jueves, 9 de febrero de 2012

My 10.000m Favourite Race (Men)

Mohamed Kedir leads Lasse Viren at the Moscow Olympics 10.000m final
               At the start line of the Moscow Olympic male 10.000m there were two equally outstanding favourites but with rather different athletic résumé prior to the 1980 Games. Lasse Viren, the last of the flying Finns, had achieved the “double double”: he had become the first man in winning the 5000m and 10.000m titles in two consecutive Olympic Games, Munich and Montreal. After having won everything, Viren was still going strong and aimed in Moscow for a historic hat trick to round off his brilliant track and field career. On the other hand, the tiny Ethiopian Miruts Yifter, at 36 years of age or even older depending on the versions, was beyond question one of the finest distance runners of the past decade but he had not struck any major title yet. Yifter’s Olympic debut in Munich had been considered a failure in his home country. For the first time since the arrival of Abebe Bikila in 1960, the national team had returned empty handed to Addis Abeba… or almost. However, the bronze medals won by Mamo Wolde at the marathon and the same Yifter at the 10.000m did not fulfil the high expectations Ethiopia was used to. Besides, the inability of the latter to arrive in time for the start of the 5000m event was thought shameful. Actually, the athlete had been sent to the mix zone for warming up by his coaches Negussie and Kostre, and these ones came to look for him too late, when the race had already begun. Yet Yifter was treated like a traitor and sent for some months to jail. (1) Then the runner could not make any amends in Montreal, because of the African boycott so he was in front of his last chance for Olympic glory.

Miruts Yifter, Tolossa Kotu and Kaarlo Maaninka at Moscow Olympics

Historically, Finland had been the cradle of the most accomplished long distance runners in the world all over three decades. Hannes Kolehmainen, with his three Olympic victories in Stockholm in 1912, was the first of an illustrious lineage and he was followed up by the likes of Paavo Nurmi, Ville Ritola, Volmari Iso-Hollo, Ilmari Salminen and Taisto Maki, all of them multiple champions and record breakers. However, after World War II, track Olympic victories stopped for the country, which had thereafter the consolation of the medals at the field events, notably the javelin. After a long drought, in the 1970s we assisted to the renaissance of the long distance Finnish school, led by the great Lasse Viren. In this resurgence was crucial the visit of Arthur Lydiard to Finland in the end of the 60s. The legendary New Zealander coach came to the country invited by the national federation, in order to improve the Finnish athletes performance, and would stay for 19 fruitful months. At that time coaching in Finland was based exclusively in interval training with no avail. Lydiard proposed a different approach which was largely accepted by the new generation of coaches as Viren’s Rolf Haikkola. As a result, Finland recovered its place as the world powerhouse of distance running. Juha Vaatainen, a veteran athlete, considered the godfather of the new flying Finns, started the streak with his double victory at the European championships in 1971. Then Lasse Viren, Pekka Vasala, Pekka Paivarinta, Martti Vainio, Kaarlo Maaninka and steeplechaser Tapio Kantanen would be excellent standouts of a marvellous decade for Finnish track and field. 

Lasse Viren’s personality had been formed in the small village of Myrskyla, where he and four generations of his family before him were born. He enjoyed the quiet life among his neighbours, driving a truck with his father and working as a policeman in a place a murder was never reported, then go hunting moose and elks and running in his spare time. Lasse was a shy and reserved man but at the same time with a solid determination to seek his dreams. He would take strength from the natural and peaceful surroundings: the beautiful lakes, the evergreen forests and the snow-covered trails, where he liked to run through. (2)  Lasse would be able of enduring the toughest workouts, always with unlimited confidence in his endeavours, under Rolf Haikkola, also a native of Myrskyla. Lydiard’s concept of periodisation would be applied to a whole four-year Olympic cycle period. Viren did not care about records, and competitions on the track were set just as a way of working on his speed. Thus his performances were never nothing special out of the Olympics. Viren’s only target was to peak in Munich, then in Montreal, finally in Moscow, and with this purpose was set all Haikkola’s planning. Every year, Viren would skip the harsh Finnish winter and would go to altitude: Brasil, Colombia, Kenya, where he would log the miles. Then he would come back to Myrskyla for strength work and sharpening. Volume and intensity would be progressively increased as the Olympic year was getting closer. All the training would be done in a natural environment. Viren would hardly enter a track for his workouts, never a gym, though he highly appreciated the sauna their countrymen made build for him near home.   

