Diamond League – Rome: Obiri gallant at Golden Gala

After Eugene, the diamond league moved to Rome for the first European meet of 2016. The Golden Gala marks a significant point in the calendar, as from here there are just two months until the world championships.

Thirteen diamond league events were on show in the Italian capital, plus two non-diamond races. In total four world leads were produced amongst a myriad of seasons bests, personal bests and national records.


WOMEN’S POLE VAULT ♦

One of the world leads took place in the women’s pole vault, where Olympic champion Ekaterina Stefanidi was to be challenged by her fellow Olympic medalists, Sandi Morris of the US and New Zealand’s Eliza McCartney.

All 11 women in the field either cleared or passed at 4.20 before Angelica Moser of Switzerland and the hosts Sonia Malavasi bowed out. There would be three more casualties at 4.40 including Great Britain’s 2012 world indoor medallist Holly Bradshaw who after two failures at the height, retired from the competition and looked to be in discomfort. Hopefully for Holly it is only a short term problem with a home world championships only eight weeks away.

By the time the Stefanidi joined the competition the bar had reached 4.65 and Olympic silver medallist and second highest vaulter of all time, Morris had exited the competition, leaving only five women remaining. Anzhelika Sidorova, competitng as an authorised neutral athlete (ANA) was the next to leave, unable to succeed at 4.75 after clearing 4.55 and 4.65 at the first time of asking. The former European champion (indoors and out) will not be too disappointed with that performance however as it was a seasons best. Having missed a large number of competitions under the Russian ban, I expect to see her compete as much as possible before the worlds, to get the rhythm needed to vie for a first world outdoor medal.

Liza Ryzih had one extra jump having started the competition at 4.40 but she too was unable to clear 4.75, exiting with a SB of 4.65 as well. Ahead of her, the messiest scorecard belonged to McCartney, with one failure at 4.40, one at 4.65 and two at 4.75 before clearing on the final attempt. Three failures at 4.85 spelled the end of her night, but the 20 year old showed last year that she knows how to peak at the right moment, clearing a new PB of 4.80 in the Olympic final to win bronze, becoming the youngest female Olympic pole vault medallist of all time, as she did so.

The real surprise of the evening came from Cuba’s 2015 world champion Yarisley Silva, who had struggled for form in the early part of the season. Silva, who needed all three attempts to get past 4.55 cleared first time at .65 and .75 to finish second ahead of McCartney courtest of having fewer failures. After a disappointing Rio games where she finished 7th, 30cm below her winning height at the worlds the previous year and with her lowest jump in a major final in over 4 years, perhaps Silva is over her slump? 4.75 also represented a SB for her and a good result. Nethertheless, it took the Olympic champion only three jumps – all clearances to win, and set a new world lead of 4.85 before having three attempts at what would be a new world record – 5.07. Stefanidi, at present, looks imperious and despite being Olympic and European champion, is very much still improving. A confident performance in Rome will see her head to London as the firm favourite.

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MEN’S JAVELIN ♦

Whilst there was not to be a world lead in the men’s javelin, we would be treated to another 90m throw. Röhler, who appears to be going from strength to strength, found himself being teammate and Olympic fourth placer Johannes Vetter heading into the final round. Vetter has played second fiddle to Röhler all season but looked to have got the better of himin Rome with an 88.15 5th-round throw. The Olympic champion however, responded in empathic fashion, launching the implement out to 90.16m following up from his national record of 93.90 in Doha a month earlier.

Fellow countryman Andreas Hofmann did not fare so well, throwing a disappointing 79.65 to finish down in 5th. There were however, season’s bests for 2012 olympic champion Kershorn Walcott in 3rd with 86.61 and 2015 world champion Julius Yego of Kenya, 7th in 82.19. Whilst Hofmann had a bad day at the office, a German 1-2-3 still looks likely with only two months till the worlds.

