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Monday, June 02, 2008

Athletics coverage: Golden League Berlin

Golden action from Berlin, as the Golden League gets underway

The athletics season has started with a bang in Berlin, as the world's greatest stars (barring one or two who competed with spectacular success on the other side of the Atlantic) took to the blue tartan of Berlin for the first of the six Golden League meetings of 2008.

The Golden League always draws the greatest athletes, often because they dangle a huge financial carrot in front of them - a share of $1 million for any athlete who wins all six of their races. That's usually between $250,000 and $1 million, since few athletes are able to do it. This year promises to be no different. The Beijing Olympics adds even more spice, because they interrupt the Golden League Series at its mid-point, and that means athletes must manage their form very well to win. To hold a peak from June until mid-September is a huge achievement, and so from a physiological point of view, expect to see major changes in fortune over the course of the next few months.

But, looking back at last night, here's a run-down of the top 3 events from yesterday's Berlin meeting:

1. Wariner beaten by LaShawn Merritt - race on for Beijing

Our friends over at LetsRun.com are particularly pleased with this one, as are many of track's ardent followers. Jeremy Wariner, the World and Olympic Champion, made few friends earlier this year when he dumped his long-time mentor and coach Clyde Hart over what amounted to a contract dispute over the money being split between the two. He now trains under Michael Ford. Problem is, Hart is a legend in the USA and global track circuit, and to have been cast aside due to what were portrayed simply as money problems creates some pretty bad PR for Wariner.

LaShawn Merritt, on the other hand, is a star on the rise. Last year's second fastest man, he narrowly broke the 44-second barrier at the end of the season, and yesterday in Berlin, showed again how much he has improved by running 44.03 seconds to beat Wariner narrowly on the line. Merritt had the inside lane, lane 3 to Wariner's 4, and so that allowed him to pace off Wariner and then push past him with 50m to go. The commentators made a great deal of this, suggesting the lane draw was decisive. I'm not so sure - Merritt came into the race with a 44.34, the fastest in the world, and ran pretty much 44 seconds in June - that will win most races, against most athletes. It's only because Wariner has been so brilliant for three years that people are looking for excuses.

But this does set up Beijing very nicely indeed. Wariner is probably still the favourite - he's shown that he can run low 43's when it top shape, and so Merritt will, over the next few months, have to figure out whether he can knock perhaps another 0.5 seconds off his time. Many will be rooting for him...

2. Pamela Jelimo's astonishing rise continues

Speaking of athletes on the rise, how about Pamela Jelimo? One month ago, nobody had ever heard of her. Yesterday, she beat perhaps the top women's field in the world by 4 seconds! She ran the fifth fastest time ever, the fastest for 11 years, and broke Maria Mutola's African record in what is really only her first month on the scene!

Her time? 1:54.99, which came as the result of a super-fast first lap (55.46 for the pace-setter) and a "survival" second lap. Jelimo said afterwards that she needed a faster first lap. I'm not sure I agree, just yet. The evidence suggests that your time difference between first and second laps should not be larger than about 3 seconds. That means a 56.0-s and a 59.0-s would probably be on the border of optimal pacing - anything more than this is probably an under-achievement as a result of going off too fast. She is probably capable of improving by 1 second simply by improving that second lap time. That said, she's getting better all the time, and so I would not bet against her being capable of a 55.0-sec first lap, followed by a 58.0 second lap, and a dance with that world record.

Remember, she is only 18-years old, and only took up the event this year, having previous been a sprinter. Her sprinting times are nothing remarkable (you can read a bit about her here), though given her ascension in the last few months, I've little doubt she'd run huge PB's over 400m if she tried it now.

In any event, to win an 800m race by fully 30m is quite something, the likes of which I don't believe we've seen for many, many years. Let's hope she can keep it up, and perhaps most important of all, stay injury-free. As an 18-year old, that probably poses the biggest challenge to her chances of both Gold in Beijing and the World Record, perhaps in the next two years.

3. Moses Masai wins a competitive and fast men's 5000m

So we're baised towards the distance events here, and apologies to all those who follow the field events. There were certainly some great field event performances, including Blanka Vlasic in the high jump, and the big surprise of the meeting, Irving Saladino's defeat in the men's long jump competition (his first loss in 24 competitions).

But it's the men's 5000m that wraps up our analysis, if only because it was the fastest of the world this year, and a great race with three athletes together at the bell. They were eventual winner Moses Masai, Tariku Bekele and Moses Kipsiro.

Bekele, on paper, would have been the favourite, the fastest of the three, and also the brother of one Kenenisa Bekele, which means he's always more watched than any other runner would be! After all, if genetics are a key determinant of performance, then sharing genes with the world record holder and undisputed number one means you're worth looking out for!

However, it was Masai, who "only" had a 13:09 PB coming into this race, who took it out. He went to the front with perhaps 4 laps to go, after the pacesetters had long gone, and forced the pace, keeping the tempo quite high, with 3 successive 61-sec laps. Then at the bell, Bekele swept past him, but didn't do any damage and they remained together until the final 120m. Then Masai moved past and opened up a sizeable gap. His final lap was 57-seconds, and he ran a PB by a massive 19-seconds, finishing in 12:50, for the fastest time in the world this year!

What is perhaps most interesting about it is that on paper, anyway, Kenya have unearthed a real medal hopeful for the Beijing Olympics. The men's 5000m promises to be perhaps the most open event of the Games, with no clear favourites. Masai clearly has the ability to run from the front and to finish fast, and so one might think he's a cert for the Kenyan team. Anything but...chance are, come August, we won't even hear his name in the minor meetings, such is the situation with Kenyan athletics - victims of their own strength, perhaps?

Looking ahead

Only one week to the next Golden League meeting, this time from Oslo, and it should be equally interesting. A few world record attempts are on the cards, and the victors from Berlin will attempt to keep their $1 million dream going. We'll bring you all that analysis next weekend!