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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Athletics season starts: News

Gebrselassie turns back the clock, and a star emerges in the women's 800m

Yesterday saw the "start" of the European track and field summer, with the Hengelo Athletics meeting. This meeting, which is usually the first of the big meets of the European calendar, has become famous for its Ethiopian flavour, thanks largely to Haile Gebrselassie, who, back in 1994, set his first track world record over 10,000m at the meeting.

Jump ahead to 2008, and remarkably, Gebrselassie was at it again, in the men's 10,000m race, though it was not world records, but Olympic qualification that was at stake this time around.

Just about everyone knows that Gebrselassie has withdrawn from the Beijing Olympic Marathon, citing the pollution as a "risk to his long term health". Instead of the marathon, the event at which he is of course the world record holder, he expressed an interest to qualify for the Ethiopian team over 10,000m, and Hengelo was his chance, since the race amounted to a virtual Ethiopian qualifying race.

Kenenisa Bekele, world record holder and defending Olympic Champion is an automatic selection, leaving two places for the Ethiopians to fill. One would surely go to Sileshi Sihine, who has a collection of silver medals that make him the "bridesmaid" of the event, unfortunately. And the third, well, that's up for grabs.

Yesterday, in Holland, Gebrselassie went a long way towards writing his name down on the team list, by finishing second to Sihine in a time of 26:51.20. It was only Sihine's kick in the final 120m that created the half-second gap over Gebrselassie, and at 35, Gebrselassie showed he has what it takes to mix it with the best, even after 5 years of dedicated marathon training.

Among his more notable "victims" where Eliud Kipchoge (who finished third), and Patrick Komon, the runner up at the recent World Cross Country championships. Most notably, Geb finished comfortably ahead of Gebre Gebremariam, who is really the third of the "Big 3" Ethiopians leading into Beijing.

And with that performance, Gebrselassie looks a good bet to run in his 4th Olympic 10,000m race come August.

But is he in with a chance? Or a sentimental favourite?

I guess, in many respects, that question doesn't really matter, because realistically speaking, there are probably only three men in with a chance of winning in Beijing: Kenenisa Bekele is an 80% favourite, and maybe Sihine and Zersenay Tadese are outside medal chances. Gebrselassie simply won't have the leg speed in the final 2000m to match it with the younger generation, and for all his ability, if the pace over the first 5000m is slow (anything outside 13:45 is "slow"), then the second half will find him struggling when the 60 second laps start appearing at the end.

So no, probably just a sentimental favourite. What will be interesting is the pollution angle. Having withdrawn from the marathon because of the air quality in Beijing, Gebrselassie is now going to run an event (assuming he's chosen, of course) that I believe poses even MORE risk to his breathing than the marathon. Think for a moment of a smoker, or even an unfit person: If you are a smoker, would you rather walk at a low intensity for 60 minutes, or run at a higher intensity for 10 minutes? I think most will recognize that the slower option is easier, despite its longer length, because if you're going to have problems breathing, they'll happen because the RATE of breathing is high, not the total volume (obviously, if the exposure is long enough, this no longer applies, but 2 hours is not a long time).

So, my opinion is still that if Gebrselassie was worried about the marathon and breathing, then the 10,000m, because of its very high intensity (95% VO2max) should terrify him!

I still don't believe that the pollution was his major problem, however - I think it was always a question of running the Berlin Marathon, and the Olympics Marathon just didn't fit well with that plan. So rather than forgo the world record attempt and huge payday in Berlin, he opted for the shorter race in August and cited pollution as the (unsupported) reason. The irony is that his altnerative - the 10,000m - poses more risk, exposing his reasons to begin with. Still, it will be great to see him in Beijing, though a medal will be a remarkable achievement, I would say he's likely to be running for fifth. We'll see how he goes...

Pamela Jelimo - a star in the 800m, and the latest in a line of young superstars

The 800m even FOR MEN was building up to be one of the highlights in the Olympic Games, with about 8 men who, on their day, could win it. What made it even more exciting was that many of them are newcomers, young men like Rudisha of Kenya and Kaki Kamis of Sudan.

Well, now the women's event is heading the same way, with a 19-year old Kenyan, Pamela Jelimo, emerging from nowhere to run an incredible time of 1:55.76.

More than the time (which is spectacular - a world junior record by just under 2 seconds, and a PB by 3 seconds), it was the manner of the performance that was so impressive. Jelimo went to the front almost as soon as the pacemaker had dropped out (after a quick first lap of about 57 seconds), and drove home an advantage, leaving some accomplished 800m runners in her wake.

Jelimo only took up the event three months ago, having previously been a sprinter (a rare species in Kenya) and she's proving the value of speed over the shorter distances as she carves her way into the event record books. At only 19, she should get faster over the coming years, assuming she's managed correctly. Who knows, perhaps that world record from the drug-infested 1980's is even under threat? It currently stands at 1:53.28, by Kratochvilova.

Two seconds is a lifetime, of course, but with age and training, it might be possible. What makes the event even more exciting is that only one year ago, everyone was heralding the arrival of another superstar from Kenya, Janeth Jepkosgei. Jepkosgei won the World Championships in Osaka with a dominant display of front running, in what was one of the most impressive performances of the Osaka Championships.

Had I shown you the result from Holland and said that a Kenyan won the race running from the front, you would automatically have assumed it was business as usual for Jepkosgei, and you'd have been wrong. It was Pamela Jelimo, and remarkably, Kenya now has two incredible 800m WOMEN athletes. Bring on Beijing!



Lars Pergou said...

Nice roundup. Women's running in Kenya has taken such leaps forward in recent years.

I'm a big fan of Edith Masai as well. There's great beauty and grace in their running.

Let's hope someone can knock off those early drug records. Bring on Beijing!

A Deal Or No Deal said...

I don't think Gebrselassie can win, but he probably has better speed than Tadesse, who pushed the pace at Osaka but didn't even medal. Also, Gebrselassie almost caught Sihine four months after a 2:04 marathon. In another three months, who knows what would happen.

If Geb ran, he has a very good chance of medaling. I don't think he'll run at the Olympics though, given his complete opposition to the marathon.

Anonymous said...

The amazing 800m time by a female runner makes me think about the make up needed to be successful at that event. Not in terms of VO2max of threshold, but in terms of base speed needed (100m or even flying 30m) as well as the ability to rep out sub 29s 200m with little or no recovery. I think current lit suggests the event is maybe as much as 50% aerobic but that is truly an unbelievable time from a 19year old in a so called endurance event.