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Saturday, August 04, 2012

London recap: Track athletics, a review & previews

London recap: Dibaba dominant, a fast track, Pistorius science and a great men's 10,000m looms

Apologies for missing a day on the recaps - trying to follow the Olympics and work has left me feeling a little like Ryan Lochte began looking in his last few events in the pool.  And he has gold, silver and bronze medals to show for it!

But here are some thoughts from the track.  I still will comment on South Africa's rowing gold medal, because this is perhaps the most significant medal we've won at a Games.  And yes, I'm biased, but I'll tell you the story of why this is the case at some stage!

But for now, track and field kicked off last night.  Here's a look back, and forward:

1)  Track and field - Dibaba dominates, Ennis on track and Pistorius in SI

Last night saw the first track medal awarded, and it went to arguably the greatest female distance runner we've ever seen in Tirunesh Dibaba.  The Ethiopian destroyed the field with a 2:10 final 800m, a 62 second final lap, and won by an enormous six seconds.  Most remarkably of all, she really did look as though she had it in her to go quite a bit faster in the final few laps.  Earlier this year, she covered the final mile of a 5,000m race in 4:22.  According to Letsrun.com's recap of the race, her final mile tonight was 4:33.  Different distance and race leading up, of course, but it shows the capacity she has to finish and so it's difficult to see anyone beating her in a championship race.

Before the race, we all thought she would be pushed to the limit, because facing her was Vivian Cheruiyot, last year's dominant distance runner, who had gone unbeaten in just under two years.  She ended third, with Sally Kipyego splitting her and Dibaba.

Dibaba defended her 10,000m title from Beijing (a first), and added to her four world titles on track, two previous Olympic titles (an unprecedented double in Beijing - she may match that here), and four cross-country world titles.  She wasn't listed as a member of the Ethiopian 5,000m team, but surely it would be beauracracy gone mad to leave her out.  Cheruiyot would be a more difficult proposition over 5,000m, and Meseret Defar would also challenge, but Dibaba was so dominant tonight that you'd have a tough time betting on anyone else.

The guys at Letsrun.com have the race brief and analysis here, including post-race quotes from a satisfied Dibaba and a disappointed Cheruiyot.

2)  A super fast track

Also in track action, the first round of the women's 100m produced some noteworthy performances.  Normally, the first round of the short sprint is a non-event, as everyone shuts down with 50m to go and does what is necessary to qualify.  And that is more or less what happened yesterday, but it still managed to produce some incredibly fast times.  A 10.83s for Jeter, a 10.93s for Okagbare and 10.94s for Veronica Campbell-Brown were the fastest times.  There were national records and personal bests everywhere, and nobody really looked like they were extending themselves.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was ridiculously comfortable winning her heat in 11.00s, looking as though she was doing a light stride rather than a 100m race.  The performances did have a following wind, but it wasn't that significant, and so it seems the London track is incredibly quick.  We will get further confirmation of that in a short while when the men run their first round (though I believe it may be raining), and then the women's semi-finals and final tonight will confirm that for sure.  With so many women so comfortably under 11.00s, it should be an incredibly fast race later.  Expect fireworks.

3)  Ennis on course

Also in action later is Jessica Ennis, the favorite for the heptathlon and the face of the London Games, at least its track programme.  She got off to a great start, with PBs in the hurdles and 200m, to take a pretty solid lead heading into day 2, where she has to confront a javelin event that has been a weakness before.  The talk was that she's focused on it to the point that it is no longer a huge weakness.  If that is the case, and if she can stand up under what is some pretty massive pressure (ala Cathy Freeman in Sydney), then a good long jump in the morning might well put her into an almost unassailable lead, and lead to gold for the local heroine.

4) Pistorius starts his campaign - David Epstein on the science

This morning's track action will be dominated by the 100m men who make their first appearance, and then Oscar Pistorius, who runs in the 400m heats.  His presence, while inspirational, is also debatable, and the question around advantage will persist.  As it should - the process by which the "science" cleared him was so dubious it was untrue, and his PR-machine has made people think it cleared him, when in fact the science says something else entirely.

David Epstein of Sports Illustrated has asked some of those questions, and produced this brilliant article summing up the views.  If you're watching the race, you'll probably be debating his presence.  This article is recommended reading before you do.

