MONTE CARLO, Monaco, December 29 – World men 800m record holder, David Lekuta Rudisha, finally fulfilled his enormous potential when he stormed to gold during the Daegu World Championships in South Korea.
In becoming the fourth Kenyan to win the male two-lap world title in the footsteps of twice winner, Billy Konchellah (1987/91), Paul Ruto (1993) and Alfred Kirwa (2007), Rudisha capped a long journey to the top that started when he won the junior crown in Beijing 2006.
Turning to the men’s metric mile, Kenya also enjoyed a milestone 2011 when Olympics champion, Asbel Kiprop finally delivered his nation’s first ever gold medal at the Worlds when he led compatriot Silas Kiplagat across the line.
In the IAAF end of year review for middle distances, Rudisha and Kiprop receive their rightful place on top of the pile.
For a period of some years this millennium 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 where Kirwa 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 (that is 50 percent), 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.
The two runners brought back the scruff of the neck approach that is 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 September 18 – 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 eighth 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 plus 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, that 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.