BRUSSELS, September 6 – When the Golden League Jackpot disciplines were designated last December, Pamela Jelimo, a virtually unknown quantity even in her native Kenya, had yet to contest her first 800m race.
Yet when the six-meeting series concluded at the Memorial Van Damme in Brussels Friday night, it was Jelimo who would survive the grueling 14-week battle to win the $1 Million Jackpot, athletics biggest prize.
“I am happy, I realised my dream,” said Jelimo, who became the first sole winner of the prize since Tatyana Lebedeva went six-for-six in 2005. “This is the same happiness as in Beijing.”
So dominant was the precocious 18-year-old this year that perhaps the most difficult part of her Jackpot chase was waiting for the conclusion of the women’s High Jump, where high jumper Blanka Vlasic, her co-contender after five meetings, was struggling in one of the most compelling field event competitions of the year.
In the 800, Jelimo went fast from the gun, tailing pacesetter Svetlana Klyuka from the outset. By 400m, Klyuka, was fourth at the Olympic Games, was already labouring to keep a step ahead of the Kenyan; at the 600m mark, she finally stepped aside, with Jelimo then sailing home in 1:55.16, more than three-and-a-half seconds clear of runner-up Janeth Jepkosgei.
Conversely, the chilly conditions and wet surface made for a dramatic competition as soon as the bar was raised to a relatively modest 1.94m. At that height which probably last gave her problems during her days a junior, Vlasic would need all three efforts before sailing clear.
Germany’s Ariane Friedrich cleared on her first attempt, and Olympic champion Tia Hellebaut on her second. At 1.97, Friedrich again went clear with her first leap, with Vlasic needing two.
Much to the delight of the sell-out crowd, Hellebaut stayed alive with a third attempt clearance. At two metres, both Freidrich and Vlasic cleared with their second tries, with Hellebaut again clearing on her third. All failed at 2.02, leaving Vlasic the runner-up, and ultimately, empty-handed.
“I sympathize for her, but that is the nature of this sport,” Jelimo said of her Jackpot chase rival. “Today you lose, but tomorrow you can do your best and be a winner again. And that is what I wish for her.”
It didn’t take Jelimo, a former 200/400 runner, to vividly illustrate that she would quickly be a winner in the 800.
Jelimo’s rise from obscurity is unparalleled in modern athletics history. Well before her 1:55.16 victory on Friday, the 18-year-old had already secured her status as the most stellar break out star of 2008.
After a surprise victory at the African championships in May, a noteworthy 1:58.70 triumph at altitude where she beat Maria Mutola among others, she made her first international impression with a shock 1:55.76 run in Hengelo. “I think I can run faster,” she said afterwards.
After that breakthrough, she was given the chance to prove herself when the ÅF Golden League began in Berlin where she quickly and powerfully showed that she was no one-hit wonder.
In the German capital, she dipped under 1:55 for the first time in what was apparently just her fifth outing over the distance, clocking 1:54.99 to supplant Mutola as the African record holder. Winning by nearly four full seconds, she immediately planted herself firmly as a Jackpot contender.
Oslo was next, and with a 1:55.41 performance, she wasn’t quite as fast, but clearly displayed her dominance with a victory margin of more than three-and-a-half seconds. Again she humbled the field, leaving World champion Jepkosgei a distant fifth.
She returned home to dominate at the Kenyan Olympic Trials, though her outing in Nairobi did nothing to dent her international momentum. When the Jackpot chase resumed in Rome, she again was without peer, producing a 1:55.69 victory.
By then, virtually all the leading 800m runners in the world had already resigned themselves to the fact that the super-teen was untouchable. For those who didn’t subscribe to that notion, Jelimo stamped her authority the following weekend in Paris.
At the Stade de France, she again lowered her World junior and continental record with a 1:54.97 run, again winning by more than three-and-a-half-seconds. “"It was a good test before the Olympic Games,” she said.
Her Jackpot aspirations took another break to make way for her Olympic ambitions. Her unlikely rise continued in Beijing with a gold-medal winning performance of 1:54.87, another World junior and African record.
Like many athletes, she arrived in Zurich last week fatigued and emotionally drained from her two triumphant weeks in Beijing. But that didn’t slow her. Yet again, her records were shattered after a 1:54.01 sizzler, elevating her to the No. 3 position all-time. Clearly, Jarmila Kratochcilova’s 25-year-old World record of 1:53.28 was finally under threat.
That, though, will have to wait, perhaps another year or two, but the mark is clearly within Jelimo’s sights.
“I would like to try for the World record, but it will be tough,” Jelimo said. “I will work harder and perhaps I can get it next year, or the year after that.”
In the meantime, Jelimo will have another more immediate chore: deciding how to spend her $1 million.
“I will have to help my family,” she said. “I will invest intelligently because this money will help me and my family in the future.”
It’s a future that she, her family, and indeed, the entire sporting world couldn’t foresee just six short months ago. What the future holds on the track, may be even more remarkable.