Our end-of-year reviews continue with renowned statisticians A. Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava taking a look back at 2019’s key action on the middle and long distance track events.
During the Diamond League summer Nijel Amos made the strongest impression after winning in Doha, Rabat and Monaco and losing narrowly in Rome and Zurich. In Monaco and Zurich he really went all-in passing halfway in 48.9 and 48.4 respectively.
In Monaco Amos ”survived” winning in 1:41.89 – the first sub-1:42 in the world since the 2012 Olympic final. But in Zurich he crumbled in the last fifty meters and was caught on the line – 1:42.98 to 1:42.70 – by Donovan Brazier who had been two full seconds behind with just 100 metres to go.
Unfortunately the injury problems that have haunted Amos since his sensational Olympic silver at age 18 in 2012 persisted and he ended up a DNS in the World Championship heats. But losing the aggressive Amos didn’t mean that the Doha final became a slow race. Instead Wesley Vázquez stepped in to still make it a ”survival of the fittest” test.
Vázquez passed halfway at 49.0 with the field strung out behind him. But one athlete was still keeping contact – Brazier – and on the second backstrech he even passed Vázquez. Brazier kept going strong to win by more than a full second in a new championship (and US national) record of 1:42.34.
Silver and bronze went to Amel Tuka and Ferguson Rotich but Vázquez still held on well to finish fifth. The big surprise of the final was Bryce Hoppel of the US – a complete newcomer to the global scene off the back of a long collegiate season – who in his 24th 800m race of the year ran wisely to move up in the final 200 metres to finish fourth in a 1:44.25 PB.
With the current intensity in top level competition it is almost impossible in an event like the 1500m to get a perfect seasonal record of just wins. But Timothy Cheruiyot came really close in 2019 as his only loss was a narrow one to reigning world champion Elijah Manangoi in the Diamond League season opener in Doha in early May.
While Manangoi had a summer of injury problems - eventuall he had to give up on a world title defence - Cheruiyot was ”simply the best”. In his following seven 1500m/mile competitions – five Diamond Leagues, the Kenyan Trials and World Championships – his smallest winning margin was 0.50.
His widest margin of over two seconds actually came in the Doha final where he – in a brilliant display of truly tactical running – without hesitation immediately took the lead and went on to simply run the opposition into the ground. However, the others should be excused by the fact that only once before (1999) has there ever been a faster winning time in a championship setting than Cheruiyot’s 3:29.26.
Generally this was a year of fast running in the Diamond League with not only Monaco (as always) but also Lausanne, Paris and Brussels producing a great mass of sub-3:32 performances. The best seasonal record besides Cheruiyot’s belonged to teenager Jakob Ingebrigtsen who compiled five 3:30/3:31 marks. The last of these came in Doha where he, however, still found himself outsprinted in the medal rush by championship specialists Taoufik Makhloufi and Marcin Lewandowski.
The surprise of the year was the emergence of Ronald Musagala who came into 2019 with a 3:33.65 PB, his only sub-3:35 performance ever. But he ran three 3:30/3:31 races this season which included a win at the Paris Diamond League. In Doha, however, he was eliminated in a 3:36-ish semifinal. And he was not alone to fail: Out of the eight fastest on season’s bests coming into Doha, six did not reach the final.
One of the most surprising trends in recent years is the diminishing Kenyan impact in this event. During the first half of the last decade Kenyans made up approximately half of the top-15 in the annual world lists, but in the last five years the number of Kenyans in top-15 has been 3, 3, 2, 1 and 1. This year Nicholas Kimeli, the seventh fastest, was their sole representative.
At the same time arch rivals Ethiopia have strengthened their presence so that they now make up approximately half of the top-15. Even more conspicuous: in the last two years Ethiopians have claimed nine out of ten top-5 places.
So it was just logical that the Doha final ended in an exciting sprint decision for the gold between Ethiopians Muktar Edris and Selemon Barega. Edris had that little bit of extra speed needed to successfully defend, his title from London, when he became famous for defeating Mo Farah in the final sprint. Best of the Kenyans now is teenager Jacob Kiprop who finished sixth just behind another 18 year old, Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen.
The foremost race of the year time-wise was the Rome Diamond League which produced the top-5 times of the year lead by Telahun Haile’s 12:52.98. He thereby signalled a big improvement since last year when he was fifth at the World U20s - he would go on to finish fourth in Doha.
The only significant break into the Ethiopian dominance of the event came at the Diamond League final in Zurich where their runners were content to stay at the back of the field for much too long. So when Joshua Cheptegei took off when he found himself alone when the pacemaker stepped off after 3000m, his challengers were too far back.
With one lap to go the Ethiopian chasers were still four seconds adrift, a gap they couldn’t make up in just 400 metres on a runner of Cheptegei’s calibre. So the Diamond League title went to Uganda.
