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Going the distance

Going the distance
K. Ken Nakamura looks at two surprise endings in Lisbon

It was a time of celebration for host country Portugal at the World Indoor Championships. Rui Silva of Portugal won the first gold medal for the host country in the 8th World Indoor Championships by winning the 1500m. It is always special to win the gold medal at the major championships, but to win in your home country is extra special.

With El Guerrouj opting for the 3000m only, the Olympic 1500m champion Noah Ngeny was considered the clear favourite. However, in this championships so far, Olympic champions from Sydney were not faring well. To cite a few examples, Adam Nelson in the SP, Anier Garcia and Olga Shishigina in the 110m/100mH, Stacy Dragila in the PV, and Jonathon Edwards in the TJ all failed to win their events. Was the trend going to continue? Or would Ngeny win the 1500m as expected? To add excitement, this was a race in which an athlete from the host country had legitimate chance of winning a gold medal. Perhaps because of it, the atmosphere in the arena was electrifying. There were many Spanish fans in the arena as well and when Juan Carlos Higuero was introduced the noise level in the arena went up a notch. Then when Rui Silva of Portugal was introduced, the arena erupted. Then you knew that he was under enormous pressure, which he confirmed in the post race interview. Even in the heat on Friday he was under pressure, but he had shown that he could handle it.

It would be the understatement of the championships to say that the race started slowly.

First Ngeny and then Higuero took the lead, but the pace stayed excruciating slow. However, as both Silva and Estevez confirmed after the race during the medallists interview, both the gold and silver medallist were prepared psychologically for either a fast or slow race. "I was waiting for the real race to start," said both Silva and Estevez., which it did with 800m to go. Ngeny who was not happy with the slow pace could not wait any longer, and he took over the lead and started to push the pace. Asked why he did not pick up the pace earlier, Ngeny replied "I did not like the early slow pace. The crowd did not like it either. But with only two months of training, I could not push the pace earlier," implying that he would not have lasted to the finish had he increased the pace sooner. It perhaps was too late though. Not only did Estevez and Silva had no trouble covering the surge by Ngeny, but Estevez even went ahead of Ngeny with 300m to go, taking Rui Silva with him. Coming into the home straight for the final time, it was Silva's turn to kick. To the delight of home crowd fans, Silva passed Estevez halfway down the home straight to become the World Indoor Champion. The winning time of 3:51.06 was the slowest 1500m winning time in the history of the World Indoor Championships, including the winning time of the heats.

It was a Szabo's race to lose, and she did - Women's 3000m

Although the anticipated showdown between long time rivals Sonia O'Sullivan and Gabriela Szabo never materialized, the race was still memorable. With O'Sullivan and then Regina Jacobs falling out of contention before the final stage of the race, the time may finally came for the Olympic Champion to be crowned as World Indoor Champion. However, because Yelena Zadorozhnaya had shadowed Szabo from the start of the race, and Olga Yegorova moved up to the contention at the crucial moment of the race with less than 800m to go, the race was not expected to be a stroll in the park for Szabo. As mentioned in the preview, both Zadorozhnaya and Yegorova showed that they are in supreme shape when they set new course records at the Yokohama ekiden on February 25. It was also known that Yegorova in particular had a good kick, for she outkicked both Gete Wami and Derartu Tulu in the DN Galan 5000m in Stockholm last summer. Wami and Tulu are renowned for their kick as Paula Radcliffe can attest.

It was reported that Sonia O'Sullivan had entered both the 1500m and the 3000m at the World Indoor Championships, despite the schedule in which she had to run 1500m heats less than two hours before the 3000m final. With Gabriela Szabo and two Russian runners Olga Yegorova and Yelena Zadorozhnaya also seeming to be in top shape, the 3000m final was not expected to an easy ride for anyone.

Would O'Sullivan really show up for the 1500m heat? Many observers probably did not expect her to do so. To everyone's surprise, O'Sullivan did line up at the start of the 1500m heat. Unfortunately for O'Sullivan, her 1500m heat was not at all easy. In fact, O'Sullivan could be seen to be straining to gain the last automatic qualifying spot.

Less than two hours later, O'Sullivan lined up in the final of the 3000m. She must have hoped for a slow tactical race. Perhaps because of such circumstance, Szabo made sure that the race would not be slow like the men's 1500m which finished 15 minutes earlier. Szabo went to the lead immediately and kept the pace honest. When asked if she had hoped for a slower pace, Yegorova replied "No, the fast pace suited me fine." It appeared to some spectators that the race might be a repeat of the European Championships in Budapest, where Szabo led almost all the way while O'Sullivan bided her time behind the Romanian. However, it became apparent that O'Sullivan was in trouble early; she was in the last place by 500m into the race, and by 800m had lost contact with the lead pack. However, she did not completely lose the contact with the leaders, and by doing so kept the hope alive for the showdown for a bit longer. Meanwhile, Szabo kept on pushing the pace. However, the pace was not fast enough to really stretch out the field, and all major contenders except for O'Sullivan remained bunched in the lead pack. Another surprise of the race was that with 1000m to go, Regina Jacobs lost contact with the leader. She was soon passed by O'Sullivan, and finished last.

Even with two major contenders for the gold falling off of contention, race turned exciting when with less than two laps to go Zadorozhnaya and then Yegorova striked. At the end it was Yegorova who prevailed the kickers contest at the end. Did she expected to beat Szabo? "No," said Yegorova. "I did not expect to beat Szabo, although I wanted to win," continued Yegorova. On the other hand Szabo by saying, "It is not always good for the same runner to win," implied that she is now more motivated to win at Edmonton.

Yes, new athlete winning the Championships is good for the sports, and today we saw a new star born, called Olga Yegorova. With the 5000m field in Edmonton expected to be better than that of Sydney, we can all look forward to another epic race.