*Jessica Ennis-Hill probably looked more nervous on the start-line for the 100m hurdles yesterday afternoon than she did for the start of the Olympic heptathlon last year and such apprehension was understandable as the London Anniversary Games was the acid test to see whether her nagging Achilles tendon would stand up to the strains of top-class competition. Ennis-Hill was never going to replicate her UK record form in her first hurdles race since the Olympic heptathlon twelve months ago but a 13.08 debut off the back of very little hurdles work and negligible speed work marked a sound opener and it was promising she came away unscathed after six physically taxing efforts in deteriorating conditions in the long jump.

*The most important result will be the outcome of how the Achilles tendon responds post-competition and if it reacts well, Ennis-Hill will be a contender to regain the title she first won in 2009 despite a far from ideal build-up. To put her performances into context, she was fourth in the 100m hurdles in 13.08 and only 0.13 behind 12.47 performer and Olympic bronze medallist Kellie Wells and her time was more importantly 0.24 faster than Tatyana Chernova’s hurdles PB. Her midweek javelin PB of 48.33m is also in excess of what her Russian rival has achieved this year too. Granted, a two-day heptathlon demands much more on the body and the nature of the injury might make her somewhat fallible in the high jump but let’s hope she does make the trip to Moscow as fit as she can be as the championships are already missing more than a few world stars.

*If Ennis-Hill misses the World Championships, Perri Shakes-Drayton and Christine Ohuruogu will carry the hopes of the British women next month based on the form they showed in the Olympic Stadium. Shakes-Drayton, who has been a perennial top-three fixture on the Diamond League circuit this year, took another runner-up finish to Zuzana Hejnova from Czech Republic in the 400m hurdles on Friday night and even though she lost her rhythm over the final flight of barriers after an unusually aggressive first 300m which left the door open for Hejnova to win her eighth race of the season, Shakes-Drayton was still rewarded with a PB of 53.67. A slight change in pacing for Moscow could see her rewarded with her first global outdoor medal and a time close to 53-seconds.

*Ohuruogu has been flirting with new tactics in the 400m this year and the 2008 Olympic champion struck the perfect balance between starting purposefully yet keeping enough back to attack in the home-straight. She was rewarded with her fastest ever non-championships time of 50.00 which is an ominous warning for her rivals as Ohuruogu always changes up a gear for the major championships. Amantle Montsho will be her main threat despite a defeat to Ohuruogu in Birmingham although Antonina Krivoshapka, who Ohuruogu will probably like on her outside in the world final given her propensity to blaze away, won’t get many better chances at claiming an elusive global title.

Solid return to big-time for Ennis-Hill but not sure about Worlds

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Are the Russians cleaning up their act?

Are the Russians cleaning up their act?

Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell’s positive drug tests marked an arguable nadir for the sport’s reputation in recent years but while lacking the sporting currency to make an impact on the back-pages, the Russian track and field team has been a perennial fixture at the forefront of doping controversies over the past decade.

Jenny Meadows and Lynsey Sharp have been outspoken critics of Russian athletics after being denied major 800m accolades by subsequently-busted Russians while UK javelin record-holder Goldie Sayers was the latest name to publicly question whether the country is fit to host the World Championships with a banned list nudging the wrong side of the half-century mark.

The country’s inauspicious anti-doping record in all sports has led to similar questions surrounding next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi and scepticism about the country’s credentials to host such renowned global events have been fuelled further by Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay legislation recently coming into force.

Even though Russia swept the medals at the World University Games and what was in effect a B-team retained their European Team Championships title in Gateshead, it hasn’t been a memorable year for Russian athletics – so far, at least. Their leading athletes have not performed with the same distinction and many have kept very low-profiles. It was largely thought they were being kept under lock-and-key with the purpose of keeping their powder dry for the main events.

However, one couldn’t help but notice an alarming drop in standards across the board to last year at the Russian Championships. Granted, one or two medal contenders were pre-selected but regardless, the difference in standard was eye-catching. Eleven sub-50.5 and five sub-50 400m performances were recorded last year while the winning time in the 400m this year was a comparatively modest 50.55. The whole championships just produced a solitary sub-2:00 800m compared to eight in 2012, and twelve in 2004, while the winning time in the 200m this year was slower than the eighth-placer’s from last year.

So, what can we conclude from these results? Perhaps the Russian coaches are peaking their athletes in time for the World Championships rather than their domestic championships, as has sometimes been the case? Russian athletes do have a propensity for running fast domestically before failing to produce the same calibre of performance at the major championships.

Or are the testers starting to catch up with arguably the world’s most notoriously consistent, and persistent offenders? The biological passport system has proved a particularly effective innovation in catching out cheats while lauded medal-winners such as Svetlana Krivelyova and Tatyana Kotova (pictured) have recently been brought under disrepute with retrospective testing of samples from previous championships.

The much-maligned Russian system has been placed firmly under the spotlight and has such pressure combined with the growing militancy of anti-doping procedures acted as the much-needed push to start the clean-up of the Russian system which has sadly clouded the reputation of their athletes? Or will normal service be resumed once the focus shifts away post-Moscow and post-Sochi?

Let’s hope it’s the former and we can enjoy a controversy-free World Championships next month.

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Olympic encore – London Anniversary Games preview (day one)

Twelve months after the Olympic Games, London will once again be at the epicentre of world athletics as a plethora of Olympic champions including Mo Farah, Usain Bolt and hopefully Jessica Ennis-Hill return to the setting of their gold medal triumphs. Drug scandals have dominated the back-pages but off-track controversies should be put to one side as capacity crowds are expected to rekindle the feel-good factor of the Olympic Games.

6.55pm – women’s pole-vault (DL)

Jenn Suhr returns to the scene of her Olympic triumph although the mantle of pre-competition favourite lies with Yarisley Silva from Cuba, who is the holder of the four best vaults outdoors this year including the world-lead of 4.90m. The silver medallist at the Olympics also has a 2-1 head-to-head record on Suhr this year including a win over her at the Sainsbury’s Grand Prix in Birmingham. Fabiana Murer from Brazil doesn’t have such good memories of this stadium as the world champion didn’t even get through qualifying last year but the 32-year-old is in good form with a 4.73m season’s best.

