Since failing to advance from the semi-finals at the World championships, David Rudisha has quite simply been on fire. The young Kenyan, still just 20, has followed up his Berlin disappointment in stunning fashion, first with solid victories over strong fields in Zurich and Brussels, and then with a sensational African record 1:42.01 in Rieti last weekend to shove his way into the all-time top-five. Only three men, the legendary Wilson Kipketer, Sebastian Coe and Joaquim Cruz have ever run faster. It was Rudisha’s third career best set this season, giving him the finest momentum in the field heading to Thessaloniki.
In Rieti, Rudisha dragged compatriot Alfred Kirwa Yego (1:42.67) and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi (1:42.86) of South Africa into the sub-1:43 club, giving them strong credentials for the WAF title. But the two already had solid qualifications even before that fast Rieti race. Yego, just two years Rudisha’s senior, has already built a solid resume in big races. The World champion in 2007, he took Olympic bronze last year before his silver medal finish in Berlin and will start on Friday evening as the defending champion.
Mulaudzi however collected the biggest meet of the year with his strong front-running and well-deserved victory at the World championships. Berlin was remarkably the only international victory for the 29-year-old this season, and he will be looking to add another WAF title to the one he took in 2006.
Yet none of the three dominated the one-day circuit prior to Berlin. Former Olympic champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy of Russia in particular, after finishing out of the medals in Berlin, will be looking to collect his first-ever WAF victory.
800m - WOMEN
Likewise, there hasn’t been a season long dominant force in the women’s 800, making this one of the more unpredictable races.
Briton Jenny Meadows produced a career best of 1:57.93 to take Berlin bronze and will have a target on her back here. Russian Mariya Savinova, the European indoor champion who was fifth in Berlin, has finished no worse than third in her other outings this summer and is expected to be a factor. Italy’s Elisa Cusma, another Berlin finalist, continues to run well.
While she hasn’t been as fast, American Anna Willard (1:58.80 PB, ’09) could be a threat. Beginning the year as the No. 2 steepler in the U.S., the 25-year-old will end 2009 as one of the world’s premiere two-lappers. She’s raced over the distance just three times, but in each outing - in New York, Paris and most recently in Brussels - managed to defeat exceptionally strong fields. After taking sixth in the World championships 1500m, she joined the event’s sub-4 ranks with her 3:59.38 in Zurich.
1500m – MEN
In the Berlin 1500m final, Bahrain’s Yusuf Saad Kamel finally lived up to the potential he’s shown for several seasons with his somewhat surprising but nonetheless commanding victory. Until last season primarily an 800 runner like his father, the two-time World champion Billy Konchellah, Kamel acknowledged that he’s applied himself more seriously this year, a seriousness that’s already borne fruit. He’s improved to 3:31.56 this season, and as a sub-1:43 runner in the 800m – and twice the WAF winner in the event – Kamel has the foot speed to tangle with the best over the metric mile. And he’ll have to use it as well.
The field includes several of his former Kenyan compatriots among them Augustine Choge and Asbel Kiprop, two of the season’s four fastest. Choge clocked 3:29.47 at Berlin’s ISTAF in June, still the season’s only sub-3:30. He’s raced well throughout the season with his poorest finish, fifth, coming at the World championships. Most recently he beat a formidable field in Zurich and a week later anchored a Kenyan quartet to the World record in the 4x1500m Relay in Brussels.
Kiprop, the winner in Hengelo, Eugene (Mile), Rome and the Kenyan trials, left himself too much ground to cover over the waning stages in Berlin and finished a disappointed fourth. The Olympic silver medallist followed up with a third place finish in Zurich, and will be eager to finish the season on a high note.
Others in the mix include Ethiopian Deresse Mekonnen, the World Indoor champion and silver medallist in Berlin; and Moroccan Amine Laalou and Kenyan William Biwott, both sub-3:32 runners this season.
1500m - WOMEN
As the two-time World champion and this year’s world leader, Maryam Jamal will certainly start as the favourite here. The 24-year-old Bahraini, who’ll be targeting her fifth straight WAF victory in the event, has lost just twice in her eight outings over the distance this season. Her 3:56.55 world leader came in early July in Rome, but she followed up her successful World title defence with another sub-4 victory in Zurich over a strong field.
Her two losses came at the hands of Ethiopian Gelete Burka and Briton Lisa Dobriskey, who’ll both be bringing separate agendas to Thessaloniki. Burka, the World Indoor champion, was knocked to the ground just 200 metres from the finish at the World championships in Berlin, and will be hungry for a season-capping victory over much of the same field.
Dobriskey meanwhile, the reigning Commonwealth champion, will be aiming to add another notch to her belt after her Berlin silver medal to show that she indeed belongs among the world’s finest metric milers. She’s already come a long way to doing just that post-Berlin, first by joining the sub-4 ranks in Zurich where she clocked 3:59.50, and again in Rieti last Sunday where she defeated Jamal and Olympic champion Nancy Jebet among others.
