NAIROBI, Kenya, January 18- True to their accomplished style, Athletics Kenya (AK) managed to pull yet another team selection bunny from the hat when they named the eagerly anticipated provisional Olympics Marathon line-up on Tuesday.
By biting the cartilage, not the entire bullet, the federation managed to please and displease in equal measure, a trick few can execute to perfection without blinking.
Apart from Lydia Cheromei, the veteran who first represented her nation as a 13-year-old in 1996 who has been through starts and stops in her chequered distance running career that was interrupted by a two year doping ban in 2006, the unveiling of 12 did not serve any surprises.
But the decision to name the squad early has elicited mixed responses from the athletics fraternity, with some hailing the move while others expressing bitter reservations.
Over the years, AK has perfected the art of intrigue when it comes to the selection criterion particularly where distance runners are concerned to major events owing largely to the sheer number of potent talent and in some cases, ineptitude on their part.
So, what does it mean for the 12-six male and six female- runners who were named on Tuesday?
Having been given a week since to notify the federation of their acceptance, a lot of will be racing in their minds knowing all too well each has half a chance of making the final squad when it is announced according to AK, at the end of April.
Those who advocated for the federation to take the entire bullet and announce the final squad on Tuesday aver that the naming of a probable squad will only heighten anxiety amongst the affected athletes.
Waiting for another three months to know ones fate is not entirely the best way to look forward to the biggest sporting event any competitor aspires to compete in as it also affects plans for other big races particularly the Marathon Majors.
By end April, two Majors in 2012, London and Boston will already be run leaving the Olympics, Berlin, Chicago and New York Marathons up for consideration in a series where the winner by points get to bag $500,000 (Sh47m).
Apart from lucrative individual prize money these events offer, the Majors jackpot is the most attractive payday for any elite runner in form knowing too well the short lifespan at the apex of world marathon running each particular athlete enjoys.
Therefore, rather than assuage the complex mathematics these runners go through at the beginning of the every season, AK’s decision to name Olympics probables has just thrown more jigsaw pieces at the named dozen.
There is a general feeling that AK has already settled on the final squad barring any major injury to their chosen ones, a drastic dip in form and this being Kenya, the emergence of an unheralded force during the spring marathon season that ends in April.
But rather than toss the cat among the pigeons, the federation stalwarts who will be facing the ballot just before the Olympics opted to buy themselves time by treading cautiously on the selection the critics say.
They are all too aware that messing up with the forthcoming Olympics especially at the back of strong performances at the 2008 edition, 2010 Commonwealth Games and last year’s World Championships will judge them harshly at the polls.
In their defence, the federation with some justification, point out previous experience has taught them harsh lessons not to place all their eggs in one basket (Athens Olympics and Helsinki Worlds spring in mind).
“The best athletes do not always win championship races,” AK chief Isaiah Kiplagat reminded everyone with recent history largely backing him.
For instance, twice Worlds winner, Abel Kirui, only made the Daegu team as a wildcard after failing to impress after his first victory in Berlin two-years ago while most of the elite athletes selected for the Osaka, Berlin and Worlds were simply not bothered with the invite.
The federation also cites the sheer number of deserving athletes they have to deal with and their selective nature of events they want to feature in as another banana skin, what with 150 qualifiers for men and 50 for women they had to choose for the marathon alone.
On whether holding a marathon trial would have sufficed, the officials were quick to draw out the failure of a similar experiment ahead of the Athens 2004 Olympics where the Kenyan contingent faded.
They added that most of our elite athletes are conditioned to performing at sea level or low altitude as opposed to the punishing elevation in the country.
And the federation was not done yet. “The system we have been using in recent years to select our team has brought the results and there is no need to change,” David Okeyo, the Secretary General charged.
Therefore, the conclusion that can be drawn from the whole exercise is that the federation that has been castigated in the past for delaying marathon team selection until two months to the event made a judgment to have the best of both worlds, with athletes as sorry pawns.
Whatever transpires, they have bought a safety net in a year they cannot afford to have poor results at the grand event of 2012.
Last year, their Ethiopian Athletics Federation counterparts who were also facing the ballot at the time were compelled to ship all their big stars, including shock 10,000m men champion Ibrahim Jeilan, from Daegu to the All Africa Games in Maputo with barely 48 hours rest to save face after the beating they got in South Korea.
Speaking to this writer in confidence, some of the selected elite runners and their coaches confessed it would have been easier for the federation to use their authority and name the final squad on Tuesday.
This, they note, would have allowed those chosen to focus on nothing else, including lucrative Majors races, but the Olympics with those left out carrying on with life after all, just like Brazil and football, AK cannot satisfy all with the wealth of gift at their disposal.
Moving forward they urged, AK and by extension the National Olympics Committee-Kenya should facilitate them to train without any hindrance from appointed coaches and channel any financial assistance as well as training kit and equipment to them directly as opposed to using mandarins as go betweens as has been the practise.
For the record, world record holder, Patrick Makau Musyoki (2:03:38), Boston and New York champion, Geoffrey Mutai (2:03:02a/2:05:05), Majors winner, Emmanuel Mutai (2:04:40), Frankfurt titleholder, Wilson Kipsang (2:03:42), Kirui (2:05:04) and Chicago king, Moses Mosop (2:03:06a/2:05:37) made the men’s squad.
World champion, Edna Kiplagat (2:20:46), London winner and world half record holder, Mary Keitany (2:19:19), Paris winner, Priscah Jeptoo (2:22:55), Daegu bronze medallist, Sharon Cherop (2:22:43), Berlin winner, Florence Kiplagat (2:19:44) and Cheromei (2:22:34) are in the women’s arsenal.
One thing is for sure, the tale of the London Olympics marathon squad has just opened its curtains, not neared its conclusion as AK would rend us to believe.