Worlds back in the land of PAAVO Nurmi

The Helsinki Olympic Stadium that hosted the first World athletics championships in 1983 is once again the venue for the biennial competition, writes K. P. MOHAN.

IT doesn't look as though it is nearly a year since we witnessed the last athletics event of the Athens Olympics, the men's marathon. It is not Stefano Baldini's marathon victory that we readily recall from Athens, but an Irishman, in kilt and with a beret, intruding into the course to push down Brazilian Vanderlei de Lima, the lead runner. From obscurity de Lima rose to become a national hero, though he won only the bronze.

Our topic is not of course de Lima nor Athens Olympics, though distance running will surely figure prominently as we look at another athletics spectacle unfold in the land of Paavo Nurmi. The Helsinki Olympic Stadium that hosted the first World athletics championships in 1983 is once again the venue for the biennial competition.

A bronze statue of Nurmi adorns the entrance of the Olympic Stadium as though to remind the Finns of their glorious tradition in distance running.

The Finns have long lost their hold on distance events, however. To be precise, since the days of Lasse Viren, the 1972 and 1976 Olympic distance double winner. But they do have some fabulous javelin throwers in their midst, none more imposing than Tero Pitkamaki. We will come to him later.

When you talk of distance events in contemporary athletics, you talk about Kenenisa Bekele. And you talk about Ethiopian distance runners. Alas, the greatest distance runner of our times, Haile Gebrselassie will be skipping Helsinki after having competed in six editions of the championships from 1993. The Ethiopian who says he now wants to concentrate on the marathon, won four world titles in a row before being beaten in the 10,000 metres by Kenyan Charles Kamathi in the 2001 edition at Edmonton. And he was beaten again, last time at Paris, by the man who has since taken over the mantle of distance running from him, Bekele.

Bekele is once again eyeing the distance double, just as he had done at the Olympics. And failed. There, the Olympic double was Hicham El Guerrouj's who made up for the Sydney disappointment by not only taking the metric mile but also the 5000m, just ahead of Bekele, though most comfortably. The Moroccan had not made his season debut till the third week of July, leading to speculation whether he would be competing at the Worlds or not. An unspecified illness was said to be the reason behind El Guerrouj's uncertainty.

Bekele won a phenomenal fourth consecutive double at the World cross-country championships this year, came close to his 5000m world record in Paris by clocking 12:40.18 and also had a 26:28.72 victory in the 10,000 metres at Hengelo to assert his form and class.

The Kenyans have generally taken the backseat since Kamathi beat Gebrselassie in Edmonton. Bekele should find the challenge coming from his own countrymen, if at all, as he pursues the defence of his 10,000m gold.

With El Guerrouj not competing and Bernard Lagat, the Kenyan, ineligible, after taking up American citizenship, the 1500 metres should open up plenty of possibilities, with Asian champion and record holder Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain, a disappointment in the last Olympics, once again a strong contender. Kenyan Daniel Kipchircir Komen could be another man to watch out for, while Frenchman Mehdi Baala, who chased El Guerrouj down the straight in Paris two years ago, in vain, should fancy his chances better than ever before.

The sprints would have been as explosive as in the Olympics, but for the fact that world record holder Asafa Powell aggravated a groin injury in London, a little over two weeks before the championships. He looked determined enough to yet stage a remarkable recovery in his quest towards one global title that he has missed so far in his young career, but it could be touch and go when the time comes for the starter's call.

Olympic champion Justin Gatlin has, in the meantime, shaped up well to stake a strong claim for the title. His much-awaited clash with Powell, after the Jamaican had clocked a world record 9.77 at Athens, failed to come off in London as the latter pulled up after about 15 metres.

Gatlin won in Rome, too, but was beaten by the little-known Frenchman Ronald Pognon and Ghana's Aziz Zakari in Lausanne. He had come through a trying competition in the U.S. championships where he was initially disqualified for a false start in the preliminaries and then re-instated. Eventually he won, ahead of Shawn Crawford, the Olympic champion in the 200 metres. Maurice Greene, who looked to be keen to come back into top-level contention early season, injured a hamstring and did not finish in the U.S. final, thereby losing a place in the team.

Powell had the top three timings of the season, including his world record, going into the London Super Grand Prix where Gatlin clocked his best, a 9.89, while winning from team-mate Leonard Scott (9.94s) and reigning world champion Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis.