The U.S. has witnessed an extraordinary burst of power in the event this season, with three women breaking the four-minute barrier; no other nation has produced more than one. Two of those, Anna Willard (3:59.38) and Christin Wurth-Thomas (3:59.98) are expected in the field, along with Shannon Rowbury, who is less than two strides away from the mark. With her Berlin bronze medal in tow, Rowbury has the strongest credentials of the three. The most consistent of the trio, Rowbury is nonetheless looking for her first victory since taking the U.S. title in late June. Wurth-Thomas collected a victory in Stockholm before finishing fifth in Berlin, while Willard produced her sub-four with a runner-up finish in Zurich following up her sixth place showing at the World championships.
3000m/5000m – MEN
With one exception, a Kenyan or Ethiopian has won the 3000m and 5000m at each edition of the World Athletics Final since its inception six years ago, and predictably, men from these east African distance superpowers will again be taking centre stage.
This year, the focus will be on Kenenisa Bekele, who since his stellar breakout track season in 2003 – he won the WAF 3000m that year – has been among the most dominant figures ever in the distances. In Berlin, he added to his illustrious list of achievements by becoming the first man to win the 5000 and 10,000m at the same World championships, something even his predecessor Haile Gebrselassie couldn’t manage. Last weekend in Brussels, he clinched a share of the ÅF Golden League Jackpot. Whichever event he chooses to contest this weekend, he will obviously be the man to beat.
Heading the long list of pursuers will be American Bernard Lagat, who last year broke the east African hold on the WAF distances when he took the 3000m title. The 2007 double World champion followed up admirably in Berlin, taking 1500m bronze and 5000m silver.
A man to certainly keep an eye on is Kenyan Edwin Soi, who took the WAF distance double in 2007 and followed last year with a victory in the 5000. This year he’s clocked 7:31.48 and 12:55.03, and both came in his most recent races in Rieti and Zurich respectively.
3000m/5000m – WOMEN
A year ago, Meseret Defar capped her campaign with a double victory at the WAF, and may have her eye on repeating after her Berlin double didn’t quite go her way. Finishing fifth in the 10,000m and taking bronze in the 5000m might be a considerable achievement for many other runners, but for the 25-year-old Defar, it’s not quite the way she’s used to finishing a season.
Depending on which events they’ll contest, she’s likely to face both women who finished ahead of her in the Berlin 5000m, gold medallist Vivian Cheruiyot and Sylvia Kibet. Cheruiyot paced her season nicely, finishing third in Ostrava and second in Oslo before taking the Kenyan trials and World championships. Kibet has raced less frequently, but was also consistent on her road to Berlin.
Others in the mix will be Ethiopian Meselech Melkamu, who took 10,000m silver and finished fourth in the 5000m in Berlin; her compatriot Wude Ayalew, the 10,000m bronze medallist; and Kenyans Grace Momanyi and Iness Chenonge, fourth and sixth, respectively, in the Berlin 10,000m and 5000m.
Tirunesh Dibaba, the Olympic 5000 and 10,000m champion who missed Berlin due to injury is the surprise name on the entry list for the 5000m, and if in shape is of course an obvious favourite.
3000m Steeplechase – MEN
Four names stand out from a crowded field here, setting up one of the finest races of the weekend.
After three successive World championship silver medals, Kenyans Ezekiel Kemboi finally raced to gold in Berlin, and has maintained his form in his post-triumph tour as well. The world leader at 7:58.85 from Doha in May, the 27-year-old took commanding victories in Zurich and Dubnica, Slovakia, the past two weekends to arrive primed as he seeks his first WAF victory.
His compatriot Richard Mateelong, who followed up 2007 World silver and 2008 Olympic bronze with Berlin silver last month, will be a factor as he looks for his first victory since taking the Kenyan title in June.
Paul Kipsiele Koech, who was just a step out of the medals in Berlin may however be the man to beat. The Kenyan has won the past four WAF titles, and will arrive in Thessaloniki on the heels of a solid 8:04.05 win in Brussels.
Koech’s season’s best of 8:01.26 came in the Berlin final where he edged by Frenchman Bob Tahri, who for the second time this summer, lowered the European record. He clocked 8:01.18 in the German capital and followed up with a strong outing in Zurich where he was second to Kemboi but defeated Koech.
3000m Steeplechase - WOMEN
With Berlin gold and silver medallists Marta Dominguez of Spain and Russian Yuliya Zarudneva absent, the spotlight will fall on Kenya’s relative newcomer Milcah Chemos Cheywa, the World bronze medallist. In what was apparently her first season contesting the event, the 23-year-old clocked a strong 9:08.57 to burst into the event’s all-time top-10 where she currently occupies spot No. 6. She’s raced once since, finishing fourth in the Zagreb 3000m.
Her primary challenge should be a domestic one. Ruth Bisibori finished seventh in Berlin, a notch below her showing at the Olympic Games last year, but she clocked an impressive 9:13.16. Gladys Kipkemboi, the 2004 World Junior champion, also made a dramatic improvement, clocking 9:14.62 for eighth in the Berlin final.
Keep an eye out for Habiba Ghriba who was a solid sixth in Berlin where she clocked a 9:12.52 Tunisian national record.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF