viernes, 25 de mayo de 2012

Ethiopia makes a serious Statement for the Middle distance Olympic titles

Genzebe Dibaba, the youngest of a stunning dinasty

           That cold spring morning of 2008, in Edinburgh, Tirunesh Dibaba, in spite of her youth one of the most decorated women in the history of athletics, had something to prove after suffering a clear defeat against Lornah Kiplagat in the precedent edition of the World Cross Country Champs. However, she seemed more worried about the performance of her younger sister Genzebe, who was to participate in the opening race of the contest. So anxious was Tirunesh, she neglected her own warming up in order to watch her sister run. In the end, the 17-year-old Ethiopian attacked in the decisive Haggis Knowe hill with 400m to go, to snatch her first international title. Likewise, Tirunesh recovered her World Cross crown in the next hour but, as she declared to journalists, she was even more elated for the sensational victory of her sister. It was a long way, since Cousin Derartu Tulu had opened the path for every Ethiopian woman with the first of her three Cross Country gold medals in 1995, and previously with her triumph at the 10.000m in Barcelona Olympic Games. The youngest member of that prosperous lineage had to feel particularly inspired and well protected in her blossoming time, surrounded by such accomplished family of runners. Derartu, Eyegayehu, Tirunesh, all felt proud her heritage, the Ethiopian racing tradition, had been preserved and transmitted so brilliantly to the newest generation.

            Four years have passed since that revelation and now Genzebe Dibaba, after her victory at the World indoor championships in Istanbul last winter and her recent groundbreaking demonstration at the Diamond League meeting in Shanghai, appears as the most solid prospect for Olympic gold in team Ethiopia. The awesome generation that shocked the athletic world in 2003 seems now virtually exhausted, after a whole decade of holding national hopes in global challenges. Years of injuries have taken its toll in Kenenisa Bekele, Sileshi Sihine and Tirunesh Dibaba, all three of them struggling to regain their past form. Likewise, the remaining ace of that marvellous poker, Meseret Defar, seems to have lost the mental battle against current female number one, Vivian Cheruiyot. Kenya is largely dominating long distance right now and their archrivals look unable to find a valid relay.   Yet if Vivian Cheruiyot and Kenyan marathoners seem unstoppable in their way to the Olympic title, in middle distance Ethiopia still keep some good chances of victory.
            Nevertheless, contrary to their East African neighbours, the country which owns eight Olympic titles in the 10.000m has little tradition in the 800m and the 1500. In the first Olympic Games they took part in, back in the 1960s, both Kenya and Ethiopia used to line-up, besides distance runners, also sprinters, quarter milers and hurdlers. Some of those athletes had remarkable success as the members of the Kenyan 4x400 relay, winners in Munich 1972 and runner-up in Mexico 1968, featuring Daniel Rudisha, father of the current 800m world record holder. On occasion of the African Championships they hosted in Nairobi in 2010, this country tried to recover their international presence in some of those events. Thanks to this effort, Kenya is likely to qualify its 4x400m relay for London, after a long hiatus, and amazingly will also send Julius Yego, first national representative ever in the Olympics in the javelin discipline, who recently returned from a training camp in Finland

