2011 - End of Year Reviews - Middle Distances
Monte Carlo – In the penultimate installment of the 2011 ‘End of Season’ review Statisticians A. Lennart Julin (SWE) and Mirko Jalava (FIN) focus their attention on the Middle Distances.
- MEN -
For a period of some years this millenium the 800m was lacking in direction and purpose as no runner seemed to have the confidence to even try to put some kind of stamp of authority on the event. Instead everybody preferred the tactic – or rather lack of tactic – to just passively hang on until the last half lap. This sad situation was poignantly illustrated in Osaka 2007 which was won in 1:47.09, by far the slowest winning time in a global championship since the 1956 Olympics.
Looking at the complete World Championships history of twelve competitions spanning 1983-2009 the winner had 1:43 in six (i.e. 50%!), 1:44 in three, 1:45 in two – and then 1:47 in one. Actually the 1:45.29 in Berlin was the second slowest of all-time! But now the “curse” has been broken and the event been rejuvenated thanks to the emergence of David Rudisha and Abubaker Kaki.
Two runners that brought back the “scruff of the neck” approach, i.e. pushing the pace from the front all the way to put the opponents under pressure for the two full laps. For Rudisha and Kaki 800m is not just the name of the event – it is the actual distance that they are forcing everybody to be racing!
At the World Championships in Daegu Rudisha applied this tactic of domination with full consequence through all three rounds: Securing the front position after 200m, then running the next 400m fast enough to never relinquish the lead while saving some energy for a powerful finish if necessary. In the final he faced Kaki who despite trying his utmost had to be content with the silver medal.
With his 2011 focus firmly on getting his first international title as a senior Rudisha waited until after Daegu before attempting to improve the World record he set in 2010. He didn’t quite succeed but by missing it by just 32 hundredths in Rieti he certainly confirmed that a sub-1:41 is imminent. Next year the post-championship season is considerably longer than in 2011 so Rudisha will have more than one opportunity to attack that barrier.
Rudisha’s apparent current supremacy might very well make Kaki seriously consider moving his focus towards the 1500m. He demonstrated his exciting potential at the longer distance by his 3:31.76 for 3rd in the Monaco Samsung Diamond League race despite still training 100% aiming at success at the 800m.
But even if Kaki switches to the 1500m Rudisha can’t expect to have the 800m as an undisputed personal property. Of that he was emphatically reminded in his last race this summer – in Milan on 18 September – when he despite running 1:43.57 was handed a narrow defeat by 17-year-old Mohamed Aman of Ethiopia. Even if the youngster Aman had been 8th in the Worlds, 3rd in Rieti and 2nd in the Diamond League final no one saw him as a real threat to the majestic Rudisha who hadn’t lost a race for well over two years (since the 2009 Worlds semis).
Whether Aman will become the new main challenger remains to be seen but he certainly showed a resilience well beyond his years as the win over Rudisha in Milano came in what was Aman’s fourth top quality race in just nine days! But at the same time it should be remembered that two months earlier Aman had to be content with the silver behind Kenyan Leonard Konsencha at the World Youth championships. Konsencha won in a sensational time for a 17-year-old – 1:44.08 – with Aman in 1:44.68.
The new age of 800m running created by Rudisha and Kaki is most clearly illustrated by the number of runners sub-1:46 in the World list: From 2007 to 2010 it varied between 41 (2009) and 58 (2207) but this year it suddenly reached 72! When the top guys push it towards 1:42 and even 1:41 the others are inspired/forced to raise their game so not to get lost. It will be really interesting to see if this process will continue into the upcoming years.
The 1500m is in desperate need of new trendsetters like Rudisha and Kaki have been to the 800m. In the seven years that now has passed since Hicham El Guerrouj “abdicated” after the 2004 Olympics there has not been any runner coming within even three seconds of the 3:26.00 World record belonging to the Moroccan. And in three of those years – 2007, 2008 and now 2011 – there was no runner dipping under 3:30!
But when looking at the 2011 list and finding 14 at 3:30/3:31 and 15 more at 3:32/3:33 it is obvious that there is sufficient sub-3:30 talent around. What is missing is just someone ready to “show the way” into the sub-3:30-land like Morceli and El Guerrouj did. With the top runner at 3:26/3:27 several others will realise that 3:29 or even 3:28 is within in their reach.
But there is still no obvious candidate for that role as the forerunner. Someone like Asbel Kiprop – the reigning Olympic and World champion – definitely has the physical tools but he hasn’t yet proven himself to be a runner with the mental attitude necessary to push the limits time-wise. But if Abubaker Kaki decides to venture seriously into the 1500m he could become that door-opener into the sub-3:30-territory.
Kenya has now become the dominant nation also at the 1500m occupying the top-4 – or even the top-5 as Ilham Tanui Özbilen of Turkey is the former William Biwott who didn’t switch allegiance from Kenya until this year – positions on the World list. Further proof of Kenya being the “market leader” was provided in Daegu where Kiprop and Silas Kiplagat provided a 1-2 finish.
But to some extent they were lucky as they had let the final becoming a slow “march” conclude with an explosive “burnout”. In those kinds of settings, where everybody is still there for the decisive sprint finish, there is always a significant risk to be – through no fault of your own – being tripped or boxed in just because it is so crowded.
The big winner of the Daegu final was American Matt Centrowitz who thrives on the “slow pace + very fast finish” scenario. He won the collegiate championships in 3:42.54 and the US trials in 3:47.63 and didn’t even get the entry standard until coming to Europe in July where he ran a pair of 3:34 races finishing 11th and 10th at the Paris and Monaco Diamond League events. But he executed a very smart race in Daegu always being in the right position and was rewarded with the bronze medal despite not being in the top-30 on the 2011 World list.
