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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Preview: Men's Long Distance

The twelfth in my series of Olympic previews examines the longest track events for men.

3000m Steeplechase
The Schedule: Heats, Saturday Aug 16; finals, Monday Aug 18
The Americans: #12 Anthony Famiglietti, #15 Billy Nelson, Josh McAdams
The Contenders: #2 Richard Mateelong (KEN), #4 Brimin Kipruto (KEN), #6 Ezekiel Kemboi (KEN), #8 Tareq Mubarak Taher (BRN)
The Stats: Records, 2008 List, 2007 Worlds, 2004 Olympics
The Medal Picks: T&FN - Kemboi, Matelong, Kipruto; SI - Kemboi, Kipruto, Matelong
The Story: Kenya so totally dominates this event that it is assumed the only other athlete who could muscle his way onto the medal podium is Kenyan-expatriate Taher, and then only if one of them is snagged by a barrier. So a question more to the point is 'which order'?

Kemboi has run the steeple only three times this year, with two firsts and a second. One of those wins was in the world's deepest steeple race, the Kenyan Olympic Trials. Add this to his '04 Olympic gold and three Worlds silvers and he's the favorite.

Kipruto's 2008 season hasn't been as good as Kemboi's, but he won gold at last year's Worlds to Kemboi's silver. Mateelong was third at the Kenyan Trials but won four of his other five races this year.

American Famiglietti should be a finalist, and it wouldn't be a huge surprise for one of our other two to make it.

5000 Meters
The Schedule: heats, Wednesday Aug 20; finals, Saturday, Aug 23
The Americans: #5 Bernard Lagat, Matt Tegenkamp, Ian Dobson
The Contenders: #1 Edwin Cheruyuiot Soi (KEN), #2 Tariku Bekele (ETH), #4 Kenenisa Bekele (ETH), #11 Craig Mottram (AUS), #13 Eliud Kipchoge (KEN), #14 Abraham Cherkos Feleke (ETH)
The Stats: Records, 2008 List, 2007 Worlds, 2004 Olympics
The Medal Picks: T&FN - K Bekele, Lagat, Kipchoge; SI - Soi, T Bekele, Kipchoge
The Story: Who wins and who medals will depend very much on how the race plays out. A slow pace favors Lagat, who has far and away the best finishing speed, but it's unlikely that all the other finalists will want to hand the race to him like they did last year in Osaka. A hard pace from the gun reverses that advantage/disadvantage situation but is even less likely. More expected is gamesmanship, surging, and a real race taking shape in the last eight or so laps.

Thus it is useful to look at who has fared the best in similarly unrabbited 5k affairs rather than the World Tour's races which are often little more than high-speed time trials. However, those kind of paced 3k races tell us a bit as well.

So long as it does not come down to a kick of one lap or less, and he's not worn out from the 10k, the clear favorite is Kenenisa Bekele, as those are the only circumstances under which he's been beatable. Tariku Bekele is perceived to have poor finishing speed but won the World Indoor title at 3k this year. Third Ethiopian Feleke is very young and inexperienced.

Kenyan trials champ Soi has shown some good form, but compatriot Kipchoge has come through consistently in big championship races. At last year's Worlds he was just edged out by Lagat; he was third in Athens behind El Guerrouja and Bekele, and outsprinted the Morroccan world-record holder the year before for the Worlds gold.

Besides Lagat, the only other athlete figuring into this Kenya-Ethiopia war is "Buster" Mottram. Seemingly perfectly made for 3000 meters, if the pace turns hot with six or seven laps to go he'll be in good shape.

10,000 Meters
The Schedule: Sunday, Aug 17 (live on NBC)
The Americans: #12 Abdi Abdirahman, #18 Galen Rupp, Jorge Torres
The Contenders: #1 Kenenisa Bekele (ETH), #3 Moses Ndiema Masai (KEN), #10 Sileshi Sihine (ETH), #18 Haile Gebrselassie (ETH), #19 Micah Kogo (KEN), #22 Martin Mathathi (KEN)
The Stats: Records, 2008 List, 2007 Worlds, 2004 Olympics
The Medal Picks: T&FN - Bekele, Sihine, Mathathi; SI - Bekele, Sihine, Masai
The Story: This event is dominated by Kenya and Ethiopia, and the latter has been recently taking the best of the former. The Ethiopians have entered their three greatest runners of the last two decades: "The Emperor" Gebrselassie, his heir Bekele, and Sihine, who in five tries has never lost to anyone but these two in a championship 10k. A sweep would be surprising only in that Geb seems to have lost a little bit of the edge necessary for track racing.

The Kenyans answer with a young track runner (Masai, their Trials 10k champ), a cross-country specialist (Mathathi, bronze at last year's Worlds 10k), and a road racer (Kogo). None are exactly chopped liver, but neither do they have the credentials of their Ethiopian counterparts.

The only other runner likely to have a shot at the medal stand is American Abdirahman, who is having the best year of his career. He set a big PR (27:14) at the Prefontaine Classic and handily won the US Trials.

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