Beijing, Here We Come!: From 8 to 24 August, African Athletes (Both Continental and Diasporan) Will Hold the World Spellbound at the Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Clayton Goodwin Assesses the African Challenge
Goodwin, Clayton, New African
The Ethiopian 5,000m champion, Tirunesh Dibaba, has already set up the prospect of another high profile clash at the Beijing Olympics with her long-time rival and Ethiopian compatriot, Meseret Defar, by beating the world 5,000m record she set last year in running 14:11.15 in a pre-Olympic meet in Oslo, Norway, on 6 June. It is just one of the several individual contests which will make the track and field events of the Beijing Olympics so compelling.
Tirunesh, who finished third to Defar four years ago at the Athens Olympics, is just one of several "name" athletes who have a point to prove. Tirunesh's "joyous day for me" in Oslo-"I'm surprised that I broke it [the record] by that much"-should convince the Ethiopian selectors to pick her for Beijing.
Elsewhere, the veteran Maria Mutola of Mozambique, who has stated that these Olympic Games will be her last international competition, is back in the picture after losing out to her training partner Kelly Holmes in Athens four years ago. The 35-year-old African recently won the 800m Prefontaine Class in Eugene, Oregon, in 1:59.24 in her last appearance and 16th consecutive win in the meeting which she entered first back in 1991.
Even so, the year's 800m honours have gone to the 19-year-old Pamela Jelimo of Kenya who, at the time of writing, had set three of the four best times over the season to date.
While Amantle Montsho of Botswana currently sets the pace at 400m, the Ugandan sprinter Justine Bayigga, who won both the 200m and 400m at the Akii Bua Pan Africa Permit Meeting at Namboole, has blamed her failure to qualify for the Olympic Games on the absence of top regional sprinters at the Grand Prix meetings in Kampala and Addis Ababa.
World marathon champion Catherine Ndereba of Kenya is on course to make amends for winning only the silver at the Athens Olympics, after running an impressive 33:10.1 with a devastating solo last lap run in the 10,000m of the Kenya Prisons Championships.
Even so, the USA-based Ndereba, who has opted to run the marathon in Beijing, faces a potentially formidable Ethiopian battery from a number of world-class contenders, including the 35-year-old Berhane Adere, Benzunesh Bekele, Magarsa Assale, and Dire Tune with a number of impressive Chinese athletes also in contention.
The Kenyans, who have selected their team already, are much concerned that their marathon runners have failed to turn their talents into gold--but they will get there this time.
That is the determination of the Kenyan athletics president, Isaiah Kiplagat, who has declared: "Kenya has not won a single gold medal in the Olympic marathon. Our time has now come. We are going for nothing short of double Olympic glory in the marathon this summer." Ndereba is joined in the women's team by Salina Kosgei and Martha Komu, who came to the fore suddenly by winning the Paris marathon in 2:25.33 hours. The men's team comprises Martin Lel-the three-time London marathon winner and course record-holder; the world half-marathon record-holder Sammy Wanjiru; and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, four-time winner of the Boston Marathon. William Kipsang, winner of the Rotterdam Marathon in a record 2:05.49 hours and reigning world marathon champion Luke Kibet are reserves.
No wonder, the Kenyans think that they have a "deadly combination to break the Olympics marathon jinx". For their own peace of mind, I hope that they do not look too long at the list of Ethiopian champions honoured by President Girma Woldegiorgis and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in a recent ceremony at the Sheraton Addis.
It is hard not to feel sorry for the Ethiopian and Kenyan selectors for the longer distance races. How can they, say the Ethiopians, choose between the Dibaba sistets (Titunesh and Ejegayehu), Meseret Defar, Gelete Burka, Meselech Melkamu and Belaynesh Fikadu at 5,000m, or the Kenyans between Lucy Kabuu Wangui, Linet Chepkwemoi Masai, Priscah Jepleting Cherono and Viola Kikiwot at the same distance-all of whom share the year's best performances up to mid-June. …