Kenya’s double-barrelled shot at first women’s Olympic gold
- Jelimo first captured international attention at the 2008 African Championships in Addis Ababa, where she won in 1:58.70, a new national junior record.
- Kenya’s Olympic success in men’s events has not been replicated by the women.
THIS TIME LAST YEAR, IT seemed the women’s 800-metres race was a foregone conclusion. Janeth Jepkosgei had swept the event in the second half of the season, culminating in her World Championship win in Osaka. Yet Jepkosgei’s reign had lasted barely a year when Pamela Jelimo burst onto the scene.
Born on December 5, 1989, Jelimo started running at the age of 13 while in school in Kapsabet. Her event was the 400-metres race and she has the powerful build of a sprinter. At a relay championship in Eldoret last year, organiser Martin Keino, himself a runner for 10 years, noticed Jelimo for her sprinting form and speed.
In June 2007, Jelimo finished fifth at the Kenyan Championships 400-metres race. The same year, she won the 400-metres gold medal at the African Junior Championships with a personal-best 54.93 and made a 200-metres Kenyan national junior record (24.68).
Early this year Jelimo changed her event from one lap to two with devastating effect. “At my training, my coach saw that I could use my sprinting to my advantage in the 800 metres,” says Jelimo.
And indeed it turned out that the sprint she was keeping up for the 400m could be sustained for most of the two laps, leaving conventional 800m runners in her wake. She ran her first 800-metres race on April 19 this year at the Kenyan trials for the African championships, clocking 2:01.02 .
The 800-metres used to be a strategic race. You could run at the middle or back of the pack and put in a finishing kick at the end, beating your opponents. When you have someone who can sustain that finishing-kick speed throughout the two laps, it changes the race completely.
Jelimo first captured international attention at the 2008 African Championships in Addis Ababa, where she won in 1:58.70, a new national junior record. A few weeks later, she won the Hengelo Grand Prix in 1:55.76, simultaneously setting a new junior world record and beating Jepkosgei’s Kenyan record of 1:56.04 set in 2007.
AT THE GOLDEN LEAGUE opener in Berlin on June 1, she broke Maria Mutola’s African record with a time of 1:54.99. She then went on to win the Golden League events in Oslo, Rome and Paris, putting her in contention for the Golden League title, the biggest payday in the athletics world at $1 million.
The only remaining contender is high jumper Blanka Vlasic. After the Olympics, they will go on to Zurich and Brussels to finish the series.
Jelimo is a front-runner. She trails the pacesetter until the bell, then surges to the front and runs a blazing third 200m, leaving the other athletes trailing in her wake. By the time she gets to the final turn she has slowed down, yet she has consistently beaten the field by more than three seconds — an eternity on the track.
But don’t count Jepkosgei out.
Though Jepkosgei is trailing Jelimo in head-to-head competition this season, she is running better at this point in the season than she was at the same time last year, when her season started slowly until she achieved championship form in late August at the World Championships in Osaka.
Jepkosgei ran 1.58.52 in Paris on July 18 this year. It was her second best time ever. Her best is 1:56.04, which she ran late last season. When asked how she might beat Jelimo, Jepkosgei said, “There is room for improvement from me. I think, if I have the shape, I will do [in Beijing] what I did in Osaka.”
Having the spotlight turned on Jelimo has also taken pressure off the 25-year-old Jepkosgei. Before June, she carried the hope of an entire nation looking for its first women’s Olympic gold. She was Kenya’s marquee athlete and her public image had overshadowed all her other running compatriots. Asked how she feels about losing to Jelimo, she said, “I don’t feel it because I am still young. I have to maintain my running.”
Kenya’s Olympic success in men’s events has not been replicated by the women. Veteran runner Tekla Chemabwai, one of Kenya’s first women Olympians (1968, Mexico City), tells me the promise many young women show in the junior events goes unfulfilled as they marry and have children, leaving no time for the grueling athletic lifestyle.
Chemabwai herself was able to have a long career partly because she was married to a fellow athlete, Julius Sang, part of the Munich Olympics 4 x400m gold medal relay team, who understood the demands of the sport. This is changing as women athletes graduate to the senior events. As evidence of this, Kenya will have 15 female athletes in the Beijing games — the biggest women’s squad ever to represent the country at the Olympics.
The best thing is that we are seeing women’s running become as competitive as the men’s, where the story of last year’s champion being supplanted by a no-name “fresher” has become commonplace, and where a champion’s stay at the top is evidence of talent, intense training and extreme mettle.