Last weekend, Nyayo National Stadium hosted Kenya’s elite athletes for the London World Championships trials.
As has been the case in previous selections for global competitions, last weekend’s contest was full of high adrenaline action and saw upsets, new stars born and veterans reborn.
World champion Julius Yego hurled a stadium record 87.97 metres in the javelin while West Texas-based US collegiate champion Emmanuel Korir stunned seasoned campaigners, including Diamond League series champion Ferguson Rotich and former world junior champion Alfred Kipketer, to clinch the 800 metres in 1:43.86, injecting fresh excitement into the two-lap race.
University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) freshman Korir, a product of legendary Irish talent scout Bro Colm O’Connell, and who is coached by 1988 Seoul Olympics 800m champion Paul Ereng at the talent-rich UTEP, is one to watch, having previously run the 400 metres in 44.53 and a world indoor record 1:14.97 over the rarely-run 600m.
His UTEP college mate Michael Saruni, also a freshman, finished third on Saturday in 1:44.61 behind Kipyegon Bett (1:44.04) heralding a new era, once again midwifed by Bro Colm and Ereng, and which, most certainly, leaves UTEP athletic director Bob Stull gleeful in expectation.
It is interesting to note that Korir is only the third man in the history of track and field to have simultaneously run the 400m in under 45 seconds and the 800m in under 1:44, the last such feat coming 41 years ago through Cuba’s “white lightning” Alberto Juantorena who won an Olympic double in Montreal in 1976 (Games which Kenya boycotted), running the 400m in 44:28 and the 800m in 1:43.70.
Juantorena, the legend, currently sits on the IAAF Council.
World and Olympic defending champion David Rudisha holds the 800m record at 1:40.91 while his 400m personal best time is 45.15, making him wary of the threat he will face at the London World Championships in August from Korir, and also Saruni, who have both caused some waves since landing in Texas last summer under the wings of Ereng.
Rudisha sat out on the strength of a defending champion’s wild card while Rotich (fourth in 1:44.86) missed the automatic top three qualifying slots but was named in the team that proceeds to camp, leaving Athletics Kenya’s selectors with the unenviable task of cutting the squad down to four as Rotich is also armed with a wild card as winner of the last Diamond League series over the distance.
But while the men’s 800m offers hope, there is cause for concern in the women’s two-lap race where only five athletes competed in Saturday’s final, won in commanding fashion by Olympic bronze medallist Margaret Nyairera.
For a race in which Kenya has won world and Olympic titles through Pamela Jelimo, Janet Jepkosgei and Eunice Sum, Athletics Kenya’s tacticians need to ride on the upcoming IAAF World Under-18 Championships to nurture fresh talent for the future.
Besides Nyairera’s brilliant sub-two win (1:59.68), I was happy to see the experienced Eunice Sum (2:0.03) make the team. Sum is a committed, big stage performer who could cause some jitters for the world’s runaway best trio of South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Nyairera in London.
Meanwhile, just like in the men’s 800m, the men’s 5,000m also produced new stars with upstarts Cyrus Ruto (13:31.5), Davis Kiplangat (13:31.7) and Geoffrey Kimutai Koech (13:33.9) sweeping the podium in a race Kenya, bizarrely, failed to land a single athlete in the final at last year’s Olympic Games in Rio.
It will be a tall order for the young Kenyans to beat Great Britain’s defending champion and home favourite Mo Farah along with Ethiopians Yomif Kejelcha and Muktar Edris, the trio having run the fastest times over the distance this year.
And while there were many talking points on the track, there was equally quite some concern off it with poor marketing seeing our world-beating athletes run before virtually empty terraces at Nyayo National Stadium.
Athletics Kenya really need to up their game to make track and field sexier and more appealing to the public.
They must realise that running a world-class event, like the trials, is totally different from a high school meeting.
The absence of competition day entertainment and pre-event marketing are some of the factors that stole the glamour off a competition that’s regarded the third most competitive and classy after the Olympic Games and World Championships, perhaps only rivalled by the equally competitive US trials.
The empty terraces at Nyayo National Stadium should be a wake-up call for the Local Organising Committee of the July 12-16 IAAF World Under-18 Championships to work double hard to ensure the much bigger competition venue at Kasarani is full to the brim.
With more aggression on the home straight, the LOC can turn around things and draw huge crowds like those we see at Nasa and Jubilee campaign rallies where vote-hungry leaders regurgitate and spew out political rhetoric in front of expectant, cheering but unga-starved masses.