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MEN’S 100M

On the track there was a non-diamond 100m which saw Britain’s CJ Ujah storm to victory in a season’s best of 10.02. Ujah has been remarkably consistent this year and I am confident that consistency will result in a large drop in time at the worlds. Here he edged out joint-European record holder Jimmy Vicaut of France in 10.05 as he continues his recovery from injury. Ronnie Baker of the US was third in the same time.

The men’s 100m has been arguably the weakest event in track and field this year, and with Usain yet to show form, we could be heading to a slow world title winning time. Olympic finalist Ben Youssef Meité ran a seasons best of 10.10 in 4th, but behind him there was very little to celebrate about.

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WOMEN’S 1500M ♦

An event that could not be further from the lows of the mens 100m is the womens 1500m. In 2015 Genzebe Dibaba took the world by storm, breaking a world record some thought couldn’t be touched. 2016 saw the dominance of Faith Kipyegon, stepping up from silver to gold and showing excellent tactical nuance and turn of pace when it mattered.

This year looks to be the turn of The Netherland’s Sifan Hassan. The world bronze medallist changed her training group after the Olympic games, where she finished 5th, moving to Alberto Salazaar’s infamous training group as part of the Oregon project. Whatever he’s asked her to change appears to be working. Having run the 5000m at the Eugene diamond league and finishing third, she stepped down here to her primary distance and blew the field away.

In her first outdoor 1500m of the year set out her intent by following the pacemarker immediately, a deviation from her usual tactic of sitting at the back for the first two laps and then kicking hard. It was quick from the start and they went through 700m in a rapid 1:51 and change. Hassan was briefly passed by the young German start Konstanze Klosterhalfen but Hassan did not panic and at the bell moved clear and put her foot down. The change of pace she showed here is what has been lacking over the past two years and I think is the reason she has struggled to sometimes go with Dibaba and Kipyegon. It seems though that that gap has been bridged, she stormed away from the field and crossed the line in a truly phenomenal time of 3.56:22, a new world lead and meeting record, breaking Rababe Arafi’s time, who herself faded badly to 9th in 4.04:25.

14 of the 18 athletes in the field recorded either personal bests or seasons bests, including WinnyChebet and Klosterhalfen, both breaking 4 minutes for the first time with PB’s in 2nd and 3rd. Swedish star Meraf Bahta finished 4th in 4.00:59, also a lifetime best. Further down the field there were good times to global finalist Gudaf Tsegay and European champion Angelika Cichocka with Ireland’s Ciara Mageean and Poland’s Sofia Ennaoui both clocking the world qualifying standard.

Hassan’s main challengers with be Dibaba, Kipyegon, Muir and one would suspect Simpson and Rowbury. Whether any of them are in better form than the Dutch athlete, remains to be seen.

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WOMEN’S HIGH JUMP ♦

Back on the infield, Mariya Lasiteskene continued her world dominance. Nothing in athletics is guaranteed, but a second world title for Mariya is as close to a guarantee as we are ever likely to see. No other women in the world has cleared 2m this year, and Olympic champion Ruth Betia finished 11th here in a dreadful 1.80. Indeed only Levern Spencer, who did not record a height, had a worse evening. Olympic and European silver medallist Mirela Demireva equalled her SB of 1.88, nine centimetres below her PB.

The home favourite Alessia Trost, another athlete on a comeback trail cleared a SB of 1.91 for joint 4th place with GB’s Morgan lake who had three below par attempts at 1.94. The silver and bronze medals are up for grabs in London and a whole host of athletes can reasonably expect to be in contention. At the moment that pack are lead by Ukraine’s Yuliya Levenchenko who appears to be gathering momentum at the ideal moment, and Kamila Lićwinko the 2014 world indoor champion. Linćwinko has three indoor medals but her best performance outdoors at a major was 4th at the 2015 world championships where she cleared 1.99. I will eat my hat if 1.99 does not earn a medal in London in what is a slight (but not unexpected) drop in high jumping standard compared to what we have been treated to over the last decade or so.

