainen, Zatopek, Kuts, and Viren – quite a hall of fame. Even his great mentor and inspiration Haile Gebrselassie never attempted it, despite his string of four consecutive World 10,000m titles and two Olympic golds at the longer distance.
Of course, it’s not the first time these two knights of the oval have come head-to-head on middle ground for they ran through a dress rehearsal at the World Championships in Paris last summer, only for Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge to play the villain and steal away the gold. Kipchoge’s dip for the line ahead of El Guerrouj was one of the pictures of the season. Whatever happens, this will be one of the races of the Games.
More doubles are up for grabs in the women’s 1500m. Only two women have ever won both the 800m and 1500m titles at an Olympic Games, both of them Russians – Tatyana Kazankina in 1976 and Svetlana Masterkova 20 years later. The Romanian Doina Melinte almost did it in 1984, winning gold in the 8 and silver in the 15.
Kelly Holmes’ success in the 800m here earlier in the week may have been a surprise, not least to herself, but now she is undoubtedly one of the favourites to win the longer race. After all, this is the distance she has been aiming for all season, and she only decided to enter the two-lap event last week.
“That’s five down, one to go,” Holmes said after her semi-final. “I felt better than I thought I would today. The final will be a different matter, though. I’ve got far more than I expected. Now I want to do better than seventh in the final, which is what I did before.”
Holmes was second in her semi, in 4:04.77, again running from near the back of the pack to the front over the last 400m. Russia’s Natalya Yevdokimova crossed the line first and she, plus teammates Tatyana Tomashova and Olga Yegorova, could feature in the final. Romanian champion Maria Cioncan was an impressive winner of the other semi, while Poland’s Lidia Chojecka believes the charms are with her.
“I found a five cent coin on the floor of the mixed zone after the race,” she revealed. “This is a good sign of luck for me in the final.”
One of the many close finishes at last year’s World championships came in the men’s 800m, won by Algeria’s Djabir Said Guerni. The World champion has been fairly quiet so far this season and was lucky to get through the early rounds of this heavily contested event. But in the semi-finals on Thursday he seemed to spring to life, winning the first in 1:45.76, despite suffering a nasty-looking spike gash.
“Yesterday I was late with my sprint,” he said. “Today I assured myself that I am in good form and can really compete in the final.”
Five of last year’s finallists will be there again, including the South African pair Mbulaeni Mulaudzi and Hezekiel Sepeng, Russia’s murcurial Yuriy Borzakovskiy, and World record holder Wilson Kipketer, the Danish silver medallist from Sydney.
However, it’s Kenya’s Wilfred Bungei who looks the most likely winner if the semis are anything to go by. Already the quickest in the world, he clocked the fastest time in semis, 1:44.28. Having missed the Kenyan trials last year with illness, he wasn’t considered for their World championships team and wants to make up for Kenya’s lack of finallists.
Bungei’s luck seems to have changed this year – he’s a man who’s happy with the number three, if it’s written on his bib, say, or if he’s drawn in lane three. Guess what, he’ll be wearing 2333 tomorrow. A dairy farmer and the owner of a tea plantation, Bungei will probably make the race a quick one. “It has to be fast,” he says. “I prefer to be fast and three runners have a good kick.”
I don’t know about his kick, but Jan Zelezny certainly has a good arm. The triple Olympic champion exerted the minimum of effort to get through to the men’s Javelin final. The Czech was one of 10 to throw beyond the automatic mark with his first effort in the qualifiers on Thursday night.
He’s competed sparingly this year – only twice to be exact – and reportedly has a sore Achilles. But his famous competitive instincts will still make him hard to beat. The man who usually comes closest, Steve Backley, only sneaked into the final as the last of 12 qualifiers. Javelin fans will be glad he did – this way we get one last chance to see these great spearmen do battle.
Women's High Jump
World champion Hestrie Cloete of South Africa and Russia’s World Indoor champion Yelena Slesarenko head the list of twelve athletes who will contest the women’s High Jump final. Another Russian Anna Chicherova will also be in the medal hunt.
Cloete, the silver medallist four years ago, lost to a Russian in Sydney, and will be keen to emulate Esther Brand, who in 1952 became the only other South African to win the women’s High Jump.
The day will end with the traditional late night rush of relay finals, kicked off by the fast boys in the men’s 4x100m.
It’s no surprise that the United States were the fastest qualifiers from the semi-finals this evening. Their quartet of Shawn Crawford, Darvis Patton, Coby Miller and Maurice Greene not only showed the kind of speed you’d expect, but were significantly better at passing the baton than many of their potential rivals. Despite making a few mistakes Greene brought them home in 38.02, only a tenth outside the quickest of the year.
Greene later hinted at changing times when he said afterwards, “I’m just happy they included me.” Not that he’s gone all modest on us all of a sudden – Greene’s predicting 37.27 in the final.
Great Britain, running in lane one, had a terrible final exchange between Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis and finished some way back in 38.53. Lewis-Francis almost stuttered to a halt before getting the baton in his hand, but was strong enough to bring them home in second. Nigeria, Poland and Australia all ran quicker times in the first heat but no-one seems capable of challenging the Americans.
Women's 4 x 400m
It’ll be a different story in the women’s 4x400m though. Russia look set to give the Americans a real battle after recording the fastest time in qualifying, 3:23.52. The foursome of Olesya Krasnomovets, Natalya Ivanova, Tatyana Firova and Olesya Zykina were almost a second and a half ahead of Jamaica in the first semi yesterday, and 0.27 quicker than the US ran in the second.
Russia have never won this event since the break up of the old Soviet Union. After two golds in a row to USA, this could be the Russians’ year.
USA, made up of Crystal Cox, Moushaumi Robinson, Monique Henderson and Sanya Richards, finished almost three seconds ahead of the host nation, who were brought home to a crescedo of noise by the 400m Hurdles champion Fani Halkia. The bronze appears to be between the Greeks, Jamaica and Poland, with Great Britain having an outside chance.
The United States have won the men’s 4x400m 15 times, including the last five. And it looks like normal service will continue here. An American foursome featuring none of the major stars won their semi-final in 2:59.30, modest by their standards but more than two seconds ahead of the rest here. With Jeremy Wariner and co. to come into the side, the only thing that’ll beat them here is the clock.
It looks like Sydney silver medallists Nigeria will fight out the other medals with the Bahamas and Great Britain.
And then, by 22:30, it will all be over, bar the men’s Marathon of course. That starts Sunday at 18:00 and will end in the marbled spleandour of the Panathinaiko stadium around two and a quarter hours later.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF
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