lunes, 8 de agosto de 2011

Four Races to Remember

David Rudisha's coming-of-age ceremony, among the Masai people
          Since the great Wilson Kipketer retired from athletics, the 800 metres male discipline has lacked a leader at the major championships, able to stamp his authority over the rest of the field.  In every occasion in the last years we have watched a cautious race, with every time a different winner: Borzakovskiy, Ramzi, Yego, Bungei and Mulaudzi.  However, we can not complain currently about lack of stardom in the event.  David Lekuta Rudisha (1) and Abubaker Kaki Khamis (2) are two of the most oustanding prodigies to ever have stepped on an athletic track.  Nonetheless, neither of them has won a major senior title outdoors yet. 
          In spite of this, Rudisha and Kaki's careers are among the most succesful in recent history of Track and Field.  Both had become World Junior and African champions, and the latter also World indoor double gold medallist. Since their 2007 breakthrough, they had dominated in overwhelming fashion all around the world in every Grand Prix or Diamond League meeting, despite their young age.  In the beginning, the Sudanese was slightly ahead of the Kenyan and thus beat him in their first five matches as seniors.  Notwithstanding, Rudisha has progressed further and now is the unchallenged number one. He remains unbeaten since August of 2009, for a total of 23 races, not counting heats.  He finished up with the 25-year-old Sammy Koskei’s national best in the event, and eventually has improved twice on one of the most difficult world records in the sport.  Deservedly, he was named by the IAAF best athlete of 2010.
            David Rudisha’s last defeat happened at Berlin Worlds semifinal, where he was boxed in a tactical race and failed to make the final.  He has always performed as a front runner since.  Previously, an injury had prevented him for making the trip to Beijing Olympic Games.  On the other hand, Kaki was a shadow of himself at the Olympics, and an accident finished up with his dreams in Berlin.  Yet, this unreal situation of kings without a crown for so long is very likely to be put an end next month in Daegu.  This season, Rudisha has forgotten the records in order to peak at the right moment and, despite a minor injury, he is ready for the worlds, as it was proved in his recent outings.  In the last one in London, there was a prelude of the much awaited Korea’s clash of the titans, with Rudisha narrowly holding Kaki´s last surge. 
            The 800 metres Daegu’s final is going to be the most thrilling race of 2011, but there have been so far a couple of other exciting competitions during the season.  Especially four races have made the highlights, because of the stunning talent showed by some amazing newcomers, as precocious as Rudisha and Kaki were once.   
Rafith Rodríguez, the new wonder of Latin American middle distance running
        The first grateful surprise in the 800 metres came in the early season, on occasion of the South American Grand Prix stop in Belém, the 15th May.  It was a quite relevant race for a serious of reasons.  Firstly, David Mutua, the man who succeeded David Rudisha and Abubaker Kaki as World Junior champion, last year in Moncton, won the contest with a huge PB of 1:44.06. (3) Thus he became the third performer ever of his category, just behind Kaki (1:42.69 in 2008) and Japhet Kimutai (1:43.64), but ahead of Rudisha (1:44.15 in 2007).  Then he would improve further in Monaco to 1:43.99.
Secondly, it was a historic competition for South American Athletics, with no less than three men in the race making the all-time top 10 of the 800 metres Area lists: Kleberson Davide, Rafith Rodríguez and Lutimar Paes.  Two of the most outstanding middle distance specialists of the 20th Century, Olympic gold medallists Alberto Juantorena and Joachim Cruz were born in Latin American lands.  Cuba and Brazil have always craved for a successor of these great champions.  Norberto Téllez was really close in the 90s, beating Juatorena’s national record for a fourth place at 1997 Atlanta Olympics and improving to silver at the World Champs the year afterwards.  Their last hope has been Yeimer López, when he got to run the distance in 1:43.07 in 2008. Yet, this athlete, despite qualifying for major competition finals, has never been an outsider for the podium.
Brazil has not produced in the last decades an athlete worth of that golden generation of the eighties, to which belonged Joachim Cruz, José Luiz Barbosa and Alberto Guimaraes. Nevertheless, they are probaby going to have a three men squad again in Daegu.  Kleberson Davide has been consistent in the last couple of seasons, lowering his PB this year, first to 1:44.28 in Belém, then to 1:44.21 at the recent national championships.  Another young athlete, Lutimar Paes, met the A World Champs standard in Belém (1:45.32); and a third one, Fernando da Silva, is likely to join them in Korea.  
However, Kleberson Davide has been unable for the moment of taking any international competition as South American or Iberoamerican Championships.  Another athlete from a neighbouring country, Colombian Rafith Rodríguez seems to be the one to watch in the continent, after his sensational exploits this season.  Rafith, a 21-year-old born in El Bagre, was the biggest revelation at Belém meeting, when he improved his PB in more than 2 seconds to achieve a 1:44.31 new national record.  Then, he confirmed his talent, striking gold in Buenos Aires, at the South American championships, beating effortlessly Kleberson in a tactical race.  His winning ways and style of running have already labelled him as the new Joachim Cruz.  Yet, as for now, he is just a newcomer and need to work hard and be guided for a high class coach if he wants to become a high class athlete.  With this purpose in mind, he expects to come to Spain in order to prepare consciously next Olympic Games.  (4)    

