It is generally believed that if the fastest 1500m runner is with the leaders during the final part of the 5000m race, he is most likely to win. However, as witnessed in the Sydney Olympic Games and again in the World Championships in Edmonton, that is not necessarily true.
Each time the fastest 1500m runner in the field, Ali Saidi-Sief, was outkicked by slower 1500m runners. The fastest 1500m runner does not necessarily possess the best finishing kick in the last 200m.
In Edmonton, men’s and women’s 10,000m and women’s 5000m were awaited with anticipation because of the highly regarded showdown, Haile Gebrselassie against Kenyans in the men’s 10,000m, Paula Radcliffe against Ethiopians in the women’s 10,000m, and Gabriela Szabo against Olga Yegorova in the women’s 5000m. Ironically, the best distance race in Edmonton was the men’s 5000m, the least anticipated of all distance races.
The race, which was expected to be a confrontation between Kenyans and Ethiopians, suddenly changed its complexion with the entry of Ali Saidi-Sief, the silver medallist at the 2000 Olympic Games in the 5000m. Because Saidi-Sief did not run a single 5000m race this season, most assumed that he would be running the 1500m. Explains Saidi-Sief when asked why he chosen the 5000m over the 1500m: “I entered in the 5000m because I wanted to become a World Champion. I will have a chance to run 1500m in 2003, 2005 or even 2007.”
Saidi-Sief is known for his long sustained sprint at the end of the race; the question is whether or not anybody can keep up with him, and outkick him in the last 200m as Million Wolde did in Sydney. Unlike the Grand Prix setting where the initial pace is usually steady and fast, the pace was slow in Sydney, and that may be the reason why the long sustained drive by Saidi-Sief was not as effective in the Olympic Games.
In the first round heat of the men’s 5000m, the Kenyan team was almost struck with disaster. In the first heat, Sammy Kipketer who had turned in the second fastest time of the year in Athens failed to make the auto-qualifying spot. In the second heat, John Kibowen who failed to advance out of the heat of the 1500m in the 1997 World Championships also failed to finish in the auto-qualifying spot. Kibowen told John Manners that he miscounted his place - he thought he was in fifth, the last auto-qualifying spot. Fortunately, both runners made it to the final as the fastest losers.
With Mike Kosgei, a coach who masterminded the Ismael Kirui’s victory in the 1993 World Championships, back in the Kenyan team it is expected that Kenyans will have team tactics in mind. It is true that in the era of agents, it is not possible to sacrifice a runner for the good of the team as it was done in the early days, but surely some sort of team tactics is in the plan. In the 1993 World Championships, Mike Chesire took the race out from the start covering the first 1000m in 2:31.76. After four laps in 4:08.4, Chesire was reeled back. But then Ismael Kirui took the lead and covered the next 2 laps in 62 and 60 seconds; the gap widened with the next lap of 62.5 and he was running alone at world record pace. Eventually, a young Gebrselassie gave a good chase, but Kirui was able to hold off the fast-finishing Ethiopian to win a gold medal.
Unlike men’s 10000m, the 5000m final in Edmonton started quite fast; the first lap led by Richard Limo was a scintillating 59.07. When Sammy Kipketer took over the lead from Limo after one and half laps and started to push the pace, keen observers might have thought that tactics similar to the 1993 Worlds would be in store. One might imagine that Kipketer who passed the 1000m in 2:32.51 (12:42.55 5000m pace) perhaps was doing what Mike Chesire has done in the 1993 Worlds. Because Richard Limo won the Kenyan Trials, the general consensus among experts was that Limo would be the beneficiary of Kenyan race strategy and he will not do any of the dirty work of leading the race until the real racing started. The 2000m was covered in 5:09.48 (12:53.7 5000m pace). Are the Kenyan tactics for neutralising Ethiopians or Saidi-Sief? The fast pace, which was detrimental to the Ethiopians may perhaps, be beneficial to Saidi-Sief. However, because Saidi-Sief may have not been training for the 5000m, his strength is unknown, and that may have been in Kenyan thoughts.
Eventually, after 3000m (7:51.18, a 13:05.3 5000m pace), Kipketer let himself be absorbed by the chase pack. If the plan was to follow a plot similar to that of Stuttgart, someone, perhaps Richard Limo, would surge ahead. However, he did not take the lead, and 200m later with 1800m to go it was Ali Saidi-Sief who moved into the front. The keen observers might have expected Saidi-Sief to start to wind up the pace slowly. However, the pace stayed sluggish. It was quite a mystery why he even took the lead, for it was quite early for him to do so. He explains, “I did not want to change my rhythm. Also I did not want to repeat my mistake in Sydney where I waited too long. This time I decided to attack earlier.” But attack he did not. The fourth 1000m was covered in a slow 2:43.47 (13:37.35 5000m pace).
Saidi-Sief who had led since 3200m may have been thought to be at a disadvantage. The pace gradually picked up and with 600m remaining Saidi-Sief, Richard Limo and Million Wolde broke away. Down the backstraight for the final time, Saidi-Sief really pushed hard, but he could not shake off Limo. Around the final bend, Limo started his own sprint and overtook Saidi-Sief. “I am not too disappointed with my silver medal, because I really did my very best. I did everything I could,” said Saidi-Sief.
In Sydney, Saidi-Sief was in the lead for the last three and half laps, but the real racing did not start until last 450m. The last 1000m in Sydney was covered in 2:25.65. In Edmonton, Saidi-Sief was in the lead with four and a half laps to go, but real racing did not start until 600m to go. The final 1000m off the much faster pace (10:34.65 at 4000m as opposed to 11:09.84 in Sydney) was covered in 2:26.12. On both occasions, Saidi-Sief, who is known for a long finishing drive in the Grand Prix races, was outkicked at the end. “I think next time I will choose different tactics,” concluded Saidi-Sief. Will he run the 5000m again in two years time, or in the absence of El Guerrouj will he try to win the 1500m instead?