With England’s marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe having just confirmed that she will, in fact, not run in London, the focus shifts… Kenya swept the medals at last year’s World championships, with Edna Kiplagat, Priscah Jeptoo, and Sharon Cherop handling the brooms. Kiplagat and Jeptoo are back for London… and speaking of London, isn’t there a marathon there every year?! While the Olympic course is different, the surroundings are the same, and no one has felt more at home here than Kenya’s Mary Keitany. She PRed here in April with her second London win in a row in a stellar 2:18.37; her exceptionally strong finish is headed for legend. Kiplagat was over a minute behind her as she dipped under 2:20 for the first time. Lilya Shobukova (Rus) has won Chicago three times and London once, is noted for her strong finish, and is #2 all-time on the world marathon time list. Shalane Flanagan (US), Beijing 10,000m bronze medalist and winner of the US Trials, is noted for her remarkable mental toughness. Ethiopia has two strong contenders in Aselefech Mergia and Tiki Gelena, who won at Dubai and Rotterdam, respectively, this year. Hiding in the agate type is Mare Dibaba, 3rd at Dubai in 2:19:52 - and her name is Dibaba. ‘Nuff said.
- Mary Keitany, Kenya
- Liliya Shobukhova, Russia
- Edna Kiplagat, Kenya
Let’s take a look at the best jumps in the world the last two years. Olga Rypakova (Kaz) is at
50’ ½”, and Caterina Ibarguen (Col), Olha Saladuha (Ukr), and Yargelis Savigne (Cub) are tied at 49’ 2 ¼”. Rypakova has the best competitive record in Diamond League events this year, with Ibarguen not far behind. Savigne has an outstanding competitive record with silver, gold, and gold at the 05, 07, and 09 World Championships, but she slipped to 6th in ‘11. Just behind them is Great Britain’s Yamile Aldama, who has been the focus of much attention in GB, not all of it positive, for having competed for Cuba and then Sudan before acquiring Bristish citizenship two and a half years ago. It will be interesting to see the reception she receives in the stadium.
- Olga Rypakova, Kazakhstan
- Caterina Ibarguen, Colombia
- Olha Saluda, Ukraine
Uncertain is the status of Koji Murofushi (Jpn), last year’s World Champion. He’s been at or near the top for a decade. Gold medalist in the Athens Olympics (04), it was seven years before he won his next medal, and it was gold in the ’11 Worlds. But he’s off the radar screed this year – not a mark (or a hit) in the top 40. Wither Koji? If he shows up, the rest will tremble. Similarly, Kristian Pars (Hun) has long been expected to win the World or Olympic championship, and he came 6cm away from pulling off a last-round win in Daegu. He won this year’s European Championships and is peaking well. Pawel Fajdek (Pol) is getting a lot of pre-Olympics attention for his nearly three-meter PR this year, but he crashed and burned in the Daegu final and didn’t make the top 8. Kirill Ikonnikov won the Russian Championships at the beginning of July. Beyond - or perhaps even including - first place, this event is wide open, as there is caution about each of the favorites. And just when you thought it was safe to make predictions, up shows Sergey Litvinov (Rus), suddenly 4th on the yearly lists. The World Champion in 1983 and 1987, and Olympic Champion in Seoul in 1988, is 54 years old. Excuse me, please, I have to take a nap.
- Kristian Pars, Hungary
- Kirill Ikonnikov, Russia
- Pawel Fajdek, Poland
Sanya Richard-Ross (US) went into the 2008 Olympics as the favorite but faded to third as Great Britain’s Christine Ohuruogu stormed to gold. SRR came back to win the World title in ’09, but then was felled by an illness she has preferred not to discuss publicly (she should get a gold for that). SRR was dominant in winning the Olympic Trials in Eugene in a then-world leading 49.28, which has since been eclipsed by Antonina Krivoshapka’s 49.16 in the Russian National Championships; AK won bronze in the 09 Worlds. ’11 World champ Amantle Montsho is running better than ever and looks to be in line for Botswana’s first-ever Olympic medal. Novlene Williams-Mills (Jam) won Olympic silver in ’08 and World silver in ’09, and is only half a second behind SRR on the world list going into London. An amazingly deep and competitive field. In any other stadium, I’d pick Krivoshapka for third.
