Wednesday, 29 August 2007
As a Kenyan, Bernard Lagat always seemed to be the unlucky man. Twice he had his heart set on an Olympic 1500m gold. Twice he came up against the imperious Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj. Twice he was left with a minor medal – bronze in 2000 and silver in 2004.
But tonight, in his adopted colours of the United States, Lagat finally won the global 1500m title he’s been craving for years, bringing the country where he became a citizen in 2005 its first World Championships 1500m title, and its first medal since Jim Spivey won bronze in 1987.
Indeed, this was United States’s first 1500m gold at a global event since Mel Sheppard at the 1908 Olympic Games in London.
Lagat ran a near-perfect race, sitting just off the leaders for 1420m, never out of touch, never in trouble. And when it came to the dash for the line, the man who sits second on the world all-time list had the form and speed to outkick all his rivals.
He crossed the line in 3min 34.77sec, not a time that’s going to trouble the statisticians, but as far as he’s concerned, who cares? At the finish it seemed he almost couldn’t believe it himself. Not yet allowing himself to smile, he held his hands wide, looked up to the heavy Osaka sky and mouthed the words, "Oh my God."
“I feel very special,” he said. “I did not get burned. Today was a perfect day. I have waited so long for this medal. I am going to inspire a lot of people in America and Kenya.”
And it wasn’t even meant to be him. American hearts had been set on Alan Webb, the man who leads the world rankings this year. Webb was carrying the hopes of State-side track fans everywhere, as he has since he broke the US High School record six years ago. But he could only finish eighth, simply outsprinted in the home stretch.
Lagat also left the defending champion Rashid Ramzi in his wake. The Bahrainian, who emerged from nowhere to win two golds in Helsinki, couldn’t find an answer to Lagat and had to be satisfied with silver in 3:35.00. Judging by his face, it was little compensation.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Ramzi. “The shape was there but I failed tactically. I didn’t make my moves at the right time.”
Kenyan champion Shadrack Korir was third in 3:35.04, reward for being in the right place at the right time.
After the pushing and shoving of the semi-finals, leading to disqualifications and two subsequent re-instatements, there were 14 on the start line, and the chances of another bruising encounter were on the cards.
Lagat looked utterly focused, his face a picture of concentration, while Webb was more relaxed, smiling and waving at the camera. Ramzi, though, seemed to be the man under pressure, his face lined with tension.
Webb took the lead for the first 100m before Korir took over, with Lagat already in his position as the shadow. Ramzi was back in eighth or ninth, on the outside. After a first lap of 58.63, Ramzi got boxed by the bunch as the second circuit unfolded with Webb, Korir and Lagat still to the fore.
It all changed at 700m when the young Kenyan Asbel Kiprop burst to the front with an injection of pace that took them through 800m in 1:58.08 and on to the bell in 2:41.51.
Webb began to make his move with 300m to go, but Lagat followed his every step, stuck to his shoulder round the bend, and kicked for home from 80m. It was decisive, leaving Ramzi with too much to do. He came from fifth to second, catching Korir but unable to make up the gap on Lagat.
Webb simply ran out of steam and faded from the fight. Afterwards he cut a disconsolate figure. He ripped off his lane number from his running shorts and stomped off down the tunnel. He’d been tipped two years ago, too, when he finished ninth.
“I wasn’t ready for the World Championships,” he admitted. “I don’t know what else to say. I just need to get better at doing this.”
The face of Lagat, 32, his compatriot, broke into a grin as he pulled his running vest out from his chest, displaying the letters "USA", and called for the Stars and Stripes. Then there were tears as he stood in the tunnel, waiting to start the first of dozens of interviews. The medal ceremony for Michelle Perry’s hurdles victory was underway, complete with the US national anthem.
“My medal is for the United States and everyone in America,” said Lagat.
A star spangled night indeed.
Osaka 2007 News Team/mkb
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