                Hard work and focus paid off. Viren arrived to the Olympic dates of Munich and Montreal in impressive shape. This added to his tactical display and mental strength made him unreachable for any other athlete. In Munich, there was an unforgettable day for Finland, when in the lapse of one hour, Viren won the 5000m and his compatriot Pekka Vasala got the better of legendary Kenyan Kip Keino at the 1500m. Vasala had also followed a ferocious hill training regime and had gone to New Zealand to prepare the Games with the same Arthur Lydiard. After their Olympic success, accusations of blood doping were cast to the Finnish athletes, especially to the foremost of them, Lasse Viren. Maaninka, years afterwards would recognise he had blood-doped, which back then was not illegal. Viren would always deny these accusations. His personal doctor stated the four times Olympic champion already had a privileged heart, an optimal level of haemoglobin and besides was increasing this with his training in altitude. It would have been crazy to still thicken further blood with this kind of practises. (2) 

Kipchoge Keino leads Pekka Vasala at the 1500m at Munich Olympics
              Miruts Yifter was an Amharic born in Adigrat, a populous town in Tigray region, the 15th May of an undetermined year, which the athlete kept in secret so his legend could remain timeless, or perhaps because there were no records of his birth and Yifter was not really sure. Therefore his famous saying: “men can steal my chickens, men can steal my sheep, but no man can steal my age.” Adigrat, a gateway to Eritrea and the Red Sea, was a place of strategical importance during the Italo-Abyssinian wars and it is also quite close to the capital of the legendary Kingdom of Axum. Their inhabitants as Mirus Yifter feel proud of that Ethiopian glorious past and how they defended their independence against foreign invasions though today’s reality is the daily struggle for survival in a harsh land. The same way Lasse Viren found an inner strength running through the snow-covered and wind-shaked green forest trails of his native Myrskyla, so did Yifter walking and running to and fro the arid mountains of Northern Ethiopia when he was a child. Miruts worked in several factories and as a carriage driver though his passion was running and Abebe Bikila his inspiration. With the further aim of competing internationally, the future champion joined the Air Force. In 1968 he was already in the national team but was not selected for Mexico Olympic Games. After his bittersweet experience in Munich he still kept the dream of an Olympic victory: Even being in prison he did not give up training, hoping to be fitted for the following year African Games. It was a long way until Miruts eventually could compete at the Olympics again, yet he had lost nothing of his running passion and none of his qualities as a sportsman. BBC commentator David Coleman baptised him “Yifter the shifter” after a sensational victory of the Ethiopian in 1977 with a blistering 54.6 last lap against Steve Ovett in a 5000m race in Gateshead, and in similar way he obtained his 5000m/10.000m “double double” at the 1977 and 1979 World Cup, beating easily Marty Liquory and Craig Virgin, among others. There has not been any other precedent of an athlete who has kept such explosiveness, such devastating kick, until such advanced age.    
Miruts Yifter, double Olympic champion in Moscow
           Half of the secret for this longevity is in Yifter’s talent, hope and determination. The other half is in the expertise of his coaches who knew how to treasure his star and keep him ready for the decisive outing of Moscow Olympic Games. Finland had an outstanding long distance tradition and the valuable assistance of Arthur Lydiard. Ethiopia had its own weapons and also excellent coaching. Interestingly, the East African nation had counted with the inestimable collaboration of the Scandinavian school in their earliest track and field manifestations.  http://www.moti-athletics-marathon-m.blogspot.com/2012/01/abebe-bikila.html   Emperor Haile Selassie asked the help of Sweden in order to develop the different institutions and modernise the country and Onni Niskanen was the man chosen to take in charge the organisation and building up of the basis for the practise of track and field in the country. Then he became the national coach and the successful man who prepared the amazing Abebe Bikila for his (and the Ethiopian) Olympic breakthrough. Niskanen introduced fartlek in the country, also a favourite Viren’s training method, and valuable lessons to develop speed endurance, which are still used today by African athletes. Onnis’ assistant Roba Negussie took the best of these teachings and also developed his own ideas. Negussie was academically formed in physical education in Czechoslovakia and his successor Woldemeskel Kostre in Hungary and Germany, in a moment Ethiopia had become a communist country and was under the influence of the Soviet Union block. Eastern European athletic school would complement the Scandinavian one and the blend would help become Ethiopian athletes world beaters in international competitions. Ethiopia was a privileged destination for East German athletes as Olaf Beyer, Jurgen Straub and Ron Weigel, for their workouts in altitude and also Ethiopian runners went to Postdam for training camps, competed in meetings in the GDR and their coaches were formed in Leipzig. (3)  Ethiopians as Miruts Yifter have been famous for their outstanding last lap, and this sensational speed was developed through very short hill repeats and intervals on the track up to 60/100m. It was a founding of an Eastern coach, Hungarian Mihaly Igloí. However Finnish runners were also influenced by Igloí as Ethiopians admired Lydiard.  http://moti-athletics-5000-w.blogspot.com/2012/01/kenya-outckicks-ethiopia.html   Thanks to their superior training methods, Ethiopian and Finnish long distance runners were in a world appart in the 1980 Olympic Games.  Moscow was the triumphal venue for Miruts Yifter but also for his coach Roba Negussie, the day the Ethiopian athletes won the tactical battle over a master tactician as Viren.

















