Nairobi, Kenya – While it will take the USA the better part of ten days to select their complete Olympic track and field team, the Kenyans essentially do it in one three-hour stretch. Today, at Nyayo Stadium in overcast Nairobi, Athletics Kenya staged eight events to select what promises to be a medal-hauling machine at the London Games. Considering the results, they may have to charter a separate carrier to bring back the hardware. By afternoon’s end the fastest times ever run at altitude were achieved in three events, the men’s and women’s 800 meters, and the men’s 5000.
Billed as “the race the world was waiting to see”, the men’s 800 meters closed the show in high style, and lived up to its hype. After 2010 African, 2011 World, and now prohibitive 2012 Olympic champion David Rudisha galloped to the fastest 800 meters ever run at altitude (1:42:12, besting his own 1:42.3 from the 2010 African Championships, also here at Nyayo Stadium) even his coach, a man who has seen a lot of talent in his day, was left a little breathless.
“And he had to move from lane three,” said Brother Colm O’Connell after his pupil’s A+ performance. “He’s not used to running out of lane three. But he can handle any situation.”
We may be used to seeing Rudisha tuck in behind his personal pacer Sammy Tangui on the Samsung Diamond League tour, or Matt Scherer recently at the Adidas GP in New York City, but today the world record holder moved easily to the front, passing 400 meters under 50-seconds, then closed in sub-:51 to mark his fitness for the August Games in London.
Behind came 19 year-old Anthony Chemut in a PR 1:43.96 (better than his 1:44.73 in Eugene June 2nd), and another newcomer Timothy Kimut in 1:45.19. The results mark the changing of the guard here in Kenya for the two lap race.
There were a total of eight races contested at these Trials, men’s and women’s 800, 1500, 3000m steeplechase, and 5000m. The marathon and 10,000m teams had already been decided, and the remainder of the Olympic schedule, sprints and field events, don’t contain enough Kenyan quality to warrant a Trials. Yet one wonders how that might ever change if there isn’t a platform offered to contest the sprints and field events at the Olympic Trials level.
Notwithstanding, it was a tidy meet held in front of a boisterous crowd of 12,000 or so spectators including some of Kenya’s greatest past champions. Besides Olympic Committee chairman Kipchoge Keino, other luminaries on hand included Paul Tergat, Moses Tanui, Douglas Wakihuri, Paul Ereng, and Noah Ngeny. After an entertaining pre-show put on by a cast of colonial-era jesters, the meet got underway at 10:30 a.m.
The women’s 10,000m team was decided a week ago Friday at the Kenyan National Championships out at massive Kasarani Stadium outside of town. Therefore, the issue today was to find out whether the Kenyan “Pocket Rocket” Vivian Cheruiyot could double back and set up a potential Olympic 5 & 10 double, same as she pulled off at the World Championships in Daegu last year.
While all the races to follow were burners, the women’s 5000m went out at a snail’s pace, 5:57 for the opening 1600m, 10:21 past 3K. But then 2009 World Champion, long, lean Linet Masai began to turn the screw. She’d dropped out of last week’s 10,000 trials with a stomach issue, and was hoping to redeem herself in the five.
Though her 72-second laps weren’t overly punishing, they did identify Linet, Vivian, and 2007 World Champs bronze medalist Priscah Jepleting as the controlling trio. 2011 World 10,000 silver medalist and third-placer at the 10K trials last week Sally Kipyego bided her time at the back of the 11 woman pack wearing her green Oregon Track Club singlet. 10,000m team member Joyce Chepkirui chose not to run the 5000, but with the pace so pedestrian, she might’ve reconsidered, as she was up in the stands taking anxious measure of the outcome.
15:04 at the bell. Vivian turned on the jets. Sally, who had moved up smartly with two laps remaining, lit her afterburner, and the gaps formed. Though the finishing time was a modest 16:08.08 for Vivian, 16:09.29 for Sally, and 16:09.45 for Viola Kibiwott, the job was only to qualify, and doing it as easily as possible lifts the anticipation for the Kenyan-Ethiopian showdown come London even higher than before.
