Yelena Isinbayeva gives notice to the world

Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia celebrates her record breaking effort in the women's pole vault in the Super Grand Prix meet in Gateshead.-Pic. STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES

RUSSIAN Yelena Isinbayeva set a world record of 4.82m in the women's pole vault event of the Super Grand Prix meet at Gateshead, England on July 13. The 21-year-old Russian bettered American Stacy Dragila's existing mark of 4.81m, set in Palo Alto, California, on June 9, 2001.

RUSSIAN Yelena Isinbayeva set a world record of 4.82m in the women's pole vault event of the Super Grand Prix meet at Gateshead, England on July 13. The 21-year-old Russian bettered American Stacy Dragila's existing mark of 4.81m, set in Palo Alto, California, on June 9, 2001.

Dragila had been battling with another Russian, Svetlana Feofanova, the past two seasons. But, by going up to 4.73 at Poznan, Poland, on June 29, Isinbayeva had given notice to the world that she was an equal contender with Dragila and Feofanova for the top honours this summer.

``This was not unexpected because I have been jumping quite well in training sessions,'' said Isinbayeva. "I was just waiting for the moment to come...I have jumped 4.80 numerous times in training. Today was my moment.''

Only a 1,000 of around 10,000 spectators had remained in the stadium when Isinbayeva tackled the record height. She received a cheque for 50,000 dollars as bonus for the effort.

Feofanova took the silver on a countback with another Russian, Yelena Belyakova and Pole Monika Pyrek, all of them clearing 4.54m.

Has the Emperor abdicated his throne finally? Is the great Haile Gebrselassie era coming to an end? These questions were bound to come up as Gebrselassie suffered his third defeat of the season, his second on the trot to Kenyan Abraham Chebii in the Peroni Golden Gala meet in Rome on July 11.

It was not just the defeat to Chebii that indicated that the great Ethiopian was ready to give way to youngsters. It was the manner in which he beckoned countryman Kenenisa Bekele to take over, with less than 200 metres to go in the 5000m, that was a clear indicator as well as the most poignant moment of a memorable night in Rome.

It was as though Gebrselassie was telling his teammate, nine years his junior, that he was no longer capable of sustaining the pace, the furious dash to the line and that he should tackle the dangerous Kenyan from then on.

Well, Bekele could not hold off Chebii, who, for the second time this season scored over Gebrselassie. He had won at the earlier Golden League leg in Paris, too. This time, he outkicked Bekele on the straight and passed him with about 50 metres to go. Chebii 12:57.14, Bekele 12:57.34, Gebrselassie 13:00.32, that was the end result.

``I am happy I could win. I knew that if I am faster in the final 150m I could hold on that far. The previous 600m was really fast which was tough for me. I think Haile and the other Ethiopians tried a tactical race, to change the speed constantly during the race. I think they tried to block me in the last curve, but I escaped,'' said Chebii.

``Bekele is the new prince, perhaps he is already the king,'' was how Gebrselassie described his younger team-mate before the Rome meet got off the blocks. Perhaps he might have to agree now that Chebii could be an equal contender for the throne.

Apart from Bekele and Gebrselassie, there were a few other prominent Ethiopians in the fray. Former world junior cross-country champion Gebregzaibher Gebremariam, world 10,000m silver medallist Assefa Mezgebu, the Ethiopian 5000m and 10,000m champion Sileshi Sihin and former world indoor two miles record holder Haylu Mekonnen. Of course, there were eight other Kenyans apart from Chebii in the line-up, including pace-setter Martin Keino.

Chebii had scored over Gebrselassie in Paris, 12:53.37 to 12:54.36. "It is good feeling to win a race and especially to beat Haile. You know, Haile has been a great athlete, the greatest ever. He has done fantastic things on the track, but I think it's now time for him to let the youngsters win,'' Chebii had said then.

No one really imagined that the great Ethiopian, arguably the greatest distance runner we have known, could be beaten again. Chebii, a trainee of the celebrated steeplechaser, Moses Kiptanui, has proved, after his Rome win, that he was ready to challenge anyone at the Worlds in August. And, after a long while, Kenya is looking strong again in the distance events.