           Lasse Viren was an athlete with really economic running ways. Even someone with such floating style as 10.000m silver medallist in Munich Emiel Puttemans was quoted to feel irritated because his rival did not seem to make any effort while running. Furthermore, the last of the Flying Finns knew how to be in control of every race spending as less energy as possible. Viren’s world record at the 2 miles event some weeks before the Olympics, made enter the hopeful Finnish as the dark horse for the long distance races in Munich. Briton David Bedford, who had been soundly defeated in that competition, decided if someone was to get the better of him again in the Olympics, he would need lot of guts to do it. Bedford started the 10.000m final with a first lap of 60sec and kept a highly demanding pace, well under the existing world record splits, making frequent surges as if he was the new Vladimir Kuts, followed in every one of them by Ethiop Miruts Yifter. Meanwhile, Viren was comfortably sitting in the centre of the pack. When Bedford paid his suicidal tactics, was the moment chosen for Viren to take the initiative at the 6k point. He kept the high pace, which fitted his interests, and eventually launched his sprint with 600m to go, in a never seen before move, thus killing the kickers as Yifter. Viren completed the last 800m in 1:56.2 to win the race in 27:38.40, a new world record. After this demonstration, Steve Prefontaine and Ian Stewart stated they would be running the last mile in 4min if necessary to break the Finn at the 5000m. Having been his rivals tactics unveiled, Viren knew what to do. After a slow first half, Prefontaine made the perfect race for his rival, surging in the last km, indeed running the last mile in 4min (4:01 exactly) as promised. Thus Viren only needed to follow him, progressing to second place in the only time he abandoned the inner edge of the first lane in that final, and eventually produce another long sprint to destroy the young American and Gammoudi, the only other runner Prefontaine had not eliminated.
                 In Montreal, at the 10.000m, things were even easier for Viren, because world cross champion Carlos Lopes did all the front running, steadily increasing his pace (the second half was run in a stunning negative split of 13:36.23). Everybody was left out by the brave Portuguese, except the same Viren, who did not have any problem in getting the better of a rival without final kick. In the 5000m final no one wanted to facilitate the Finn's victory this time, but the defending champion himself took the lead in the last stages of the race, running the last 1500m in a time which would have gained him the fourth place in the Olympic race won by John Walker, and again surging with 600m to go to eliminate the kickers as Kiwis Rod Dixon and Dick Quax. The unprecedented "double doble" at the Olympic long distance events had been done and Viren still had the strenght to achieve a praiseworthy 5th place at the marathon. (4)   

Emiel Puttemans and Steve Prefontaine at the 5000m in Munich Olympic Games
http://www.elatleta.com         http://www.juanjosemartinez.com.mx/      

