Tia Hellebaut and Kim Gevaert celebrating in Gothenburg (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Party atmosphere in Brussels as the world’s best athletes gather – IAAF Golden League

Brussels, BelgiumThe 30th anniversary of the Memorial Van Damme takes place this Friday 25 August. Therefore following the most impressive performance ever by a Belgian team at a European Championship, the spectators who annually pack to capacity the Stade Roi Baudouin have more reasons than ever to celebrate at this the penultimate IAAF Golden League meeting of 2006.

Cheers! The toast is ‘Shaheen’!

The atmosphere is always electric at the Memorial Van Damme, a meeting where sport, spectacle and entertainment blend seamlessly. And celebrations should be even greater should a certain Qatari hit World record pace. One of the sponsors of Friday’s meeting has offered a free beer to everyone in the stadium should World champion Saif Saaeed Shaheen manage to improve his own 3000m Steeplechase World record. The present fastest ever (7:53.63) was set by the Qatari at this meeting on 3 September 2004. With the last two Olympic champions Reuben Kosgei and Ezekiel Kemboi in the high quality field we can be sure of some magic whether this turns out to be a true record bid or it comes down to a tactical battle.

Shaheen with two 7:56 performances this season, the last occurring in Zurich a week ago (7:56.54) is in the condition to break the mark if sensibly paced. But as meeting director Wilfried Meert pointed out early today there are very few ‘rabbits’ who have the ability to be of any assistance after about 3 laps into the race, as the speed required for a World record is too fast for even those not intending to complete the full distance, such is the class of Shaheen. Whatever the outcome we are sure to raise a glass to one of the best steeplechasers in history.

Isinbayeva – seeking World record mode

Another athlete who has tasted World record glory in the Belgian capital (4.92m – 2004) is Russia’s pole vaulting diva Yelena Isinbayeva. Without attempting a long winded declension of her many illustrious achievements please take it as read that the Russian, the greatest women’s Pole vaulter in history, albeit a short history, will be wishing to prove that her new coaching set up is finally going to be beneficial to her career. A clearance above 5.01m, the World record she set last summer in Helsinki, is the absolute marker of advance but perhaps we will need to wait another season before her new approach fits properly with the 2004/2005 World Athlete of the Year’s physical development.

Six still in the Jackpot hunt

Away from World record pursuits, the IAAF Golden League Jackpot hunt is nearing its conclusion. Presently we have six athletes in contention for a prize of $500,000 – Asafa Powell (JAM – 100m), Jeremy Wariner (USA – 400m), Sanya Richards (USA – women’s 400m), Tirunesh Dibaba (ETH – women’s 5000m), Kenenisa Bekele (ETH - 5000m) and Irving Saladino (PAN – Long Jump) – a share of which is on offer for anyone who can achieve five Golden league wins this summer. The first four names – Powell, Wariner, Richards and Dibaba – also have the possibility of sharing an ADDITIONAL $500,000 should they complete a clean sweep of six wins in their events.

Powell capitalising on another 9.77

Powell fluently eased his way to the third 9.77 second run of his 100m career when equalling his World record in Zürich last Friday, so there is no doubting his form. The Jamaican’s confidence extends to the financial as well as the competitive. The 23-year-old Commonwealth Games champion paid 5000euros yesterday, the winning bid in an auction to secure the original painting upon which this year’s Van Damme Memorial meeting poster is based. Powell whose earnings have bought him a new house to decorate recently is now buying original art to furnish it. Who says there isn’t money in athletics!

By the way, all monies from the auction and the many other African focused projects initiated by the Brussels meeting are going to fund charities on the African continent including the TARA project of King Immanuel Kauluma Elifas of the Ondonga people in Namibia.

The one lap ‘untouchables’, and an Ethiopian ‘head to head’

Jeremy Wariner and Sanya Richards have been untouchable at the men’s and women’s 400m this summer and showed so again in Switzerland, respectively with 44.20 and 50.18 wins. Both times were way slower than their best of the year but these two have been racing and winning week in, week out this summer. 22-year-old Wariner has a PB this year of 43.62, while the year younger Richards has motored to a season’s best of 49.02.

Tirunesh Dibaba for her part may have been beaten in the African Championships by Olympic champion Meseret Defar but each time the two Ethiopians have raced on the one day circuit over 5000m this summer it has been Dibaba who has produced all the aces in terms of a final sprint finish. Defar missed Zurich but will race on Friday, and we are told that both women have promised to make the race fast.

Surprises happen in life but this quartet of Jackpot contenders seem destined to toe the start line in Berlin at the final IAAF Golden League meeting of 2006 on Sunday 3 September still in the hunt for a slice of both $500,000 prizes.

Close call for Saladino

Saladino by contrast had a close call in Zurich in the men’s Long Jump, leaping 8.36m to win by just two centimetres from Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed Salman Al-Khuwalidi. There is no Andrew Howe (competing in Rieti on Sunday), Italy’s European champion, or Dwight Phillips, the World and Olympic title holder (reported injured butb on the Rieti start list too?!) on show but the man from Panama will meet Al-Khuwalidi again, and World Indoor champion Ignisious Gaisah of Ghana

Bekele’s determined
      
Bekele’s awesome reputation took a slight hit at the first Golden League meeting of the summer in Oslo when beaten by Isaac Songok, and despite the latter’s absence from the card here in the Brussels men's 5000m, there are many, Augustine Choge and Eliud Kipchoge included, who have the ability to press the Ethiopian World record holder. Bekele also took a shock loss over 5000m to USA’s Bernard Lagat towards the end of last month in London but has since won the African crown in Mauritius, and held off Songok in Zurich, last week. With no individual global title at stake this year, Bekele has just one focus in 2006, a share of the Jackpot, and the World Athlete of the Year’s determination is sure to see him through.