Robby Andrews beats Andrew Wheating by a whisker at the 2010 NCAA indoor champs
Photo: Dough Padilla       
        A second inspiring race was run in Des Moines, Iowa, the 10th June, on occasion of the NCAA 800 metres final.  Since the African running boom, which started in the end of the 80s, Europe and USA started their progressive decline on track distance.  Eventually, it was needed to give Bernard Lagat American citizenship to get to win a World championship gold.  However, in the last years, there are clear symptoms of recovery.  Rupp, Solinsky, Tegenkamp, Ritzenhein or Hall are facing Kenyans and Ethiopians without feeling inferior at the the 10.000 metres or the marathon.  Something similar is happening lately among the milers and half-milers.  Leonel Manzano and Lopez Lomong joined Lagat in Berlin World Championship 1500 metres final and Nick Symmonds fought for the medals at the 800.
 However, the biggest revolution is happening among the current collegians.  Andrew Wheating ran a groundbreaking 3:30 in 2010, still being an Oregon University student.  In the same year, Casimir Loxsom and Robby Andrews achieved the historic first medals for USA in a World Junior Championship at the 1500 metres, narrowly losing to David Mutua.  This year, no less than ten US runners have performed under 1:45.40 (the Daegu A standard), against nine Kenyans in the 800 metres.  For a similar success we would have to go back to the times of Johnny Gray and Earl Jones, some 25 years ago. And, most important of all, six of them: Robby Andrews, Charles Jock, Elijah Greer, Casimir Loxsom, Cory Primm and Ryan Martin are younger than 23; and Tyler Mulder is just one year older.  We must also consider the case of 1500 runner, Daegu-bound Matt Centrowitz and young prodigy Lukas Verzbikas, breaking every single High School record.
No wonder, the 800 metres was the most awaited final of the whole NCAA championships, with every one of the six runners cited above in it. And the race really lived up to the expectations. Eventually, it was mainly a clash among the most gifted duo of a true gifted generation and two almost opposite ways of approaching a race.  Charles Jock led the field to an explosive 49.85 split at the bell, an Olympic final pace, though everybody was still in contention.  Jock kept going and Robby Andrews seemed dead last at the homestretch.  Yet, when the others were fading, he made his decisive move, finally overcoming unbelievably Jock in the finish line.  He finished in 1:44.71, just one hundredth off legend Mark Everett’s meeting record.  Elijah Greer won the bronze medal, just edging Loxsom. All four top finishers improved on their respectives PBs. (5)
Robby Andrews from Virginia, comes from a family where everybody practices professional sport. His father already engaged him for Beijing Olympic trials as an experience, though he tries not to put any pressure on his son and advice him to run in the back of the pack and take fun in overcoming as much rivals as possible. Now, Andrews is famous for one of the most devastating kicks in the collegian circuit. In that competition, he got to know Wheating, who qualified for Beijing as young as 20. Yet, two years afterwards, the Virginia University student was already beating his hero at the NCAA indoors and Penn Relays, only allowing a defeat at the 800 metres collegiate final outdoors, in his freshman year. His coach is Jason Vigilante, who is also Leonel Manzano’s responsible. (6)
Charles Jock had migrated to the USA with his family from Eastern Africa, where they had suffered hunger and disarray, from their native Sudan to Ethiopia, where Charles was born.  Due to his difficult upbringings, he owns a particular mental toughness, ideal for a runner.  He is also known by his mates by his confidence and capacity of leadership.  Jock first practiced basket ball in his high school years, but he was soon oriented to athletics, when his talent was discovered.  He enrolled Irvine, California, where he had the chance of improving an old record of the University, set for a famous man called Steve Scott.  As a 46.30 runner in the 400 metres, he prefers fast races and thus characteristically takes the front running in order to eliminate as much rivals as possible in the first lap.  He had no hesitation in repeating tactics at the national championships and eventually obtained the prize of qualifying for Daegu, only beaten by experienced Nick Symmonds and Khadevis Robinson, who can still hold these up-and-coming youngsters for the moment.  Andrews, Greer or Loxsom will have to wait for another chance. (7) (8)