Fantu Magiso at the 2012 World indoor Championships in Istanbul
Photo: Ian Walton/ Getty Images Europe
Ethiopia is in the same way nurturing talents in different disciplines than its classics 5000m, 10.000m and the marathon. Yakob Jarso and Roba Gari got to break Eshetu Tura’s steeplechase record which dated from the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games and in the last couple of years we have also witnessed their progressive rising in the 1500m and lately in the 800m too. Mulugeta Wondimu ran the former distance in 3:31.14 in 2004, still the national record, but quickly moved to the roads. Notwithstanding, Deresse Mekonnen proved, with his back-to-back world indoor titles in 2008 and 2010 and his silver medal in Berlin, his country could do well in the metric mile too. Since then the number of Ethiopians able to break 3:36 are legion:  Mekonnen Gebremedhin, Henok Legesse, Demma Daba, Dawit Wolde, Soresa Fida, Zebene Alemayehu… On the other hand, it is even more intriguing unusual teen phenomenon Mohamed Aman, first international star the country has known in the 800m. Aman enjoyed athletic success for the first time when he triumphed at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010. Since then he has experienced a meteoric rise to the senior elite, reaching the final in Daegu and causing a shocking upset when he broke the long winning streak of David Rudisha, under Milano rain in the last meeting of 2011. This year he has confirmed his stunning talent clinching the gold medal last winter in Istanbul and outdoors, after his victory at the meeting Colourful Daegu, seems the only one able to produce a surprise at the Olympics, beating again Rudisha. However, Aman is not the only teen prodigy with genuine ambitions for the 800m in London.   Leonard Kosencha beat the young Ethiopian at last World Youth Championships in Lille and, after setting off the international meetings last year because of his academic duties, this summer is determined to try to make the Olympic team. Also quickly improving is the reigning world junior champion David Mutua.  East African representatives are increasingly young. Ethiopia, before the failure of some of its foremost stars to face Kenyans in the last seasons has had no doubts in enrolling for the Olympic marathon some inexperienced but full of overpowering youth like Ayele Abshero, Dino Sefir and Tiki Gelana, and something similar is expected on the track.
If Ethiopia has found an astounding 800m male athlete in teen Mohamed Aman, awesome the same is her female counterpart Fantu Magiso.  Not long time ago it was rather unusual to find East African women in the 800m global competitions. For the 2005 World Championships, Kenyan officials did not find necessary to enter Janeth Jepkosgei, despite she had largely achieved the standard. However they wisely changed mind for the next edition of the contest in Osaka, just in time to allow her become world champion. Then, the following year, amazingly the first two Kenyan female gold medals ever at the Olympic Games would be achieved precisely at the 800m and 1500m by Pamela Jelimo and Nancy Jebet Langat respectively. Now besides already classic specialists Jepkosgei and Jelimo, Kenya have plenty of effervescent 800m female standouts as Eunice Sum, Cherono Koech and Winny Chebet. Also Uganda, which lately seemed to be just another East African cradle of long distance runners, is now remembering with Annet Negesa, a brilliant talent on the making, their greatest legends John Akii-Bua and Davis Kamoga had endurance yet had also speed and power. On the other hand, Fantu Magiso is the first Ethiopian half-miler we can remember and furthermore she excelled before in the 200m and 400m. She owns in those distances respective PBs of 23.90 and 52.09, being the former more than 2 seconds better than the precedent national record, which plainly speaks about the previous standards in the country in the discipline. Such speed must be an asset for Magiso’s bright future in the 800m. Often described as clumsy on the track, to the point she nearly collided with a photographer in her race in the Madison Square Garden last winter, Fantu is quickly winning experience and she should be a fearsome contender soon. Last season she struck the 400m at the African junior Championship, then went on to reach the semi-finals in the 800m in Daegu. This year she narrowly missed the medals in Istanbul and recently dared to challenge no less than the reigning Olympic champion Pamela Jelimo at the Diamond League meeting in Doha, to finish an excellent second, in a massive national record of 1:57.90. Watch out for her in a near future!         

Bekele & Bogale
Tizita Bogale  and Asmerawork Bekele clash in a meeting in Huelva
Nonetheless, it may be tough for Fantu Magiso to shine in London Olympics in an 800m contest so loaded of scintillating stars, including Olympic champion Pamela Jelimo, happily returned to where she used to be after some difficult seasons, the last two world champions Caster Semenya and Mariya Savinova, and Janeth Jepkosgei, who has been in every major championship podium since 2007. Much more up to surprises is currently the 1500m event. In the last couple of years the discipline has lacked a leader, a dominator. A reason is the four best athletes of the world middle distance powerhouse, Russia, were sanctioned because of a doing offence, and same fate suffered global medallists Daniela Yordanova and Bouchra Ghezielle. Russia has not found for the moment a valid replacement for the likes of Tomashova, Soboleva and Fomenko, apart from Anna Alminova, who is currently injured. Besides, even the foremost milers right now are not consistent enough: Maryam Yussuf Jamal clinched gold at the 2007 and 2009 World championships but also unexpectedly faded in the Olympic final when she looked the sure winner and was not either a factor last year in Daegu. On the other hand, Olympic champion Nancy Jebet Langat dominated in great fashion the 2010 campaign but was out of shape in both Berlin and Daegu finals. Finally the United States seemed to have an excellent candidate for the gold medal for last year World Champs in Morgan Uceny, winner of three Diamond League meetings and the most regular miler during the year, but a fall prevented her from success. Spaniard Natalia Rodríguez looked strong enough to avenge her polemic disqualification in Berlin but in the end it was another US representative, Jennifer Barringer-Simpson, who surprisingly got the better of the whole field in the homestretch. Simpson, a former steeplechase star, changed to the middle distances looking for a new challenge, yet injuries and inconsistency sowed doubts about her future in the event. After her sensational victory in Daegu, the world champion followed it up with a 10th place in Rieti and a 13th position at the Ivo Van Damme meeting, again raising the question mark about whether she will be able to maintain her number one status for long time. Only three athletes (Jamal, Rodríguez and Kalkidan Gezahegne) repeated final from the previous edition in Berlin, which is a clear evidence of the current inconsistency in the event. Besides, the standards have dropped: no athlete got to run the distance under 4 minutes in 2011.   