At the top of the pile however is the Russian competing as an authorised neutral athlete. Lasitiskene, whowon the world title under her maiden name Kuchina and shared the 2014 world indoor title with Lićwinko. Russia have historically dominated the women’s high jump, with 16 women having cleared the elite height of 2.00, double that of any other nation, one could argue that it is indeed their national sport. However, Lasitskene has to content with many of the names that accompany her on that list being those of dopers. These include 2004 olympic and double world indoor champion Elena Slesarenko and 2011 world and 2012 olympic champion Anna Chicherova. Having been a fan of Chicherova as a child I remember being shocked and angry at the revelation that the 10-time global medal winner, arguably the best (not highest) high jumper of all time, adding in her 2.07 PB, was in fact a cheat. I, like many in the athletics community had never doubted Anna whilst rumours about other Russian’s continued to fly. Despite this Lasitskene does not seemed face, continuing to hold the whole world in contempt both in interviews and in competition.

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MEN’S 100M HURDLES ♦

There are so many men running under 13.30 at present that every line up is competitive, regardless of who’s there. Olympic silver medallist Orlando Ortego started as slight favourite for this race but European indoor champion Andy Pozzi led the field for the first half of the race, narrowly ahead of world record holder Aries Merrit. A slight stumble around nine saw Pozzi drop back through the field and despite not quite putting together a clean race outdoors (yet) he has been there or thereabouts in every race. I am so excited to see how fast he can go when he gets it right. In the meatime however, 4th place here in 13.24 represents a good day out. Behind the first four Olympic finalist Milan Trajkovic recorded a SB and world qualifier of 13.39.

At the front of the field though the race was between the first four. 2015 world champion and excellent big time performer Sergey Shubenkov ran a SB of 13.21 in 3rd, pipping Pozzi on the line. The reigning world champ will continue to get faster as we approach London and will definitely challenge for a medal. Ortega and Shubenkov actually had the worst starts of the entire field but as others faded and faltered they stayed clear of the hurdles and worked their way through the field. Ortega finished 2nd in 13.17 and will not with a better reaction to the gun that time will come down.

It was Merritt who prevailed in the end, stopping the clock in an equal SB of 13.13. Merritt spoke in his interview afterwards of not having started his speedwork yet, which for this stage of the season is quite remarkable, although understandable given the kidney transplant he received late last year. This marks his first year since setting the world record in 2012 without kidney troubles so I wonder if we may finally see sub-13 clockings from him again? So far, so good for Aries.

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WOMEN’S 400M ♦

The quarter milers took to the track in a fairly open race albeit with a slightly under par line up for a diamond league meeting. Williams-Mills was the only global medallist in the field but she could not break 51 seconds, crossing the line second in 51.04 narrowly ahead of Olha Zemlyak in 51.08. Both will look to improve other the next few weeks into the mid 50’s to make the final eight at the worlds. Victorious on the night was Natasha Hastings in a SB of 50.51, a win that saw her top the diamond league standings with 15 points. I have been very critical of Natasha throughout her career, having never pushed on from her PB nine years ago. One of the reasons is that she appears to never have learnt from her mistake. In almost every race I have seen her run she has overcommitted through the first 200m and died a death at the back end of the race. Given that her 200m PB is also world class I wonder why she is not a 200m runner, because it is clear that that is where her strengths lie. Regardless, it was a good performance in Rome and she will no doubt head to the US trials ready to fight for a place on the team. Very little to discuss behind the first three in terms of performances or times but there was a notable PB of 51.56 for 400m hurdler Léa Sprunger of Switzerland, using this meet to test her flat speed for trying to break into the worlds best eight over the hurdles.

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MEN’S 200M  ♦

There was no one-lap event for men during this meet, but a competitive 200m saw Olympic silver and bronze medallists Andre De Grasse and Christophe Lemaitre take a 1-2 in SB’s of 20.01 and 20.29. In the absence of Bolt De Grasse appeared to be the natural air to the throne, however, 400m world record holder Wayde Van Nierkerk’s decision to double up hasseen De Grasse usurped. 20.01 at this stage of the season is an excellent result and a good win over Ameer Webb (3rd, 20.33 SB) and multi global finalist Churandy Martina. However, he will need to find at least two tenths more if he is to win a maiden global title.

