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Sunday, September 02, 2007

IAAF World Champs - Day 7 analysis and insights

Day 7 of the IAAF World Champs saw three finals on the track - the Women's 200m, the Men's 400m and the 110m Hurdles final. Some great individual performances by athletes who should dominate headlines at next year's Olympic Games were the feature of these finals, analysed briefly below, before a preview of the final day's action, which promises to be a great evening's athletics.

Women's 200m - the Contest that never was, and the maturation of a star

The women's 200m final was billed as a showdown between Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards of the USA. Richards, in particular, was out to prove a point, having failed to even qualify for the 400m event, which she has dominated, she turned instead to the 200m, and had some impressive races leading up to these Finals. Many (myself included) were expecting her to give Felix a real race, having focused for a few months on her shorter distance speed.

Then, enter stage left Veronica Campbell of Jamaica, who took the 100m title away from the Americans, and was bidding to win the 100m-200m double and emulate Tyson Gay from these Champsionships.

So this was a highly anticipated race. The 21-year old Felix, already the World Champion from Helsinki was expected to come under some pressure, though she was certainly the favourite.

Unfortunately (from a competitive race point of view), the anticipation vanished about 100m into the race, when it became clear that Felix was not only going to win the race, but dominate it. A gap grew and grew, and she crossed the line 0.53 seconds ahead of the second placed Campbell. Richards, for her part, was nowhere, running 22.70s and finishing in 5th place.

The winning margin was the largest in the history of the Championships, and the winning time, 21.81seconds, a big personal best (her previous best was 22.11s) and the fastest time since Inger Miller won this title in 1999 (under what was later revealed as a drug cloud). Felix is a remarkable runner, because she looks the least like a sprinter in the field. She appears almost frail and weak, lacking the build and strength of competitors. But she makes up for it with style and grace, and is one of the most technically proficient runners. What this means exactly is difficult to pin down - technique is so complex and mult-factorial that five different people would point out five different things. But for my two cents' worth, what makes Felix a great runner is balance, rhythm and co-ordination. In particular, co-ordination is critical, for there is no wasted energy in a co-ordinated running stride, because muscles work in perfect sync and with perfect timing. The straining and tension that afflicted Powell, and, to a lesser extent Usain Bolt in their races with Tyson Gay are absent with Felix runs, she is so fluid and quick.

Her best event is however yet to come, because I honestly believe that with age and some maturity, she will be the next 200m-400m queen, ala Perece of France. Felix is already a good 400m runner, she will become great, it's a matter of time, because that style and fluid running counts for so much in a longer race like the 400m. So the likes of Richars, Sanders and Ohuruogo should be looking out, their places will certainly be under threat.

Men's 400m - an expected dominance from one of the kings of the track

Jeremy Wariner is to the men's 400m event what Felix might become to Women's 200m. The similarity begins with the beautifully correct running style, which never seems to falter. Wariner's technique is such that it appears his cadence (stride rate) never slows down, and in the home straight, when competitors start to overstride in an attempt to maintain speed, he simply churns out the same pattern, moving away. This final was no different - the gap was perhaps 1 meter coming off the bend, but by the finish line, it was 0.51 seconds, and another comfortable win for Wariner. He was certainly challenged, mainly by LaShawn Merritt, who is getting better and better. Angelo Taylor, 400m Hurdles Olympic Champion, took bronze, giving the USA a clean sweep of the event for the first time. Their 4 x 400m relay team will be awesome, and I would even suggest that they will challenge the world record in coming years. Merritt and Wariner in particular seem to be getting faster and faster, and having two men who run under 43.8 seconds by Beijing (a distinct possibility) will set them up for a great relay race. They run that event tonight, and it should be one of the highlights of the evening, if they go for the world record.

But for now, Wariner stands alone at the top of the event - he improved on his PB, claiming the title of 3rd fastest in history outright, and has only Butch Reynolds and Michael Johnson to catch. Johnson, who is his mentor, says he will break that world record - he is only 23 years old - few would bet against it. There are of course many comparisons with Johnson, but apart from the speed and the collection of gold medals, there appear to be few other similarities. Certainly, Johnson had a style of his own, though Wariner may compare favourably in terms of maintaining his form over the race. But Johnson had extra-ordinary 200m speed, something Wariner does not have - his 200m PB is "only" 20.19secs! That's almost a full second off Johnson's, yet he will challenge that time. His strength then, is much the same as Felix's, explained earlier. His ability to maintain his form, slowing down the least in the final 100m, is the difference. I still would like to see him spend about 3 months working on that 200m speed. If he gets that down to below 20 seconds, then that 400m world record really will be in danger. Of course, it's never that easy, but he's only 23, and time, plus training will see Wariner around for a long time.