One of the other major duels on the straight could be in the men's 110m hurdles where Olympic champion Liu Xiang and defending world champion Allen Johnson could run into a tough challenge from Frenchman Ladji Doucoure. In fact, the Frenchman beat both Johnson and Liu Xiang in the Paris Golden League meet while posting a world-leading 12.97, two-hundredth of a second better than Johnson's winning time at Carson in the U.S. championships. Liu Xiang's best has been a 13.05 in Lausanne. Johnson is a big stage performer on the lookout for his fifth world title and the Chinese has his new-found stature and strength as the Olympic champion. The battle eventually has to be between these two, with the Frenchman being the dark horse.

Now, to Tero Pitkamaki. The 22-year-old Finn has been the sensation in javelin this season and should start the firm favourite at home. He had a world-leading 91.53m at Kuoratne, Finland, in June, the 19th best throw on the all-time lists at that time. He was the sixth farthest of all-time, a list headed by the peerless Czech Jan Zelezny.

Zelezny, in the meantime, has made a quite comeback from injuries yet another time to have another crack at the world title. He has had only an 83.43 to begin with, but he has the experience against the youth of Pitkamaki.

Finland has a great tradition in javelin-throwing and if Pitkamaki wins, he will be joining the likes of Seppo Raty, Kimmo Kinnunen and Aki Parviainen on the world champion rostrum. Norway's Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen and Russian Sergey Makarov can spoil the Finnish party.

Though he is well behind the leaders, another Finn who could have a shy at a medal at least will be hammer thrower Olli-Pekka Karjalainen. The event is headed by defending champion Ivan Tikhon of Belarus who had a massive 86.73 throw back home. Surprisingly, Olympic champion Koji Murofushi of Japan has made fewer headlines than at any time during the last five years.

On the women's side, the absence of Marion Jones will mean less of glamour and controversy. The woman who once epitomised all that is good in American athletics, nay world athletics, walked out of the U.S. trials along with boyfriend and former world record holder Tim Montgomery amidst the doping controversy that had dogged her since BALCO broke.

Last time, when she was tending to her baby boy, another American Kelli White had dominated the sprints, only to be stripped later of her gold medals following a doping charge. White went onto accept a two-year ban and spilled the beans on the goings-on when the BALCO scandal erupted.

Since then, the U.S. has relentlessly pursued a no-tolerance policy in its anti-doping measures, dumping in its wake such names as Chryste Gaines, Michelle Collins, Alvin Harrison and Calvin Harrison. Quarter-miler Jerome Young, at the centre of the relay gold dispute at the Sydney Olympics, has been banned for life, while Montgomery is facing a possible life-ban if his appeal before CAS fails.

In the absence of Jones and White the sprinting spotlight will be turned on Lauryn Williams, Melisa Barber and Allyson Felix from the American side with Chandra Sturrup of the Bahamas, Veronica Campbell of Jamaica, Christine Arron of France and Ivet Lalova of Bulgaria providing the non-American challenge.

Quite a few big names will be missing from Helsinki action because of injuries. Apart from Maurice Greene, world and Olympic triple jump champion, Christian Olsson of Sweden is on the injured list and so too Britain's double gold medallist at the Athens Olympics, Kelly Holmes.

In the absence of Holmes, Maria Mutola should have been the favourite for the 800m, but the Mozambique woman had her dominance broken by Russian Svetlana Cherkosova and her rankings streak upset by Moroccan Hasna Benhassi.

There is a fierce battle developing in women's high jump, with Sweden's Kajsa Bergqvist, back from injuries, Russian Yelena Slesarenko, the Olympic champion, and American Chaunte Howard going neck and neck in the lead-up to the championships. All three have sailed over 2.00 metres.

The main jumping spotlight will, however, be firmly on Russian Yelena Isinbayeva as she aims higher and higher at the pole vault pit. In a nerve-wracking Olympic competition, Isinbayeva had gambled and pulled off the gold and the world record to go with it. Her recent London feat of five metres, a watershed in women's pole-vaulting, should add a new dimension to the event when it is held in Helsinki. Surely, Isinbayeva has snatched the glamour away from everyone else, not just because she aims for the heavens but also because of her stunning looks. It will be a huge shock if she is beaten.