Monday, August 13, 2012

The London Olympics show the meaninglessness of fast times

The marathon, over the past five years, has seen a sea change in the quality of times. The 5k, starting this year, also seems to have come back to life after some lean years. The fastest time since 2006 was recorded this year by Dejene Gebremeskel, and that race in Paris featured five of the twenty fastest times ever run. A similar resurgence was seen in the 1500, where breaking 3:30 had become scarce, but Asbel Kiprop's 3:28 was the fastest since 2004, followed closely by Silas Kiplagat and Nixon Chipseba. In the marathon, meanwhile, Kenya and Ethiopia entered five 2:04 runners between them, with the sixth a few seconds short of breaking 2:05 himself.

However, the winning time in the 5,000 was the slowest in decades, the 10,000 was the slowest in a decade, while the marathon was comparatively fast, albeit somewhat slow for the state of the event today, even if it did include a 14:11 surge. In every single event, runners who had achieved success in paced races not only failed, but they failed miserably. In the past, successful runners were those who could win in paced races as well as championship races, but I'm having a hard time thinking of a championship event where the runners with the fastest times of the year fared as poorly as they did.

The 800 was the lone exception, but that's because David Rudisha is not only fitter and faster than anyone else running the event, he is also capable of front-running, leading the entire way. In the 1500, the winner ran the seventh-fastest time of the year. In the 5,000, the winner ran the eleventh-fastest time. In the 10,000, while Farah did not run a 10,000 this year, the runners with the fastest times this year went DNF, 12th, 4th, 3rd and 8th. In the 1500, the fastest runners of the year went 12th, 7th, 11th and 9th.

The last two days of the Olympics gave ample evidence of the inability of runners with fast seed times to perform in championship races. In the 5,000, the fastest times of the year belonged to Gebremeskel, Hagos Gebrhiwet, and Yenew Alamirew of Ethiopia, as well as Isiah Koech and Thomas Longosiwa of Kenya, all of whom ran under 12:50 about a month before the 5,000-metre final. Despite this, and knowing that Mo Farah had the best kick in the field, having outkicked Gebremeskel in the 5,000 at Daegu last year, they essentially did nothing for the first half of the race.

There were so many laps over 70 second that just about everyone presumably warmed up faster than they ran the first 3k of the race. Considering that Farah held off Gebremeskel by about 3 metres, not to mention the fact that he himself said he was tired in the heats, if the Ethiopians had even gone after five laps instead of six, the outcome would have been very different. Clearly, the fitness was there after the heats were run in 13:15 and 13:25, the former being a record, but in the race, nobody either had the courage or the presence of mind to make the pace.

For the Ethiopians, who have been very successful in distance races over the last 20 years, the marathon was an absolute disaster. Most notable in missing from the team was Tsegaye Kebede, who not only won bronze at Beijing, but, excluding his debut at Amsterdam in 2007, has run ten marathons in the last five years and never done worse than third place. Those ten marathons included third at Beijing, third at the Berlin world championships, wins at Paris (2008), Fukuoka (2008-2009) and London (2010), as well as third-place finishes at New York last fall and at London this spring. I can't think of a surer bet in a fast, unpaced marathon than Kebede, except maybe Abel Kirui, though the latter's resume is not quite as long as Kebede.

Also left off the team was Gebre Gebremariam, who won New York in 2010, ran third in Boston 2011 and then was fourth at New York last year. Finishing 14th at Boston this spring, however, probably kept him off the team. Gebremariam ended up running the 10,000 and did as well as he has ever done in a decade's worth of championship track finals, finishing 8th. He was 4th in the Athens 5k and 6th in the 10k at Osaka, but other than that, he has often finished outside the top 10.

Instead, Ethiopia chose the runners who had run fastest this year: Ayele Abshero, Dino Sefer and Getu Feleke. Neither of them finished the race, hardly surprising when you consider that Sefer's coach actually begged the Ethiopian federation to not select him for the Olympics, such was his lack of maturity in the event, having done nothing in his 2:04 personal best but follow the steady pace of others on a cool, flat course devoid of turns, changes in pace or even many other competitors. If there was a worse way to choose a more ill-suited team for the marathon, I can't think of it and the Ethiopian federation was equally stumped, it seems.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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