Francine Niyonsaba wins the 800m at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018 (© Getty Images)
Not since the days of the Maria Mutola has there been a successful title defence in the women’s 800m at the IAAF World Indoor Championships.
The mighty Mozambican made five successful defences en route to her record collection of seven individual world indoor golds, which she accomplished across two separate streaks (split by her defeat to the Czech Ludmila Formanova in Maebashi in 1999) from 1993 to 2006.
There has only been one other repeat winner – East Germany’s Christine Wachtel, who prevailed in 1987, 1989 and 1991 – so Francine Niyonsaba joined some select company when she sprinted past Ajee Wilson off the final bend to retain the global crown she claimed ahead of the US runner in Portland two years ago.
Niyonsaba, Burundi’s first world champion, was an indoor novice when she took to the boards in Portland in 2016, just two months after her move to nearby Eugene to join the Oregon Track Club. This time the 2016 Olympic and 2017 world outdoor silver medallist looked every inch a seasoned master.
She bided her time as Wilson led the field through the opening 200m in a brisk 28.59, followed by Ethiopia’s Hatem Alemu. Wilson maintained her lead and her pace through 400m, which she passed in 59.32, then resisted Niyonsaba’s first charge with 300m to go.
The world outdoor bronze medallist behind Caster Semenya and Niyonsaba in London last year, Wilson remained in pole position until it came to the final bend. Niyonsaba gathered her strength around the curve before sweeping into the lead as she entered the home straight and powering through the line in 1:58.31, a world lead.
Wilson had to settle for silver again, her natural disappointment tempered by a PB, 1:58.99.
Behind the repeat one-two, British women’s captain Shelayna Oskan-Clarke overhauled Alemu off the final bend to take bronze in 1:59.81, a personal best. Then came Alemu, (fourth in2:01.10), US collegiate champion Raevyn Rogers (fifth in 2:01.44) and two-time European indoor champion Selina Buchel of Switzerland (sixth in 2:03.61).
Oskan-Clarke, a former county hockey player, notched a global medal success for her coach Jon Bigg, the husband of former world 400m hurdles champion Sally Gunnell – and a posthumous tribute to her former coach, Ayo Falola, who lost his brave battle with cancer in December 2015.
Niyonsaba, coached at the Oregon Track Club by Britain’s 1988 Olympic steeplechase bronze medallist Mark Rowland, dedicated her triumph to her country. “I did it for God and for my country,” she said. “I want to be an inspiration for the youth and children in Burundi.
“I did all I was supposed to do to defend this title, despite the fact it was not easy. I knew Ajee was well prepared and expected her to start like she did. It was hard to win but I felt good to push it in the finish.”
Wilson did not regret her blitz tactic. "I felt confident in the race and wanted to secure a good position,” she said. “I think it was worth trying it. For the outdoors, I know what to work on now before the season starts."
Oskan-Clarke, a silver medallist at the European Indoor Championships last year, has developed into an astute racer when it comes to the big occasion. “I’m just happy to have got a medal,” she said. “I kept telling myself in the call room, ‘You’re strong enough to do this.’
“The race was a bit scrappy for me, but I dug deep. Normally I don't hear the crowd because I'm in the zone, but I could can hear them roaring all the way around. It helped me push a little deeper."
Simon Turnbull for the IAAF