7pm – men’s discus (DL)

Piotr Malachowski’s form has waned since launching the seventh longest throw of all-time of 71.84m in June although the Pole did record his second best mark of the year of 68.53m in his penultimate competition to show he is coming back to form. Olympic champion Robert Harting, whose 35 competition win-streak was ended by Malachowski last month, is absent but the field still contains the two previous Olympic champions in Gerd Kanter and Virgilijus Alekna, who are both also ranked inside the all-time top-five. UK champion Brett Morse is ranked inside the world’s top-10 in 2013 with 66.84m and the world finalist will be looking for some scalps.

7.52pm – men’s 100m B

Moscow-bound Harry Aikines-Aryeetey leads the domestic cast although he could be called up to the ‘A’ race if someone pulls out. The runner-up at the UK Championships in a 10.08 PB is joined by third and fourth-placers Andrew Robertson and Mark Lewis-Francis, European under-23 champion Adam Gemili while 10.10 performer Joel Fearon will be hoping to make an impact after false-starting in the semi-finals at the UK Championships.

8.04pm – women’s 400m hurdles (DL)

This is shaping up to be the best race of the season in this event as the five fastest are set to race. Zuzana Hejnová from Czech Republic has dominated the commercial circuit with seven wins from seven races although the Olympic bronze medallist’s unblemished record might be put under some jeopardy as she faces Kori Carter for the first time. The newcomer won’t be going to the World Championships as she missed her trials semi-final with food poisoning but the 21-year-old won the much-coveted NCAA title in a world-leading 53.21 which is two-hundredths faster than Hejnová’s PB. Meanwhile, Perri Shakes-Drayton has been a perennial top-three fixture on the Diamond League circuit and the UK champion will be looking to give the Czech another close race.

8.09pm – men’s high jump (DL)

Bohdan Bondarenko is an unrecognisable athlete this year to the one who finished an anonymous eleventh at the European Championships and seventh in the Olympic final. The Ukrainian has won all but one competition this summer and his 2.41m clearance in Lausanne translated to the world’s best jump outdoors since 1994. The Olympic final which promised much last year was a disappointingly flat affair but this contest could be a classic as Bondarenko goes head-to-head with Mutaz Essa Barshim, who improved his Asian record to 2.40m in his last high-profile competition in Eugene. Olympic bronze medallist Robbie Grabarz and US champion Erik Kynard are also in the field.

8.15pm – women’s 3000m (DL)

Mercy Cherono comes fresh from winning the 5000m at the Kenyan Trials and she steps down to the distance where she’s twice won the world junior title. The American middle-distance fraternity will be keen to see how Jordan Hasay fares on her European debut while controversial Moscow omission Stephanie Twell will no doubt be hoping to prove the selectors wrong with a strong performance.

8.31pm – women’s triple jump (DL)

World University Games champion Yekaterina Koneva is expected to prosper with Diamond League leader Caterina Ibargüen from Colombia and world champion Olha Saladuha from Ukraine both absent.

8.36pm – women’s 1500m

Mary Cain was initially entered in the 800m but the US phenomenon could take a high-profile victory in her first race on the European circuit with Genzebe Dibaba, Abeba Aregawi and the leading Kenyans all absent.

8.46pm – men’s 200m (DL)

Warren Weir’s bronze medal last year came as something of a surprise but he’s proved that performance was no fluke with a mightily consistent season including victory at the Jamaican Championships in a 19.79 PB.

8.56pm – women’s 800m (DL)

In-form Brenda Martinez pushed her 1500m PB down to 4:00.94 in Monaco but she turns her attention back to the distance she’ll compete in at the World Championships. The runner-up at the US Championships will be confident of taking her first high-profile victory of the season with world-leader Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi a late scratch.

9.08pm – women’s 4x100m relay

This races provides an invaluable chance for nations to try out new combinations and to practice exchanges in a competitive environment before the World Championships. The much-chastised British sprint relay team have qualified for Moscow after missing out on an Olympic berth and a sharp showing will no doubt act as a confidence booster. The world-lead is held by a US team including Carmelita Jeter who produced a 41.75 clocking in Monaco.

9.21pm – men’s 400m (DL)

The gold and silver medallists from the Olympic Games reconvene a year later although the outcome shouldn’t be much different as Kirani James arrives with the two fastest times in the world to his name including a 43.96 world-lead which was only two-hundredths slower than his winning time at the Olympics. On the other hand, silver medallist Luguelin Santos, who started the season promisingly by running his fourth fastest time ever of 44.74 in April, hasn’t broke 45-second since. Moscow-bound Nigel Levine has already beaten leading Europeans Pavel Maslak and the Borlee brothers this year and he’ll be hoping to replicate this form on home-soil.

9.33pm – men’s 800m

American half-milers could take a clean sweep as the fastest in the field this year are US champion Duane Solomon (1:43.27), runner-up Nick Symmonds (1:43.70) and Brandon Johnson, who recently improved to 1:43.84 in Madrid.

9.48pm – men’s 100m

Sprinting is in desperate need of some good press in light of Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay’s positive drug tests so let’s hope Usain Bolt, who returns to the setting of his three gold medals from last summer, gets inspired to produce his best run of the season. The Jamaican, who has ‘only’ clocked 9.94 for the 100m this year, will be hoping to get out of the blocks better than he has done this year otherwise he could be vulnerable to his second defeat of 2013. James Dasaolu, who rocketed up the world-rankings and UK all-time lists with a 9.91 PB in the semi-finals at the UK Championships, won’t get many better chances to defeat the world record-holder and a straight final will help the cause of the oft-injured Brit, who was forced to sit out the final in Birmingham with cramp. Nesta Carter and a rejuvenated Kim Collins, who ran his first sub-10 clocking since 2003 in Lausanne, are also in the field.

