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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

IAAF World Champs - Rudisha delivers and Kirani James "arrives"

IAAF World Champs: Rudisha, James and Zaripova get gold

Day 3 of the IAAF World Championships brought more success for Kenya, in the form of David Rudisha's anticipated gold in the men's 800m.  It was their third gold of these championships, but may be tempered slightly by the result of the Women's steeple where they would have been hoping for another gold, but left instead with one bronze courtesy Milcah Cheywa, who was denied by Yuliya Zaripova of Russia.  Russia had a great day with two golds - Zaripova's and Chernova's in the heptathlon, where she denied Jessica Ennis a much anticipated gold medal.

Other golds on the day went to Germany (men's discus), Brazil (women's pole vault) and Grenada, with perhaps the race of the day coming in the men's 400m, where Kirani James, the exceptional 19 year old (or he will be on Thursday) beat LaShawn Merrit in a great final 100m to claim gold.  Having been identified as one for the future, James ushered the future in immediately by delivering on his promise, and setting up a great rivalry with Merritt ahead of London next year.

Short event summaries below.

Men's 800m - Rudisha delivers

The 800m event has traditionally been regarded as one of the most open and unpredictable in the World Championships.  As recently as 2009, there were probably a dozen men all capable of winning gold and if you ran the final five different times, there was a chance that you'd get five different winners!

That was then, this is now - David Rudisha, so disappointed to fail in 2009 when much was expected of him, has since matured into a world record holder and dominant world beater.  As a result,when he stands on the start line in any race on the global circuit, the thinking is usually how fast will he run, and competitively speaking, by what margin will he win?

The World Champs are a little different - the lack of pace-makers means that the race has to be won either tactically (which can see normally unheralded runners emerge in frantic final 200m sprints - watch the 1500m races to see this happen!), or it must be run from the front.  So the question ahead of today's 800m final was not only whether Rudisha would come through the test (most expected it), but how would he run in order to avoid the numerous tactical pitfalls of the event?

Those who "guaranteed" victory on the basis of Rudisha's superior times alone perhaps overlook the difficulty of running sub-1:43 as a solo effort from the front, and even with Rudisha's dominance in terms of his PB compared to other athlete's, the field is competitive enough that a race finishing in 1:43 would be close until at least the final 50m - tension or tightness would be punished.   So this was going to be an "anxious" race for the world record holder.  The general expectation was that he'd avoid the bunching and boxing of a slow race and lead from the front.

In the end, that's exactly what he did, and he ran the 800m final a lot like a middle distance race.  That is, he started fast (23.81s for the first 200m), got into the lead, then controlled the pace in the middle of the race (27.52s and 26.66s for the next two quarters) and then picked it up again with 25.92s over the final 200m (see figure right) to win gold going away from the chasing field.  This kind of pattern is what you usually see in 1500m and mile races, and that he did it so strongly in an 800m race (under pressure from behind) is testament to Rudisha's quality, and his obvious capacity to run faster when needed.

It was enough for a gun-to-tape victory, in a controlled manner that is possible only when you are completely in command of the event and the competition.  The time of 1:43.91 was made to look comfortable, and the way the race was constructed suggested that it was.  In second, a late charge by Abubaker Kaki (1:44.41) made good on the expectation that he would be Rudisha's biggest challenger, though in truth, he was never truly challenging.  Yuriy Borzakovskiy claimed bronze for Russia.

Rudisha delivered on the expectation and if he stays healthy, it's difficult to see an 800m gold medal going anywhere other than Kenya for the next few World Championship cycles.  The once-unpredictable event has become "routine" (but not quite a forgone conclusion), and that's a measure of the quality of David Rudisha.

Women's 3000m steeplechase - front-running championship record to Zaripova

Speaking of dominant front-running performances, gold in the women's steeplechase went to Yuliya Zaripova of Russia, in another gun to tape victory.  She hit the first hurdle in the lead and never surrendered it, reeling off a 3:00, then 3:04 and a final kilometer in 3:03 for a world-leading time and personal best.  In doing so, she went one better than in 2009, where she had been outkicked by Marta Dominguez of Spain (as Yuliya Zarudneva back then).

The challenge came initially from Kenya, but one by one they dropped off, and it would be Tunisia's  Habiba Ghribi who claimed silver with a strong final 800m.  The dominant athlete of the year so far, Milcah Cheywa on Kenya, who has basically wrapped up the Diamond League title for the event, would come third to claim consecutive bronze medals in World Championships.

It was, in one sense, a surprise, because Cheywa has dominated in 2011, going unbeaten until today.  In  another sense, perhaps it was not.  The Kenyans, for all their depth and complete dominance in the men's steeple, haven't quite managed to dominate the women's discipline.  Yet.  Rather, Russia have been the championship performers, and currently hold the championship record from 2007, the Olympic gold, and the world record (in the Beijing Olympics).  The steeple is clearly an event they have identified as a gold medal prospect.