Homecoming heroines

As the introduction noted, the recent European Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, were an historic occasion for Belgium. Three golds were secured thanks to Tia Hellebaut (HJ) and Kim Gevaert (100m / 200m), and these heroines will be on show on Friday in front of their home crowd. The roar of the reception they will be given is sure to match the level of decibels which either the finale band - Chico & the Gypsies - or the customary firework display, will muster at the conclusion of the evening.

Hellebaut has the stiffer competitive test. She faces World champion Kajsa Bergqvist, who she denied the European crown in front of her own home faithful in the Ullevi stadium. European silver medallist Venelina Veneva of Bulgaria is a late addition to the High Jump field.

The entry list shows that Gevaert will not attempt a sprint double on Friday, preferring the slightly weaker of the two women’s sprint fields on offer. That’s not meant as a criticism as if anyone deserves a victorious home coming it is the Belgian sprint ace. Olympic bronze medallist Debbie Ferguson should be Gevaert’s main opposition in the 200m.

Ferguson is attempting both sprints, and in the 100m she comes across World champion Lauryn Williams of the USA, and Jamaica’s world season leader Sherone Simpson.

Significant anniversaries

On a night of historic celebrations in which the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Belgium Olympic Committee will also be marked at the opening ceremony with 480 Belgian Olympians parading and an address given by IOC president Jacques Rogge, another piece of Belgian sporting history will also be acknowledged. On 8 August 1956, nearly fifty years ago, a Belgian team consisting of Roger Moens, André Ballieux, Alfred Langenus and Emile Leva broke the World record for the 4x800m. To celebrate the record, there will be another World record attempt at this event during the 30th Memorial.

The time the Belgians put down half a century ago (7:15.8), was brought down in 1982 to 7:03.89 by a British team consisting of Peter Elliott, Gary Cook and the legendary duo Steve Cram and Sebastian Coe. To beat this mark an average of 1:45 needs to be run by each of the teams’ four runners. A Benelux squad will line-up against an all-stars team, and foursome’s from Kenya, Spain, Qatar, and the United States.

A better paced attempt by Ramzi

One distance up, and the men’s individual 1500m promises to be fast, and World champion Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain after paying the price for following an excessively fast pace in Rome, has agreed to follow the hopefully more reliable rhythm of Kenyan Geoffrey Rono. The Bahraini believes he is capable of the World record. What is certain is that with a 3:29.14 PB set in Rome - though beaten on the night by Daniel Kipchirchir Komen’s winning 3:29.02 - Ramzi possesses the ability to go faster in a better organized effort but El Guerrouj’s 3:26.00 World record? Now that is a question.

The usually heavily stacked field of talent sets off in the men’s 200m…USA’s Tyson Gay, Xavier Carter and Wallace Simpson, the standouts.

A similarly deep line-up of the world’s best will go in the women’s 800m, world season leader Janeth Kepkosgei of Kenya, and Cuba’s World champion Zulia Calatayud, fastest of the starting list of 12.

Thorkildsen looking to put the record straight

In the men’s Javelin Throw, Norway’s Olympic and European champion Andreas Thorkildsen will hopefully have tried resting a little since Zurich, when the results of his gold winning efforts and no doubt the post final celebrations the week before in Gothenburg certainly took their toll. His defeat last Friday to the man he beat to the European title, Finland’s Tero Pitkämäki, lost him the chance of a share of the Jackpot, and the Norwegian will want to put the record straight in Brussels.

Another newly crowned European champion also out of sorts last Friday was Sweden’s Susanna Kallur who finished 5th, and so also out of the Jackpot running, in the women’s 100m Hurdles. The World champion and the winner in Zurich, USA’s Michelle Perry will start as favourite.

10k tradition

Beginning the evening is the men’s 10,000m. At last year’s meeting Kenenisa Bekele improved his own World record by nearly three seconds to 26:17.53, the third record at this distance set in the meeting's history. Without him don’t expect such a time on this occasion but with athletes of the calibre of Boniface Kiprop (26:39.77 last year) and Sammy Kipketer (26:49.33 – 2002) in the line-up neither is this going to be a slow tactical affair. High quality 10,000m races are rare on the circuit these days and most of the 24 man field will be hoping to finish with a ‘PB’ next to their time.

SOLD OUT!

The last tickets for this meeting’s 47,000 available seats sold on the morning of 9 August, the day on which Kim Gevaert won the first of her European golds. The phones have not stopped ringing since…”we could have sold 10,000 more seats with ease,” confirmed Wilfried Meert, and after Kim and Tia won more gold for Belgium later in the championships, “the telephones went red hot.” Belgium is on an athletics induced high at the moment, a most appropriate scenario for the 30th anniversary of the Memorial Van Damme.

Chris Turner for the IAAF

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