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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Beijing 2008: Night of drama

Another night of drama on the track in Beijing

It was yet another great night of action in the Beiing "Bird's Nest", and the shocks keep coming. Few would have predicted what went down at the Games tonight. Herewith our comments on the big surprises...

Men's 800m: Favourites are gone!

At the beginning of the year, the 800m race was going to be one of the great races of the Games, because any one of 7 or 8 men could win it. But then at the World Indoor Championships, a dominant name emerged. It was Abubaker Kaki Kamis, a teenager from Sudan, who crushed the opposition in Valencia and went on to dominant the outdoor season as well. He ran the year's fastest time, a world junior record, and beat all-comers in the build-up month to Beijing.

All of a sudden, the big names like Borzakovskiy, Mulaudzi, Kamel, were chasing the teenager. It seemed, much like in the women's race, that it was Kaki Kamis' to lose. How wrong we were. In tonight's SEMI-FINAL, Kamis was eliminated from the final, finishing a very poor 8th in his race. His time was a slow 1:49.19, and we don't know what the exact story was (too early, we'll keep tabs on it over the next hour or two), but he was badly elbowed at the bell, and just seemed to lose all his running after that.

From being in second at the bell, he drifted slowly backwards, and by the time the pace was wound up with 200m to go, he was already well off the pace. A huge surprise, as the pre-race favourite failed to even reach the semi-finals. If that wasn't enough, he was joined on the sidelines by the remaining medalists from Athens - Yuriy Borzakovskiy of Russia and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi of South Africa also failing to qualify for the final. Both just faded out of the race in the final straight, having run reasonable tactical races up to that point. Borzakovskiy's famed finishing kick seemed to desert him, and he was run into third place in what was also a relatively slow semi-final. It was a major surprise, considering that only a week or so before the Games began, he ran his fastest time in years, a 1:42 in Monaco.

Mulaudzi was struggling with flu, according to reports from within the SA camp. He barely squeaked into the semi-final, and just looked listless in this race. He held a good position until the final bend, and was simply run out of it by faster finishing men. No excuses, just not enough speed.

So, the final is without some of its biggest names, but it is no less interesting. Most impressive so far has been Wilfred Bungei of Kenya, who has looked to possess the sprint finish that will almost certainly be needed in the final. He'll race against his own team-mate Kirwa Yego, who won his semi-final and looked pretty good doing so. Perhaps the biggest danger is Yusef Saad Kamel, who carries the fastest time of the year of the finalists. So it will be an epic, competitive race, and we'll preview it properly tomorrow, time permitting.

The Men's 400m final: Not the American you might have expected, as Merritt takes the gold

The Men's 400m was, until the start of the year, Jeremy Wariner's race. The American won in Athens and was unbeatable since. Until LaShawn Merritt starting closing the gap. Towards the end of last year, he was threatening Wariner, and in 2008, he delivered. A victory in the opening Golden League meeting in Berlin was followed by two more wins, the third at the US Trials in Eugene.

But few expected that come Beijing, the same would happen. Even Wariner was confident in defeat, pointing out that when Merritt beat him running low 44 seconds, he had "time in the bank", since he'd run 43.45 seconds.

And that argument might have worked. If Wariner had actually even broken 44 seconds in the final. But astonishingly, Wariner failed in the final, running 44.74 seconds, which for him is a very poor performance. Merritt, on the other hand, came through on the day, and WON the Olympic 400m title in 43.75 It was a new PB for him, and a great coup, to beat Wariner when it really mattered. The size of the victory added to the surprise - at the very least, you'd have expected an epic close finish, but Merritt won by a second, a huge winning margin (though Wariner eased up at the end, and was nearly caught by the finish of the day, from David Neville, who dived full length across the line to win bronze)

Wariner, for his part, will be bitterly disappointed. Back to the drawing board, and his decision to part ways with his long-time coach, Clyde Hart, reportedly over a contractual/financial dispute, is looking more and more ill-fated. It will be interesting to hear the explanations and stories out of this race.

Merritt, however, is a class act. He's only the second man to go under 20 seconds for 200m and 44 seconds for 400m. The other is Michael Johnson. With his winning time in Beijing he also becomes the 5th fastest ever over 400 m. Can Merritt go on to maintain his dominance after the Games? Wariner will be back, and the battle between the two might become one of the sport's great rivalries (which it surely needs).

Women's 200m: Jamaica complete the sweep of the short sprints

In the night's first final, it was glory again for Jamaica, who won gold number 5, an extra-ordinary performance from their sprinters. This time, it was Veronica Campbell Brown who took gold, beating world champion Allyson Felix of the USA with a super-fast time of 21.74 seconds. It was a PB for the Jamaican, and one of the fastest times in years, beating even the 21.81 run by Felix in Osaka last year.

The win, combined with Kerron Stewart's bronze, means that Jamaica wins 7 out of the possible 12 medals in the 100m and 200m sprints in Beijing! An extra-ordinary performance, and when the medal table is eventually finalised, you'll find Jamaica right up there. If you express medals won per person, Jamaica will be right on top.