Having watched Kenya's women in the 10,000m, and knowing the caliber of athlete they have over 5,000m, I suspect that it is only a matter of time before the same is true in the steeple.  For now, the event is perhaps more "open" as a result of its relative newness in athletics, and I expect that to change soon, once athletes of the caliber of Vivian Cheruiyot, Linet Masai and Sally Kipyego start to run in it as well. Once athletes with 14:30 5,000 caliber begin to turn to the steeple, I'd expect the performances to leap ten seconds forward and sub-9 clockings will become common.  Cheywa then, is the first great steepler from Kenya, but those who follow, I expect will surpass that level.  It will be interesting to see if the rest of the world "follows" or whether we see the same situation to develop as for men's steeplechase.

But right now, Russia lead the way, and Zaripova leads the world.

Men's 400m - Kirani James delivers on his promise in the race of the day

Kirani James of Grenada became a name to watch when he ran a world-leader a few weeks before the World Champs.  His talent was undisputed, and only two days short of his 19th birthday, everyone was saying that no matter what happened in Daegu, he was a name to watch in the future.  Well, that wasn't enough for Kirani James - he was ready for success now.  And so he won the gold in the 400m in a time of 44.60s, with a late charge to catch and pass LaShawn Merritt (44.63s, only 0.03s behind).  It was a race reminiscent of the great finish between Amantle Montsho and Allyson Felix yesterday, but with one difference - this time, the charging athlete did overhaul the leader to win.

For Merritt, it would have been a disappointment in the sense that he was 10m from defending his title, but he may be satisfied nonetheless.  A 21-month ban for a drug infringement (Extenze - improve your manhood) meant he was in Daegu as a wildcard, his drug ban ending so recently that he didn't even have the opportunity to race in the USA trials.  He leaves Daegu knowing there's work to do, but in possession of silver and the world lead from his first round heat.  Third went to Kevin Borlee of Belgium, one half of the identical Borlee twins, in 44.90s (Note - the initial post said Jonathan - my apologies! That's the trouble with identical twins! My mistake!)

James has a combination of power and relaxation, and today he came under pressure from Merritt with 180m to go.  Despite looking a little more ragged than he has in previous races, he responded without losing his form, and becomes the third youngest world champion in history (Ismael Kirui and Eliud Kipchoge were younger).  If he continues to improve, he's the man to beat for a long time to come.  At the very least, his rivalry with Merritt over the next few weeks and into London will mean the 400m is an event to watch.

Other events

In other events, Robert Harting won the men's discus.  The only reason I mention this is that in Berlin, this provided one of the highlights of the Championships, because Harting's celebrations involved picking up Berlino and spinning him around.  Berlino, the greatest mascot ever seen in athletics (and who should have been imported to Daegu for a week).  Ok, that was a little tongue in cheek, but Berlino was a highlight and added a bit to the entertainment value of the Berlin Champs.  There's a video at the bottom of this post.

Jessica Ennis did NOT win the heptathlon, which was a bit of a surprise. It had gone mostly to plan for the British athletics icon until the javelin, when a large underperformance saw Russia's Tatyana Chernova leap ahead and then defend her points lead in the 800m to claim gold.  Sebastian Coe was the invited dignitary for the medal ceremony, and he was no doubt expecting to hand gold to Ennis, who is one of Great Britain's stars in the build-up to the London 2012 Olympics.  A disappointment for Ennis then, and one wonders whether this increases or decreases the pressure on her.  She'll take heart knowing that it was really just one very weak event that cost her the points, and she has the opportunity to bounce back in a home Olympics.  It certainly adds intrigue to the event for London, and perhaps reduces the pressure on Ennis (though not by much).

The women's pole vault was won by Fabiana Murer of Brazil, with a 4.85m clearance for a South American record.  Silver and bronze went to Martina Strutz of Germany (4.80m, a national record) and Sveltana Feofanova of Russia, respectively.  Completely out of the medals was Yelena Isinbayeva in sixth.  Her comeback hasn't gone quite according to plan, though London will surely be the goal.  This result, as it has done in many events, perhaps asks more questions than it answers ahead of the Olympics.

Tomorrow is a rest day (bizarrely - I don't recall a rest day in an IAAF Championships before, so beats me why).  It sees the 20km walk. The next big track action comes on Thursday, and I can't understand why this rest day has been introduced.  If anyone knows, please let us know in the comments!


And lastly, here is Berlino.  The Daegu mascot is trying, but these are big shoes to fill!  Enjoy the athletics on Thursday!