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27 December 2009MonteCarloA. Lennart Julin (SWE) and Mirko Jalava (FIN) continue with their annual look back at past season with a focus on the Long Distance action on the track.
MEN - 5000m
With Kenenisa Bekele committed to the 2009 ÅF Golden League series the world this year was treated to five top 5000m races featuring the World record holder, three before the World Championships and two after.
However, it turned out that the other top runners were too shy in the presence of the legend Bekele. So rather than really trying to challenge him they were content with following his actions. This was especially surprising in the first three races in Berlin, Oslo and Rome where it was very obvious that Bekele was still in the process of getting back into top shape after losing much winter training due to injury.
But that fact still didn't inspire any of the other runners to take the initiative in any of the races to put Bekele into a situation where he had to weigh his options for response. Instead the races were allowed to develop completely according to Bekele's own wishes which in June and July meant saving energy for a decisive last lap sprint. He won in Berlin by 0.32 from Abraham Chebii, in Oslo by 0.59 from James Kwalia and Rome by 1.39 from Mark Kiptoo.
Just as the margins grew so did Bekele's form and confidence and when he in Paris concluded his pre-Worlds schedule by running his fourth Golden League race he did it in a more Bekelesque fashion. The distance this time was 3000m and Bekele was on the offensive from the start and simply ran the opposition - headed by reigning 5000m World champion Bernard Lagat - into the ground.
In Berlin the 10,000m was Bekele's priority but after securing that gold he decided to also contest the 5000m. And once more it was demonstrated that he has achieved such a status among his opponents that they never even dare to try to unsettle him with some unexpected move. Despite a really slow pace Bekele was allowed to lead the race more or less from start to finish and on the homestraight he managed to stave off also Lagat's final challenge.
Strengthened by his two gold medals in Berlin Bekele ran his final two Golden League races – Zurich and Brussels – with a much more aggressive approach and thereby helped many other runners to improve which is clearly reflected on the world list where seven of the top eight times were set in these two races.
So the general conclusion for 2009 must be that the world elite at 5000m consists of two groups, one group is made up of Kenenisa Bekele and one group is made up of all the others who can finish in any order on a given day! This second group was dominated by Kenyans (12 of top-20) but also included three more Ethiopians, three US runners and one Ugandan.
The most remarkable aspects here are of course the three Americans as last year they had no runner in the top-60 (sub-13:16). But Dathan Ritzenhein and Matt Tegenkamp could confirm their 6th (10,000m) and 8th (5000m) places in Berlin by running 12:56.27 for 3rd in Zurich (behind one Ethiopian and one Kenyan) and 12:58.56 for 7th (behind three Ethiopians and three Kenyans) in Brussels.
Otherwise it seems that the rest of the world has more or less capitulated to East African dominance. The top Europeans (Mo Farah of the UK, Alemayehu Bezabeh and Jesus Espana of Spain) can be found around 35th place on the World list together with the top runner (Chakir Boujattaoui) from Morocco, a nation that in the 1990's had a group of runners seriously challenging Kenya and Ethiopia.
This has always been an almost exclusive championship event but most years there have been a couple of major races on the circuit, usually in Hengelo in the early summer and in Brussels in late summer. But this year neither of those meets featured this distance reducing the non-championship opportunities to races of lesser calibre in Utrecht and Villeneuve d'Ascq.
It appears that a sad consequence of the modern competition structure is that the 10,000m has become a non-event compared to previously when it was regularly contested in competitions like international matches and the regular European Cup. The special European Cup event that was introduced as a substitute has after a promising beginning also regressed quality-wise.
But there still exists proof that the 10,000m really doesn't have to be an event run only once a year – and that is Japan! The group of Kenyan runners residing there regularly runs 3-4 races every year. A good illustration of what is possible was provided by Josephat Muchiri who ran 27:40 on 26 April, 26:57 on 3 May and 26:58 on 16 May, i.e. three races including two very fast ones within just three weeks!
The World Championship race followed a script we recognised from both Osaka 2007 and Beijing 2008, i.e. Eritrea's Zersenay Tadese pushed the pace relentlessly on the second half to try to shake off as many opponents as possible. In 2007 he ended up in 4th place, last year in 5th but this year Tadese managed to get rid of everyone – except of course the invincible Kenenisa Bekele.