WOMEN’S & MEN’S 1500s
After former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi arrived in the VIP box, the women’s 1500 meter final got underway. There were only five women in this field. Athletics Kenya had changed the starting lists so many times over the last few days — removing people who had previously been told they could run, adding others who had yet to meet the standards — many athletes finally got fed up and simply did not travel to the capital for the meet. It was a sad indictment of a federation that seems more interested in its own agenda than that of its nation’s athletes. Hellen Obiri proved her metal as champion.
The men’s 1500 was monstrous, however, with 2011 World Champion Abel Kirui and silver medalist Silas Kiplagat heading the bill. Along the backstretch where a gaggle of agents and coaches gathered, Kirui’s manager Federico Rosa was looking a bit nervous. His client had made it look easy at the New York Grand Prix, but had a habit of letting races get away from him, then relying on his ferocious kick when things get hairy. Well, it happened again today.
“Sometimes he is too confident,” remarked Federico after the angular Kiprop let six men get away on the backstretch of the final lap. Over the final furlong he managed to gun down four, but Silas Kiplagat (3:37.6) and sub-3:30 man Nixon Chepseba (3:38.0) proved too strong. Abel kirui missed the automatic qualifying, and will have to wait to be named as the wildcard into London. While that should be a formality, what won’t be is winning gold in August. In London he will need to get his head back into the game.
MEN’S 3000m STEEPLECHASE
The men’s steeplechase is, of course, Kenya’s event. Since 1968 the men of Kenya have won every Olympic steeple gold medal except 1976 and 1980 when Kenya boycotted the games for political reasons. Today the trial race turned into a shoot-out between 2008 Olympic champion Brimin Kipruto and the always entertaining 2011 World Champion Ezekiel Kemboi. Kipruto had opened a gap on the final lap, but Mini-Bolt, as Kemboi is called, made a run at the Olympic champ over the last hurdle. Knowing it may come, Brimin braced for the assault, shook it off, and won in 8:11.30 to Kemboi’s 8:12.22. Abel Mutai ran third in 8:13.47.
After the race Kemboi gave the crowd what it wanted when he sprinted up the homestretch, removed his Police team singlet and posed for the folks in the VIP box. Richard Mateelong, who ran 7:56 in New York, came down with a slight injury to his right leg afterwards, and wasn’t himself today when it most counted, finishing fifth in 8:14.06. Also, Paul Koech, the main man on the Samsung Diamond League tour in Europe over the barriers, proved again that he simply cannot race well at altitude. He had the lead for a while, but faded badly to seventh in 8:36.29.
The best was saved for the last three races, or at least the fastest. First, the men’s 5000m. 64-64-64-62 added up to a 4:14 opening 1600. 7:55 at 3K. By the bell, 12:13, the boys were in full flight. Isaiah Kiplagat’s 13:09.80 pulled free from his competitors, and proved the fastest 5000 ever at altitude. Edwin Soy finished second, 13:11.11, and Thomas Longosiwa took third in 13:11.28.
800’s CLOSE THE SHOW
That set up the two 800 meters. The women led off. The Saturday Nation headlined the contest “No Love Lost!” between Olympic champion Pamela Jelimo and former world champion Janeth Jepkosgei. Jelimo had suffered through a series of injuries for three years before coming round in 2012. She won the world indoor title this winter, and the national championships last weekend.
It was no contest. Off a 61-second 400 Jelimo simply exploded away from the field. I took a picture on the backstretch and all I got in frame was her trail leg and the lead leg of the runner leading the chasers. Her 1:56.91 again was the fastest ever run at altitude. Janeth fought hard, but was trimmed down the aisle by youngster Winnie Chebet, who came into the meet with a qualifying time of only 2:02.16.
The big match up in London will be Pamela versus Ethiopians sensation, Fantu Magiso, who took the full measure of Jelimo and Jepkosgei (and World Champion Savinova) at the Rome Diamond League meeting. There a 55.86 first 400 yielded a 61.71 second, and Jelimo knows she’ll have her work ahead of her in the next month to prepare for that re-match in London.
And then, of course, we closed with Rudisha’s magnificence. It’s been a rousing 10 days in Kenya, my first trip back in nine years. If you ever have a chance to visit this land and its people, you’ll be in for a treat. Great hospitality, wonderful moments, and memories to treasure.