Sunday, August 28, 2011

Drama in Daegu

For me, and I suspect for many others, tonight was the most important night of the World Championships in Daegu. For most, I suppose, it was the men's 100-metre final featuring Usain Bolt, but for me, the highlight of any major competition is the men's 10,000. I'm not alone in this view, but it certainly is a minority view to focus on a twenty-five lap event, to the point that no one wants to put a 10,000 in their track meet.

The race was hard to predict, at least on paper, because of the uncertainty around Kenenisa Bekele. It wouldn't have been a surprise if Bekele had won or if he had foundered. Bekele was never really a factor in the race, as it turned out. The pace was pushed by Tadesse, Martin Mathathi and others whose name I don't know because I missed about half the race thanks to the women's long jump.

The race started slowly, going through the first kilometre in 2:57, which wouldn't really shock me if a woman did it. Halfway was 13:58, and a couple of laps at 63 and 64 seconds were enough to drop Bekele, though anyone watching on TV would have missed this. Farah kicked at 400 and it looked like Merga and Jeilan would fight for silver as late as 250 to go, but by 200 it looked like Jeilan had a chance. At 150 it was a race again and by 100 he had more or less pulled even. Farah was able to hold him off until 10 metres to go when Jeilan went by.

As much acclaim as Bekele has gotten over the distance, this was no doubt the most dramatic and exciting championship 10k since the Gebrselassie-Tergat duel at the Sydney Olympics. Bekele was so good that he would kick at 400 and the race was over with 395 to go.

Now for the second-guessing. My first reaction, as Farah opened up a huge lead, was that he had gone too soon. If he had waited before kicking, or at least not spent himself so quickly, he might have had a chance. On the other hand, if he had held back, he wouldn't have had such a big lead. The fact is that Farah was 10 metres or so away from winning.

My second reaction is that Farah and Tadesse, especially, would have had a better chance if the race had been faster up until the end. Tadesse did a great job in leading against Bekele two years ago. He pushed the pace tonight, but a faster ninth kilometre might have dropped enough people to let him medal, if nothing else.

My third reaction is that Bekele dropping out is no surprise after almost two years of not racing. He has pulled out some fantastic performances over the past decade, and he may yet do so again, but it wasn't going to happen. This was his first time to ever run a 10k on the track and not win.

Finally, there was clear proof that LetsRun's America-first jingoism produces idiotic fans. The amount of attention given to also-ran Americans compared world-beating Africans is absurd and always will be. This is why, as soon as Jeilan won, we saw comments like these in the race thread:

"Ethiopian,,, Gelad or something"
"And unknown Ethiopian Jeilan" (sic)
"Who the hell is this Jeilan guy? I've never even heard of him before."

Except, of course, that Jeilan made waves five years ago when he ran 27:02 (still his PB) supposedly at the age of 17. Until today, he had never quite fulfilled the potential he showed in 2006, but he is hardly an unknown. If he had been American, of course, the LetsRun crowd could no doubt have proven with their six-degree game (he beat such-and-such by so many seconds and such-and-such once had dinner with the Duke of Wellington, so we know that...) that he was obviously going to win.

An hour after all this was the men's 100-metre final. I saw Dwayne Chambers get disqualified for a false start in the semi-finals and noted that the new rule seems overly punitive. When Bolt lined up, I said that he was going to win easily unless he did something stupid, and he made the most likely mistake, which was a false start.

Ironically, Bolt was the last person who needed to be jumpy and nervous, but it happened anyway. The crowd, the announcers and, if I could have heard it, the Internet was stunned. Bolt had been the reason that the stadium in Daegu was even half full. To be disqualified so suddenly and, for a casual fan, inexplicably, must have been a huge let-down.

I don't support the rule. I remember how annoying it used to be to get a 100-metre final off without a false start, but even without special consideration for Bolt and his status within the sport, it seems unfair to punish what is obviously a common mistake. The old rule, if it ever actually existed, of allowing one false start for anyone and then disqualifying whoever is responsible for the second false start, seems a bit more reasonable as it has a warning element to it.

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