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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Unheralded sportsman of the year: Josphat Menjo

Josphat Menjo:  The unheralded star of 2010

Unless you count yourself a relatively serious follower of athletics (by which I mean you visit athletics-specific websites regularly), you are unlikely to be familiar with the name Josphat Menjo.  He hasn't appeared on television in 2010, at least not in South Africa, where we are fortunate enough to see all the Diamond League meetings.  Nor has he won any major titles.  But, he has just produced one of the iconic running seasons in recent history.

Not "iconic" in the same way that 1995 was for Haile Gebrselassie when he broke multiple world records, and won a world title.  Or that 2008 was for Kenenisa Bekele, winning a double gold in Beijing.

No, Menjo's success came in three tiny races in Finland, in a span of 11 days in August, when he ran 12:55.95 for 5,000m, 26:56.74 for 10,000m, and 3:53.62 for one mile.  The 10,000m time is the fastest of 2010, displacing Chris Solinsky's earlier effort, and most remarkable of all, all three performances were solo, front-running efforts without any competition or pacemakers.

The impact of having "company" is difficult to measure.  We've actually tried to study the effect of competition on performance, but it's near impossible to design the study to do it accurately.  There's no way to gauge how competitive an athlete is to begin with, and then providing the right incentive often proves impossible.  Some athletes probably slow down under pressure of another runner on their shoulder.  So it's anyone's guess how many seconds a rival might be worth over 25 or 12.5 laps, but a bigger stage, better pacing and a race should see Menjo improve by seconds, rather than milliseconds.

Those races came after Menjo could not crack an invitation to a Diamond League race because his times coming into 2010 were too slow - outside 13 minutes for 5,000m.  So, helped by a Finnish manager, he embarked on a solo effort that created for him a cult following of sorts among athletics followers.

By this time next year, he may well be "mainstream".  Since his Finnish exploits, he's beaten Eliud Kipchoge and Said Shaheen in Belgrade, and won the Zatopek 10,000m race in Australia recently.  Perhaps his only obstacle to running truly great times is that he'll over-race in an effort to make up for lost time (and earnings).  But, if he is even in the same kind of condition, then he'll be a name you'll hear much more in 2011.

Menjo is not a complete newcomer to the sport - he has won medals at All-Africa Games events, but those are so low-key they barely register.  And besides, when you are running in Kenya, even a 27:30 barely warrants a mention, so common are those kinds of performances.  It's actually a scary thought that if the resources could support them, the number of Kenyan athletes with the potential to break 27 minutes would probably be at least double what we see now.  However, many are "lost" because the athlete isn't quite successful to make it big, and doesn't have the opportunity to tweak the training enough to get there.  Menjo did, and will hopefully see the prize in 2011.

To read a little more on Josphat Menjo, check out this great write-up by our friend Pat Butcher, on his blog Globerunner.  It has some great quotes, including how Menjo turned down pacemakers for his 10,000m race.

And finally, since it is the fastest 10km time of the year, and because you may never have seen the athlete producing here, here is a video of the last three laps of that performances.  You will see just how small a race it was, how empty the stadium is, and wonder how the addition of 30,000 people and world-class competition would not help Menjo run faster.  Let's hope that 2011 provides the answer.