Two years ago in London Mo Farah won his fifth straight global gold at this distance but this year he had left the 10,000m throne vacant. Who would take advantage of this opportunity?
The top end of the 2019 world list going into Doha was almost exclusively Ethiopian thanks to their World Championships trials race in Hengelo where Hagos Gebrhiwet won in 26:48.95 and where the eighth place finisher ran 27:02.26. The only non-Ethiopian with a comparable time was Kenya’s 2018 world U20 champion Rhonex Kipruto who had run 26:50.16 when winning a tough encounter with Gebrhiwet at the Stockholm Diamond League in late May.
Thanks to the special air conditioning system the conditions in the Khalifa Stadium were quite suitable for long distance running. So the runners kept the pace honest from the get go and the splits all along the way were almost identical to those in London two years ago with the kilometers being ticked off at a 2:40 to 2:44 clip.
With 1000 metres to go there were still eight in the hunt for the medals. But then Joshua Cheptegei – who two years ago had lost by just 0.43 to Farah – shifted gears and started reeling off sub-31 second half laps. By the bell only Yomif Kejelcha and Kipruto were still in contention. Kejelcha tried an attack going into the last bend but Cheptegei responded and in the final straight he pulled away.
The winning time of 26:48.36 was the second best ever in a global championship behind only Kenenisa Bekele’s 26:46.36 ten years ago in Berlin. It is also worth noting that Cheptegei’s last kilometre was even faster (2:27.6 to 2:28.8) than that of Farah when the Briton won off of a similar pace two years ago.
Men’s 3000m steeplechase
For many years this event was almost an internal Kenyan affair - only four years ago Kenya swept the top-4 places at the World Championships. But since then things have changed rapidly due both to ”the rest of the World” raising its game and to Kenyan standards regressing somewhat.
In 2016 six out of eight (75%) running sub-8:10 were Kenyans but this year the corresponding numbers were four out of 12 (33%). Kenya still won the gold in Doha due to Conseslus Kipruto’s determination when he just staved off the challenge from Ethiopian teenager Lemecha Girma, winning a true photo-finish decision by just 0.01.
Also, overall as a nation Ethiopia in 2019 was just about on par with Kenya: 8:01-8:05-8:05-8:08 for Kenya’s top-4 vs 8:01-8:05-8:06-8:09 for Ethiopia’s. And the four Ethiopians were on average three years younger than their Kenyans counterparts.
During the Diamond League season Moroccan Soufiane EL Bakkali was the most successful with three wins and one second place. The loss came at the final in Brussels where he lost by just 0.17 to teenager Getnet Wale. But in Doha the Moroccan got his revenge taking the bronze just ahead of the Ethiopian. The Diamond League podiums were in general dominated by Ethiopia (2-2-4 at top-3) and Kenya (1-2-2).
The eight minute barrier was first surpassed in 1995 – almost a quarter of a century ago – but has remained exclusive. Only 12 runners have ever managed to venture into sub-8-territory and in the last four years only El Bakkali (7:58.15 in 2018) has managed the feat. However, with 2019 having eight runners at 8:05 or better things can change soon.
The Diamond League season produced several winners, with nobody grabbing the favourite’s status in the lead-in to the World Championships. American Ajee’ Wilson began strong, winning the Herculis meeting in Monaco in 1:57.73 and then cutting one hundredth of a second off that time on her way to the US title in Des Moines a couple of weeks later (1:57.72). Fellow American Hanna Green won in Paris in 1:58.39 and Briton Lynsey Sharp in London in 1:58.61.
In Doha Ugandan Halimah Nakaayi emerged as a notable name in the heats and semifinals. In addition to running fast, her tactics were in the spotlight. In the final the 25-year-old was the strongest runner winning with a 1:58.04 national record, quite a surprise considering she only won two of her 10 international races in 2019 prior to the World Championships.
American Raevyn Rodgers won the silver, her first major medal, in a 1:58.18 season’s best while Wilson took a second straight bronze. Green and Sharp, two Diamond League winners in 2019, did not even make it to the semifinals.
Caster Semenya, the 2017 world champion, was the fastest runner in the early season clocking a world lead 1:54.98 in Doha’s Diamond League meeting then winning the Prefontaine Classic in June at Stanford in 1:55.70, but didn’t contest the event since.
The world record holder and 2015 world champion Genzebe Dibaba was the fastest athlete of the early season. The 28-year-old dipped under four minutes in Sabadell in February in 3:59.08, the fastest of the indoor season. The Ethiopian then started her outdoor campaign well, winning with world leads at the Rome and Rabat Diamond League meetings in June in 3:56.28 and 3:55.47, respectively. She was then away from competition for two months before returning to Zürich in August where she finished fourth in 4:00.86. But she suffered a heel injury there and could not continue her season and missed the World Championships.
The reigning world champion Faith Kipyegon only ran one international meeting before Doha, a win in Stanford in June in 3:59.04. The 25-year-old Kenyan won in London 2017 in 4:02.59, but the final in Doha was different after Sifan Hassan began taking over the reins in the event from June.
