By Bob Ramsak
NOTE: Assistant Editor Bob Ramsak, who barely had time to do laundry before leaving home yet again after being in Zagreb on Monday, continues our exclusive coverage from Europe --Ed.
BRUSSELS -- The six meet ÅF Golden League series comes to an end at the Memorial Van Damme here on Friday night, with Ethiopia's double world and Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele a strong favorite to win at least a share of the $1 million Golden League Jackpot.
Bekele is just one victory away from the last remaining accolade missing from his already overstuffed trophy case, and his cool and cautious confidence on the eve of his 5000m race was on clear display when he met with a packed room of reporters today.
"First, I'll try to win,"he said. "Then, secondly, I want to run faster than in Zü rich."
At the Weltklasse last Friday, the Ethiopian clocked a world-leading 12:52.32, a performance just outside his own top-10 list. A sub-12:50, even a mark in the 12:40-12:45 range, according to Meet Director Wilfried Meert, is among the pre-race predictions.
"I've had some time to recover after the world championships,"said Bekele, who arrived in the Belgian capital from his home in Addis Ababa early this morning. But despite his dominance and already legendary status, the 27-year-old insists that winning the difficult six-meet series is anything but child's play.
"These races are not so easy,"he offered. "Racing every week against different athletes, sometimes new and fresh athletes, is not easy."
Among those hoping to put an end to both his jackpot ambitions and his 16-race win streak in the event are Kenyans Edwin Soi, the runner-up in Zürich last weekend, and 2008 Olympic silver medallist Eliud Kipchoge. Watch out for traffic; including the two pacers, 22 runners are entered.
WORLD RECORD BIDS PLANNED IN THE MEN'S 4 X 1500M AND WOMEN'S 2000M
In 2006 organizers made room on the full program for a world record bid by a Kenyan quartet in the rarely-run men's 4 x 800m relay, and in 2007 gave Meseret Defar a chance to clock a world best over two miles. Both succeeded. This year they've added two more similar record attempts in the women's 2000m and the men's 4 x 1500m relay.
The women's race was set up with Ethiopian Geleta Burka, who was knocked to the track in the world championships 1500m final, in mind. "For her it was a big loss,"said Meert, reeling off a long list of potential bonuses the runner might have missed out on had she prevailed in Berlin. "She's still in great shape and will be hungry."
But Meert also pointed out that the record, Sonia O'Sullivan's 5:25.26 set in Edinburgh in 1994, is "a very tough one."According to Meert, O'Sullivan ran alone for the final 800 meters and finished with a 61.9 final lap after an erratic early pace. He's employed Slovenia's Sonja Roman to set the tone for the first 1000m, who's to be followed by American sub-4:00 1500m runner Christin Wurth-Thomas.
Despite her host's graciousness, Burka will have a race on her hands. She'll face world 5000m champion Vivian Cheruiyot, the world leader in the rarely-run event this year at 5:31.52, and Russian Anna Alminova, who'll bring strong 1500m and 3000m credentials to King Baudouin Stadium.
In the 4 x 1500m, the target is 14:38.8 set by a West German team in 1977. The overwhelming favorites are a formidable Kenyan quartet of William Biwott, Gideon Gathimba, Geoffrey Rono and Augustine Choge, the world leader, who'll have to average 3:39 per leg (and not drop the baton), well within their capabilities. Morocco also brings a strong team to the line, with Mohamed Moustaoui and Abdalaati Iguider running legs three and four. The USA quartet consists of Will Leer, David Torrence, David Krummenacker and Steve Sherer, while Andy Baddeley, Ricky Stevenson, Nick McCormick and John Draper will line up for Great Britain.
FOLLOWING TRADITION, STRONG 800M RACES ON TAP
Both 800m fields, always an important backbone of the Brussels program, are particularly strong. The men's contest includes world champion Mbulaeni Mulaudzi of South Africa, Berlin bronze medallist and 2007 world champion Alfred Yego of Kenya, David Rudisha, the Kenyan who won last week in Züürich with a 1:43.52 career best, and Nick Symmonds of the United States, who won the windy race in Gateshead on Monday.
The women's race features six Berlin finalists and an American who has become an increasingly strong presence in each of her subsequent outings. Silver medallist Janeth Jepkosgei leads the field, but the Kenyan didn't look particularly strong in Zagreb on Monday, where she was easily handled by Russian Mariya Savinova, who is also in the field. American Anna Willard, who began the year as a standout steeplechaser and is now a world class 800/1500 runner, will certainly be a factor.
In the men's steeplechase, world champion Ezekiel Kemboi, who took a solid victory in Zürich, will be the man to beat. His compatriot Paul Kipsiele Koech has requested a sub-eight minute pace and will be a factor. Also in the field is Berlin silver medallist Richard Mateelong.
THREE IN JACKPOT AS GOLDEN LEAGUE FINISHES
Bekele is joined in the jackpot chase by American 400m record holder and world champion Sanya Richards, and Yelena Isinbayeva, the Olympic champion in the pole vault who followed up her implosion at the world championships, where she failed to clear a height, with her 27th world record last weekend in Zürich.
The conclusion of the series on Friday before another expected sell-out crowd of 47,000, will also mark the conclusion of the IAAF Golden League after 12 seasons. The entirely European-based series will be replaced next year by the IAAF Diamond League, a 14-meet tour which will also include stops in North America and Asia.