Men's 110m Hurdles - a taste of things to come in Bejing, as Liu Xiang stands up to pressure

There can be few athletes who will face the pressure Xiang Liu will be expecting in next year's Beijing Olympic Games. Perhaps Cathy Freeman of Australia, in modern times, will relate to Xiang's situation - she had a few million people behind her though, Xiang will have one billion Chinese expecting him to win. Every time he races, between now and those Olympics, is another test for him - can he handle the pressure? Few people even mention his name without referring to the Olympics. Forget about the Friendlies (the Beijing Olympic Mascots), Xiang Liu is the face of Beijing 2008.

And in tonight's 110m Hurdles final, he passed his first major test, winning gold with a surge over the final two flights of hurdles, to move clear of Terrence Trammell of the USA. Both men broke 13 seconds, with Liu's winning time 12.95secs.

The problem for Liu is that his success relies so much on technique. Watching Allen Johnson, you'd think that the aim is to knock the hurdles down as quickly as possible. Watching Liu, you'd think there was automatic disqualification for touching them - he is so smooth, so technically proficient and therefore so consistent. The danger is that under the burden of one billion hopes, he makes technical errors - you're more likely to make that type of error than running too slowly. And that means his strength is most likely to be affected under that pressure. So it will be a fantastic race to watch, with almost unbearable tension for the billions watching it.

Whether the American challenge will be up to it is another story - the American hurdlers are, to be polite, experienced. It seems as though the same three of four men (Johnson, now retired, Trammell and Dominique Arnold) have been around forever, and though they are still capable of fast times, I feel that the sub-12.95sec range that Liu is capable of is perhaps beyond them. Similarly, Ladji Doucoure, world champ 2 years ago, has fallen away quite badly, and the Cubans seem inconsistent at the best of times. So the way is open for Xiang Liu to deliver on what everyone is expecting, but it will still be a great race.

Preview of the final day

4 x 400m relay finals

So the final day of the IAAF World Champs promises to be one of the best. There is the men's 4 x 400m relay final, where, as mentioned above, the USA might be in with a sniff of that world record. The women's race promises much excitement too, though it should be a closer contest. Great Britain took gold and silver in the individual event, with the USA claiming only fifth. GBR also have some good third and fourth choice runners, so they should field a strong team. Similarly, the Russians are always strong, their conveyor belt of talent seems never ending, though whether they have the high-end quality to challenge is in doubt. And the USA will be bolstered by the return of Richards, and the possible inclusion of Felix, two women who could probably claim to be number 1 and 2 in the event right now. My money is certainly on the USA, from Russia and perhaps Britian in third. Should be a good race.

Men's 800m

This is a fantastic race, or promises to be. We billed it as one of our top 4 picks before these Champs even began, and it should live up to that billing. But the post below this one gives a more detailed run-down of the event as a whole, how athletes pace themselves and what we think will happen in this final. It's quite a long post, so if you want to read about the 800m only, just scroll down!

Men's 5000m

This was another of our top 4 picks. It promises to be a great clash, a real contest because Bekele is absent. Personally, I was surprised that Bekele chose the 10km race at these Champs, because it seemed that much of his training was focused on the shorter distances and I felt that if ever he was going to win a 5000m title, this was it. But he opted out, won a classic 10000m final, and left the door open for others.

The big favourites - Eliud Kipchoge, world champion once before, and one of the fastest in history stands out as the class of the field. But he is also inconsistent, and has been troubled in recent times by very mediocre performances. He will be challenged by Bekele - the other one, Tariku, who is coming on as a distance runner in his own right. The other Kenyan, Benjamin Limo is another big contender, but perhaps the man everyone will be watching is a third Kenyan, running in a USA vest - Bernard Lagat.

The 1500m World Champion will today attempt to emulate Hicham el Guerrouj and claim the 1500-5000m double. These championship finals often play right into the hands of the 1500m specialists, which is why I'm so surprised that el Guerrouj waited so long to try it, and why no one else did it between Nurmi and his efforts in 2003. If the race is slow, Lagat becomes a huge favourite, simply because running a final kilometer in 2:26 or faster is not really a huge deal to him, after a slow first 4km. So the rest of the field will have to plan for this, and make sure that they don't allow the pace to drop in the first 3km. They must know this, because it's happened often enough in the past for them to have witnessed first hand how comfortably a 1500m specialist can run 58 second laps off a slow pace. The problem is that few would be brave enough to lift the pace and risk their own race.

One man who will, however, is Craig Mottram, of Australia. His tactics all year, including one race where he beat, among others, Tariku Bekele, have been to wind the the pace up over the final 600m, negating the kick of the sprinters over the final 200m. In this race, he will have to go even earlier than this. If I were advising him, I would suggest that he cannot allow the pace to drop below about 13:10, which means he might have to take up the running inside the first 800m, and set that faster tempo. And then on top of it, he will still have to wind it up over the last 2 laps to finish the job. So it should be a great race, one of the highlights of the Championships.

Don't miss the analysis of this race in particular in tomorrow's posts.

Enjoy the action!