As published in Athletics Weekly on July 25

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1500m PBs of the all-time top-30 5000m runners

1. Bekele – 3:32.35

2. Gebrselassie – 3:31.76

3. Komen – 3:29.46

4. Kipchoge – 3:33.20

5. Gebremeskel – no mark

6. Sihine – no mark

7. Gebrhiwet – no mark

8. Koech – 3:38.7hA

9. Songok – 3:30.99

10. Alamirew – 3:35.09+

11. Shaheen – 3:33.51

12. Longosiwa – 3:41.0A

13.Lahlafi – no mark

14. Kipkoech – no mark

15. Mourhit – 3:36.14

16. Tergat – no mark

17. El Guerrouj – 3:26.00

18. Goumri – 3:39.80

19. Masai – 3:37.3hA

20. Kipsiro – 3:37.6

21. Hissou – 3:33.95

22. Saidi-Sief – 3:29.51

23. Ebuya – 3:43.0hA

24. Chepkok – 3:40.47

25. Kipketer – 3:40.0hA

26. Soi – 3:44.76

27. T. Bekele – 3:37.26

28. Gebremariam – no mark

29. Chebii – 3:38.5hA

30. Farah – 3:33.98 

A look back through the archives – five one-day moments to remember

Geb loses two WRs in one night

A third world 10,000m title and world records over 5000m and 10,000m in the build-up to the World Championships meant 1997 marked arguably Gebrselassie’s best season to date although the Kenyans, no doubt tired of trailing the great Ethiopian whenever they stepped foot on the track, launched a coup d’etat in the penultimate big meeting of the summer in Brussels that year.

Thirteen days prior to the penultimate ‘Golden 4’ meeting (as it was known then), Daniel Komen couldn’t offer any resistance to Gebrselassie’s penetrating sprint finish in Zurich and the Ethiopian, who only contested the 10,000m at the World Championships, decisively defeated the world 5000m champion on the last lap and improved his WR down to 12:41.86.

Gebrselassie was absent from Brussels though, and Komen stole the limelight by becoming the first man to break 12:40 for 5000m with 12:39.74. Salt was added to the wound about an hour later as Paul Tergat broke through the 26:30-barrier with a 26:27.85 world 10,000m record.

These world records didn’t last a year though as Gebrselassie wrestled them back from the Kenyans’ grasp in 1998 and they remained untouched until Kenenisa Bekele took the mantle of the world’s greatest distance runner from Gebrselassie in 2004.

Kipketer breaks Coe’s WR

The 1997 World Championships aren’t remembered as a particularly vintage edition but the post-champs Grand Prix circuit played host to a spree of record breaking performances, including Wilson Kipketer in the 800m. The most impressive aspect of the record was his speed on the first lap as he passed through the bell in about 48.5 – more than a second faster than when Seb Coe set the world record of 1:41.73 in 1981!

Kipketer, who equalled Coe’s world record earlier in the season, claimed it outright with a 1:41.24 performance in Zurich, which he then improved to 1:41.11 eleven days later in Cologne.

Ashford’s world 100m record

The US and Eastern Bloc boycotts of successive Olympics didn’t achieve much beyond watering down most events in Moscow and Los Angeles but thankfully, we weren’t completely deprived of the US vs. Eastern Europe clashes as most of the world’s top athletes descended on Zurich and Brussels for clashes largely viewed as the de facto Olympic finals. 

One of the best clashes was over 100m in Zurich which pitted together Evelyn Ashford and Marlies Gohr. The clash was all the more mouthwatering because not only was Gohr absent from Los Angeles, Ashford pulled up in the world final a year earlier and, of course, missed Moscow because of the US boycott.

Gohr bolted from the blocks but Ashford’s second half was the stronger and, as she was sometimes guilty of, Gohr lost her form when Ashford pulled even and the American came through to improve her world record down to 10.76 to Gohr’s 10.84.

Blake demonstrates 200m potential

Yohan Blake was never considered a slouch before his 19.26 performance in Brussels over 200m but the consensus was, if he was going to beat Usain Bolt, this was more likely to happen in the 100m. This assumption was altered after the world 100m champion moved to second on the world all-time rankings and within one-tenth of Bolt’s world record with an astonishing run at the Ivo Van Damme Memorial to which Bolt said, somewhat in jest, he would never give advice to Blake on how to run a race again!

Blake’s turn wasn’t particularly special and he came off the bend even with Walter Dix but the Jamaican blasted clear of the American in the straight.

Decker outduels Puica

The Decker-Budd narrative of the 3000m from the 1984 Olympic Games obscures the fact the race was a wholly anti-climactic affair although the leading protagonists from the LA final had a series of gripping (although largely forgotten) races in the 1985 season, including the mile in Zurich.

This was the first time Mary Decker and Maricica Puica had met since the Olympic final and the American came out on top ahead of a battling Puica with Zola Budd third. The first two were under the previous world record (held by Puica, incidentally) and the race added further speculation Decker would have won the Olympic final had she stayed on her feet.

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2:15:25 – Standing the Test of Time

Standing the Test of Time

STEVEN MILLS talks to Steve Cram about Paula Radcliffe’s success in London, the world record and the future of women’s marathon-running

April 13 this year marked a decade since the immediately recognisable rolling-head and wiry-framed figure of Paula Radcliffe obliterated her world marathon record in the London Marathon. Such was the magnitude of her 2:15:25 performance, her mark comfortably bettered Jim Peters’ corresponding men’s world record from half-a-century earlier at a time when women weren’t allowed to run further than 200m at the Olympic Games and the notion of a woman contesting a marathon was largely unthinkable.

I think anyone who follows Paula’s career knew it was inevitable it was going to happen,” said Cram on Radcliffe’s transition to the marathon. “She’d had two really good years on the track in 1999 and 2000 but Sydney showed as good as she was and as fast as she was at 10,000m, winning in the Olympic Games was going to be tough because of the nature of the way things were going and the fast-finishing meant she was always likely to be run out of the medals on the last lap.”