Another man who has been ending up behind others this season has been Maurice Greene. The former world 100m record holder, making a determined comeback this season after a disappointing 2002, finished third again in Rome, just as it was in Paris the previous week.

John Capel, also of the US, won in Rome, in 10.04, with Bernard Williams, the winner in Paris, taking the silver and Greene the bronze. Deji Aliu, the Nigerian who had scored over Greene both at Lausanne and Paris, finished fifth this time behind Briton Dwain Chambers. Both Greene and Chambers were timed 10.09s.

Greene, despite the defeats, is confident that when the time comes, that is when he goes for his record fourth World title in August, he would be ready. So would be the others, including world record holder Tim Montgomery, who was busy shuttling between Europe and the US following the baby boy that girlfriend Marion Jones gave birth to back home, Bernard Williams and Chambers. And there is very little to choose from among the others.

Bernard Williams, third in the Edmonton Worlds 100m, clocked a season-leading personal best of 20.01s in the 200m in Rome. That timing surpassed the 20.03s that Japanese Shingo Suetsugu clocked at Yokohama on June 7. The Japanese bettered the existing Asian record of 20.16s, standing in the name of countryman Koji Ito since October, 1998.

Three of the six Golden League meetings have been gone through, in Oslo, Paris and Rome and, surprisingly, there are only two contenders left in the fray for the million-dollar jackpot. That was the case at the end of the second leg itself and it remained the same after Rome, where the two, Bahamas sprinter Chandra Sturrup and Mozambique 800m runner Maria Mutola, again triumphed.

With possible contenders going out of the race so early, the race for the jackpot might lose steam well before the final stretch, but Mutola looks strong enough to last the distance. "I know the Golden League jackpot is very tough to achieve, but I am trying to reach that dream. Because only two of us are left, it is getting exciting. When I race I am not thinking of the money. I just concentrate on each race,'' said Mutola.

The athletics season this time around is cramped with meets, the big difference being the World athletics final at the end of it instead of the Grand Prix finals. The Grand Prix points will no longer be scored towards qualification to the finals. Instead, the World rankings will count. And the rankings depend on practically every meet that you can think of, with bigger meets scoring more for placings. The key here is performance, meaning a 10.00 flat for the 100m will score the same in any meet. You get additional points for placings in different categories.

There were many personal bests and season bests in Rome, but none more important than the one recorded by Cuban Yamile Aldama in women's triple jump. Her 15.29 was yet again an area record, improving upon her own 15.11 in Oslo earlier in the season. World champion Tatyana Lebedeva of Russia had to settle for the silver this time, way behind at 14.86m. Aldama had a third-round lead of 14.90 and then posted the new PB on her last jump.

The 30-year-old Cuban, way down the rankings last season, had pushed herself into the top bracket right at the beginning of this season with a 15-metre effort at Ostrava. She scored over Lebedeva at Trikala, Greece, and at Oslo, but the Russian was quick to avenge those defeats, with a World-leading 15.12 jump on her last attempt at Paris where Aldama took the second place with 15.08.

Rome brought an anticipated season best for the 1500m from none other than Hicham El Guerrouj, 3:29.76. The World record holder from Morocco had made his senior 5000m debut earlier in the season at the Super Grand Prix in Ostrava, finishing second behind Kenyan Stephen Cherono in 12:50.24. That plus Cherono's 12:48.81 remained the top marks for the season up to the second week of July.

``This (Rome) was my first 1500m this year. I am pleased how well it went, but after running longer distances it was difficult to find the right rhythm...I need to practice with my speed because the 1500m is (going to be) the main distance (for me) in the World championships. I will run the 5000m, too, but that is going to be the bonus,'' said El Guerrouj.

World champion Olga Yegorova of Russia, in the thick of dope-related controversies two years ago, made her season debut in Rome and posted a personal best for the women's 1500m, 4:00.01. But one of the other favourites, Romanian Gabriela Szabo tasted defeat against Ethiopia's junior World champion, Meseret Defar, in the 5000 metres. Defar clocked a PB of 14:40.34. Szabo has a lot to think of before she picks her event for the Worlds.