Lemaitre will peak in London as he always does at the champs and the decision to focus solely on the 200m after years of doubling up will likely have a positive outcome.

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WOMEN’S SHOT PUT ♦

One of the outstanding performances of the night came in the women’s shot put where Olympic and multiple world medallist – but never a gold in either – Gong Lijiao put together one of the most impressive legal series of throws in history. All six throws were over 19 metres and all would have been good enough to win. The shortest (19.18) came in round three but the three that followed (19.50, 19.56 & 19.53) capped off a stunning night for the Chinese athlete. Gong has spent most of her career playing second fiddle to Valerie Adams and various Eastern-European drugs cheats, but with Adams missing this season due to pregnancy, Olympic champion Michelle carter beaten here in 3rd with 18.86 and early season world number 1 Anita Marton struggling for mid-season form with 18.55 perhaps this year could see Gong add a gold to her collection of silver and bronzes?

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MEN’S 3000M STEEPLECHASE ♦

Conseslus Kirputo, the Olympic champion, began as favourite in the Italian capital. Kipruto’s story and progression is more or less every athlete’s dream. 2011 world youth champion, 2012 world junior champion, the following year he made the big step up to the senior ranks winning a silver medal at the 2013 world championships, and repeated this accomplishment at the 2015 world championships, before it all culminated in Olympic gold lastyear.

Making the Kenyan team alone in what is one of their most competitive events is an achievement in itself, but to continually make the team and then go on to collect medals shows excellent championship pedigree.

The pace was hot from the start, with find of the season Soufiane El Bakkali and Jarius Birech close behind. Clement Kemboi paced them through the first 1000m in 2:35.67 with the field fairly strung out. By 2000m however, Kipruto had hit the front, going through in 5.23.05 with El Bakkali, Amos Kiruir, Birech and Barnabas Kipyego in single file. Although the field was quite well distributed across the track, the pace was clearly hot, and there would be good times for many of the athletes if they could just hold on for the last two and a half laps.

Just outside seven minutes at the bell and only four remained. Kipruto, Kirui, El Bakkali and Birech who was dropped on the backstraight. At the bend the Moroccan kicked hard but Kipruto dug deep and fought to hold him off. Coming over the final barrier he put his foot down and moved three metres clear. Unbeaten in 2016, Kipruto had to work incredibly hard for this victory but he as the champion he was able to hold off the attack that came. The time – 8.03:63, a world lead, was made to look very comfortable. Indeed, the victor looks like he could run over the magic eight-minute barrier if necessary.

El Bakkali was visibility estatic as he crossed the line, recording a huge personal best of 8:05.17 announcing himself on the world stage as a medal contender. Birech ran an excellent season’s best of 8.07:84 in third. There was a PB of 8.08:37 for Kirui in 5th and a national record for Haileselassie in 5th with 8.11:22.  17/19 finishers recorded SB’s or PB’s in a stunning race, all the way down to Donald Cabral of the USA in 18th place, the time – 8.33:49 within the world champs standard. One place ahead of him, reigning world champion Ezekiel Kemboi – the best (or second best) Steeplechaser of all time, depending on your view, clocked a SB of 8.33:07 in his final season on the track. You can bet your bottom dollar he will run significantly quicker in London.

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WOMEN’S 100M ♦

From the second longest event of the night, to the second shortest.

Dafne Schippers recorded her first ‘big’ victory of the season, running 10.99 to beat Marie-Jose Ta Lou and Michelle-Lee Ahye. Olympic and world long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta was 4th in 11.26 and Olympic finalist Christania Williams equalled her SB of 11.32 in 5th. As a huge fan of Schippers I am a little disappointed that her season has not really come alive so far. Her and training partner Desiree Henry (6th here in 11.32) both began the season so well but it has kind of petered out. I wonder if there is a problem amongst the training group? Hopefully whatever is not quite working will be corrected before the big one arrives. Over the 100m Schippers has little to no chance of challenging Elaine but with the double Olympic champion not contesting the 200m, Schippers prospect of retaining her world title looks much improved.