5) Farah vs Bekele vs Kenya vs Rupp - the men's 10,000m tonight

Jess Ennis' gold medal may be part of a golden double for Great Britain, because immediately after the women's heptathlon concludes with the 800m, Mo Farah will attempt to win the 10,000m gold against a field that is stacked with intrigue.  He takes on a field that includes Kenenisa Bekele, who, if he wins, joins Dibaba in achieving an unparalled defense of his title, with one exception - he'll have defended twice.  Haile Gebrselassie tried and failed to win a third Olympic 10k crown, and now Bekele has that shot.

Bekele has improved his times, but not his positions, in all his major 5,000m races so far this year - he started with a very slow 13:14, then jumped to 13:01, then a 13:00 and 12:56.  That's encouraging, but he was always being comfortably out-kicked in the final lap.  His 10,000m form has been more impressive, and of course last year he bounced back from not even finishing the Daegu 10,000m to run the world's fastest time of 26:43.

This all points to his likeliest tactic is to make sure the pace is fast and building in the final 3,000m.  His agent earlier this week mentioned that Bekele was over-raced and over-trained during that season of 5,000m races, and so having gone away to prepare with a single-minded focus, you wouldn't bet against Bekele arriving in London in at least the same kind of shape, being able to run 26:40.  However, that may not be the kind of shape needed to win a championship 10,000m, and that's where it gets so interesting.

In much the same way that Ethiopians wound it up in the women's race, Bekele needs to avoid a final 400m dash.  For Dibaba, I suspect it would not have made a difference anyway, but for Bekele, it would.  Mo Farah and even Galen Rupp have beaten him handily over 5,000m, always in the final lap, and he can't afford to be an extra in that storyline again.  Farah in particular is dangerous, and will in all likelihood win a final lap sprint.  Last year in Daegu, I felt that Farah took the pace on too early, kicked from too far out, and found Jeilan of Ethopia just too quick in the last 300m.  This year, there's no Jeilan, and Farah will be more prepared, or more astute, too.  He'll also be motivated by what is likely to be incredibly home support.

This is all a departure from previous Games, because we've always spoken of what others need to do to shake Bekele before the bell lap, and now the roles are reversed.  Farah will be defending until the bell, Bekele attacking.

Into this tactical intrigue, you have the Kenyan challenge.  It lacks a "legend" in the form of a Paul Tergat or even a credentialed 10,000m track runner, but it still has a balance that might just be perfect for the race.  Wilson Kiprop won the Kenyan trials, which makes him a contender, but the reality is that his best performances have come on the roads.  He is coming down in distance for this race, and so his approach, like that of Bekele, will surely be to press a long way from home.  In a final lap, it's easy to see him finishing out of the medals.  To win gold, he goes early, and that means the chance of an unlikely alliance between a Kenyan and Ethiopian, as this is exactly what Bekele probably needs.

The other Kenyans are Moses Masai and Bidan Karoki.  Karoki in particular is interesting, as he's shown aggression in previous races, and might provide even more spice in an already intriguing race.

And then there is Rupp.  Before last year, few would have picked him to be a contender, but his final lap speed has improved so much in the last year that he now becomes a very good chance.  He also has the ability to run a sub-13 5,000m, so a slow start, with a strong second half is not a huge problem.  Nor is a slow race to 9,000m.  And so he's almost certain to be in contention, and that means the chance of a first non-African medal in the event for a long, long time.  Farah, of course, is the other non-African, though he was of course born in Africa.

It promises to be a fabulous race.  I am completely undecided as to how it will go.  I think Farah, with his speed and the home support, is probably the logical favorite...just.  But having watched Dibaba last night, I just have a feeling that the Ethiopians have arrived in London with exactly the right form.  Bekele has done this before, knows what is required and history shows that he's able to round into excellent condition in less time than he's had here.  The only question is tactical, and whether he can get them right.

Right now, as I'm writing this, I'll predict that Bekele wins this from Farah, but in an hour from now, I'll probably think differently.  However it goes, it could well be a classic, because not only is the winner in question, but the manner is so open, and there are so many options for how this race might develop over the 27 minutes that it takes.  A highlight of the Games, for sure.

Join me later for insights!