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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Athletics previews

Three world records to fall this weekend? Distance feast on the tracks

Last weekend, it was Usain Bolt in the men's 100m event. This weekend, it's possibly the turn of the Ethiopians over the longer distances, as three world record attempts are on the cards.

Women's 5000m - musical world records?

First, in Norway, Tirunesh Dibaba has expressed her desire to go for the world 5000m record at the year's second Golden League Meeting in Oslo. Dibaba, the world 10,000m champion, certainly has the credentials to break the existing mark, held by her country-woman Meseret Defar. Those two have had perhaps the greatest rivalry on the track in many years, particularly two years ago, when they seemed to be racing down the final 100m of just about every race they ever ran in. Last year, they managed to avoid each other all year long, and it's symptomatic of their rivalry that they are racing on opposite sides of the Atlantic this weekend!

That is because Meseret Defar will then attempt the World 5,000m record at the Prefontaine Meeting in Eugene, USA, only two days later. If Dibaba can break the existing world record, she might therefore hold it for only 36 hours, until Defar once again reclaims it.

This record, incidentally, is relatively soft - 14:16.63. It was set almost exactly a year ago, in a competitive race (both 1st and 2nd broke the old mark), and is probably the weakest of all the women's world records (and probably one of the few that is not massively drug assisted). So, there is a reasonable chance of at least one, if not both, of these women going faster than the old time.

Certainly, I expect that Defar is in the kind of shape to run 14:15 or faster. The only question is whether Dibaba is also, and by how much? The record is looking very fragile as the two dominant women athletes set their sights on it. I'll bet that by Monday morning, we're reporting that record as 14:12, regardless of what happens!

Men's 10,000m - Bekele to go for it, realistic or not?

Not quite as sure is the men's 10,000m attempt, which is to be made by the current record holder, Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, also at the Pre meeting in Eugene. His race (and that of Defar) has been scheduled to take place much earlier than usual - a 9h30 start, with the main meeting to begin at 12h30. That could either indicate the both Bekele and Defar are really serious about these attempts, or it could be a strategy to build anticipation and get people in long before the real meeting starts!

And therein lies the problem - every time a great athlete like Bekele takes to the track, people will inevitably talk of world records. His manager will not do anything to discourage such talk, because the "value" of the athlete for sponsors and promoters is enormously enhanced by the anticipation of a world record. All the while, Bekele could very well be in world record shape. Then again, he may not be.

The tricky thing about 2008 is that the Olympic Games really stretches the season out, and to be in the kind of shape required for this particular record (the men's 10,000m, unlike the women's 5k, is very strong) in June is very challenging, when you think that the athletes have to again be in peak shape in late August, early September. So I suspect Bekele will probably be a little "underdone", and will likely fail in the middle kilometers.

The other problem (apart from the time of year and the strength of the record) is that pacemakers often determine the chances of success. And I don't know who the meeting organizers have lined up as pace-setters, but given the strength of the record (26:17.53, to remind you), you have to find guys who can run 13:00 fairly comfortably to set a steady, confident pace. That's likely to undermine any other aspects.

So, my prediction for the men's 10,000m:

Bekele will run the first 3,000m at world record pace, then slow down, losing perhaps 2 to 3 seconds per kilometer, with pacemakers dropping out shortly after 5,000m. He'll probably try hard to stay close to the time, but will eventually fall away and finish in about 26:30, with a fast last lap, having slowed up dramatically in the final kilometer. I fully expect to hear that the wind and weather were not perfect, but the record will live to see another day.

But who knows? Like the tennis (see post below), it might be completely wrong, and all three records are smashed! Whatever happens, we'll discuss it come Monday!