Radcliffe strayed from her trademark front-running tactics in a ploy to beat the fast-finishing Ethiopians at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton and while the gamble nearly paid off, Radcliffe finished out of the medals for the third time out of the four major championships she contested over 10,000m. Cram rhetorically asked in commentary ‘how many more agonies do we have to go through with Paula?’ as Gete Wami pipped Radcliffe for the bronze medal by eight-hundredths.

Edmonton galvanised the marathon was the event where Radcliffe could really excel and the preparations began in earnest. Radcliffe retained her world half-marathon and cross-country titles en route to her debut at the 2002 London Marathon but, as was typical throughout her career, the build-up didn’t go without the odd hitch. A bothersome knee injury threatened to force Radcliffe out but a rigorous programme of treatment from her physio Gerhard Hartmann, the linchpin figure during Radcliffe’s golden years, put her back on track.

Radcliffe immediately found her niche on her debut and Cram accounts her lack of fear at the distance for propelling her to those super-fast times a decade ago. “A lot of people have done the marathon and have run it quite conservatively. You need a bit of time to get to know the event but I think she was very, very confident about her abilities and she wasn’t scared of it at the beginning.”

The way she ran her debut was far from conventional but Radcliffe’s all-out aggressive approach didn’t surprise Cram in commentary: “Paula isn’t ever going to do anything by half and the way she took it on at the start showed she wasn’t going to experiment.” Radcliffe cut loose from a pack including head-waiter Derartu Tulu, the winner of the world and Olympic 10,000m titles, after six-miles and ground out an attritional pace the streets of London had never seen from a woman before. There was no chance Radcliffe would be outsprinted this time.

Radcliffe had no intentions of chasing records but her winning time of 2:18:56 was a mere nine-seconds shy of Catherine Ndereba’s record and a negative split of 67:52 was the clearest indicator she could one day become the world record-holder. Cram, however, wasn’t too surprised by Radcliffe’s winning time: “Obviously 2:20 at that point was still a cracking time and the benchmark but I don’t remember being that surprised by it at the time. I think we all thought this is where she’s really found her forte and we’re going to be in for a great three or four years.”

The greatest run came a decade ago this month. A world 10km record in the build-up of 30:21 demonstrated Radcliffe was in prime condition and whereas she felt out the first few miles in 2002, her pace right from the gun in 2003 was of an unrelenting nick. “I remember she ran through the third mile in under five minutes (4:57) and I was thinking ‘oh gosh, Paula this is crazy!’ and you were expecting at some point she would start to struggle at maybe 16-18 miles and it just never happened.”

In fact, Radcliffe got faster. After passing halfway in 68:02, she began to churn out a succession of sub-5:10 miles after averaging between 5:10-5:20 in the first half which was still comfortably under world record pace. Radcliffe was on her way to decimating the record she set in Chicago a few months earlier of 2:17:18 but even towards the closing stages, Cram and Brendan Foster were still erring on the side of caution in commentary.

I remember Brendan and I kept looking at each other in commentary and we didn’t want to commit (to making a finishing time estimation) because there was another five miles to go and anything could happen.

I remember it wasn’t until the last two miles we thought this is really going to happen and despite what happened the year before, what she did in 2003 and the manner of how she did it was just off the scale.

She was speeding up and I don’t think anyone had ever seen a woman perform like that. We’ve often seen the men come through and get stronger as the race goes on but no woman up to that point had run like that.

From a purely running perspective, that was the best performance I’ve ever commentated on.”

Former AW editor Mel Watman said he would have told you you were crazy if you suggested to him in the 1950s a woman would one day finish a marathon in one piece, let alone beat Peters’ world record and even in 1983, the year Cram won the world 1500m title and women were starting to contest championship marathons, 2:15 was still viewed as an implausible time for a woman.

I don’t think 2:15 was on the cards. 1983 was the first year we had the marathon at the World Championships and we had some great runners around such as Grete Waitz but she wasn’t as good on the track as Paula and if you use Grete as a benchmark, you probably would have thought sub-2:20 was possible.

If you equated the men’s world record to the women’s world record, you would probably say you could knock five or six minutes off the existing record so something around 2:18 would have been possible in twenty years but I wouldn’t have said 2:15.”

Radcliffe covered the second-half of her world record in 67:23, a time which wasn’t beaten in a half-marathon race in 2003 and Radcliffe’s performance was the fastest by a British runner that year, regardless of gender.

However, Cram believes there’s still a disparity between how she’s perceived by the athletics fraternity and the general public. “Sadly there’s a bit of that,” he says ruefully when asked if Radcliffe is remembered as the runner who failed to finish the Olympic marathon in Athens. “The public, of course, are driven by who wins the gold medal,” he adds, which doesn’t do much to alter the public’s perception of the sport beyond the paradigm of the Olympics.

The matter is the Olympics comes around on a particular day once every four years and if for whatever reason you’re not right, there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s a shame, particularly with the Olympic marathon because the best marathon-runners don’t always win it.” Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen, both former winners of the London Marathon, can also relate to this.

If you don’t win the Olympic Games you might not quite get the same adulation like Mo Farah had but I think within the sport, you wouldn’t find too many people who wouldn’t put Paula right at the top of the list of the greatest female distance-runners of all-time. Even her 1500m time is reasonable and going through 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m to the marathon, it’s very hard to find athletes with the same breadth of performance.

I think Paula’s real brilliance will be understood after she’s retired and people start to look back.”

The last two seasons have seen an upsurge in the volume of women running sub-2:20 marathons but while the East Africans, who took some time to get to grips with the event, have arrived en masse, the record remains a speck on the horizon. Only Liliya Shobukhova has come within three-minutes of Radcliffe’s landmark record and only by the narrowest margins after winning in Chicago in 2011 in 2:18:20.

The name of Tirunesh Dibaba, who was due to make her debut this year before a calf injury flared up, has been suggested as someone who has the ability to challenge it but Cram isn’t wholly convinced it will come under threat any time soon. “Of the current crop, you have to look at somebody like Dibaba and think she’s got that ability to run a sub-30 minute 10km bearing in mind Paula ran 30:01 which gives you that comfort zone when you’re running in the marathon.”