- Sanya Richards-Ross, United States
- Amantle Montsho, Botswana
- Christine Ohuruogu, Great Britain
Kenya’s Paul Koech is the dominant steeplechaser in the world this year, and the argument can be made that he has been most consistent over the past decade in everything but World and Olympic championships. He’s won 4 World Athletics finals (a recently-discontinued end-of-season culminating meet), finished second twice, and 3rd once since 2003. This year he has won 3 of 4 races and is averaging just over 7:59 per race. Averaging. He runs exceptionally well in a variety of venues - except… Nairobi, at a mile of altitude in the Kenyan Olympic Trials, where he finished 7th and failed to make their team – again. Imagine his record if the Kenyan trials were held at sea level. The reason this does not seem to bother Athletics Kenya much (they still haven’t answered my email asking: so who’s really on your team this year? Have you made up your minds yet?) is that even without Koech, Kenya is favored to sweep the medals. Again.
Defending Olympic Champion Brimin Kipruto (and silver medalist in Athens ’04) scared the world record last year when he missed by a scant 100th. And here I thought that happened only in the women’s 100m! (I’m over it now – no, really.) OK, alright that was a thousandth. Where was I? Meanwhile, his teammate, Ezekiel Kemboi, has won the last two World titles, silver in the three before that (1st or 2nd in five consecutive World Championships), and when Kipruto “faltered” and won silver in the Athens Olympics, guess who won gold? And the third survivor of the Kenyan Trials is Abel (is he?) Mutai, who comes in with a pedestrian PR of 8:01.67 – a Kenyan Olympian without a sub-8:00 PR – who has ever heard of such a thing? (Actually, this question will send statnuts into a frenzy!) It’s also important to consider the number of Kenyans who have changed citizenship (as well as names, most confusingly). Turkey’s Tarik Langat Akdag spent much of his career as Patrick Kipkurui Langat, and the world record (7:53.63) holder in this event, Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar, was once more famous as Stephen Cherono. A consistent high-placer (several 3rds, even), and 6th and 5th in the last two Worlds, he will send officials scurrying for a victory lap flag should any of the Kenyans falter. And with an even better chance of doing that is a terrific big-meet racer, France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Bennabad, with Olympic (08) silver and world bronze (11) to his credit.
On the world lists this year, 11 of the top 15 are from Kenya. Taking out the 8 who didn’t make the Kenyan Olympic team makes for interesting reading. (The Kenyan qualifiers are 1st, 3rd and 10th on the list.) In 7th place is Roba Gari of Ethiopia, who moves into 3rd place among Olympic team members. In 8th place and moving up to 4th is… Evan Jager? (US). (I’ll pause while you put away your smelling salts.) Let’s do a brief recap of his lengthy steeplechasing career. He ran 8:26.14 in his steeplechase debut at the Mt. Sac (CA) relays on April 19th and earned the Olympic “B” standard in that race. On May 18, in his second steeple, he ran 8:20.90 in spite of a brief but memorable scuba diving expedition in the water pit on the last lap, and got the Olympic “A” standard. So far, so good. His third race was the qualifying round at the Olympic Trials, where he won his heat in 8:30.60 on June 25. Race #4 was the Olympic Trials final with the top three (if with an “A” standard) rewarded with a trip to London. He won the June 28 final in 8:17.40, which is one way of celebrating the 60th day of your steeplechasing career. Widely expected to be a close race between Jager and Princeton’s NCAA Champ, Donn Cabral, Jager pulled away mightily on the last lap to win by 2.41 seconds. And what a memorable last straightaway it was. After the clearing the last hurdle, Jager glanced back and the reality of his margin over Cabral hit him. He burst into a wide grin, ran a few strides, and looked back again, as if – unbelieving – to make sure. The grin never left his face, and, with tongue wagging, looked into the crowd several times and then gave a huge first pump as he crossed the finish line – Olympian and US national champion.