              As we can see, in Munich and Montreal, Lasse Viren always had got to bring the finals to his own territory. With the eventual winner whether in command or trailing an enthusiastic leader, the 10.000m races were both ran in a very fast even pace and the 5000m ones ended with a frantic last mile. Always the circumstances of those races had allowed Viren to launch a long sprint with one and a half laps to go, thus achieving to beat faster finishers than he was. In Moscow, things would happen differently.
            Due to boycott and injuries some of the best long distance runners were not available for the 1980 Olympic Games. It included world cross champion and 10.000m leader of the year Craig Virgin, 5000m European champion Venanzio Ortis, silver medallist in Montreal Carlos Lopes, his compatriot and future record holder Fernando Mamede and the man who had accomplished four world records in 81 days in 1978, the awesome Kenyan Henry Rono. Would the development of the race have been different with them on? Would have change their presence the final results? Maybe but I do not believe it. Anyway it is useless to speculate. The eventual race derived in a spectacular clash between Ethiopia and Finland and this is what we can talk about.   
            Miruts Yifter was back in 1972 an inexperienced athlete on the making, no matter he was already 28 (?) years old. Just the precedent season he had lost to Prefontaine in a competition between Africa and the USA, because of sprinting in the penultimate lap, thinking it was the last one. By 1980, the Ethiopian had learned his lesson and was at his peak. Besides, Yifter was the only individual athlete from his country in the Munich final and now, Mohamed Kedir and Tolossa Kotu had also qualified: every heat in Moscow had been won by one of the Ethiopians. On the other hand, Viren had narrowly made the final, finishing in fourth place in his heat, creating doubts about his actual shape and his chances under hot weather conditions, which was the case in Moscow. Anyway, Viren was a man for big challenges and in the decisive race he was going to show his best version. Besides two other excellent long distance runners from Finland, the European champion at the distance Martti Vainio and Kaarlo Maaninka, were also in the final. In the two precedent Olympic Games, Viren had won thanks to his own individual performance and brilliant strategy, but this time the race was up instead for tactical team competition.    

Kaarlo Maaninka, Lasse Viren and Martti Vainio in a local competition
                One of the things which made the Moscow Olympic 10.000m final so amazing was the fact Ethiopia chose to take the initiative all over the race, unlike most of other competitions at world level they have taken part. Usually, this African country has the man or woman with the best kick in the field (Gebrselassie, Bekele, Tulu, Defar, Tirunesh Dibaba) and is up to the other nations to create the conditions to upset that favourite, while this one sit after the challenger, waiting for the last lap to make prevail his best ending. Thus Paul Tergat tried his chance with a groundbreaking sustained acceleration long before the end; tried in another occasion to break Gebre kicking first too.  http://moti-athletics-10000-w.blogspot.com/2012/02/most-thrilling-10000m-female.html    Among the women, Paula Radcliffe, with her characteristic front running, produced a especially devastating hot pace in Sidney in order to beat Wami and Tulu; and Elvan Abeylegesse ran in Beijing two kilometres in the last stages of the 10.000m final under 3min, hoping to break Tirunesh. In every occasion the Ethiopian aces were too hot to handle. Only once, besides Moscow’s race, Ethiopia changed on his conservative tactics. At the 2001 World championships, an injuy-troubled Gebrselassie was surprisingly beaten by Kenyan newcomer Charles Kamathi. The national pride was at stake and two years afterwards we saw for the first time Haile front-running and at a very fast pace. With the help of a couple of brisker accelerations of new distance prodigy Kenenisa Bekele, the three Ethiopians broke the whole field, including the defending champion, to accomplish a sensational sweep of the medals for their country, completing the race under 27min and the second half in 12:58.13!

