Sunday, 2 September 2007
Had Bernard Lagat ordered up a race plan to ensure that he would win the 5,000m gold medal here, and thus become the first man in World Championships history to complete a 1,500-5,000 double, then the American could not have laid it out better.
Somehow, the Kenya-born Lagat, his end-of-race speed renowned, found himself surrounded by 14 other finallists who must have believed that they could outsprint the miler. They were all wrong.
Off an early pace so slow that the women marathoners in the morning were sometimes almost as quick, Lagat was able to produce a 52.89sec last lap and the track savvy to close the door of the inside lane on 2003 winner Eliud Kipchoge, and take the title with 13min 45.87sec, comfortably the slowest winning time in this event. Kipchoge clocked 13:46.00 and Moses Kipsiro, of Uganda, in bronze medal position with 13:46.75, was just ahead of a second American, Matt Tegenkamp.
"I was surprised that the pace was so slow," Lagat said. "That was good for me. Everybody waited until the last lap. I think I ran a smart race. I waited until the last 100."
Thus Lagat carves his name into sport's annals alongside his hero Hicham El Guerrouj, who achieved the formidable double at the 2004 Olympic Games, and the great Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi, who did the same at the 1924 Paris Games. But it is unlikely that anyone will remember the race that secured it.
Spain's Jesus Espana led the race out (someone had to) through the first two laps in 2:23.98. Then Kenya's defending champion, Benjamin Limo, took a hand, and slowly cranked the pace up slightly through to a 62sec fifth lap, reaching 2km in 5:47.07. Then came a 64sec sixth lap. Behind him, Australia's big hope Craig Mottram, the World Cup 3,000m champion, and Kipchoge lined up. Lagat, all the time, shadowed in fourth or fifth place, waiting for someone to do something. Anything.
But his rivals opted not to. When Limo stepped sideways, off the front, in the home straight, everyone else formed an orderly queue at walking pace behind Mottram as if they were waiting for a teller in one of Osaka's downtown banks.
Mottram looked ill at ease, even at this point, as the third kilometre was completed in 8:36.99. Soon, it would be the turn of the two Ethiopians in the field, Tariku Bekele, brother of the 10,000m champion, and Abraham Cherkos, to bustle their way towards the front. And then do nothing.
Mo Farah, Britain's European silver medallist, forced his way to the shoulder of the reluctant leader, Bekele. But such was the congestion, with the leaders spread into the third lane, that with just over three laps to run, as Kipsiro jostled his way to the front, there was a clash of legs between Ali Abdalla and the Briton, who kept his feet well and avoided a possible pile up. Lagat, of course, continued to enjoy his armchair ride towards glory.
After laps of 66.38 and then 64.84, the 800m to go mark was reached and among the first to be dropped was Mottram. Now Farah unfolded his telescopic stride at the front, taking the field to the bell in 12:53.08, but with Lagat and Kipchoge poised. The last-lap duel was underway, with the former champion gunning it.
Lagat waited. And waited, and when he struck, he struck hard. Kipchoge tried to counterattack off the last bend, but Lagat, studying the big screen at the far end of the stadium as he raced to the line, made sure that there was no where for his Kenyan rival to slip through on the inside lane.
"I think I made a mistake in the final 50m. I wish the finish had been 10m farther - I would have won the race," Kipchoge said.
Lagat attributed his inspiration for the double to El Guerrouj's Athens feat - "I wanted to do the same, because he inspired me. He is a wonderful man and a friend" - and saying he only decided to attempt the double after the London Grand Prix last month, where he'd won the 1,500m.
"This double means a lot to me," he said, and smiled broadly when told of the final lap split. "That is awesome."
Oh, and as for the rest of the world's 5,000m runners, they had better start thinking about their tactics ahead of Beijing next year. "For the Olympics," Lagat said, "all options are possible."
Osaka 2007 News Team/sd
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