From Juniors to Seniors: A Conversation on the World Athletics Championships

The IAAF World Under-18 championships took place in Kasarani Stadium, Nairobi, between the 12th and the 16th of July. Sanya Noel and Carey Baraka followed the championships closely, and here, they talk about the teenagers’ events and the IAAF World Championships taking place in London starting today.

SANYA NOEL: It’s over now, the boys and girls have packed up and gone back to their countries, and our ears have stopped ringing from all the cheering. But we have the memories, all of us, and the boys and girls their medals. But let’s talk about it now, postscript: what went down, what favourites didn’t clinch it, what underdogs ran away with it. Let’s dissect the Kasarani running.

CAREY BARAKA: The moment for me, and I guess for you too, was in the
heats of the mixed 4×400 relays, when Mary Moraa held off a couple of boys to cross the line first. I think Moraa had been the revelation of the championship, and now the question becomes, do you think she can kick off from here and actually become Kenya’s, and Africa’s Sprint queen?

S.N.: We could start from the very beginning, but now that we are at that relay with the magic of Mary Moraa, I have my hopes but I don’t think so. If I was her coach, I’d probably suggest stepping up to 800m. She’s got the endurance for that. I need to say that again, Mary Moraa’s endurance is massive. I went back to re-watch her races and she always beat them with endurance. Her times are pretty good, but I watched her in the 200m sprint and decided that she’d have a good career in 800m. Many 400m sprinters can do 800. I have hope there.

It was diappointing to see that team lose a podium finish in the final, but it was all about tactics. The Kenyan team showed their claws way too early, so the Brazilians and Jamaicans went back to the drawing board and came up with a better formula.

But back to the beginning in that empty stadium when it poured. Rain is a good idea. I always recommend it. So, when it rained, I had a feeling that it would be a memorable championship. But one question I kept smiling about when the commentators said of a “heat” was, is it still a heat when they run in the rain?

C.B.: (laughs)

How old is Moraa? 17? 18? I remember Pamela Jelimo breaking through in the 800m at 18, winning the diamond league (what was it called back then?), and then sweeping away Maria Mutola. So, yeah, ostensibly if Moraa shifted up, she could become our heir to the Jelimo/Janeth Jepkosgoi duopoly. Eunice Sum has tried her best, winning at the worlds a couple of years ago and all, but her career has kinda floundered in recent years. Which brings me to something that’s been bugging me for awhile, youth athlete stars, especially in Kenya, why do they rarely seem to make as success of their careers as expected? I’m already drawing parallels between Jelimo and Moraa, but even Jelimo had withered away from her position at the apex of the game by the time she was in her early twenties.

S.N.: But at what rate do we churn out the superstars? And do they concentrate on these talents when they’re young enough? Some debut right at the big stage. Think of Eliud Kipchoge debuting at the World Championship at eighteen and kicking some major ass (Hicham El Guerr​ouj and Kenenisa Bekele), or of David Rudisha coming to age in his twenties (he didn’t shine much as a junior and had to change strategies).

I would understand some of our athletes and how they fade out. To us fans, they are just runners performing on the big stage, but we never get past the oval track and learn what goes on: love lifes, family, training, parallel careers, injuries, depression. I know of athletes who have faded out because of depression due to love. So, yes and no. I would want Moraa to take over from Sum, but without the pressure. Moraa should run whatever race she chooses, or she can even quit track and field: she has done something already, she’s shown that it can be done. That Kenya can get sprinters too.

Oh, are you going to ignore my lovely rain completely?

C.B.: About the rain, wasn’t the boys hammer qualifying round postponed because of the adverse weather? There was a beautiful image trending on twitter on day 1, an aerial shot of the boys 800m race. There, I haven’t ignored it completely!


