Elisa Cusma runs 1:59.53 in Milan (Lorenzo Sampaolo) © Copyright
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Opportune moment for Cusma to fill two-lap global vacuum in Rome - ÅF Golden League

Rome, ItalyOn Friday night (10), Kenya’s reigning World 800m champion Janeth Jepkosgei will step onto the track of the Italian capital’s Olympic stadium for the Golden Gala in Rome, the third fixture of the ÅF Golden League 2009, marking only her second outing this season at her gold medal winning distance for the 25-year-old.

Last night in a rainy and cold Lausanne, in a slowly run affair which was won by Russia’s Oksana Zbrozhek (2:01.24), Jepkosgei opened hardly auspiciously, finishing fifth in 2:03.63.

Jepkosgei has a personal best of 1:56.04, then a national record, set in the process of winning the 2007 World title. Before her race last night she had run a few domestic races in 2009 including a relay leg for her Police Services team, with her only international performance being an 11th place over 1500m in Doha (4:13.87/ 8 May).

What a difference a couple of seasons make, with the sensation of last year, Olympic 800m champion and $1 Million ÅF Golden League Jackpot winner Pamela Jelimo, 19, also currently languishing by her illustrious 2008 standards. Jelimo’s fastest so far is 2:02.46 with her last outing in Eugene at the beginning of June producing nothing better than a 2:05 clocking!

At the 2008 Golden Gala she was the victor in 1:55.69 with Jepkosgei finishing second in 1:58.74. The season continued in similar vein and it was no surprise that at the Beijing Olympic Games the World champion again played second fiddle this time finishing in 1:56.07 to Jelimo’s 1:54.87. The Olympic champion would eventually end the year with an African senior and World junior record of 1:54.01.

The comparisons are stark. This time last year we were already marvelling at a succession of 1:55 minute world leading times by Jelimo, while currently this season’s world lead is two seconds slower (1:57.90 Mariya Savinova, 1 July).

The world of 800m running unexpectedly finds itself in a partial vacuum, leaderless after two seasons of Kenyan magic.

Presumably Jelimo is now quietly back training in Kenya trying to recapture some of her old form in time for the World Championships in Berlin next month, while, as it’s risky ever to dismiss a season on the basis of one race, least of all someone of Jepkosgei’s stature, on Friday the reigning World champion will start as favourite in Rome.

But waiting in the wings of Rome’s Olympic stadium the hosts have an ace racer who finds herself with an opportune moment to enhance her growing reputation.

On paper to compare Italy’s European Indoor bronze medallist Elisa Cusma Piccione with Jepkosgei seems to contrive one of the most improbable head to heads one could imagine. In their 19 career meetings together Kenya’s World champion has finished ahead of Cusma each time.

Yet the star of the 27-year-old Italian is firmly in the ascendant. The World and Olympic semi-finalist who has a personal best of 1:58.63 (2007) has notched-up tour wins over 800m in Turin, Thessalonki and Milan this season, and last weekend took the 800/1500m double at the Mediterranean Games. In total three sub 2mins with a best of 1:59.53.

Cusma, the 2008 World Indoor championship sixth placer, is sure to graduate into a global outdoor final this summer but what better time to begin that rise to the highest echelon of her event by beating the reigning World champion and Olympic silver medallist?

Among others in the Rome 800m field will be of the two women who were ahead of Jepkosgei in Lausanne  - US champion Hazel Clark-Riley (PB 1:57.99) who was second in 2:02.31, and Spain’s Mayte Martinez (PB 1:57.62), the 2007 World bronze medallist, who was third in 2:02.58.

Russia’s Yekaterina Kostetskaya, 22, the former World Junior champion who set a personal best of 1:56.67 last year, who finished in sixth in Lausanne also runs.

Chris Turner for the IAAF