On to the Olympics, right? Well, Jager and Coach Jerry Schumaker had a decision to make: train through to the Olympics or go to Europe and find out what international steeplechasing is all about. So they decided he would run one – just one – Diamond League race and otherwise keep the focus on training. Monaco was the choice, the famous Herculis Meet, this year on 7/20 – if you go to one Diamond League Meet in Europe, this is the one – and it was a stellar field, including 5 Kenyans (not counting the two rabbits): the aforementioned Paul Koech, Conselus Kipruto, the World Junior Champion, and Richard Mateelong, whose PR is 7:56.81. Not exactly ducking the competition. If you have a chance, go to Flotrack and find the footage of the last two laps of this race. Jager’s in 5th with 800m to go, passes into 3rd just before 400m, and pulls up on Kipruto’s shoulder around the curve from 400m to 300m to go. Kipruto senses a tiring Koech and goes after him, and passes him – in spite of a mighty stumble – with about 40m left. Jager flies in at 8:06.81, a new American Record, breaking Dan Lincoln’s 8:08.82, set in 2006. An 11-second PR. Race #5.
Race # 6 will be the Olympic heats on August 3. Should he advance, Race #7 will be the Olympic final on August 5.
Let me close with just one thing. Everyone gather ‘round. No, closer, so I can lower my voice so he can’t hear me. Please, no one tell him what he’s doing! If you’re a US steepler, you’ve got to know the rules. You’re not supposed to pass two Kenyans in the last 800m. You’re not supposed to race the Kenyan World Junior Champ on the last lap! So let’s let all this be our little secret, OK?! And what a delightful ’secret’ it is – clearly one of the great highlights of the US track and field season. I can’t wait to see how the rest of this story unfolds.
As for my picks… everyone and his uncle is picking a Kenyan sweep, and I don’t disagree, though these are not often fast-from-the-start races, and the longer the final goes at a pedestrian pace, the better the chances of Mekhissi-Bennabad for another major meet medal. As for the heats, they are of a type of running Jager hasn’t yet experienced in the steeple – varied tempo with especially fast finishes; the last 800m in each heat could be well under 2:00. But this is the year for Jager to do exceptionally well things he has not done before.
- Brimin Kipruto, Kenya
- Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya
- Abel Mutai, Kenya
A clash of the titans, a clash of the walking wounded, or a clash of the geezer sprinters?
The titans: let’s look at the major meet (Olympic and World Championships) records of each of the major contenders, leading off with personal bests:
100m – 9.58 - Olympic Champion (08), World Champion (09), set world record 3x
200m – 19.19 - Olympic Champion (08), World Champion (09) + (11), World silver (07),
set world record 2x
100m – 9.80 – Olympic Champion (04), World Champion (05)
200m – 19.86 – Olympic silver (04), World Champion (05)
100m – 9.72 - 5th place Olympic Games (04) + (08), bronze medalist World Championships
(07) + (09), set world record 2x, tied own WR an additional 2x; sub-10:00 more times than anyone in history
100m – 9.69 - World Champion (07), World silver (09)
200m – 19.58 - World Champion (07)
100m – 9.75 - World Champion (11)
200m – 19.26, #2 all-time
The walking wounded: Usain Bolt (Jam) hamstring, Tyson Gay (US) hip, Asafa Powell (Jam) lower stomach muscle, as well as lingering concerns about his game-day confidence.
Age: Tyson Gay (29), Justin Gatlin (30), Asafa Powell (29) – sprinters at this age are almost always competing in their last Olympics.
4 rounds in two days
The reason so few world records are set in the Olympics or World Championships is that these are far different than single-day meets. A single-day meet is (almost always) a one-race affair – lay it all on the line in one great single effort. The one great single effort in the Olympics comes after 3 other great efforts in the qualifying rounds. The test at the Olympics is not who is best in the one great race – it’s who’s best at the end of four rounds. Here’s the men’s 100m schedule:
Saturday, 8/4 – 10:00am – run-in – possible first round
Saturday, 8/4 – 12:30pm – quarter-finals
Sunday, 8/5 – 19:45 – semi-finals
Sunday, 8/5 – 21:50 – finals.
Two 100s within an hour and a half on Friday, two more in just over two hours on Saturday.
Up to 4 races in 36 hours. To truly appreciate what it takes to survive this schedule, please try this at home. That’s what I thought!
Quick: What is Usain Bolt’s middle name? Major bonus points if you said “St. Leo.”
Rather appropriate, doncha think?! He remains King of this Jungle:
- Usain Bolt, Jamaica
- Yohan Blake, Jamaica
- Justin Gatlin, United States