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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Preview: Men's Middle Distance

The tenth in our series of Olympic previews takes a look at the 800 and 1500 meter races for men.

800 Meters
The Schedule: heats, Wednesday Aug 20; semifinals, Thursday Aug 21; finals, Saturday Aug 23
The Americans: #8 Nick Symmonds, #18 Andrew Wheating, Christian Smith
The Contenders: #1 Abuber Kaki Khamis (SUD), #2 Mbulaeni Mulaudzi (RSA), #3 Yusuf Saad Kamel (BRN), #4 Abraham Chepkirwok (UGA), #5 Yuriy Borzakovskiy (RUS), #7 Alfred Kirwa Yego (KEN), #13 Wilfred Bungei (KEN), #16 Gary Reed (CAN), #24 Yeimer López (CUB)
The Stats: Records, 2008 List, 2007 Worlds, 2004 Olympics
The Medal Picks: T&FN - Kaki Khamis, Lopez, Borzakovskiy; SI - Mulaudzi, Bungei, Kaki Khamis
The Story: I have listed more contenders than could actually make the final. The 800 is such an unpredictable event that anyone who makes the final in a race like this has a shot. For proof, look no further than Christian Smith, the third US Olympian who barely even qualified for the Trials but still got it done when it mattered. You can make a good argument for any of nine athletes getting a medal. Borzakovskiy has done it before and is rounding into top shape, Bungei was the Kenyan trials champ which automatically earns credibility, Yego and Reed were a close first and second at last year's Worlds (and Reed recently set a new Canadian Record), Mulaudzi has been tremendously consistent as has Kamel, Chepkirwok has two major World Tour victories, López has run a couple of very fast times without being pressed, and Symmonds is showing increasing racing skill. If the race goes out hard it favors Borzakovskiy and Symmonds, but otherwise toss 'em in a hat and pick two.

The one medal that appears not to be up for grabs is gold. 19-year-old Sudanese wonderkind Khamis has taken the world by storm and blown away the competition in both invitational and championship races. I, and most other observers, find it hard to imagine him getting beat.

1500 Meters
The Schedule: heats, Friday Aug 15; semifinals, Sunday Aug 17; finals, Tuesday Aug 19
The Americans: #3 Bernard Lagat, #14 Lopez Lomong, #19 Leonel Manzano
The Contenders: #1 Augustine Choge (KEN) , #5 Abdalaati Iguider (MAR), #6 Asbel Kiprop (KEN), #7 Deresse Mekkonen (ETH), Rashid Ramzi (BRN)
The Stats: Records, 2008 List, 2007 Worlds, 2004 Olympics
The Medal Picks: T&FN - Lagat, Ramzi, Choge; SI - Choge, Lagat, Iguider
The Story: US hopes are strong here, led by double World champ Lagat and US opening ceremonies flag-bearer Lomong. All three are smart and tough and have the kind of tactical abilities that are well rewarded at the Olympic Games. The USA hasn't had three finalists in this event since 1936, and it could happen again. Lagat in particular is a favorite, being a long-time top runner and breaking through at last year's Worlds, but his recent loss in London shows that slow tactical affairs can leave even the best of them in the wrong place at the wrong time.

His main competition is expected to be Augustine Choge, the Kenyan trials champion. In previous years he had concentrated on the 3k, 5k and cross country, so three rounds of running is unlikely to take much out of him. On the other hand, his lone championship 1500 experience was the '05 Worlds, where he failed to advance out of the heats.

More likely to push Lagat is Ramzi. He has done basically nothing of note this year, but he hadn't in 2005 when he swept the World Championships 1500 and 800, or last year when he won World silver behind Lagat. Also in the shadows lies Mekonnen, a young Ethiopian who took gold at the World Indoor championships.

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