                  In Moscow, Ethiopia had also the best kicker but it was too dangerous to sit in the pack and let the initiative to one man who had proved so good tactically speaking and was intelligent enough to ruin the East African squad chances. It was uncertain if that old Scandinavian man was in the same staggering form than in the previous Olympics but they could not take any risk. Roba Negussie studied thoroughly the circumstances of the race and decided to sacrifice his second best runner, Mohamed Kedir, to make him become a man-trap for Viren. Kedir specially and also his companions executed a flawless strategy to produce an uncomfortable competition for the Finn.  Viren liked to run in a fast an even pace so the Ethiopians, always in command, accelerated and decelerated the race continuously to break Viren’s rhythm and at the same time his confidence. The 4th kilometre was done in a very slow 2.57 but the next one was covered in a fast 2.39, to slow down again in the sixth to 2.47. By that point the uneven pace had broken the legs of most the field: Brendan Foster, Vainio, who was having a disappointing performance in Moscow due to overtraining, German Jorg Peter and his compatriot, a young Werner Schildhauer. Mike McLeod, would be soon the next casualty. The leading group had been reduced to five men: Kedir, Yifter, future national coach Kotu and Finns Viren and Maaninka. At that crucial stage, the defending champion tried to take the lead, followed by Maaninka up to three times in the same lap but in every occasion Kedir sprinted to ruin Viren's strategy, overcoming him and then slowing down the race or producing a sudden acceleration, while Yifter would split the two Finns.

Mohamed Kedir leads Filbert Bayi at the Cross Cinque Mulini

              In Munich, Viren had never done a metre more than necessary, running all the time on the inner edge of lane 1 so an extremely active Prefontaine had conceded him a 40m handicap. In Moscow, Kedir hogged the leading spot for the 90% of the race, displacing to the outer place of lane 1 an increasingly anxious Lasse, who was all the time trying to regain the lead to have the opportunity of playing his cards, in vain. Kedir never gave a chance to Viren to rule the race his own way. Every time the Finn would take the lead it was so brief, he could not entangle anything. The master tactician had been beaten for the first time in his own speciality. With one lap and a half to the line, Viren tried to unleash his last attack as he had done in prior Games, but Kedir made sure the sprint had to be 300m and no more than 300m. As Miruts Yifter surged like a rocket, his compatriot was still leading the group. The shifter went all straight to his first Olympic title, followed by Kedir, Kotu, then Maaninka, while Viren was unable to sustain his rivals' change of speed. Yifter crossed the line ten metres ahead, with a last lap clocking of 54.7sec, while Maaninka won the sprint for the minor medals over Mohamed Kedir. The champion finished fifth after a praiseworthy race, congratulated effusively Maaninka and Yifter and eventually left the stadium, with a last nostalgic glance. Some say Lasse Viren’s performance in Moscow could have been better had not had the Finn a leg injury prior to the Games and had been his preparation more focused on his track races rather than on the marathon. Yet the Ethiopian display of perfect tactics and awesome running in those Games was really hard to match even for the best Lasse. Not having the reference of Viren, the Ethiopians were not as good in strategy at the 5000m. Yifter was boxed at the beginning of the last lap and Kedir had to open up to lane 2, so the leader of the team could find some space to unleash his final kick and struck his second gold medal.      

                     Ethiopia ratified its superiority at the time in long distance with successive victories in Cross country, after making its debut in Madrid in 1981. The following year, Mohamed Kedir was the individual winner. Yifter had targeted the marathon for Los Angeles Olympic Games but could not assist, because of the withdrawal of the national team, and retired soon afterwards. Boycotts, civil war and famine made difficult athletic success during the eighties but when the socio-politic situation in the country was back to normal, after the fall of the Derg, Ethiopian track and field returned to its very best with the sensational Olympic gold medals of Derartu Tulu and Haile Gebrselassie. The latter, when he listened on the radio Yifter triumphs in Moscow as a young boy, decided immediately to become a champion like him. If Miruts was able of a last lap of 54sec, his successor would be clocked 48-49sec in 5000m races. However, the ones who achieved again the double 5000/10.000m victories at the Olympics were Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba. On the other hand, Yifter left his job as national coach and went to the exile in Canada, stating he had been hit by the police, because of belonging to the Amharic ethnic group. (5) At that time also another Olympic champion, Mamo Wolde, was put in prison for nine years and died shortly after being released. Nowadays Miruts Yifter is happily returned in Ethiopia.
            1980 was the last competitive athletic season of Lasse Viren. The only standout Finnish long distance runner left for the next decade was Martti Vainio, who finished second in Los Angeles Olympics after Alberto Cova at the 10.000m. Yet he was later dispossessed of his medal after failing the doping test, due to the use of steroids, in a sad ending for the last generation of flying Finns. No first class long distance runner has come out of Finland since.