You’ve mentioned Eliud Kipchoge breaking through, and of course you wrote that beautiful piece on his attempt to break the 2-hour barrier. I remember Kipchoge beating the two (or at least I’ve watched videos, seeing as I am barely old enough to remember watching it live!), both world record holders at the time, and that is how you announce yourself on the big stage! We’ve been talking about the 800 m, and do you remember Mohammed Aman being stripped of his gold from the 2009 African junior championships because he was underage? He ended up taking gold in the 800m at the next two editions, but I just can’t get past the fact that according to the competition rules he was considered to be cheating because he was underage! Which brings me to something I wanted to talk about. Reading the comments on social media, comments on the championships, I get the feeling that a lot of people seem to think that the Kenyans were cheating! Age-wise, ie. What do you think, is that possible? I know we’ve had trouble in the past, Longosiwa and co. Also, with our football teams last year. But I don’t imagine that we lied about our ages, do you?

S.N.: I’d hate to get into speculation about our boys and girls. I hope we were above board on this. (Jackson) Tuwei has a responsibility and I believe he’s doing everything to make Kenyan running as clean as it can ever be. He’s a former soldier, and some of Kenya’s best runners are in forces, so in the spirit of honour, I want to believe that everything was above board.

And now that we are here, talking about integrity, perhaps mention the Russian Athletics Federation (RUSAF) and the IAAF? There were two wins at Kasarani, one for silver in the boys’ 10,000m walk and the other in the girls’ 5000m walk. These athletes were both Russian but were competing as neutral athletes. The IAAF authorised nine of them, and seven have been cleared for the World Championships in London.

I was curious to see what anthem would have been played if these athletes had clinched gold.

But let’s move away from that and talk about Kenya’s first gold on home-soil.

C.B.: Ah, yes, the 1500m. But before that, allow me to comment on the 3000m women’s race, which should have been our first gold, but the Ethiopian just about edged out our girl, Chepkirui, by seven microseconds. We won that in 2013, so I was very disappointed that we didn’t get it this time.

But back to that 1500m, and was I the only one worried that by day three we hadn’t won any gold? Then up turns Manangoi, and we’re up and running and then Caren Chebet wins the very next race for us and that’s me sighing with relief.

Manangoi’s win was interesting for me, because of his finishing kick, and how he applied it. That brings me to something else we’ve talked about in the past. Manangoi’s a 1500 m runner and invariably comparisons between him and Asbel Kiprop follow. Do you think that maybe here we’re having a situation where Manangoi is aping Kiprop’s strategy, staying back, and then unleashing the kick at the end? And what is the risk in this, aware as we are that Kiprop’s tactic doesn’t always work?

A small aside, Kiprop’s in action today, isn’t he?

S.N.: Manangoi’s was a very impressive run. He wasn’t really falling back on purpose. It was quite tactical, use the other boys and gauge them as you preserve that energy, but keep up with them. Then unleash the kick in the last lap and win the damn thing. I’ve always felt that Kiprop’s tactic is sort of showing off–I can outkick you any day, with my eyes closed, and to prove it, let me fall right back behind the pack and act as if I’m not even interested.

Dominic Kipkemboi could have been an interesting addition if he had not DNSed (Did Not Start). He was the strongest runner, both in the trials and in the heats, but he got injured. The Daily Nation reported that he hit the inside rail while celebrating his win in the heat, but I’ve watched that and not seen him hitting it. Probably a pulled muscle or something. Quite unfortunate.

Aaah, Arbesh Minsewo. Broke Chepkirui’s heart with that kick. It was a courageous battle in the rain, that’s the stuff athletics fans go to watch. Races going down to the wire like that, it gives you adrenaline for weeks.

C.B.: (laughs)

C’mon, Kiprop’s is not pure arrogance, though I won’t deny that it seems entirely plausible.

But yes, such tight races are the stuff! Did you see the boys 800m? We didn’t win it, came in third, but that battle between the two Ethiopians was just plain exhilaration! Four micro seconds between them, and Kibiwott himself wasn’t too far back either.

Reminds me of another great 800m race.

S.N.: I will guess which race that is: London 2012? That is the race of the century! I keep looking at all those athletes, all of them recording personal bests,and nearly all of them running faster than the pre-Rudisha World Record. Then all of them getting injured immediately after or some time after that race. You can’t possibly run like that and have longevity. Speed is a bad idea. I don’t recommend it.

