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Sunday, August 26, 2007

IAAF World Champs - Day 2 analysis

Day 2 of the IAAF World Champs bought the much anticipated clash between Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay, and this is the race that dominates our analysis of Day 2's action, since it was also the only track final of the day.

Men's 100m - Tyson Gay triumphs over Powell

The much awaited race was ultimately something of a disappointment. Such was the hype that everyone was expecting a world record, which didn't materialize, but then neither did the close head to head race everyone expected. In fact, Derrick Atkins separated them on the line, the final result being

1. Tyson Gay 9.85 s
2. Derrick Atkins 9.91 s (PB)
3. Asafa Powell 9.96 s

So of the top 3, only Atkins really extended himself (though that is a discredit to Gay, who really did dominate the race). As for how it unfolded, it was Powell who got off to the faster start, but only marginally, as Gay, running on his immediate right, held on and then began to move clear after about 50m. Powell had looked good up to that point, much in the way that he looked good in yesterday's qualifying rounds and the early evening's semi-final, where he effectively shut off the engines with about 30 m to go, coasting to the line.

Tonight was however different - instead of being afforded the luxury of coasting, he found himself being caught, and then passed, on his right, as Gay clearly had something extra. For Powell, it then got even worse as he was passed by Atkins, ultimately losing the silver. It was a race that I'm sure Powell would want to forget, and rightly so. I wrote yesterday that the start would be critical, because it would apply pressure that may cause an opponent to seize up and lose form. Tension strangles speed, and in tonight's final, it was Powell who seemed to strangle himself. The replays will show just how badly he tied up in the final 40 m of the race, once Gay moved past him, and it ultimately allowed Atkins through too.

Gay, for his part, was a deserving champion, he handled the pressure really well from the start, and didn't allow Powell's superior start to affect his race. He will carry a great deal of confidence into the 200m event, not that he needs it with his 19.62s performance from earlier this year. Few would bet against a second gold medal...

400m Hurdles semi-finals - some surprises and a familiar face into the final

The other big track event of the evening was the men's 400m Hurdle semi-finals, which we wrote about yesterday. And what a turn-up they were, with Bershawn Jackson failing to make the final after basically 'bunny-hopping' straight into the final hurdle, when he was comfortably in the lead. He came to a virtual stand-still, allowing Felix Sanchez to storm past. Even worse for Jackson, he was passed for second and by virtue of the first semi-final being the fastest (his was second), he was eliminated.

So it is left to the other Americans, Kerron Clement and James Carter to fight the final alone. They take on the afore-mentioned Sanchez, as well as a very surprise fastest qualifier, Marek Plawgo of Poland. Few would have given him a chance before this, but he came through from the outside lane to surprise Carter in the first semi-final.

The Americans seem to me to be quite flat. Perhaps they are playing a tactical game, because they are running easily one second off their best times from the season, but they really do look pretty sluggish. Considering that all three have bests in the low 47-sec range, one would expect them to fly through qualifying when the races are being won in the mid-48 second range. Imagine Jeremy Wariner struggling at 44.8 sec pace and you have a comparison.

Perhaps American 400m hurdling is, in a strange way, a victim of its own strength. The American athletes who run in Osaka have had to qualify in their national championships, held this year in June. And because they have such strength in depth, a 400m hurdler who wishes to run for the USA must be in the sort of condition to run 47.8s at those championships (Carter won the race in 47.72 sec, by the way: Clement was 2nd in 47.80s). But the problem, from a physiological point of view, is that having reached this kind of physical condition, they then have to maintain it through July and August before the World Champs. That is very difficult to do, and I suspect that we are seeing the USA hurdlers on the 'downer' that inevitably follows a physiological peak. It will be a fascinating race, they may well be good enough to win, but whether they will get near those times from June remains to be seen. If they can, the race is theirs, but the Pole and Sanchez may fancy their chances for medals, perhaps gold.

Women's 800 semi-finals - another old face, and perhaps a new one from Africa?

Very briefly, the women's 800m threw up one or two surprises, but the big names who made it through yesterday also made it through to the final. Maria Mutola, Hasna Benhassi, Sviatlana Usovich, Svetlana Klyuka, and most impressive of all, Janeth Jepkosgei, made the final in impressive fashion.

Mutola is something of a sentimental mention, it would be a major surprise if the great Mozambiquan can win a medal in the final, but the other two Africans, Benhassi and Jepkosgei, look a real chance. In particular, Jepkosgei, a relative newcomer in the last 2 seasons, looked awesome, running a world-leading time and a personal best of 1:56:17. She ran it almost entirely from the front, running away from the rest of the field, after a 56-something first lap. Very impressive indeed, and it will be fascinating to see if she can produce this in the pressure cooker of the final, with a couple of eastern Europeans breathing down her neck. The Russians (Klyuka in this case) always seem to produce someone with merit for these championships and they will be dangerous. But Jepkosgei looked super in her semi, and should she go on to win, will be a hero in Kenya, where women's athletics has taken a bit of a dent in recent times. That final is in two days time, and it should be awesome.

Preview of tomorrow - the men's 10000m and a rematch of a distance race in the heat

Tomorrow sees three track finals: Women's 3000 Steeplechase, the women's 100m final, and the one we like most, the men's 10 000m. Few would bet against Kenenisa Bekele, but he is taking on his conqueror from Mombasa earlier this year - Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea. The World Cross-country champion Tadese conquered Bekele and the heat, and he will be optimistic about doing the same in the heat of Osaka. However, Bekele has really shown himself to be in great form, with speed over 3000m that few will match, so he must be the favourite, to join his compatriot Dibaba in defending his 10000m title.

Join us tomorrow for the report on that race.

Until then, happy running

R & J