So it was easy to understand why Tadese passed the finish line with his arms in the air and a broad smile – he knew the gold had been out of reach and then the silver was like a victory! The amazing Bekele never was in any trouble, rather it sometimes looked as if he had to shorten his stride to avoid passing and breaking away from Tadese too early.
Tadese’s aggressive running in the second half transformed what at 5000m was a 27:20-pace into a final winning time of 26:46.31 and for the first time ever in a championship final all three medallists – Kenya's Moses Masai captured the bronze – dipped under 27 minutes.
One could but wonder what would/could have happened if the top-2 runners from the Kenyan trials – Sammy Kitwara and Gideon Ngatuny – had not been withdrawn from Berlin team due to competing in international road races without authorization from the federation. The Berlin bronze medallist Masai was 4th in the trials.
No other event has been so monopolised in the modern era by one single nation as the Steeplechase by Kenya: In the last 16 global championships (i.e. since 1988) the gold medallist has been Kenyan 16 times (although 2003 and 2005 World Champion Saif Saaeed Shaheen had then transferred his allegiance to Qatar) and the silver medallist has been Kenyan 14 times!
But it should also be noted that it is a very small group of just four runners that have contributed all the 12 Kenyan medals in the last six championships (since 2003): Ezekiel Kemboi 2 golds & 3 silvers, Brimin Kipruto 2 golds & 1 silver & 1 bronze, Richard Mateelong 1 silver & 2 bronzes and Paul K Koech 1 bronze!
And even if it was this quartet that was selected for Berlin they were not at all coming into the championships as overwhelming favourites as two French runners in July had provided strong indications of comparable capacity: On 3 July Bob Tahri in a race he won by over ten seconds lowered the European record to 8:02.19 and two weeks later Mahiedine Mekhissi – the surprise Beijing silver medallist – toyed with all opponents including Kemboi at the Paris Golden League.
But in the end the Kenyan winning streak survived one more time in Berlin as Mekhissi due to injury problems stepped off the track in his heat and as Tahri despite lowering his European record further to 8:01.18 had to be content with prohibiting another Kenyan medal sweep by finishing 3rd behind Kemboi and Mateelong but ahead of Koech (Kipruto a disappointing 7th).
The Berlin final was both very exciting and dramatic - with the top-4 finishing within in just 0.83 seconds - and of a never seen quality: Koech's 8:01.26 would have been sufficient to win every other previous championship gold medal but now it didn't even bring him a medal!
Kemboi, who had opened his year with what would remain the 2009 WL time of 7:58.85 in Doha in early May, confirmed his No 1 position by also winning the "re-run" in Zurich the following week (2nd Tahri, 3rd Koech) and the World Athletics Final (2nd Koech, 3rd Tahri).
One notable development this year was the growing Ethiopian presence also in the Steeplechase where this brilliant distance running nation has been conspicuously missing: Yakob Jarsu and Roba Gary established themselves in the 8:10-8:15 bracket and proved their competitive ability in Berlin by finishing 5th and 6th ahead of the Olympic champion Kipruto.
For the history book it must also be mentioned that the Finnish national record of 8:12.60 set by Tapio Kantanen when finishing 4th in the Montreal Olympic final in 1976 finally fell to 2006 European champion Jukka Keskisalo who ran 8:10.67 in Zurich and backed that up with five more races at 8:12-8:15.
All in all there was a feeling that the Kenyan "stranglehold" on the Steeplechase is beginning to loosen somewhat. It will be interesting if this is a trend that will continue in the upcoming years.
2009 World Lists: [5000m][10,000m][3000m S/C]
Ethiopians reigned in the women’s long distance running in 2009 like usual. But at least there was something new this year as the 2008 double Olympic champion over 5000m/10,000m, Tirunesh Dibaba, didn’t take part to the World Championships leaving the field open for others. Things seemed to go their usual way before Berlin with two Ethiopians topping both the 5000m and 10,000m world list, but after all there was a change at the medal podium in the end. Kenya and Ethiopia both grabbed three medals, but both golden ones and a silver belonged to Kenya this time. In the steeplechase it was finally a top finish for 34-year-old Marta Dominguez of Spain. The veteran who moved to the steeplechase last season after two silvers in the 5000m distance at World Championships, had been extremely unlucky in Beijing falling down in the Olympic steeplechase final, but had her reward in Berlin finally getting a golden finish she had been waiting for so long.