However, factors beyond track credentials are equally crucial when gauging an athlete’s marathon potential, as Cram explains. “It’s a case of getting the timing right and getting the work in and being ready to do it but can Dibaba do the work, the mileage and all the hard work that you require and it seems as though she can’t.

It’s about your body and the intensity of the workload over a period of time. You can have the track ability but if you can’t add all the other aspects to it, then you’re not going to be able to run 2:15.

She’s been a bit more fragile and she’s had injury problems over the past three or four years and that’s not going to help her so we might have to wait for somebody else to come along.

There are one or two who might be capable of doing it but to go out and do the training and getting through that process and going into the race with the mental fortitude required to attack that sort of time, I’m just not sure we’ll see anyone do that for a while.”

As published in Athletics Weekly on April 18

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Where does Radcliffe rank among the all-time greats?

A staple topic of conversation among athletics fans is the discussion of the greatest of all-time in any event and this weekend seems a pertinent time to discuss the ‘GOAT’ in the women’s marathon. Comparing athletes from different eras can be akin to that of applies and oranges and the marathon has the added complication of the fastest marathon-runners not always winning (or even contesting) the major events and vice-versa but despite these difficulties, here’s my run-down on the greatest women’s marathon-runners of all-time.  

1. Grete Waitz (Norway)

Waitz had never raced a half-marathon or even trained beyond 13-miles before her marathon debut in New York in 1978 but her name was soon to become synonymous with a marathon she won no less than a record nine times in the next ten years.

The Norwegian was the true pioneer of women’s marathon-running. On her debut, she improved the world record from 2:34:47 to 2:32:30 which she eventually lowered to a still world-class 2:25:29 and this was in the days before warm-weather trips and stints at high-altitude comprised the regular make-up of an athlete’s training. Indeed, Waitz still worked full-time as a geography teacher in 1978 and her evening meal the night before her debut consisted of a shrimp cocktail followed by a filet mignon, such was the paucity of scientific knowledge in marathon-running at that time.

Waitz, who won the inaugural world marathon title in 1983, passed away after a six-year fight to cancer in April 2011. Her legacy was to inspire many of the current generation of elite marathon-runners as well as helping to bring women’s distance running away from the periphery to the mainstream at both elite and club-runner level.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:24:54 (1986)
  • Big city marathon wins – New York 1978-80, 1982-86, 1988, London 1983, 1986
  • Major championships honours – world champion 1983, Olympic silver 1984

2. Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain)

Rather like Waitz, Radcliffe lacked the raw change of pace to outsprint her rivals for global track titles but her victories at the World Cross Country Championships and World Half-Marathon Championships demonstrated her potential at the marathon.

While some athletes struggle to make the transition from the shorter road-racing distances, Radcliffe immediately found her niche over 26.2-miles. She ran the second fastest time ever of 2:18:56 on her debut in London in 2002 followed by a world record of 2:17:18 in Chicago.

She was at the height of her powers in 2003 when she lowered the world record down to 2:15:25. Her record hasn’t been remotely threatened since it was set a decade ago and the magnitude of Radcliffe’s performance was such that her time was faster than anything set by a British man – including two-time Olympic fourth-placer Jon Brown – that year!

Her lack of Olympic medalware has been thoroughly documented but Radcliffe filled her major championships void in 2005. Against an Olympic-calibre field at the World Championships in Helsinki, Radcliffe ran the fastest ever time in a championships of 2:20:57 which was faster than when her idol Emil Zatopek won the Olympic marathon in the Finnish capital in 1952

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:15:25 (2003)
  • Big city marathon wins – London 2002-03, 2005, New York 2004, 2007-08, Chicago 2002
  • Major championships honours – world champion 2005

3. Catherine Ndereba (Kenya)

After finishing sixth on her debut in Boston in 1999, Ndereba finished no lower than second in a marathon again until New York in 2006 when she placed third.

Such impeccable consistency meant she was aptly monikered ‘Catherine The Great’ in the United States where she’s been a perennial figure on the road-racing circuit since the mid-1990s. Ndereba, who splits her time between Pennsylvania and Kenya, won a record four Boston Marathon titles and became the first woman to break the 2:19-barrier during this seven year period.

Her relationship with the Kenyan Federation wasn’t particularly acrimonious. She was omitted from the team for the Sydney Olympics despite winning Boston in the build-up but Ndereba finally made her championships debut at the age of 31 at the 2003 World Championships which she duly won. She then became the first athlete to win two world marathon titles in 2007.

Ndereba also won Olympic silver medals in 2004 and 2008 and despite a tactical faux pas in the latter when she didn’t realise eventual champion Constantina Dita escaped from the pack, the Kenyan has won more than enough silverware to prove her repertoire includes being a superb racer as well as one of the fastest runners of all-time.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:18:47 (2001)
  • Big city marathon wins – Boston 2000-01, 2004-05, Chicago 2000-01
  • Major championships honours – world champion 2003, 2007, Olympic silver 2004, 2008, world silver 2005

4. Rosa Mota (Portugal)

Rather like Waitz, Mota was a novice when she made her marathon debut at the 1982 European Championships in Athens but her gold medal in the very first championships marathon women contested was the start of an unparalleled career in the major events.

At a time when most of the world’s leading long-distance runners hailed from Europe, her trio of continental gold medals was a meritorious achievement. Her winning margin of seven minutes and twenty-one seconds at the 1987 World Championships in Rome is by far the largest in history and she remains the only woman who has both world and Olympic marathon titles to her credit.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:23:29 (1985)
  • Big city marathon wins – Boston 1987-88, 1990, Chicago 1983-84, London 1991
  • Major championships honours – Olympic champion 1988, world champion 1987, European champion 1982, 1986, 1990, Olympic bronze 1984

5. Ingrid Kristiansen (Norway)

Kristiansen still merits a top-five ranking despite the sparsity of major championship medals. She missed the inaugural World Championships through pregnancy and she admits, in hindsight, the Olympic marathon in 1984, where she finished fourth, was the one race in her career she wished she approached differently. The conditions in Rome and Seoul convinced her to focus on the newly-introduced 10,000m at major championships while plying her trade in the autumn and spring road-racing circuit instead.