The female 1500 event is nowadays experiencing a crisis of leadership and results. However, the discipline is on the rise in East African countries. Pioneers like Derartu Tulu spread the example and now Kenyan and Ethiopian women are massively practising sport and also entering virgin territory, embracing new disciplines. Helen Obiri, who broke Meseret Defar’s streak at the 3000m in World indoors last winter in Istanbul, looks a Kenyan solid alternative to Nancy Langat and Irene Jelagat, who has not progressed as expected after her victory at the 2006 World Junior Championships. And this nation has another exciting prospect in Faith Kipyegon, who last year won gold in both the 1500m World Youth championships in Lille and at the World junior Cross Country in Punta Umbría. At only 18 years of age, Kipyegon has already run the distance in a world class 4:03.82.

Kalkidan Gezahegne, the world indoor champion in 2010
Nevertheless, Ethiopian women are by far the most impressive currently among East Africans. When Derartu Tulu, Gete Wami and Fatuma Roba were making the highlights in the 10.000 and the marathon, the lone standout of the country in the 1500m was Kutre Dulecha. This athlete enjoyed a noteworthy athletic career in the late 1990s and early 2000s, achieving a gold medal at the 2004 World indoor championships and a bronze outdoors in Seville 1999, besides back-to-back junior and senior global titles in Cross Country. After her retirement, Maryam Yussuf Jamal and Gelete Burka took over, although the former chose to represent Bahrein. Burka for one reason or another has in most of the occasions failed to deliver to the expectations she rose when she reached the 1500m World summer final in 2005, being a junior, and then struck the World Cross short title the following year. Though she was bestowed the 2008 World indoor title in Valencia, after Yelena Soboleva’s disqualification, Gelete Burka missed her greatest occasion of glory that same winter at the World Cross in Edmonton, because of wrong tactics, and on the track, after too many missed opportunities her moment has past too. Now is the time for her younger compatriots.  
Kalkidan Gezahegne, already a finalist at the 2009 World Summer Champs, solved the animosity the incident between Natalia Rodríguez and Gelete Burka in Berlin had created, beating both of them at the World indoors in Doha. That one was a highly successful winter for Gezahegne, who also broke both the world junior at the 1500m and the mile. However an untimely injury broke her meteoric progression. After many months out of competition, the promising Ethiopian was back in 2011 but then, another newcomer from her same country, Abeba Aregawi, an athlete based in Sweden, took the spotlight all over the winter, with four astounding victories in well-known international meetings. Now Aregawi was believed to become the brand new Ethiopian star but she also fell injured and missed the entire summer campaign. In Daegu, Gezahegne was the high-placed athlete of the country in a good 5th place but only one year ago she seemed to be predestined for more. Not selected for Korea, Tizita Bogale, gold medallist two years before at both Youth Olympic Games and World Junior Championships, had notwithstanding progressed to a remarkable 4:03.98, during the season. She should be also an athlete to watch out for the future.
In 2012, all Gezahegne, Aregawi and Bogale, as good as they are, have been overshadowed by the stellar campaign of Genzebe Dibaba. With two world titles in Cross Country and one on the track as a junior, Genzebe had not however deliver in her first senior competitions in the same impressive fashion her elder sisters Eyegayehu and Tirunesh did in the past. Being just 18, she was a good 8th in 2009 in Berlin at the 5000m, but another 8th placement two years later in Daegu did not really seemed a progression by Ethiopian standards, specially when compared to long time archrival Mercy Cherono's fifth place. This winter she concentrated her endeavours in the 1500m, probably to improve on her speed for the 5000m campaign in the summer. However, after her stunning results during the indoor season, she is likely to keep the 1500m as her pet event. Unbeaten throughout the winter, she culminated her solid campaign with a sensational victory at the World Championships in Istanbul, the third Ethiopian title in a row. Breaking the “follow the leader” family tradition of great kickers as Derartu and Tirunesh, Genzebe made a groundbreaking display of front running, progressively increasing the pace to romp home unchallenged. That victory put her in the map for medal contention in Beijing. Last week she launched her summer season in Shanghai with a still more spectacular display of good running, for a sensational victory over her reborn compatriot Abeba Aregawi, both dipping for the first time under the 4-minute barrier. Thus Genzebe Dibaba broke the long standing Kutre Dulecha’s national record of 3:58.38, lowering it to a world class 3:57.77. That demonstration put the youngest of the Dibaba clan as firm favourite for gold at the upcoming London Olympic Games. If Tirunesh fails to beat Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot, maybe Genzebe can still maintain the family at the top, or maybe we can witness for the first time in many years how two siblings climb to the top of a track and field podium at the Olympic Games.     

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