By Bob Ramsak
PARIS (16-Jul) – First-year Meeting Areva meet director Laurent Boquillet may have scored a major coup by managing to bring Usain Bolt to the French capital for tomorrow night’s fourth stop of the ÅF Golden League, but a race he’s equally looking forward to the first-ever 3000m contest between double world champion Bernard Lagat and triple Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele.
Bekele arrives in Paris as one of four remaining contenders for a slice of the $1 million ÅF Golden League Jackpot, and after fending off all challengers in three successive 5000m races, Lagat is seen as a possible spoiler when the event moves down in distance by five laps. The 34-year-old arrives in good spirits after a solid 3:32.56 1500m victory in Tangiers four days ago, but Bekele insisted today that Lagat’s entry won’t change his game plan one bit.
“I’m concentrating on my race and my time,” Bekele said, adding that he’s shooting for a fast performance as well. If not an assault on Daniel Komen’s legendary 7:20.67 world record set nearly 13 years ago, then perhaps an improvement on his own career best of 7:25.79 set two years ago.
“Maybe I’ll try for a world record,” Bekele said. “If not, then maybe for my personal record. It’s 7:25, so it’s not easy.”
Bekele laughed off a suggestion by a reporter who asked if he requested a fast pace in order to knock the kick out of Lagat.
“The fast pace is for me,” he said after a hearty laugh. “But if someone else wants to follow, that would be good, too.”
Olympic steeplechase champion Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad is also asking for a brisk pace, one that will help propel him into the event’s still-exclusive sub-eight minute club.
“My dream is to run under eight minutes,” said the shy, somewhat enigmatic but extremely confident 24-year-old Frenchman, who has produced career bests over four distances already this season. “And I believe in my dream. Most important Friday will be the time. Even if I finish second and run under eight minutes, that will be okay.”
His target also means an assault on compatriot Bob Tahri’s 8:02.19 European record set just 13 days ago in Metz. Mekhissi-Benabbad has already improved his career best this season, clocking 8:06.09 in Hengelo on June 1, where he was edged, just as in Beijing, by Kenyan Brimin Kipruto. His chief rival this weekend will be 2004 Olympic champion Ezekiel Kemboi who improved his PB to 7:58.85 this year, the fastest in the field.
The requested pace will bring the leaders through the first kilometer in 2:40 and the second in 5:20. “If they do a good job, I should get under eight minutes,” Mekhissi-Benabbad said.
The headline act this weekend is, of course, the meet poster boy Bolt, whose appearance at a press conference here on Wednesday attracted nearly 150 journalists, a number virtually unprecedented for a one-day meet. His star power is expected to draw some 50,000 fans to the Stade de France --the top tier of three will not be open-- the massive stadium just to the northeast of Paris which hosted the World championships in 2003.
There is a ‘Bolt Factor’ downside, though. Bringing the 100 and 200m world record holder takes a large chunk of the meet budget resulting in thinner fields across the board. That fiscal reality hasn’t escaped Paris.
The program also includes a pair of 800s, with Olympic silver medalist Ismail Ahmed Ismail starting as favorite in the men’s contest. The 23-year-old from Sudan dipped under 1:44 for the first time in his career with his runner-up finish to Asbel Kiprop in Athens on Monday, where he clocked 1:43.82. Also arriving in the French capital in good shape is Berlin-bound American Khadevis Robinson, who ran a solo 1:44.47 in Santa Monica last weekend.
In a wide open women’s race, three of the entrants have dipped under two minutes this season --Mediterranean Games champion Elisa Cusma of Italy, Frenchwoman Elodie Guegan, and American steeplechase specialist Anna Willard. USA 1500m champion Shannon Rowbury, who ran her PB over the distance here last year, is also in the field to test her speed.
France's Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad at today's pre-race press conference (photo by Bob Ramsak)