Amel Tuka wins the 800m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco (Philippe Fitte) © Copyright
Feature Verona, Italy

Tuka poised to spring a surprise in Beijing

There are 95 nations who have won at least one medal in the rich history of the IAAF World Championships but Bosnia and Herzegovina has yet to see its flag flutter at a medal ceremony in the 14 editions of the championships.

But in 800m runner Amel Tuka, the Balkan nation – which has been independent since 1992 – has unearthed a genuine contender to perhaps change that statistic at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 which get underway in just over three weeks’ time on 22 August.

The 24-year-old had started to garner attention after quick wins in the Slovenian city of Velenje and the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Madrid during the first half of this month but then made a huge breakthrough at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco on 17 July, beating a world-class field in a world-leading time.

On an evening of middle-distance magic in the principality, Tuka’s run was understandably a little overshadowed by Genzebe Dibaba’s headline-grabbing world 1500m record of 3:50.07 but Tuka’s performance sent similar shockwaves through the ranks of men’s middle-distance running.

On his IAAF Diamond League debut, he took apart a stellar field including world champion Mohammed Aman and Olympic silver medallist Nijel Amos with a searing finish to break his national record for the third time this year, setting a mark of 1:42.51.

On current form, Kenya's Olympic champion and world record-holder David Rudisha was the only notable absentee from a race that saw Tuka move up to 11th on the all-time list for two laps of the track, becoming the fourth-fastest European ever.

Mystified in Monaco

Immediately afterwards, he was scarcely able to believe what he had achieved. “I don't know what happened," he said. "You need to ask my coach why such a big improvement.

“But I can tell you 20 months ago after the European Under-23s in Tampere (Finland), I moved from Bosnia to Italy, to train with coach Gianni Ghidini in Verona. I’m in a very good group and train together with Kenyan athletes.

“My goal for this season was 1:45! I felt very good, (I) said to myself let’s try in last 100m but was not thinking I could win the race. And best in the world this year? Oh, I need to calm down, go back to Italy for some hard training before Beijing."

He interrupted training with a further race – another victory – this time in Bellinzona, Switzerland on 21 July in 1:45.80.

Tuka, who hails from Zenica in the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina, took up the sport relatively late.

“I was not so much interested in athletics at school, more in football. But at the age of 17 I was told to run a 400m as part of my school physical education lessons. I just ran in normal training shoes and a T-shirt, no spikes or specialist clothing, I think I had been playing basketball a short while before, and I ran 50 seconds."

“My teacher was amazed and said I had some talent as a runner, so I started training a little more seriously for athletics on exactly 1 January 2009, just a few days before my 18th birthday,” he joked.

He can still clock a respectable single lap and his personal best is 47.19 from two years ago, which is also the Bosnian record.

But, after a summer of training with the local club, it was apparent that his talent lay more over 800m. By 2010, he was representing his home nation on the international stage, albeit in the modest surroundings of the European Team Championships third league.

His first significant stepping stone was at the 2013 European Under-23 Championships where he won the bronze medal in what was then a national record of 1:46.29.

This brought him to the attention of the famed Italian coach Ghidini, who guided Kenyan Wilfred Bungei to the 2008 Olympic 800m title.

Last year, he improved further and placed sixth at the European Championships in Zurich in another national record of 1:46.12.

Prodigious progress

But Ghidini and Tuka both knew there was more to come.

“Last year, I was happy when he reached the final of the Europeans, but in the end the sixth place I was not fully satisfied with,” Ghidini said last week. “Since then, for Amel, only progress.”

The experienced coach was particularly pleased with the pace judgement his charge demonstrated in Monaco, where he produced two almost identical lap times of 51 seconds. “To sum up, two laps nearly equal. With (a) final authority that struck me. I knew it was in progress but I did not think of a time like this."

This has already been an outstanding year of progress for Tuka.

Firstly, he improved to 1:44.19 in Velenje on 1 July then, on 11 July, he ran 1:43.84 in the Spanish capital before his heroics six days later in Monaco.

The question can now be legitimately asked: can Tuka give Bosnia and Herzegovina their greatest night in modern athletics history in Beijing when the 800m final is contested on 25 August?

Chris Broadbent for the IAAF