The big question is whether Centrowitz in the future can be as effective and successful in a fast paced final, i.e if the first two laps are run in 55/56 seconds rather than in 60/61 as was the case now in Daegu. This year he obviously couldn’t keep up with the top runners in those Diamond League races which were won in 3:30 (Monaco) and 3:32 (Paris).
But he is still young (turned 22 in October) so it is much too early to draw any definitive conclusions. However, he must also be aware of some even younger runners on the rise. A few examples:
Nixon Chepseba (21 in December) missed Daegu after finishing 5th in the Kenyan trials. But judging by what he achieved on the circuit outdoors (six at 3.30-3:32!) he probably would have secured a Kenyan sweep of the medals if he had been selected.
Another Kenyan – Caleb Ndiku (19 in October) – was the fastest junior of the year with 3:32 but a perhaps even more exciting prospect is Hamza Driouch (17 in November) of Qatar who was very impressive when he in the finishing straight ran down all his senior opponents to win the B-race at the Stockholm Diamond League in 3:35.73.
- WOMEN -
The 2011 season in women’s middle distance running was a real open one with no athlete being able to clearly rise above the others. In the 800m in particular the lack of fast times was striking. Until late July the world lead was only 1:58.12 set by Belarussian Sviatlana Usovich in June. In the 1500m Maryam Jamal (BRN), the winner of two successive World titles 2007/2009, started well with two good wins in Rome (4:01.60) and a world leading 4:00.33 in Hengelo. But the rest of the season was not equally impressive and she ended up finishing 12th in Daegu in search of a third successive World Championships gold.
In the 800m 26-year-old Russian Mariya Savinova entered the 2011 season following a highly successful 2010 campaign. The athlete from Chelyabinsk won the World indoor title and the European Championships last season, but the start to the 2011 summer was a bit low key. She did run well though, but competed only twice in international races first finishing second in Oslo and then won the European Team Championships in Stockholm clocking 1:58.75. It was her win in a world leading 1:56.95 at the Russian Championships in Cheboksary at the end of July which really made her the number one favourite before Daegu. This race produced the four fastest times in the world before the World Championships with Yuliya Rusanova in second place in 1:56.99 personal best followed by Yekaterina Kostetskaya (1:57.19) and Svetlana Klyuka (1:58.04).
The reigning World champion, South African Caster Semenya, showed very little before Daegu. The 20-year-old competed in six international races winning just two of them and didn’t look convincing. The silver medallist from Berlin 2009, Kenyan Janeth Jepkosgei was in similar form finishing third in Eugene and fourth in Oslo before winning the Kenyan Championships for only a total of three finals before Daegu. But as usual, the World Championships did change a lot and suddenly in the semifinals the top athletes showed that they had timed their fitness well. Savinova won the second heat in 1:58.45 with Jepkosgei following in a season’s best 1:58.50 and it was the reigning champion Semenya, who looked fresh winning the last heat in 1:58.07 dropping half a second from her previous season’s best.
The final was fast from the start and after midway it was clear that the gold would be decided between two runners, Savinova and Semenya. The Russian held on to win her first outdoor major gold in a fast personal best 1:55.87 with Semenya completing a fine return to the top in the silver medal position in 1:56.35 SB. Jepkosgei was just 0.06 seconds ahead of American Alysia Montaño winning her third successive World Championships medal with times being 1:57.42 and 1:57.46 respectively, both season’s best.
Russia is the best country with 21 athletes in the world top 100. The United States had 18 for second and Ukraine is third with seven.
In 1500m Maryam Jamal looked like she could be on her way to a third straight World title, but after two good early wins in May, she seemed to lose some momentum in the next three meets in Eugene, Lausanne and Birmingham. The 27-year-old did run another good race in the last meet before Daegu in Monaco with a fine 4:00.59 win, just 0.26 seconds slower than her 4:00.33 world leader in Hengelo in May.
There were several others with times just below Jamal’s world-leading result including Ethiopian Kalkidan Gezahegne, Russian Yekaterina Gorbunova and Moroccans Ibtissam Lakhouad and Siham Hilali. In Daegu things were as open as they seemed before the World Championships and there were a couple of really surprising medallists.
Jamal was not in form in the Daegu final and it was clear before the final lap she was not going to win again. Instead there were 7-8 very even runners looking to get to the podium with American Morgan Uceny and Kenyan Helen Obiri falling down in the final curve from good positions. Midway through the final straight it seemed Natalia Rodriguez of Spain was going to get redemption after having finished the Berlin final first before getting rightfully disqualified. The 32-year-old had a clear lead at this stage, but her finish was not fast enough as a former steeplechase specialist, 25-year-old American Jenny Simpson, who finished fifth in Berlin 2009 in the 3000m steeplechase in an American record 9:12.50, passed all others to take an unprecedented gold.
Twenty-four year-old Briton Hannah England was an equally big surprise for the silver getting past the fading Rodriguez to finish in 4:05.68 behind Simpson’s 4:05.40 and Rodriguez got her medal, a bronze one, in 4:05.87.
Uceny, 26, handled her Daegu disappointment well and set a world leading and personal best 4:00.06 in Brussels in September. But Uceny just falling shy of the four-minute barrier was a historic miss because 2011 marked the first time in 34 years that there was no woman able to run under four minutes in the 1500m. After the first sub four-minute time 1976, 1977 has been the only year with no-one under the magic limit.
Russia is the top country with 20 athletes in the world top 100. The United States has 14 for second and Kenya is third with 12.
Note: This year Julin covers the men's side of the action and Jalava the women's.