It wasn’t quite the record breaking season for 5000m last summer, but there still were some fast races. Two countries as usual combined for the 11 top spots in the 2009 world list. Kenya and Ethiopia have created a very strong dominance in the women’s long distance running which others are finding impossible to challenge. 24-year-old Meselech Melkamu of Ethiopia won in Ostrava in June clocking a world leading 14:34.17 time holding off a challenge from Kenyan Linet Masai who finished in 14:34.36. Double Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba later on took the world lead with a 14:33.65 win in London in July, but did not run in Berlin.
Only 22 athletes started in the Berlin heats to see only seven athletes dropped from the final. The final in Berlin was a slow one, but that didn’t change things at the top. Kenyans and Ethiopians dominated the race and there was a new winner at the finish line. 26-year-old Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot had finished second in Osaka two years ago and was now able to better that result with a gold medal in Berlin clocking 14:57.97. Sylvia Kibet finished in the silver medal position to give the upper hand to Kenya in these World Champs in 14:58.33. The reigning World champion Meseret Defar had to surrender this time finishing third in 14:58.41 while the first six places went to Kenya and Ethiopia.
Dibaba returned to competition at the World Athletics Final, but this time Defar was better clocking 15:25.31 before Dibaba’s 15:25.92 for second place. World champion Cheruiyot faded to third place this time in 15:26.21.
Japan has the best depth in this event with 17 in the world top 100. Kenya has 16 and United States 15 with Ethiopia in fourth at 14.
There were a couple of new athletes under the magical 30 minutes limit in the women’s 10,000m this season. Meselech Melkamu of Ethiopia ran the world leading 29:53.80 African record in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in June and countrywoman Meseret Defar clocked 29:59.20 in Birmingham, Great Britain, in July.
The reigning Olympic and World champion Tirunesh Dibaba was supposed to defend her title in Berlin having earlier recovered from an injury, but she didn’t start the race in Berlin. It was another slow race and therefore several athletes had their shot at the gold medal during the final lap. With 400m to go there were no surprises with five athletes left, three Ethiopians and two Kenyans. It was a fierce battle in which just 19-year-old Kenyan Linet Masai emerged as the winner in 30:51.24 (*). Masai has made a quick leap to the world elite following her 30:26.50 World junior record which gave her the fourth place in Beijing at the Olympics last season. Melkamu was second in 30:51.34 (*), just 0.1 seconds off the winner and Ayalew Wude Yimer clocked 30:51.95 for the bronze. Meseret Defar competed in her first major 10,000m final and lost a medal in the last strides of the race. She seemed to have the bronze medal secured, but was surprisingly overtaken by two athletes during the last few metres to finish in fifth place.
Japan has a huge 33 athletes in the world top 100. Russia has 13 for second place and China 12 for third.
* = some runners were allowed by cut in early at the start of the race, thus the performances will not count for statistical purposes
31-year-old Gulnara Galkina had a good start to the season following her Olympic gold medal last summer winning all three of her steeplechase races prior to Berlin although she did not run particularly fast times in those competitions. But it was also clear from the start of the summer that Galkina was not the only favourite in Berlin.
Marta Dominguez of Spain started well with a 9:16.50 national record in June and followed that up with a much faster 9:09.39 NR in July, her only two races before the World Championships.
The Berlin final really was the only steeple race where all of the world’s best were competing so there was no way of predicting what would happen before the competition. Surprisingly with three athletes left in the race during the last lap, it wasn’t Galkina, but another Russian, 23-year-old Yuliya Zarudneva, fighting against Dominguez and Kenyan Milcah Chemos. The young Russian had won the national championships earlier, but wasn’t considered a major threat in Berlin. In the end Dominguez finally got her reward in the form of the gold medal finishing fast to record another NR 9:07.32 for the title, a world leader too, with Zarudneva in second place clocking a 9:08.39 personal best. Galkina faded to fourth place in 9:11.09 season’s and with Chemos winning the bronze medal in 9:08.57 PB. Jenny Barringer of the USA set national record 9:12.50 and Europeans lost some of their momentum with only three athletes in the top eight. Kenyans on the other hand will be a bigger threat in the future, in addition to the bronze medal they also got three in the first eight.
The United States has 13 in the world top 100 with Russia in second at 12 and Ethiopia in third with eight.