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Saturday, August 25, 2007

IAAF World Champs - Day 1 insights and analysis

The IAAF World Championships in Osaka began with a bang, and the temperatures matched some of the action. At this stage, the action is dominated by qualifying heats (a pun, in this particular case) but even that has been quite explosive, with a number of surprises on the first day. Two major running finals to report on, the Men's Marathon and the Women's 10 000m final, which was a stunner. And of course, we move ever closer to the potential world record in the 100m and the show-down between Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell (see our Picture above). But let's begin with the Men's Marathon...

Men's Marathon - New World Champion Luke Kibet

The story of the men's marathon was always going to be the heat. I have to somewhat sheepishly admit that I yesterday wrote about the women's marathon, a faux pas I will blame on the fact that I am on a travelling holiday around Europe, combined with the Swiss Mountain air at the time of writing...! So apologies for that, it was in fact the men's marathon today and a real racer's marathon. The winning time of 2:15:59. We wrote yesterday that the heat was always going to be a factor, and it most certainly was, contributing to the slowest major championship time in history. In an era where we have become accustomed to sub 2:07 races, this may seem tepid, but temperatures were extreme. For the record, the temperature was 28 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit) at the start, despite the 7 am time, and by the end it was 32 degrees (90 Fahrenheit), with 67% humidity!

We spoke yesterday of the impact this would have on the race, because of how the brain adjusts the pace from the start to slow the athlete down, preventing the development of heatstroke. This probably seems unremarkable, and somewhat obvious, until you consider that there is still no real theory for how this is achieved. If you picked up a textbook, you would read that the athletes slow down because they are hot (their body temperature hits a certain level - 40 degrees is commonly mentioned). In fact, they slow down so that they don't get hot - the reduction happens because they feel hot, not because they are...intelligent pacing, based on physiology, if you will.

And it was Luke Kibet, a fairly unknown athlete coming into the race, who was best of all, becoming the first gold-medallist courtesy of his winning what was ostensibly a war of attrition - the halfway time was 1:08:29, with 29 runners in the group. By 35km, that group had been trimmed to five, and then Kibet pulled away without actually doing anything spectular. The attritional nature of the race is evidenced by the fact that the second placed finisher, Mubarak Hassan Shami of Qatar, was 1:29 behind, finishing in 2:17:18. This means that he ran the second half in 1:08:49, slower than the first despite running a pace that is, on any other day, pedestrian. The fact that Kibet was the only runner in the field to run a faster second half further confirms just how tough conditions were. But Kibet came through the test.

Women's 10000m final - Dibaba is unstoppable

Turinesh Dibaba is just 21 years old, but she already owns 9 world titles. But the race was far from a formality. The pace was again unremarkable - the halfway mark was reached in 16:29, at which time the group was still pretty large. Then, almost amazingly, the defending champion Dibaba dropped off the pace. I was watching the race on Swiss television, and my German is limited to fewer than 100 words, so I was completely in the dark as to what has happening, and it is still too recent to know just what happened there. But Dibaba spent about 2 laps off the back of the field, trailing by at most 10 m, and then suddenly surged to the front four again. From then on, it was business as usual, the race only really came alive with 2km to go. The Turkish athlete (actually born in Ethiopia) with the unpronouncable name, Elvan Abeylegesse, hit the front and shifted the pace forward. They had been running 76 to 78 seconds per lap (a slow pace, which made the dropping of Dibaba all the more amazing at the time), but with Abeylegesse at the front, it became 72 seconds/lap (3:00/km), and that was enough to drop everyone but Dibaba, who just sat in second, looking serene and in control.

She is an absolutely beautiful runner, clearly cut from the same cloth as Gebrselassie at his peak. She runs as though on air, with the most elegant stride seen in women's running for a long time. And she has a kick over the final lap that no woman in history can match. This race was no different - she went to the front with exactly one lap, allowing the bell to inspire an incredible last lap kick. Abeylegesse, herself a fast runner with a sub 4:00min 1500m best hung on for perhaps 80 m, but then it was all over, and Dibaba finished in isolation, having reeled off a final lap in under 60 seconds, for a final kilometer of 2:47. Absolutely incredible, and unique among women to see this kind of finishing speed. The Ethiopians have it in abundance, but until recently, it has been the men. Dibaba may represent the first of a generation, much as Yifter was in the 1980's. She is certainly well on the way to becoming the greatest women runner in history.