Marcin Lewandowski, Adam Kszczot and Kevin López celebrate their medals at last European Indoor Champs
Photo: PAP Radek Pietruszka
        The third worth mentioning race was held in Europe, on occasion of the Area Under-23 championships, held in Ostrava the 15th July.  The Old Continent still preserves some of its rich tradition in middle distance and now and then has the privilege of upsetting the powerful African stars (Schumann, Bucher, Rodal or the evergreen Borzakowskiy).  Polish Pavel Czapiewski, still in activity, was a World bronze medallist in 2001 and European champion indoors the following year, and besides holds the current national record (1:43.22).  Also from Poland are the two most outstanding half-milers right now in the continent, Marcin Lewandowski and Adam Kszczot, who have already a praiseworthy curriculum, in spite of their young age: they were born in 1987 and 1989 respectively.
As the elder, Lewandowski (9) collected the first successes of the duo, the 2007 European Under-23 title, after narrowly missing the medals at the World Juniors the year before.  He was the favourite for the 2010 European seniors and did not disappoint, proving his talent and consistency.  Nevertheless, Kszczot (10) is coming still stronger.  Also a fourth placer at the World Junior Championships (2008), he has struck gold at three continental age competitions in a row:  one junior (2007) and two U-23 (2009 and 2011) championships.  He already beat his compatriot in the 2009 outing, the year he also became World bronze medallist indoors.  Yet Lewandowski reached Berlin final and got the better of Kszczot in Barcelona, where the latter finished in bronze medal position. In 2011, Adam has been in unbeatable form all over the year, his last defeat in the 800 metres dating from the 11th February, clearly overcoming Marcin as Polish and European number one of the moment.
 Kszczot and Lewandowski completed a sensational 1-2 at Paris continental indoors, beating another excellent duo, Spaniards Kevin López and Luis Alberto Marco. Michael Rimmer was supposed to be the new brand British star, but he is not always consistent enough. His only performance of note is for the moment the silver medal in Barcelona and lately has been beaten in the national championships by another emerging athlete, Andrew Osagie.  We must wait to see how veterans Borzakowskiy and Som do in Daegu, but right now the main outsider for the Poles is Kevin López, well beaten in Paris, but a serious contender in Ostrava, where he resisted Kszczot powerful trademark kick and did not give up until the finish line. (11) López is one year younger than Kszczot and succeeded him as European Junior champion.  Recently he improved to 1:44.49 at Barcelona’s international meeting, the second best national mark ever, just holding up his compatriot Manuel Olmedo, who achieved the third (1:44.56).  This one is now the 1500 European indoor champion and expects to perform brilliantly in Daegu at the distance, after his overwhelming victory at the national champs.  Curiously, all the best Spanish 800 metres specialists of the moment, López, Olmedo, Marco, and national record holder Antonio Manuel Reina, all come from Sevilla.          

Leonard Kosencha achieves a gun to tape victory in Lille, in a new World Youth Best
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Europe

  Last but not least of the four most remarkable races of this summer season at the 800 metres distance was the World Youth championships final, contested in Lille, France, the 9th July. (12) If it was impressive to see Junior athlete David Mutua running the event in 1:44.06, you can imagine how it can be a 16-year-old boy producing almost identical figures. Leonard Kirwa Kosencha delivered a gun to tape victory, reaching the first lap in 50.85 and not slowing much in the second, to reach the finish line in a massive 1:44.08 World Youth best, which ranks him also in 7th position in the seasonal senior lists.  In his wake, Singapore Olympic Youth gold medallist, Mohamed Aman of Ethiopia, had to be content with silver this time, but, with his 1:44.68 register, achieved a new Youth, Junior and Senior national record, all together, which allows him to go to Daegu and London Olympics, in a specialty with no tradition in his country.  But who knows in the future!  A third teen, Timothy Kitum, also dipped under 1:45, to obtain the bronze medal.
Leonard Kosencha comes from the same village than Rudisha and thus is a Masai, like him and two time world champion at the distance Billy Konchellah.  If the 800 metres Kenyan team is young enough with Rudisha, Asbel Kiprop and Jackson Kivuna, all younger than 23, and Alfred Kirwa Yego just surpassing this age, there is already possible a relay, with members still younger, but gifted the same, as Job Kinyor, David Mutua or Leonard Kosencha.  Meanwhile, others like One Mile world junior record holder William Biwott, now Ilham Tanui Ozbilen, since he adopted the Turkish nationality, are moving to other countries to have a single chance of running in major championships.
In this excellent year for the 800 metres, among the 36 men who have achieved the Daegu A standard so far, 22 of them are born in 1988 or later, starting with the two leading names, David Rudisha and Abubaker Kaki.  A true revolution, which ranks the event as the youngest of the whole 47 athletics Olympic specialties.  The fifth outstanding race of the season, the World Championships final is up in less than one month time.  Rudisha and Kaki are ready for the battle… or maybe one of the new emerging stars of this amazing year feel strong enough to be in the mix for the gold medal?

Charles Jock, an awesome front runner for Daegu World Championships
Photo: Steve Zylius.  University Communications