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Preview of the distance races at the World Indoor Championships in Lisbon

Preview of the distance races at the World Indoor Championships in Lisbon
K. Ken Nakamura for IAAF

6 March 2001 - Two of the most intriguing events at the World Championships in Lisbon are set to be the men’s and women’s 3000m. In both races, several superstars are expected to compete, and the anticipated showdowns are set to capture the imagination of the fans.

Hicham El Guerrouj, who won the 1500m World Indoor titles in 1995 and 1997 is back competing in the championships. In 1997, he completely dominated the event, winning the 1500m by nearly two seconds. The Moroccan, who has been primarily a 1500m runner since finishing third at the 5000m in the 1992 World Junior Championships, has been venturing into longer distances this winter. On February 23 in Ghent, he ran the 2 miles in 8:09.89, the second fastest time. However, his potential at the 3000m is much higher, for in 1998 he ran 7:23.09 for the 3000m, also the second fastest time. However, one superstar in the race is not sufficient to capture the imagination of fans....What makes the 3000m race really intriguing is that El Guerrouj will be facing Ethiopians Million Wolde and Hailu Mekonnen. Mekonnen is the World Indoor record holder at 2 miles, which El Guerrouj narrowly missed breaking earlier this year. Wolde was a close third at the 3000m in Maebashi two years ago, and is the reigning Olympic 5000m Champion. Because Wolde outkicked everyone in a slow Olympic final, El Guerrouj will probably want to avoid a slow tactical race, a mistake Ali Saidi-Sief made in Sydney. El Guerrouj’s strength lies in his sustained long drive at the end of the race. A fast race is expected.

As good as men’s 3000m may be, the women’s 3000m race should be even better, where Gabriela Szabo is the strongest favourite. She has won the last three editions of the World Indoor Championships as well as the last two editions of the European Indoor Championships at the distance. Outdoors, she is the reigning Olympic 5000m Champion and twice World Champion at the same distance. On February 18 in Birmingham she added the 3000m World Indoor Record (8:32.88) to the 5000m (14:47.35) and 2000m (5:30.53) records she already owns. The Romanian looks set to take her fourth straight title which would bring her gold medal tally at the World Indoor Championships to five, tying Kostadinova for the most gold medals at this competition.

However, both Sonia O’Sullivan (IRL)and Leah Malot (KEN) who were responsible for Szabo’s only defeats since 1998 at the 5000m race are expected to line up for 3000m in Lisbon. During the 1998 European Championships in Budapest, at the 5000m, Sonia O’Sullivan easily defeated Szabo who led most of the race. In the ISTAF meet in Berlin in 2000, Leah Malot outsprinted Szabo at the 5000m; it was Szabo’s a first defeat since the 1998 European Championships.

In 1998 when Sonia O’Sullivan completed an unprecedented short/long course double at the World Cross Country Championships, she ran 8:45.21 on February 21 in Auckland New Zealand. This year, on March 1, O’Sullivan ran 8:43.51 for the 3000m in Melbourne. She may be in better shape than she was in 1998, which should make O’Sullivan a formidable foe for Szabo. Although O’Sullivan defeated Szabo in the 1998 European Championships, Szabo had upper hand in both the 2000 Olympics, and the 1997 World Indoor Championships.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s Gete Wami who ran the second fastest 5000m (14:49.36) indoors is skipping the World Indoor Championships, but two Russian runners, Yegorova and Zadorozhnaya are in supreme shape, having set new stage records in the Yokohama ekiden on February 25. Zadorozhnaya ran 18:24 for 6Km, while Yegorova covered 5Km in 15:04 in Yokohama. Olga Yegorova made dramatic improvement in 2000, having improved her 5000m PR from 15:22.88 in 1999 to 14:42.91 in 2000 and finished 8th in the Olympics. Yelena Zadorozhnaya, primarily a 800m/1500m runner until 2000 has turned in the second fastest time at the indoor 3000m (8:41.44).

An athlete that should not be overlooked because she is running in her home country is Fernanda Ribeiro, third in the 1997 World Indoor Championships in Paris and double European Indoor Champion (1994 and 1996).

Finally, the last runner to watch out for is Regina Jacobs who missed the Olympic Games after pulling off 1500m/5000m double at the US Olympic Trials. The American ran a strong final lap in winning the 3000m at the US Indoor Championships should have more motivation than anybody else.

Other middle distance events namely the men’s 1500m and men’s and women’s 800m could also be classic races. If the 3000m heats are cancelled, we might witness a historic 1500m - a match-up between El Guerrouj and the Olympic Champion Noah Ngeny of Kenya. They seemed to be avoiding each other carefully this winter. In Ghent, Ngeny won the 1000m while El Guerrouj won 2 miles. In Lievin, El Guerrouj won the 1500m, while Ngeny won the 2000m. The question is will they race at the Championships, and will we see the showdown in Lisbon? Without El Guerrouj in the race, Ngeny should be a strong favourite, but don’t count out Rui Silva who ran 3:52.18 mile; and he will be running in his home country.

One of the most memorable scenes from the World Indoor Championships took place in 1997 in Paris. In the first round heat of the 800m, Wilson Kipketer (DEN) went off on his own and set a World Indoor record of 1:43.96. After easily qualifying for the final on the next day, in the final, Kipketer again set the World Indoor record of 1:42.67. No such prospect is expected in Lisbon. However, athletics is about competition and in the 800m, great showdowns are expected, and two runners stand out in both the men’s and women’s 800m.

Last year, the European Indoor Champion Stephanie Graf (AUT) finished second to Maria Mutola at the 800m in Stockholm, Zürich and at the Olympic Games. However, Graf has gained the upper hand during this indoor season, having won in Ghent and Lievin (Graf also crossed the finish line ahead of Mutola in Birmingham, but was disqualified). Mozambican Mutola has three gold and a silver from the World Indoors. Can she win for the fourth time?

Russia’s Yuriy Borzakovskiy was sensational during last year’s indoor season, however, he could not quite match his indoor performances outdoors. Back indoors, he is running well again, recording 1:44.15 in Karlsruhe. A co-favourite for the 800m should be Andre Bucher. Although he has never won a major championship title, the Swiss is running well, winning in Dortmund, Stockholm, and Birmingham. Will Bucher be able to hold off a fast closing Borzakovskiy in Lisbon?