But let’s get back to the teenagers in Nairobi. I used to do decathlon back in high school. That made me have immense respect for decathletes and heptathletes, and here you probably already know who I’m talking about. The people’s favourite, Maria Vicente!

C.B.: Ah, Vincente. She’s popular, alright. Not a common quality in decathletes and heptathletes, popularity, they​ rarely achieve the superstar status that other athletes get. I was very surprised to find out that’s she’s​ 16. Born in 2001. That’s just the other day!

S.N.: It was a teenagers’ championship, come on. What did you think? That they are in their thirties? (laughs)

But Vicente isn’t just popular, she is impressive. You don’t get heptathletes dominating in most of the events like she did. She’s good in the sprints, and won the jumps too. She recorded PBs in the long jump, a whooping 6.05m, and by that time, the crowd had already loved her.

I love how at the end of decathlon and heptathlon, you’ve fought it out and developed this respect for each other. There is competition alright, but also camaraderie. And Vicente scores a PB of 5612, ten ahead of Germany’s Johanna Siebler, but the whole group joins them to do a lap of honour, like it always should be.

And then there is South Africa’s Sokwakhana Zazini. I’ve never seen anyone do it like that in 400m hurdles; flying right out of the blocks and just pushing it. Most people pace their running: hard on the curves and easy in the straights. Zazini went all out and won it by well over ten metres. Crazy running, but very determined. A Wayde van Niekerk here?

C.B.: A South African wins one 400 m race and the inevitable comparisons to quite possibly the greatest sprinter of all time start. And here, as we tie up our conversation, perhaps a word about the Worlds that begin today?

Wayde van Niekerk. The man. The bookmakers have him as a shorter-priced favourite than any other male athlete at the World Championships. And no wonder! The eternal question becomes him vs Rudisha vs Bolt in a 400 m orgasmic winner-takes all. But more about that later.

The second biggest draw at these games after Niekerk, or perhaps the biggest, given that he is a Brit, Mo Farah, is in action in the 10000 m final. What do you think? Can the Kenyans stop him?

S.N.: Ah, come on now. That kid, Zazini, holds the world under-18 record for 400m hurdles. He came in as the best hurdler and was chasing a record. He missed it but destroyed the competition like they weren’t even running with him. It was destruction man. Total destruction in 49.28 seconds.

I am quite sad that Rudisha pulled out of London because of an injury. But before then, he had quite impressed me, not because of his track and field prowess but because of his considerations. Rudisha didn’t run in the Kenyan trials. As defending champion, he had a direct entry already. Michael Saruni, who trians under Paul Ereng at the University of Oregon at El Paso, was third. But Kenya had two wild cards: Rudisha as World Champion and Ferguson Rotich who is the Diamond League Champion. So Athletics Kenya (AK) dropped Saruni, and Rudisha came in with a passionate call to AK to give it to Saruni and drop the older guys, him or Rotich. In hindsight, AK should probably have listened to him. Also, as Seb Coe said, injuries have no respect for reputation. And getting back to the stadium where he set the track on fire would have been great for King David.

I love van Niekerk’s cockiness. I don’t want humble men and women in track and field. So, to quote him, he’s his own competition in both 400 and 200m. Of course, van Niekerk would destroy both Rudisha and Bolt in 400m. The man is the world record holder for crying out loud, and we all know what Bolt thinks about lactic acid after 200m. He could have run the distance but, well, here we have him now only going for 100m. Any chance of a false-start under the heat of Andre de Grasse in the final? That would make things even more interesting. And if there is anyone to deny Bolt that chance to go out with a final gold in the single event, it’s de Grasse. I want de Grasse to make it go down to the wire but Bolt to win it. No flailing arms with de Grasse like it was with Justin Gatlin in 2015.