All that remains for her in these championships is what is perhaps the race of the championships against Meseret Defer (see our preview of top 4 Events here). Dibaba has raced sparingly this year, preferring to train from her base in Ethiopia, while Defar has set world records. But this win was evidence that Dibaba is indeed in great condition and it should be a great race.

Men's 100m - Early rounds

The event that many are looking forward to is still on course to happen. Tomorrow evening, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell will race in the two semi-finals for the chance to meet in the late evening for a world title and potential world record. Powell, for his part, looked awesome in his second round race, winning in 10.01, but really, he only sprinted about 60m, before shutting down and coasting to the finish. His start was magnificent, and he put Atkins, running alongside him, to shame from the blocks. Remember that Atkins is a good bet for a medal, and has won a few big races in Europe this year. But 50 m into this qualifying race, Powell was in a different league and only his slowing down enabled Atkins to close the gap.

Gay looked good, though not as dominant. It's difficult to compare, of course, but his start seemed much less powerful, and in the end, he sprinted perhaps 90m before being safely through to the semi-finals.

As for what will happen in the final (assuming they do the expected and qualify), that's anyone's guess. Powell has something of a cloud hanging over him after a couple of poor performances at major championships, but he may have put all that behind him after his brilliant season last year. Gay is relatively untested, particularly on this stage.

What will be absolutely vital is the start - the better start will immediately put pressure on the other athlete, and with the stakes as they are, that pressure could easily build exponentially, forcing one of these men into tightening up. And for a sprinter, that is the ultimate failure - the idea is to remain relaxed and powerful, and any tension only slows the speed down. So look for the athlete who maintains his form and fluidity to win the race, and that's as much a mental battle as it is physical.

Other events - disappointment for South Africa

Speaking as a South African now, it was an extremely disappointing day, continuing what has become a tradition for SA Athletics at major championships. First, Hendrik Ramaala, many people's favourite for the marathon, could only finish 27th, in 2:26. I was personally amazed to read that he was even running, considering his racing scheduled in recent months. I read in an interview recently that Ramaala feels he is 'different' compared to other athletes, because he actually needs to run many marathons. Most elite men are doing perhaps two major marathons a year, Ramaala prefers to run 4, sometimes 5, and that doesn't even include his half-marathons. Perhaps this performance (and a recent disappointment in the New York half marathon) will cause him to reconsider this opinion that he is 'different'. It is a very disappointing way for a good athlete to perform, and he perhaps needs to consider his approach for next year.

Even more disappointing was the 400m Hurdles for men, which was often been SA's best event. LJ van Zyl, one of the few men who has beaten the Americans this year, could only finish 5th in the first round, in a time that he probably would run in training. Alwyn Myburgh, a potential finallist, could not finish his heat, and only Ter de Villiers managed to get through to the next round. Of course, one does not want to be overly critical, but I would love to know just what went on in the last 2 weeks, particularly with van Zyl, because he was a medal chance, and could not make the top 40 in the world. Very disturbing for SA athletics...

400m Hurdles - shaping up as a great event

That aside, the 400m is shaping up as a great race. Felix Sanchez, dominant for two years until just after the Athens Olympics, ran a season's best to win his heat in the fastest time of the day. The Americans will however remain favourites. James Carter looked very comfortable, and Bershawn Jackson, defending champion, seemed to have a great deal in reserve at the end. He and Kerron Clement both ran rather odd races, leaving themselves with a lot to do in the final 80m, but both came through. It's difficult to know what sort of condition they are really in, but Jackson in particular is a great big-race runner and all three have bags of talent. The odd Jamaican, and Sanchez thrown in, and this could be a great race.

As for tomorrow's action, what everyone is waiting for is the 100m final for men, which we discussed above. The 400m Hurdles semi-finals also feature, but it's that 100m race that should produce all the heat.

Join us for insight into those races tomorrow!

R & J