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WOMEN’S TRIPLE JUMP ♦

The world’s three best triplejumpers faced off in Rome. One this occasion world indoor champion Yuliar Rojas was victorious, bounding out to 14.84 in round 5 to claim victory. Her 4th round leaper, 2cm shorter would also have been enough to edge out Olympic champion Catherine Ibarguen, 2nd in 14.78 produced as a response in the final round. A solid series saw 2012 olympic champion Olga Rypakova finish third, all of her jumps between 14.15 and 14.64. Portugal’s Patricia Momona (the 2016 European champion) recorded 14.42 in the second round but then took no further part in the competition.

Rypakova (who has seemingly been around forever) was a long way off her best jumps of 15.25 outdoors, 7th on the world all-time list (including dopers), and 15.14 indoors, 3rd on the indoor equivalent, both set during 2010, the later of which when winning the world indoor title. Yet this was not the surprise of the night. Ibarguen had not been beaten in almost 5 years, since the 2012 olympic final (a defeat to Rypakova) but here her winning streak ended to the 21 year-old from Venezuela. Most people in the sport had already identified Yuliar Rojas as the successor to Ibarguen and her stunning 14.98 jump in Rio to win silver demonstrated that the somewhat erratic talent can produce the big jumps on the big occasion.

Her personal best of 15.02 already sees her sit very high up on the world all time non-doping list, but she may well need to improve that in London if she is to de-thrown Catherine on the biggest occasion.

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MEN’S 800M ♦

A great line up was assembled for the men’s 800m but a slow tactical race materialised. Pacer Job Kinyor went through 400m in a ferocious 49.25 (under world record pace) which drew in not one single athlete. Instead the pack sat back and waited for someone’s patience to snap. Kinyo drove all the way to 600m miles clear before he realised he was so far ahead and drove for home. It was only with 80m to go that the pack caught him, Adam Kszczot being the first to do so as he drove to the front and kicked for home. In a slow race, there are very few athletes who can keep pace with the five-time European champion and the outcome was only ever going to be a victory for the Polish star.

Every other athlete finished outside 1.46, including 2nd placer Elijiah Managoi and fellow Pole the 1500m specialist Marcin Lewandowski in 5th. The whole field passed a dying pace maker on the final straight as the suicidal pace eventually got the better of him, but with not a single athlete running a SB or world qualifier, one has to feel that the only person who can be pleas

ed with that performance is Kszczot. A fierce competitor normally, it all went horribly wrong for the world medallist in the Rio semis. He will be desperate to re-establish himself as one of the world’s best in eight weeks’ time.

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WOMEN’S 400M HUDRLES

The second non-diamond race of the meet saw one of the most exciting events of the year take to the track. The women’s 400m hurdles has seen fast times, big shocks, dramatic falls and remarkable close races over the last four years. Despite the stellar line up each time, there is never a firm favourite, given the unpredictability of the event.

On this occasion, Jamaica’s Janieve Russell, 5th at the 2015 worlds, 7th at the 2016 olympics and 2014 commonwealth games bronze medallist, had the measure of the field, winning in 54.14, a SB just shy of her PB of 53.96. Russell found herself well clear coming into the home straight and although Olympic silver medallist, world 4th placer and European champion Sara Petersen closed down on her, she could not catch her. The Dane clocked a SB of 54.35 in 2nd, narrowly ahead of South African Wenda Theron Nel, 3rd in 54.58.

Double world champion Zuzana Hejnová finished 4th in a disappointing 55.27 whilst GB’s Eilidh Doyle, racing only her 2nd race of the outdoor campaign raced well through the first 300m and as is often the case runs the best first 150m of any hurdler in the world. Doyle has struggled to break 54 seconds due to fading over the final 100m and although she made significant strides last year including a new Pb of 54.09, here she chopped her stride and moved backwards through the field, clocking a very dreadful 55.86 to finish last behind some less than outstanding competitors.

