BERLIN, Germany, August 15- Over the next nine days, the world’s athletics fraternity will train its eyes on the iconic Olympiastadion in Berlin where the 12th edition of the World Athletics Championships.
For the last few days, the 73 year-old sporting cathedrals has been a bee hive of activities with athletes getting in their final touches.
Predictably a certain Jamaican by the name Usain Bolt has dominated headlines with his eagerly anticipated match up with defending champion, Tyson Gay in the men 100m final eating up chunks of newspaper and media reports.
Kenyans have gone on with their business quietly hardly noticed the by the vast majority of people though they are tipped to be among the events’ biggest stars.
Reigning champion Alfred Kirwa Yego, Africa champion David Rudisha, Olympic silver medallist Asbel Kiprop and Jackson Kivuva complete a formidable quartet in the two lap race. Rudisha is looking to step up to the seniors after an injury disrupted 2008 while Kirwa will attempt to become the first man since Wilson Kipketer in 1999 to successfully defend his title.
A 1500 metres specialist, Kiprop has taken to the 800 like to fish to water this year running the season’s second fastest time of 1:43.17. Still only 20, the lanky athlete could yet walk away with two gold medals.
The main challenge to Kenya’s efforts comes in the shape of World Indoor Champion Abubaker Kaki. The Sudanese wonder kid was the favourite going into Beijing last year only to come unstuck in the semi final and much will depend on how he handles the qualifying rounds.
2004 Olympics champion, Yuriy Borzakovskiy, Beijing silver medallist, Ahmed Ismail from Sudan, Morrocco’s Amine Laalou and South Africa’s Mbulaeni Mulaudzi are other potent runners in the 800m field. The unpredictability of this race in the past makes it hard to pick out a winner.
That Kenya is yet to win a World Championships 1500 metres gold medal is an anomaly that belies its rich tradition in middle distance running.
But with the three top ranked athletes in the distance this season in the team, time is ripe to end that most unwanted of records.
Olympic silver medallist Asbel Kiprop who is unbeaten over the distance since September last year remains rank favourite since he is blessed with a fearsome finishing kick and has matured since finishing fourth in Osaka last time out.
He will have Africa champion Haron Keitany for company. The 25 year old was the last man to beat Kiprop in 1,500m and looks a good bet for a podium finish.
And the third Kenyan in the race is no slouch either with Augustine Choge clocking the first sub 3:30 in three years in June on the same Berlin track. The diminutive athlete suffered a stress fracture in 2008 but has fully recovered.
Kenya has dominated this race since the inception of the World Championships with Kenyan born Qatari Saif Said Shaheen providing the only break in 2003 and 2005. The emergence of Frenchman Mekhissi Benabbad in the last year’s Olympics when he stole in between Brimin Kipruto and Richard Mateelong for silver has triggered alarm bells but with four athletes on show, Kenyans should walk away with what is now considered their event.
Defending champion Kipruto will be favourite while three time silver medallist Ezekiel Kemboi Yano is enjoying a swansong of sorts this year and hopeful of finally burying the second medal ghost. The fastest steeplechaser in the world in the last four years, Paul Kipsiele Koech has struggled mightily to make the Kenyan team with a wild card coming to the rescue and having been handed chance he will look to mark his dominance with a world title.
The fourth Kenyan is the consistent African champion Mateelong. The Olympic and World bronze winner who is a Police instructor is always there or thereabouts and is almost always a sure bet for a medal.
Kenya’s performances in this race will depend with the level of brevity. With Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele having a slow season by his standards after his heroics in Beijing, Vincent Chepkok Kiprop, Eliud Kipchoge and Joseph Ebuya could yet get something from it but they will need to be at 110 percent if they are to derail the Ethiopian juggernaut.
Kenya’s team for this race will attempt the impossible when they line up against Kenenisa Bekele and company. Despite the absence of Mr silver Sileshi Sihine, the trio of world 10k record holder, Micah Kogo, Olympics fourth finisher, Moses Masai and Bernard Kipyego, who last shone with bronze at 2007 World Cross in Mombasa are up against it. Ethiopia also posses the man who stepped into Bekele’s shoes at this year’s World Cross, Gebregziabher Gebremariam and first timer, Imane Merga, who could be employed as a pace setter.