Behind Szabo, there were two other Ethiopians, both from the younger brigade, 20-year-old Ejagayou Dibaba and 18-year-old Tirunesh Dibaba. The more experienced Ethiopians, Berhane Adere and Werknesh Kidane were at sixth and seventh.

Adere had all but set a World record in the 5000 metres in Oslo where Meseret had finished fourth. A terrific sprint from 200 metres out took her close to the World mark set by Chinese Jiang Bo in 1997, that of 14:28.09, but in the end she fell clearly short. Her 14:29.32 was, however, an African record, beating countrywoman Gete Wami's previous mark of 14:30.88. It was also easily the World's best for the distance this season. Werknesh Kidane was second in a personal best 14:33.04. Tirunesh Dibaba clocked a World junior record of 14:39.94 for the bronze.

The Ethiopian dominance of distance events continued in Oslo when two-time double World cross country champion Kenenisa Bekele took the men's 5000m title after a close battle with Kenyan Sammy Kipketer, 12:52.26 to 12:52.33. The Kenyans tried the usual team tactics but Bekele could not be stopped. In third place, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge clocked a World junior record of 12:52.61, bettering countryman Philip Mosima's 1996 mark of 12:53.72.

By winning their second straight Golden League titles in Paris, Chandra Sturrup and Maria Mutola remained on course for the jackpot. Sturrup beat American favourite Kelli White and local star Christine Arron. Kelli White had been quite a sensation this season, scoring the sprint double in the US championships with a top mark of 10.93s for the short dash.

Mutola won a keen battle with Slovenia's Jolanda Ceplak, the World indoor champion and record holder, in 1:57.58. She had clocked just 2:00.62 while winning from old foe Stephanie Graf of Austria in Oslo. In the Super Grand Prix at Lausanne, Mutola had timed a fabulous 1:56.57 that was easily the season's best. She was to later score over Ceplak and Graf in Rome, though in a modest winning time of 1:57.21. Modest by her standards, that is.

Felix Sanchez is trying to emulate the great Ediwn Moses. Obviously he has miles to go before he can come anywhere near the feats of the great American perfectionist. The Dominican Republic star won his 20th straight victory in the 400m hurdles in Paris. He won in an ordinary 48.30s and said " this is a slow time for me.'' Sanchez, who will be defending his World title in Paris, said that he was tired. "Now I know that even on my worst day I am capable of beating the best hurdlers in the World,'' he said. He had clocked a World-leading 47.80, three days earlier, in Lausanne.

Sanchez was supreme in Rome, too, winning in 48.15s while South African Llewellyn Herbert clocked a season best of 48.50 for the silver.

Hammer throw might not be part of the big circuit. Yet, the event was brought into focus by Japanese Koji Murofushi in Prague on June 30 when he produced the third longest throw in history. At the Josef Oldozil memorial, a Grand Prix II meeting, the Asian Games and Asian champion reached 84.80m to write himself into the all-time lists. European champion Adrian Annus of Hungary was second with a season best 82.73m.

Only Russians Yuriy Sedykh and Sergey Litvinov have thrown farther than Murofushi. Sedykh has the top three marks, all over 86.00m.

He also has three other marks over 85.00m. Litvinov has one over 86.00m and three over 85.00m. The last time someone did better than Murofushi was the World record of 86.74 by Sedykh in Stuttgart in August, 1986.

``I always dreamed about 84m, now the dream is fulfilled. Now the tough part is coming, to be consistent at this level. No, I am not really thinking about the World record. It is too far,'' said Murofushi. His previous Asian record of 83.47m was set in Toyota in July,2001.

With Suetsugu having clocked an earlier season best for the men's 200m, there were two Japanese at the top of the lists till Bernard Williams clocked his 200 PB in Rome, that of 20.01.

It is rare for Asians to top season's charts, unless of course we are talking of the memorable days of the Chinese middle and long distance female runners or the domination of the Japanese on the road or that of the Chinese walkers. Rarer still for two of them from the same country to occupy that slot at the same time, momentarily though it might have been.