I was a little worried about Eilidh after this performance and her shock exit in the European indoor 400m semis when many people expected her to win gold. However, she has since responded excellently improving her SB three times. After over-racing last year and being tired in the Olympic final Doyle has had much fewer races this year and will hopefully head to London ready to smash into the 53s, which she is more than capable of.

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PERFORMANCE OF THE NIGHT

WOMEN’S 5000M ♦

After committing to the 5000m last year, having spent most of her career as a 1500m runner, Hellen Obiri had a huge breakthrough in Rio, taking silver behind one of the all-time great’s Vivian Cheryuit, and ahead of 10,000m world record holder Almaz Ayana.

Since then the diminutive Kenyan’s confidence has journeyed along an exponential trajectory and with that commanding performances have followed. We now think of Hellen as a front runner, getting out hard and working her way to fast times, uninterested in what others around her are doing. This single-minded focus is working wonders. Gone are the days where Obiri would get lost amongst the Dibaba show. Hellen Obiri has arrived.

Like many of the long distance races, athletes go to Rome with fast times in mind. Historically after the Rome diamond league there are large numbers of drop outs before the next meet as people take a break after their exerts. The burden of this normally falls on Birmingham but alterations to the calendar this year means that there is a week after Rome and the next meet – Oslo, which should help to alleviate the problem somewhat.

Belarusian Viktoriya Kushnir took the field through 1000m in 2:51.47 before Genzebe Dibaba pushed on the pace. Whilst the race splits will show Dibaba as ahead at 2000m (5:45.33) and 3000m (8:38.27), in truth, she was never in control.

Those at the front were happy for her to do the hard work, tucked in behind her as the pace reached ferocious levels. Whilst those that had been dropped were safe in the knowledge that they would be rewarded with fast times provided that their legs did not fall off.

In this category were GB’s Steph Twell, 16th in a SB of 15:24.05, Dominique Scott, 13th in a PB of 15:20.10 who would controversially go on to be left of the South Africa team for the world champs. Norway’s Karoline Grøvdal was the first non-East African across the line, 9th in an outstanding 15:05.36 SB. Karoline had been dropped by half way but fought her way back through the field, taking the scalps of Sheila Chelengat who herself ran a PB and Tesaye.

The race was over however at 5 laps to go as Obiri decided to make a long run from home, opening up a sizeable and then an insurmountable lead a line up containing so many of the fastest women ever. From here till the end of the race she ran out on her own continuing to push the pace.

Behind her a group of three ran together for a few laps but the blistering pace had destroyed some of the athletes race patterns and so over the last lap there would be numerous changes to the pecking order. Genzebe Dibaba who did so much of the early work faded to 6th, the only athlete in the top 16 not to record a SB or PB. Ahead of her, Etenesh Diro recorded a SB of under 15 minutes. In every track and field event there is a magical mark that makes you not just world class your given year, but world class throughout history. That mark for 5000m is 15 minutes. So for Turkey’s Yasmin Can, European triple champion, a new PB of 14:36.32 for 4th place, represented an enormous step forward.

Ahead of her there were two more personal bests. Letesenbet Gidey who is quickly becoming a well-known prospect, finished in 14:33.32 just a smidgen behind Kenya’s Agnes Jebet Tirop in 14:33.09. None however could keep pace with Obiri. The clock stopped at 14:18.37, a world lead and Kenyan national record. Given Kenya’s distance running history, to run a Kenyan record is an indicator of the measure of the performance. That time was the 8th fastest ever run, making Hellen the 5th fastest ever and the fastest ever non-Ethiopian. It improved her own world lead from Shanghai a month previous and if you still need context, is faster than the great Vivian Cheryuit, the current Olympic champion, has ever run.

Whilst there were multiple outstanding performances in Rome, and Sifan Hassan, Conseslus Kipruto, Mariya Lasitskene and Thomas Röhler deserve special mention, the manner of the performance and the result by Hellen Obiri was the most impressive, relative to historic standards. For that reason, Hellen Obiri is my performance of the night.

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