The relays: USA will not win a medal in the short sprints

The situation gets even worse for the USA. Not only have they failed to win a single gold in individual sprint events, but they will not win either of the 4 x 100m relays either! That's because they failed to get the baton around the track successfully in BOTH their semi-finals. First it was the men, and Tyson Gay and Darvis Patton who put the baton on the tartan at the last change-over. The Jamaican men, anchored by Asafa Powell, won the second semi-final, and so they will be huge favourites for the gold. Unfortunately for all fans, we'll be denied the chance to see them take on the USA, in what might have been a great race.

The same goes for the women. Jamaica succeeded, the USA failed. This time it was Lauryn Williams and Torri Edwards who combined to drop the baton, while holding an enormous lead over the field. So it was 2 out of 2, and the USA will not feature in the finals! It's also the first time in many, many years, that the USA will not win a single medal in any of the short sprints - the 100m, 200m and relays are all gone, and in all likelihood, gone to Jamaica! That must be a first...

110m hurdles: Robles delivers

In what was supposed to the event of the Games, Dayron Robles was unchallenged as he claimed the first of what might be a string of world or Olympic titles. Robles, only 22 years old, is already the world record holder, and looks so easy running sub 13 seconds that one suspects he might take that record down a few more times yet.

Tonight, he dominated the final from start to finish. The event was denied the clash of the Games, when Liu Xiang withdrew from his first round heat with an apparent Achilles tendon injury. The reality is, however, that even if Liu had continued, he'd have been soundly beaten given his preparations, because anyone not in 100% condition cannot challenge Robles right now. A fully healthy Liu might have been interesting, and we look forward to that race in the future.

But tonight, Robles was the king of the high hurdles, winning in 12.94 and looking like he ran a "conservative" race. Maybe he saw Lolo Jones smash the 9th hurdle to lose gold, and decided to rather err on the side of caution and guarantee the gold. He was easily clear of the field, and looked disappointed that he hadn't broken the world record. But tonight was all about Gold, and Robles has his gold medal. He can now look ahead at his legacy - a world title is next, and a few more world records, and given his age, there's a good chance he'll be the man to beat in London too. Liu Xiang, and the rest of the hurdles world, should be worried...

Finally, a preview - one of the events of the Games, coming up: Women's 5000m

Finally, we have a short preview of a race that is bound to be one of the races of the Games. We haven't had time to do many previews, but the Women's 5000m is going to be a special race.

It features 3 Ethiopians, Meseret Defar, Tirunesh Dibaba and Meselech Melkamu, who are favoured to possibly bag a clean sweep of the medals. I would not rule out a "spoiler", perhaps Abeylegesse of Turkey (who ran so bravely in the 10,000m final), or even someone from the USA, but the Ethiopians are the ones to beat.

In particular, it's the clash between Defar and Dibaba that will produce the fireworks. They will deliver one of the races of the Games, if all goes according to script. Defar, the former world record holder, is also the defending champion. Dibaba is the new world record, having broken Dibaba's record, and she's the 10,000m champion.

Both have finishing kicks that have moved women's athletics into a new era - they regularly finish races with final laps of sub-60 seconds, and so we can expect an absolutely spectacular final lap in Beijing.

If I had to guess, I'd go with Defar, simply because she does not have a 10,000m race in her legs. Dibaba was made to work very hard by Abeylegesse in her 10,000m triumph, and that may count against her. I think she's one of the most beautiful runners in the world, so elegant and graceful at speed, and so I will be hoping she delivers, but I think Defar may have the edge.

The third Ethiopian may however hold the key to the outcome, because she's also a fearsome finisher (she beat Defar to win the African title), but may be the one who sets the pace up during the middle part of the race. If it's a fast race, Defar may be favoured, thanks to fresher legs. But whatever happens, expect the two to hit the 200m mark to go locked together, and then to come into the final straight with barely a centimeter separating them. There may even be a third Ethiopian in the mix! The winner should be decided in the final 10m. It should be a great race.



Anonymous said...

Sorry for the off-topic comment but a great story is in the men's 10 K open water swim where Maarten van der Weijden a leukemia survivor was the winner and of course Natalie du Toit of South Africa in the women's 10K swim. She did not win a medal but it doesn't matter at all IMHO.


Unknown said...

Yes I agree its not all about the medals. We need to remember this after the South African swimmers swam so many personal bests without getting medals. The media makes it all quite brutal with the medal counts but actually we should remember without a field to compete against, there would be no winners at all - even if this is a cliche, its nonetheless true.

Natalie du Toit's achievement is all the more remarkable because of what she has overcome, and helps us to remember that every athlete at the games is working hard to improve their performance and competing against themselves.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the off-topic comment but a great story is in the men's 10 K open water swim where Maarten van der Weijden a leukemia survivor was the winner and of course Natalie du Toit of South Africa in the women's 10K swim. She did not win a medal but it doesn't matter at all IMHO.