Athens 2004 bronze medallist, Zersenay Tadesse from Eritrea is also in the mix but Kenya’s chances of getting a medal in this race cannot be discounted. What is in contention is the hue.
Such is Kenya’s depth of talent in the ultimate race that defending world champion, Luke Kibet, was left at home despite being fit and willing to get a go at retaining his crown. Led by four-time Boston Marathon champion, Omar Ahmed (Robert Cheruiyot) who is keen to atone for disappointing his nation by withdrawing at the last from Beijing, Kenya has enough ammunition to bag her third world marathon title after Douglas Wakiihuri (1987) and Kibet’s effort.
Abel Kirui, the quickest runner in the field, twice London marathon fourth finisher, Emmanuel Mutai, Benjamin Kiptoo and Daniel Rono complete the line-up.
Two-time world champion, Morocco’s Joauad Gharib, Ethiopia’s Boston Champion, Tsegaye Kebede and compatriot Olympics fourth finisher, Deriba Merga pose the greatest threats.
The collision of the Kenyan ‘buses’ that enthralled Beijing last year will spill to Berlin when defending champion, Janeth ‘Eldoret Express’ Jepkosgei clashes with teenage tyro Pamela ‘Kapsabet Express’ Jelimo.
Unbeaten last year in 13 races, Jelimo who turned women’s two-lap racing on its head last year with a string of honours including the $1m Golden League series jackpot and Olympic gold has seen her veil of invincibility lifted this season with three defeats in four appearances.
Among those who have topped Jelimo is Jepkosgei at the Kenya Trials, who after dominating 2007 by winning seven straight races including the Osaka World title, saw her thunder pick-pocketed by the teenage phenomenon. Russian champion, Mariya Saminova, America’s surprise find, Maggie Vessay and Morocco’s Hasna Benhassi could however, upset Kenya’s ambition of the 1-2.
With Olympic champion, Nancy Jebet Lagat being out of sorts this season, Bahraini defending world title holder, Maryam Yusuf Jamal and Ethiopia’s All Africa Games winner, Gelete Burka are tipped to duke it out for gold. However, Jebet Lagat exhibited similar patchy form in the run-up to her shock Olympic triumph over Jamal last year and together with Irene Jelagat, who has bossed Kenyan Trials in the last two years and Viola Kibiwott, a decorated athlete at junior ranks, chances of glory are still high.
World silver medallist, Vivian Cheruiyot has the perfect chance to go one better in Berlin with the runner who beat her in Osaka, Meseret Defar being forced to double in absence of Tirunesh Dibaba. Sylvia Kibet, fourth in Osaka and Beijing has displayed imperious form with road racer turned track exponent, Iness Chenonge keen to make her mark on her Worlds Debut.
Florence Kiplagat broke Kenya’s 15 year-old wait for a senior world cross title in Amman in March in the absence of Tirunesh Dibaba, the defending champion. With the same athlete out of Berlin, Kiplagat stands to end her country’s 12 year wait for a world title last won by Sally Barsosio in 1997. Besides her, Amman silver medallist, Linet Masai and Grace Momanyi, who is seeking justice after being bundled out of the Beijing Olympics team are also eager to impress. However, elevation of Meseret to 10,000m to team up with Africa champion, Meselech Melkamu and Wude Ayalew for Ethiopia still represent a major hurdle to Kenya’s winning ambition.
With Russians led by their world record holder and Olympic champion, Gulnara Galkina-Samitova and Osaka champion, Yekaterina Volkova very much on top of their game, it is hard to foresee a Kenyan triumph in Berlin. Led by Ruth Bosibori who finished fourth in Osaka, two debutants, Milka Chemos and Gladys Kipkemoi are seeking their moment in the sun in the green, red and black strip as they trio bids to emulate their male counterparts as masters of water and barrier running.
The exit of two-time world champion, Catherine Ndereba from the scene has left a huge vacuum that Olympics fifth placer, Martha Komu, twice Berlin marathon second runner-up, Hellena Kiprop, Irene Lemika, Risper Kimaiyo and Julia Mumbi Muraga are out to fill. It’s therefore, not surprising that Ethiopia’s Boston Marathon champion, Dire Tune alongside compatriots Bezunesh Bekele, Atsede Bayisa and Aselefech Mergia have been installed favourites. The 2005 world champion and world record holder, Paula Radcliffe is uncertain to start but if she does, focus will be on her.