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Friday, August 31, 2007

IAAF World Champs - whirlwind recap of Days 4 to 6

The IAAF World Champs in Osaka are approaching their final weekend. Sadly, I missed much of the action over the last few days, but I did manage to catch highlight of some races, which I thought I'd summarize very (very) briefly in a quick post. More detailed analysis of Day 7 onward will begin again tomorrow...

Women's 400m - a "Triumph or a Travesty?", as Christine Ohuruogo of Great Britian wins on her comeback

This was the headline in one of the papers in England. I happened to be in London the day of and after the race, and the papers had a field day. The first thing one has to realise about English athletics is that everyone, almost without fail, recalls the glory days of Coe, Ovett, Cram, Thompson, and more recently, Christie and Jackson. The last few years have been, to put it mildly, very barren, and so the hosts of the 2012 Olympic Games are understandably terribly excited about the fact that they won not one, but two medals in this race. Nicola Sanders run out of her skin, first in the semi-finals, and then in the finals, setting consecutive personal bests, but the athlete dominating the headlines was Ohuruogo.

Christine Ohuruogo had just completed a one year ban for failing to show up on three doping tests. This constitutes a one year ban, but also a life-time ban from the Olympic Games, issued by the British Olympic Association. So the reason the headlines in the papers were equivocal was because Britian's great athlete is also, as things stand, not eligible to run in the Beijing Olympic Games! This lifetime ban is in the process of being appealed, and there seems to be an excellent chance that it will be overturned, allowing Ohuruogo to run in Beijing. She is still young, and so should (in theory) continue to improve. She was in fact earmarked as the "face of the 2012 Olympics" until her career turned sour a year ago. It will be interesting to see how the story develops in the next few weeks.

As for the race, it came down to who had the strongest finish. Novlene Williams, of Jamaica, won bronze, but paid dearly for a pace that was far too fast in the first half. Pacing is critical in the 400m event - everyone slows down in the second half of the race (see this post for some explanation of this fact). The key is to slow down the least, and that's something Ohuruogo did to perfection, coming through strongly (which actually means slowing down least!) to win by a narrow margin (0.04 secs). It would have been interesting to see how the race would have developed had Sanya Richards, arguably the world number 1, been running. Likely everyone would have been dipping for silver, with gold being won a little more comfortably. But, in athletics, one can only beat the athletes in the race, which Ohuruogo did. I will be very interested to see how the remaining Golden League races go, where Richards will surely take on the three medallists. One final mention for Ana Guevara, who was near unbeatable a few seasons ago, and seems to be on the comeback trail, much like Felix Sanchez is in the hurdles race. The Beijing 400m race for women is shaping up nicely.

Women's 800m - historic win for Jepkosgei and Kenya

In my opinion, one of the greatest performances I've seen in recent times came in this final. Kenya's Janeth Jepkosgei time-trialled away from the next 7 best 800m runners in the world to set a new PB, improving on the old one, which was only 2 days old from the semi-final. It was a masterclass, but the kind of race you just don't see anymore. Gone were the cagey tactics and slow first lap, this was simply an athlete saying to the rest "I have a time in my legs that no one else in this race can do, and I'm going to go for it." It was tremendous stuff.

I wrote in a post after the semi-final in a post that Jepkosgei looked a good bet, but it remained to be seen whether she would be able to deal with the pressure of front-running in a final. She shattered that scepticism, leading just about the entire race. She took the pace out hard, running the first 200m in 26-something (faster than some of the men's qualifying races), and then did three consecutive 30-second 200m splits, to come home in a new Kenyan record of 1:56.04. It is probably not the ideal way to run the race - a slightly more balanced first lap (starting in say 27 seconds, followed by a 29, perhaps, and a second lap of 59) might see her break into the 55-second range.

But tonight, she simply ran everyone else off her heels - the gap was opened in the first 200m and it just remained there. In the final 200m, just as it seemed the rest might bridge the gap, she responded, subtely, and moved away. It was a fabulous run, and at the age of 24, there must surely be more to come. The final word must go to Moroccan Hasna Benhassi, who won the silver medal and said afterward:

“I'd have liked to go for gold but the pace was suicidal..."
Not for Jepkosgei it wasn't...

Men's 400m Hurdles - Kerron Clement delivers for the USA

The Men's 400m Hurdles race was quite open. Ordinarily, it would be the Americans versus the rest, but for this race, the USA seemed vulnerable, as I wrote in a post earlier this week. Defending champ Jackson had clattered a hurdle in a qualifying round, failing to make it through, and Carter and Clement did not look especially sharp in their qualifying rounds. But cometh the final, cometh the man, so to speak, as Clement, second in the US trials behind Carter, produced a great performance to win in quite dominant fashion.

The winning time, 47.61, is still some way off Clement's best (47.24sec), but that is merely testament to just how talented this athlete is. Clement has long been tipped for greatness, but two years ago, failed in Helsinki, finishing fourth. But in this race, he blew that memory, and everyone else away in an awesome display. Clement has fantastic flat 400m speed (44.48 secs, set this year), and so speed is never an issue. In fact, Clement has set all his PB's from 100 m to 400m THIS YEAR - clearly, his focus has been on speed. Technique has been his problem in the past, with his stride patterns and the last two flights often causing problems. This graceful athlete has often messed the strides up so badly at the end that he looks almost clumsy. But not this year, and he won going away. This is another race that looks good for Beijing 2008, as Felix Sanchez, so dominant a few years ago, seems to be coming back into form, and there is great depth. So like the women's race, we have new talent which may clash with old talent in Beijing for the Olympic title.

That's about it of the days I missed. There were a couple of races I did not get to see, so I won't speculate wildly about how they developed. But from tomorrow, it's back to normal with insights and previews.

Join us then!