She did this with great success and the Norwegian is the only woman who has won the Boston, London, Chicago and New York marathons which are largely viewed as the Grand Slams of marathon-running. Even though Radcliffe looks set to surpass this longevity record, nobody has yet held the world marathon record for as long as Kristiansen as her ground-breaking 2:21:06 mark from the 1985 London Marathon stood until 1998.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:21:06 (1985)
  • Big city marathon wins – Boston 1986, 1989, London 1984-85, 1987-88 Chicago 1986, New York 1989
  • Major championships honours – European bronze 1982

6. Joan Benoit Samuelson (United States)

Her career at the very highest level was abbreviated by injuries but Samuelson assumed the mantle of the world’s leading marathoner from Waitz in the mid-1980s. Despite undergoing knee surgery just three weeks before the US Trials, Samuelson comfortably qualified for the team before taking a gun-to-tape victory in the inaugural Olympic marathon on home-soil ahead of Waitz, Mota and Kristiansen. The manner of her victory was laudable given the calibre of opposition and her winning time of 2:24:52 would have even won the men’s marathon at the 1956 Olympic Games.

The last hurrah at this level came the following year in the Chicago Marathon. Samuelson overcame a bad patch mid-race to clock the second fastest time ever of 2:21:21 to defeat Kristiansen and Mota again and this time stood as a US record at the turn of the millennium.

While her elite career lacked longevity, Samuelson still competes at a level many British male club-runners would envy. Just one month before her 54th birthday, Samuelson ran 2:51:29 for 26.2-miles in Boston last year.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:21:21 (1985)
  • Big city marathon wins – Boston 1979, 1983, Chicago 1985
  • Major championships honours – Olympic champion 1984

7. Naoko Takahashi (Japan)

The notion of a woman running sub-2:20 for the marathon was viewed as an inconceivable concept even just twenty years before Takahashi became the first to achieve this feat in 2001. Her world record, as well as her Olympic gold medal from 2000, has earned her David Beckham-like fame in her homeland where marathon-running is almost an institution.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:19:46 (2001)
  • Big city marathon wins – Berlin 2001-02
  • Major championships honours – Olympic champion 2000, Asian Games champion 1998

8. Mizuki Noguchi (Japan)

Noguchi’s career followed a very similar trajectory to Takahashi’s. After winning the Olympic title in 2004, Noguchi went to the German capital the following year where she improved Takahashi’s Asian record to 2:19:12 which still ranks sixth on the world all-time rankings.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:19:12 (2005)
  • Big city marathon wins – Berlin 2005
  • Major championships honours – Olympic champion 2004, world silver 2003

9. Tegla Loroupe (Kenya)

At four-foot eleven and forty kilograms, Loroupe is diminutive even by women’s marathon-running standards but the Kenyan was renowned for an indomitable resolve and raced with the heart of a lioness. This was apparent when she claimed her second New York Marathon title in 1995 the week after the death of her sister Albina, who was Loroupe’s perennial source of encouragement in a patriarchal society which strongly discouraged women from competing in sport.

Despite requiring back surgery in 1997, Loroupe broke Kristiansen’s iconic world record in Rotterdam the following year, becoming the first woman to break the 2:21-barrier with 2:20:47. She improved her record by four seconds in Berlin but for all of her record-breaking exploits, the lack of silverware prevents Loroupe from claiming a higher ranking.

The world record-holder was favoured to claim the Olympic gold medal in 2000 but a bout of food poisoning left her weakened on race-day. She still finished inside the top-15 and somehow found the strength to place fifth in the Olympic 10,000m final later in the Games but these performances weren’t representative of her true ability.

Loroupe was guilty of over-racing in her hey-day and her schedule in the late-90s would be unthinkable for most of today’s current elite and this is likely to have contributed to her rapid decline but her performances in the 1990s helped to place Kenyan women on the running map after decades of invisibility.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:20:43 (1999)
  • Big city marathon wins – London 2000, New York 1994-95, Berlin 1999
  • Major championships honours – none

10. Katrin Dörre-Heinig (East Germany/Germany)

Dörre-Heinig was a prolific racer who amassed no less than twenty-four career victories from her forty-four marathons. The highlights included an unprecedented hat-trick of London Marathon victories in the mid-1990s as well as three successive top-five finishes in the Olympic Games. She surely would have achieved a fourth if it wasn’t for the Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Olympics.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:24:35 (1999)
  • Big city marathon wins – London 1992-94, Berlin 1994
  • Major championships honours – Olympic bronze 1988, world bronze 1991, World Cup champion 1985, World Cup bronze 1987

You could pretty much be sure nearly all of the world’s leading long-distance runners in years gone by would give the World Cross-Country Championships their due regard. In recent years though, the championships has assumed a much lesser significance and the fact the championships are now held biannually and Bydgoszcz being the only city to express an interest in hosting this year’s edition speaks volumes of its declining importance. But perhaps this downhill trend could be arrested?

*The event has traditionally been held towards the end of March but perhaps it’s time to change the timing of the event to an earlier date? The European Cross-Country Championships being held midway through December might account for the dwindling European participation (although I should add I don’t have much sympathy for those who bemoan the East African dominance) but a more pertinent issue is the track season encroaching on the World Cross-Country Championships. A sizeable contingent of our leading cross-country exponents have prioritised the increasingly globally-attended track races in California in April and May (although you could argue there’s no reason why they can’t do both!) in order to attack the World Championships qualifying standards and expect this trend to remain as selectors ideally prefer multiple A standards. Whereas the Golden League, the centrepoint of the commercial track circuit, started in late June or July, its successor the Diamond League now starts in early May in Doha which puts the World Cross further on the periphery. Perhaps holding it a month earlier would be a more conducive time-slot as it would then be in sync with all of the top cross-country races on the continent which are held in January and early February? 