Farah is just a phenomenal runner. I don’t know what Geoffrey Kamworor can pull out of his bag of tricks, but even if he did, Farah is always dangerous. I had dreams of Caleb Mwangangi Ndiku downing him, but it’s now not going to happen on the track. And here is where Kamworor, if it doesn’t work, he can always put Farah behind him on the road in future. Good luck to Kamworor, though I don’t envy him. I don’t envy any Kenyan running against Mo Farah.

Any thoughts on the women’s 10,000m? Almaz Ayana?

C.B.: de Grasse won’t be there unfortunately, struck down by injury. So that’s make things easier for Bolt, I suppose.

But about the 10 k, Bedan Karoki and Paul Tanui are experienced operators. They could pull something out of the bag. And don’t forget that Farah is a better 5k runner than he is a 10 k, so I’m thinking that maybe they should make it as long a race as possible. Attack from the gun, and hope for the best. Of course, because this is Farah, the only advice we can really give them is to run fast, very fast.

Kamworor is another proposition altogether. Remember, he has beaten Farah before, in Cardiff last year, in fact didn’t Tanui come second after him, and Farah third? But that was half marathon, and we’ve already worked out that Farah is stronger in shorter long-distance races.

But yeah, if there’s somebody I think could beat him, it’s Kamworor. Ndiku’s a favorite of mine, but he hasn’t had good luck with injuries and fitness over the last year or two. Kamworor came second to Farah at the world’s in 2015, and he should have put in a stronger challenge in Rio. So, as long as he doesn’t wilt again, he always stands a chance.

But then again, this is Farah, a man that’s won 9 consecutive track distance titles. So, advice to Kamworor would be, first, attack from the gun. The last 5000m in Rio was run in 13:12, and even Farah felt that pace. Attack from say 1500m, or earlier, and you have a chance. Don’t let him the chance to unleash that kick of his. Secondly, run fast, very fast.

About Ayana, I like her. She absolutely blew the WR in Rio, 14 seconds was it?, and while I don’t see a repeat of the same, watching her is always an excellent experience. I’d love to see how Obiri fares against her in the 5000m.

And isn’t Rudisha such a gentleman? Either that, or he doesn’t want to spoil his memory of London. He wasn’t going to win anyway.

: ​I don’t see Ayana repeating it. Injuries have followed her this season and she hasn’t run any race to write home about. Also, Vivian Cheruiyot’s retirement from the track threw it wide open. At the Kenyan trials, the athletes were talking of doing it for Vivian, and I hope that will make them go for it. The Pocket Rocket would be quite happy about that.

Today we have the heats for 1500m women. And here, I won’t start with Kipyegon because I have all the faith in her. So, Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands and Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba. I have seen Sifan very strong this season. She beat Faith Kipyegon in the Paris Daimond League and this can’t be downplayed. Of course, they will all reach the finals. I expect them to thrive. Then it will light up there.

C.B.: Curiously though, do you know that none of the athletes who finished in the top three positions at the 10000m women Ethiopian trials has been selected for the games? Funny funny country. Ayana hasn’t run properly for almost a year, but here she is.

Looking forward to seeing what Kipyegon can do.

Also, looking forward to seeing whether Elijah Manangoi can take a leaf out of his brother’s book and win the 1500m gold over Kiprop.

But first, Kamworor versus Sir Farah. He’s said he’s tired of silver. Let’s see what happens.

S.N.: Ayana pulled something dangerous in Rio. She’d broken the world record already in the 10,000m final, but she still went all out hard in the 5,000m heats, as if running fast mattered. Of course, that wore her out, and when she went all out in the final, the exhaustion finally caught up with her. Or rather, Vivian Cheruiyot caught up with her. She (Ayana) finished fourth in that race, which, for an athlete in her form then, was quite disappointing. Perhaps that could be the reason for her injuries, like Rudisha and everyone who chased him in London 2012.

The Ethiopian federation could be relying on old names to do it, which is a blunder in my view. It is also demoralizing that you won a trial but the federation had other ideas. But well, perhaps wait and see what it will bring them? See you in London then?


Sanya Noel is an editor and writer at Enkare Review.

Carey Baraka is an editor and writer at Enkare Review.