Although she suffered a narrow loss to Dibaba in Rabat clocking a 3:55.93 national record, Hassan returned to break the 23-year-old world record in the mile in Monaco with a 4:12.33 run, clocking a national 1500m record of 3:55.30 en route. She then took the 1500m in Zürich in 3:57.08.
In Doha Hassan made her own race by simply running away from the field early on. She won the gold in 3:51.95, a European and championships record and moved to No. 6 on the all-time world list.
Despite running just two finals before Doha, Kipyegon won the silver with a 3:54.22 national record with Gudaf Tsegay third in 3:54.38, a huge personal best cutting more than four seconds off her previous best. This was easily the best race in the history of the World Championships with nine athletes going under four minutes. Only once, at the 1987 championships, has a sub-four minute performance not been good enough for a medal. In this race, six sub-four runners would leave empty-handed. Shelby Houlihan was fourth in 3:54.99, a US record, Laura Muir of Great Britain fifth in 3:55.76 and Gabriela DeBues-Stafford of Canada sixth in 3:56.12, also a national record.
With Hassan opting for a unique 1500m/10,000m double, the role of favourite in the 5000m fell upon reigning champion Hellen Obiri. The Kenyan won the fastest race of the season clocking 14:20.36 in London, her second fastest of her career. The race was a close one, with Agnes Tirop clocking a 14:20.68 personal best right behind her compatriot and Hassan setting a 14:22.12 European record for third. The results for positions two and three are the fastest ever for those placings.
Tirop opted for the 10,000m in Doha, leaving Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen as one of the top challengers in Doha. The 22-year-old produced an impressive solo effort at the German Championships in August setting a 14:26.76 national record. The Doha final was a quick one, but it wasn’t decided until the final lap. Like so many times before, Obiri emerged as the winner in 14:26.72, a competition record. Kenyan Margaret Kipkemboi was second with a 14:27.49 personal best, her first podium finish at a major championships. Klosterhalfen grabbed the bronze in 14:28.43 with Ethiopian Tsehay Gemechu fourth in 14:29.60, the fastest non-medal winning performance at a World Championships.
AS usual, there were only a handful of notable 10,000m races before Doha. The fastest was the Ethiopian Trials in Hengelo where Letesenbet Gidey won in 30:37.89 setting a personal best. Earlier, Emily Sisson of the US won the Stanford Invitational in March clocking 30:49.57. Kenyans did not run in the fast races and with the reigning champion, Ethiopia’s world record holder Almaz Ayana not running, it was a bit of a mystery what would happen. In London 2017 Ayana won by more than 45 seconds, but in Doha it was a different story.
Sifan Hassan had only one 10,000m race under her belt, a 31:18.12 victory in Stanford in May. But given her 1500m speed, she was always going to be a contender should she be able to stand the pace. Agnes Tirop lead the runners to 5000m in a slow 15:32.70 and it was clear there was going to be a big negative split for the second half. Hassan waited long enough before making her move and the race was decided in the last lap with the Dutchwoman winning in a fast 30:17.62 personal best and world lead, only one second slower than Ayana’s 30:16.32 from London 2017. Hassan covered the second 5000m in 14:44.92.
Gidey won the silver for Ethiopia in 30:21.23, another personal best, her first major medal on track following a bronze at the World Cross Country Championships in March. Tirop was third in 30:25.20 to repeat her bronze position from London 2017. Kenya also took places four and five with Rosemary Wanjiru clocking 30:35.75 and Hellen Obiri 30:35.82, personal bests for both.
Women’s 3000m steeplechase
Beatrice Chepkoech continued her reign of the 3000m steeplechase in 2019. The Kenyan was in good form already in 2017, but a critical error in the London final - she missed one of the water jumps and had to retrace her steps - costs her a medal, perhaps even gold.
But she bounced back well, producing a huge 8:44.32 world record in Monaco in 2018, and was clearly the number one runner this season too. Chepkoech raced nine times winning eight. Her only loss was to compatriot Norah Tanui in Oslo, who didn’t even make the Kenyan squad for Doha. The primary challenger in Doha was the reigning world champion Emma Coburn. The 29-year-old didn’t win any big races, but had clocked a solid 9:04.90 prior to the World Championships.
But in the final, Chepkoech was simply too strong, easily dropping the field en route to an 8:57.84 championships record, the first sub-nine minute run at a World Championships. This was also her first major medal after fourth place finishes at the 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships.
Coburn won silver in a 9:02.35 personal best while Gesa-Felicitas Krause emerged as the surprise bronze medallist, setting a German record of 9:03.30 in the process. Bahrain’s Winfred Yavi was fourth in 9:05.68, also a personal best, her best ever placing in a major championships.
Mirko Jalava (women’s events) and A Lennart Julin (men’s events) for World Athletics