*Is there any logical reason why the women still only run 8km at the World Cross-Country Championships while the men run 12km? The marathon was introduced to the major championships programme in 1982 at the European Championships yet, for some reason, cross-country seems impervious to this change. I would love to see this aberration addressed and while this won’t be popular among the purists who bemoan how the National men’s race has been shortened, perhaps reducing the men’s race to 8km could also help to draw a greater cross-section of athletes?

*Tougher courses, rather than those resembling glorified track races, surely make for more exciting spectacles? Let’s hope for more testing courses such as Ostend in 2001 and Edinburgh in 2008 in the future as opposed to the manicured lawns of Marrakech in 1998 and Punta Umbria in 2011 to ensure the event retains its identity and reputation as one of the hardest races to win. 

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World Cross-Country Championships preview

The self-styled city of sport Bydgoszcz will play host to the 40th edition of the World Cross-Country Championships but despite the city’s reputation for hosting major championships athletics, the venue might not be the most popular choice. The 2010 edition was also staged in the central Polish town and an uninspiring course as well as a sparse crowd didn’t do much to boost life back into a fledgling event. This point is further illustrated by the championships now being held biannually and Bydgoszcz being the only city to express an interest in hosting the event this year.

In better news though, there will be live coverage on the BBC for the first time since 2009 and the Kenyan hegemony of the 2010 edition should be tamed as the Ethiopians, albeit without Tirunesh Dibaba, arrive buoyed after a much better Olympic Games than their Rift Valley rivals and ready to challenge the Kenyans, who have dominated recent editions.

Men’s race

Kenya swept the board when Bydgoszcz held the 2010 championships but don’t expect the same dominance this year. Their men’s senior team isn’t anywhere near as strong as it could be as Philemon Rono and Timothy Kiptoo, first and second at the Kenyan trials last month, haven’t even broke 13:20 for 5000m. However, they still finished ahead of a very competitive field at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi containing more credentialed track exponents such as sub-27 10,000m runner Geoffrey Kirui and two-time world junior steeplechase champion Jonathan Ndiku, who are also on the Kenyan team.

On the other hand, the Ethiopian team includes many of their top names from the track including Imane Merga, who won the last championships in Punta Umbria in 2011. The reigning champion might start as a slight worry for the Ethiopians as he dropped out of the trial race but he dismissed these fears by accounting for a hard block of training in the build-up as the reason behind his DNF.

The team also includes sub-2:05 marathon-runner Feyisa Lilesa, who won the Ethiopian trials in Addis Ababa last month and Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Tariku Bekele, who makes his first appearance at this event since 2007 where the debilitating conditions forced him, as well as his brother, to drop out of the race in Mombasa.

Uganda took a rare medal in the team race behind Kenya and Ethiopia in 2011 and their leading athlete Moses Kipsiro will be in contention for his third individual medal after taking silver in 2009 and bronze in 2010.

Eritrea will be without the services of 2007 champion Zersenay Tadese but 2010 silver medallist Teklemariam Medhin could feature in the medals again. 

Women’s race

The absence of Tirunesh Dibaba opens up the women’s race but while this is a blow for the Ethiopians, they will still be hoping a green-and-yellow vested athlete can win this title for the first time since 2008 when Dibaba won her third world cross-country title in Edinburgh.

The leading aspirant is arguably sub-9:10 steeplechaser Hiwot Ayalew, who has won all of her cross-country races this winter, including a nine-second victory in the trials last month. She’s joined on the team by perennial world cross-country medallist Meselech Melkamu, who is preparing for the Virgin London Marathon in April, and Olympic 10,000m fifth-placer Belaynesh Oljira.

The Kenyan women’s team also has a new look to it as reigning champion Vivian Cheruiyot and four-time senior medallist Linet Masai have both chosen to give this event a miss while African champion Mercy Cherono was dropped by the head-coach after suffering from a stomach infection.

First and second at the trials, Margaret Muriuki and Irene Cheptai are now expected to mount the Kenyan challenge along with Emily Chebet, who was the unexpected winner of the gold medal when the championships were held in Bydgoszcz in 2010.

One of the leading non-African challengers is Fionnuala Britton and while it will be too much to expect her to replicate the achievements of past champion Sonia O’Sullivan, the two-time European cross-country champion should challenge for a top-ten finish.

The British team has an outside chance of capturing a bronze medal in the team race as the squad contains Lauren Howarth, who was the leading European finisher in the junior race in 2009, National and Inter-Counties winner Louise Damen and former European junior cross-country champion Stephanie Twell.

Junior women’s race

Emelia Gorecka was the youngest participant in the junior race when she finished 23rd in Bydgoszcz but three years later, the AFD athlete will be one of the most experienced competitors on the start-line and the 19-year-old’s ambition is to cap her illustrious junior career with a top-10 finish in this race.

The Mick Woods-coached athlete was the top European finisher in 15th in 2011 and since then, Gorecka has won medals on the track at the European Junior Championships and World Junior Championships last year, proving the Brits can still compete with the East Africans. She also won the European junior cross-country title in 2011 and although she lost her crown to the 1500m specialist Amela Terzic last year, the 6km course in Bydgoszcz should suit Gorecka more than the 4km course did in Szentendre.

Suffice to say, the East Africans will surely decide the medals between themselves and while the Ethiopians have a stronger squad overall, the Kenyan team is spearheaded by reigning champion and world junior 1500m champion Faith Kipyegon, who won the Kenyan trials by eight-seconds from world junior 5000m bronze medallist Agnes Chebet.

The Ethiopians still come to this race with real aspirations of winning this title again and Buze Diriba has the credentials to challenge Kipyegon. After winning the world junior 5000m title from team-mate Ruti Aga, who is another of the leading contenders, Diriba set PBs at 3000m of 8:39.65 and 5000m of 14:53.06 which are unmatched against this field. However, she was beaten in the trials by Alemitu Haroye, who still has two seasons left in the under-20 division.

