The middle distance events (800 / 1500) should be very interesting this year. There is the potential of a world record, some very competitive women’s events, and the potential for a sweep. Above all, however, I expect them to be very exciting, both during the season as well as in the Games themselves, as middle distance competitors tend to compete fairly often and we should see some solid matchups outside the Games, as opposed to the sprints where we may see only one loaded race all season. So let’s take a look at the players in the middle distances.
Men’s 800 – Can Rudisha be challenged?
David Rudisha (KEN) may be the most dominant athlete in any event right now – and that’s saying a lot with the likes of Sally Pearson, Usain Bolt, and Yelena Isinbayeva among others out there. In 2010 he became WR holder (1:41.01) taking down one of the most venerable records in the sport – and he did it twice. He has six of the top twelve times ever in the event and sits at the brink of the 1:41 barrier. He showed his domination with an easy win in last year’s World Championships and the question is can anyone derail him this season?
Young Mohammend Aman (ETH) did so last year as he pipped him at the line with his PR 1:43.50 – Rudisha 1:43.57 – in Milan. At eighteen years old the sky may be the limit for this young man – unfortunately Rudisha is only twenty four and this event is stacked with youth. While Aman did defeat Rudisha, the man closest to him on the clock is WJR holder Abubaker Kaki (SUD) who sports a best of 1:42.23 – the #5 performer ever. Try as he might however, Rudisha always remains just out of his reach when they race. The fluid striding Kenyan much relaxed as Kaki strains to get by. Kaki is strong with a 3:31.76 1500 best, but Rudisha’s 45.50 400 speed just seems to be too much.
The indoor season saw Poland’s Adam Kszczot emerge as a threat as he ran 1:44.57 to become #3 all-time indoors. This after running a PR 1:43.30 outdoors last year. Improvementn could see him battling with Kaki, and Aman as they chase after Rudisha. Super vet and ‘04 Olympic champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy (RUS, 1:42.47) is a savvy come from behind master, but age (31) may not be on his side in London. Anyone else wanting to impact this event is going to have to have major improvement in 2012, because if you can’t run under 1:43.50 I don’t see a shot at the podium – Rudisha won’t let the pace dawdle.
Women’s 800 – Will Jelimo Repeat?
I wouldn’t have asked that question before the start of the indoor season. After all, after winning in Beijing, running several outstanding times and becoming #3 all-time (1:54.01) Pamela Jelimo (KEN) all but disappeared from the sport. She still competed, but after a 1:59.49 best in ‘09 she couldn’t even break 2:01 in ‘10/’11. She reemerged this winter however to run very well, break 2:00, and win World indoor gold in dominating fashion, so the question now is whether she is ready to repeat her Olympic performance.
Standing in her way should be the last two World Champions in the event: Berlin winner Caster Semenya (RSA, 1:55.45) and Daegu winner Mariya Savinova (RUS, 1:55.87). Both athletes proved to be dominant during the seasons in which they won titles, but Semenya has fallen off since – though not as dramatically as Jelimo following her championship. Both have shown an ability to run from the front or the pack, which could set up the kind of race we haven’t seen since Wodars/Wachtel/Gallagher in 1988 – with three fast contenders for gold.
Behind them are a group of women in the 1:57/1:58 range that, unless the pace goes slowly, will have to drop a second or two to be in the mix. Front running Alysia Montano (USA, 1:57.34) and kicker Maggie Vessey (USA, 1:57.84) both fit that mold but will need to be very savvy aginst the top three. The same goes for Kenia Sinclair (JAM, 1:57.88), a very gutsy runner who will have to up her game another notch to be in the mix. Talent wise these women have the potential, but there is a gap between them and the Big Three right now.
Men’s 1500 – Can a non African have an impact?
That question is my way of saying that this event is dominated by Kenyans, with the most potent challengers also coming from the African continent! Kenyans have dominated the performance lists and the victory stand in most events in the last several years. Currently the best are defending Olympic Champion and reigning World Champion Asbel Kiprop (3:30.46) and Daegu silver medalist Silas Kiplagat (3:29.27). On paper Kiplagat would seem the more formidable, but the long striding Kiprop just knows how to win. Both are only twenty two years old, so they haven’t even entered their prime yet – meaning taking them down means getting better because that’s exactly what I expect them to do.
There is a list of men in the 3:31 range that could challenge, but the best could be 800 man Abubaker Kaki (SUD, 3:31.76). While his focus is on trying to defeat David Rudisha in the 800 meters, his speed could prove to be an asset in this event. I have no idea if he plans to run more of the 1500, but he could have as much potential here as he does in the shorter event – and at twenty two, he has a lot of time left to experiment.
Of course there are several other Kenyans capable of combining with their countrymen and pulling off a sweep in London – the event with the best chance of seeing a sweep at the Games in my opinion. Nixon Chepseba (3:30.94) and Augustine Choge (3:29.47) having the best chances. Especially Choge who consistently puts together fast races. Outside of this group perhaps young Turk Orzbilen Tanui (3:31.37) can crack the Kenyan wall. American Matthew Centrowitz (3:34.46) did so in Daegu taking bronze, but I’m not expecting the pace to go as slow in London as it did last summer. But then you never know once the distances reach this length and above.
Women’s 1500 – Will we see a fast tactical race?
Those two words don’t usually go together – fast & tactical – but we have some women that are actually capable of both at the same time. Defending Beijing champion Nancy Langat (KEN, 4:00.13) is back and certainly knows how to run tactical races. She was a bit off form last year, but this is an Olympic season and Kenyan middle distance runners always show up in Olympic years.
The woman that looked to be the best at tactics coming into this year is Morgan Uceny (USA, 4:00.06) who ran several solid races in 2011 with a near unbeatable race pattern. The #1 ranked woman of 2011, the only thing that seemed able to derail Uceny last year was being tripped and falling in Daegu. Otherwise she won the other races that mattered and defeated all the primary contenders.
The indoor season, however, saw the rise of Genzebe Dibaba (ETH, 4:00.13i) as she had the mind of indoor breakout that Uceny had outdoors last year. She twice ran under 4:01 indoors and ran a sensational World Championship race where she literally ran each lap of the race faster than the lap before! Certainly any race between her, Uceny, and Langat will be something to see.
There are others capable of running with these women, though their tactics aren’t always as spot on as the above trio. Maryam Jamal (BRN, 3:56.18) put together six straight seasons under 4:00 between ‘05/’10 (and just missed last year at 4:00.33), won the Games in Athens (‘04) and Worlds in Berlin (‘09) and is the “sage” competitor going up against the “young guns” above at twenty eight years old. But if anyone can match them tactically and has shown the speed to outrun them its Jamal. Jenny Simpson (USA, 3:59.90) outkicked the field to win the World title last year in Daegu in a slow, tactical race. The question on the table is whether she can do so in a fast, tactical race.
There is a large group of women in the 3:59-high to 4:01.xx range that on any given day are capable of slipping onto the podium given the right race conditions. This event could produce one of the most competitively deep finals in London.
That’s my look at what should be an extremely competitive season in the middle distances. Next I’ll take a look at the barrier events and scope out the hurdles.