IN MONTE CARLO, MONACO
In a few hours time Tuesday, the world track and field governing body will name its pick for the year’s top athletes.
The main categories at the 7.15pm black tie black tie/ cocktail dress reception will be the male and female athlete of the year, rising star in the male and female categories along with coach of the year.
International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President Seb Coe will also hand out the “President’s Award” to an individual or organization that’s made significant contribution to track and field.
Although there are 10 possible winners in the “athlete of the year” category – five men and as many women nominees – just a few stand out as having a chance.
And they include two Kenyan record-breaking runners, marathoner Eliud Kipchoge and steeplechaser Beatrice Chepkoech.
I’m willing to wager my mortgage on Kipchoge winning the men’s award and Chepkoech losing the women’s accolade to Colombian jumper Caterine Ibarguen.
Having been at these awards here in Monaco annually for the last 12 years since 2007 when American sprinter Tyson Gay and Ethiopian middle distance star Meseret Defar were feted, I’ve noted surprise and formality in equal measure.
No one has been as dominant here as Jamaican sprints legend Usain Bolt, winner of six awards in 2008-2009, 2011-13 and 2016).
Now in their 30th year, having been launched in 1988 when American sprinters Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith-Joyner were celebrated, Africa’s athletes have won 11 times, with Ethiopians enjoying the largest share of fame with six titles, thanks to their sensational distance runners Defar, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Almaz Ayana and Genzebe Dibaba.
Morocco’s 1,500 metres world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj also completed a hat-trick of awards in 2001-2003 with South Africa’s two-time high jump world champion Hestrie Cloete another African winner.
Kenya has so far celebrated just one winner, David Rudisha in 2010.
It was the year in which Rudisha twice broke the world 800 metres record, first lowering Kenyan-Dane Wilson Kipketer’s mark to one minute, 41.09 second at the ISATF meet in Berlin before improving it to 1:41.01 in Rieti, Italy, only a week later.
He went on to improve that time to the current world record 1:40:91 in that memorable 2012 Olympic final in London where he became the first and only man to dip under 1:41:00 in the two-lap race.
In 2011, Vivian Cheruiyot was an overwhelming favourite, statistically, to win Kenya’s second award at this gala only to be piped to the line by Australian hurdler Sally Pearson.
While Pearson had won the 100 metres hurdles in 12.28 seconds, the fourth fastest all time, “Pocket Rocket” Cheruiyot won three global titles – the senior women’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria, Spain, and a 5,000m and 10,000m double at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.
Cheruiyot was an obvious choice, but many factors could have led to Pearson being the judges’ favourite, perhaps mainly to drive the sport’s appeal Down Under.
Kipchoge is another rather obvious choice tonight, but, from experience, anything can happen at these awards, especially in the post-Bolt era where no dominance is outright.
In April, Kenya’s 34-year-old legend won the London Marathon in 2:04:14 before that memorable run in Berlin in September where he blew the marathon world record to smithereens, running 2:01:39, over one minute faster than Dennis Kimetto’s previous best 2:02:57.
It was the biggest improvement on the world marathon record since 1967 when Aussie Derek Clayton lowered his own mark at the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan, clocking 2:08:33, one minute and three seconds faster than the time he had set two-and-a-half years earlier on a disputed Antwerp course.
Kipchoge’s main competitors, in my opinion, are French decathlete Kevin Mayer and American sprinter Christian Coleman.
This year, Coleman, 22, shattered the world indoor 60 metres record and was Diamond League champion over 100m, while 26-year-old world champion Mayer won the world indoor title in the heptathlon and shattered the decathlon world record, improving from American Ashton Eaton’s previous mark with a new high of 9,126 points.
The other nominees – Swedish European champion pole vaulter Armand Duplantis and Qatar’s hurdler Abderrahman Samba – stand no chance.
Kipchoge’s dominance in the marathon, winning all but one of his 11 career marathons, and all in under 2:06 (except at the Rio Olympics, a championships race where he clocked 2:08:44), hoist him to legend status.
Even his only “blot”, a 2:04:05 second place at the 2013 Berlin Marathon, was because Wilson Kipsang ran a world record 2:03:23 that year!
Although Kipchoge is my overwhelming favourite, hey, we are in French precincts where Mayer’s profile is fast building up.
And a win for a decathlete would also be “good for the sport.”
On the women’s front, in my opinion, Colombian jumper Ibarguen should out jump Kenya’s Chepkoech to the Female Athlete of the Year title.
Chepkoech may have improved the world steeplechase record by eight seconds, running 8:44:32 right here in Monaco at the Herculis Diamond League meeting on July 20, and winning seven out of her eight steeplechase races this season, besides a Commonwealth Games 1,500m silver, but the scales tip in Ibarguen’s favour for several reasons.
The Colombian jumper is an IAAF Continental Cup winner, Diamond League champion and double champion in the long jump and triple jump in Central America and the Caribbean.
She was unbeaten in the triple jump and most memorably won back-to-back long jump and triple jump titles at the Zurich and Brussels Diamond League meetings in September, within a 24-hour period.
However, what could be the clincher for Ibarguen is largely political, the fact that no South American – male or female – has won the athlete of the year award in its 30-year existence.
A win for Ibarguen, just like was for Pearson seven years ago, would help create interest in the sport in a region where track and field isn’t prominent enough.
Where football is the staple.
It will be a healthy win for the sport.
And also the fact that since Croatian high jumper Blanca Vlasic in 2010, no horizontal or vertical jumper has been garlanded.
Meanwhile, a cursory glance on the guest list at tonight’s awards at the Grimaldi Forum also struck me as interesting and provides further hints in Kipchoge and Ibarguen’s favour.
I’ve never seen so many Colombian journalists and officials in Monaco for these awards.
Perhaps an indication that the organizers are preparing for an Ibarguen party?
The team at Netherlands-based Global Sports Communication should be tonight’s biggest winners, as they, coincidentally, manage both Kipchoge and Ibarguen.
And they are all here, from director and founder Jos Hermens, to Kipchoge’s coach Patrick Sang, manager Valentijn Trouw and marketing manager Marleen Rennings, ready to uncork the champagne and celebrate Kipchoge’s and Ibarguen’s awards that each come with $100,000 (Sh10 million) and a crystal trophy.
Both headed to GSC’s Dutch headquarters in Nijmegen.
Meanwhile, in the rising star category, Kenya also has two nominees, steeplechaser Celliphine Chespol and 10,000m runner Rhonex Kipruto.
I’d wager on Kipruto winning and Chespol losing out.
Chespol, 19, won the world under-20 title, Africa senior cross country gold and silver at the Commonwealth Games and African championships behind Chepkoech.
Kipruto, on the other hand, is the Africa junior cross country gold medallist, won the world under-20 10,000m title and ran a world lead 26:46 in 10 kilometres on the road, just two seconds outside the senior world record and the fastest ever 10km on US soil.