Junior men’s race

Ethiopia must surely win this race for the first time since 2009 as their squad includes an athlete who could have challenged for the gold medal in the senior race. That athlete is 18-year-old Hagos Gebrhiwet, the holder of the world junior 5000m record at 12:47.53 which is some six seconds faster than Mo Farah’s UK record! As expected, he comfortably won the trials and more importantly, he also beat Galen Rupp in a 3000m race in Boston in another world junior record of 7:32.87.

Their team also includes reigning world junior 5000m and 10,000m champions Muktar Edris and Yigrem Demelash (moved into the senior race) and the latter finished second to Lilesa in the senior trials race.

The Kenyans aren’t particularly renowned internationally but their squad is headed by Ronald Chebolei, who has to be respected after winning the Kenyan trials. It will be interesting to see how Conseslus Kipruto fares though, as he could even feature at the World Championships on the track this summer. Although he was only sixth at the trials and some 30-seconds behind the winner, the 18-year-old is a huge prospect in the steeplechase as he won the world junior title last year and boasts a PB of 8:03.49. 

The conundrum of Commonwealth Games qualifying

The Commonwealth Games have historically been used as a championships to blood up-and-coming athletes. A 17-year-old Steve Cram, for example, made his major championships debut for England in 1978 but elitism, as was also the case with the European Indoor Championships, will be the over-riding impression of the team judging from the mind-boggling qualifying standards set by England Athletics. While I’m not against tough qualifying standards in theory, it does seem rather ludicrous in this environment as medals could potentially be lost as some of the standards are actually in excess of recent gold medal winning marks! This is contradictory to the selection brief as the very first line states how “EA will nominate a team with the intention of achieving the highest possible number of top-8 places.” But why then, for example, is the women’s A standard 20cm in excess of the winning mark from the 2010 Games in Delhi?

Hopefully they will be used as nothing more than a guide and the selectors will use their discretion if necessary in order to ensure the strongest possible team because, as outlined below, the qualifying standards in the vast majority of events are very misguided.

Men’s 100m – 10.15, 200m – 20.30

Why is the A standard more than two-tenths faster than the corresponding mark for the World Championships when the selection criteria for both championships is a team capable of a top-eight finish in the final? In what sort of world is 20.52 deemed sufficient to make a World Championships final yet anyone running slower than 20.30 won’t make the top-eight in the Commonwealth Games?!

10.17 and 10.20 were good enough for medals in the last two 100m finals while 20.47 and 20.45 were the winning times in the last two 200m finals. The leading Caribbeans normally give the Commonwealths a wide berth so medals will no doubt be won in slower times than the A standard.

400m – 45.00

Only three times has the gold medallist broken the 45-second in the Commonwealth final. 45.44 would have sufficed for the title in 2010 and 45.09 would have taken silver in 2002 and 2006.

1500m – 3:36.0

2002 champion Mike East probably wouldn’t have made the English team had these standards been implemented in the lead-up to the last home championships. His pre-Games PB was 3:38.94.

5000m – 13:03.00

Money and resources have been heavily pumped into the British endurance programme but the long-distance team will have sparse representation in Glasgow if the selectors adhere to this mark as only two British athletes have ever bettered this mark. Rob Denmark was the last British winner in 1994 but he wouldn’t have even made the England team if the same standards applied back then as he didn’t break 13:20 leading up to the Games.

10,000m – 27:50.00

While not as intimidating as the 5000m standard, this mark is still unnecessarily steep. The Kenyans never send their best runners and anyone running inside 28-minutes will be competitive next year.

400m hurdles – 49.10

Chris Rawlinson won in 2002 in a slower time.

3000m steeplechase – 8:25.00

A standard is one-second faster than the World Championships ‘A’ standard.

Pole-vault – 5.60m

Steve Hooker cleared 5.60m to win the Commonwealth title in 2010. Only twice has the gold medal been won with a higher vault.

Long jump – 8.10m

While the balance of power in world long jumping is largely with Commonwealth athletes, 8.10m will easily suffice for a top-eight finish.

Shot put – 19.80m

The gold medal has only been won in a distance in excess of the A standard four times in Commonwealth Games history.

Discus throw – 63.00m, hammer – 72.50m, javelin – 80.00m

59m would have sufficed for a discus medal in 2002, 68m would have won a hammer medal in 2002 and Nick Nieland’s winning mark in 2006 was only 10cm in excess of the javelin A standard.

Women’s 100m – 11.25

2010 was admittedly a poor championships for the 100m but 11.39 would have won bronze in 2006. The A standard is also faster than the World Championships standard of 11.28.

200m – 22.90

The A standard is 0.15 faster than the corresponding mark for Moscow. 22.90 would have won a medal in the highly competitive 2006 final including the top Jamaicans and Cydonie Mothersill.

800m – 1:59.90

A rather arbitrary mark. Why not 2:00.00?!

1500m – 4:06.50

A fairly reasonable mark given the standard among Commonwealth athletes but similarly to Mike East, 2006 champion Lisa Dobriskey wouldn’t have made the England team for Melbourne if 4:06.50 the qualifying standard.

100m hurdles – 12.96

Anything around the 13-second mark puts you in medal contention. Bronze was won in 13.25 last time round, for example.

3000m steeplechase – 9:42.00

Marginally tougher than the ‘A’ standard for the World Championships, strangely.

High jump – 1.90m

Not reflective of the standards among Commonwealth jumpers. 1.83m and 1.88m were medal-winning heights in 2002 and 2006 respectively.

Pole-vault – 4.40m

4.25m would have sufficed for medals at the past two Games.

Long jump – 6.70m

The horizontal jumpers once more have drawn the short straw. A distance 20cm below the A standard would have won gold in Delhi while 6.49m would have sufficed for a medal in Manchester. Jo Wise, the last British-born winner of the title, won in 1998 with 6.63m.

Discus throw – 59.50m

Generally sufficient to make the rostrum against Commonwealth opposition.

Hammer – 66.50m

The ‘A’ standard would have won medals at every Games thus far and 64.04m was good enough for a medal in 2010.

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