Kenyans sizzle as Track and Field christens its new home with a drenching

Track and Field in Victoria held its first significant meeting at its new home in Lakeside Stadium on Saturday night when it hosted the time-honoured Zatopek meeting.  For me it was a bit like going to the housewarming party of a friend whose old digs you loved, despite them having seen better days (the digs, not the friend !).

 

I started the day reflecting on what had been in Victorian athletics history as my early morning rowing transport duties took me past the ruins which until recently were the Olympic Park grandstands.  I pondered whether I could form a similar bond with the new home of athletics.

 

Parking difficulties made the early stages of this new relationship quite fraught, but once I got in the stadium the shiny new track and two half-covered grandstands made me think of other “boutique” stadiums such as that of the Gold Coast Suns.  Purpose built for quite intimate experiences for the modest-size crowds that their capacity accommodates.

 

The rain that had been threatening most of the afternoon blew in on cue as the serious end of the card began.  The fact that the grandstands only offer shelter for the back half of seats saw punters scurrying for cover, a problem for those of us in the front straight, where the comfortably padded seats of the back rows were reserved for invited guests who included Eddie (no surname required) and Tim Lane, as well as a who’s who of Victorian athletics.

 

The “undercard” contained several interesting events.  A women’s 4 x 400 metre relay saw two of the big names in Australian women’s athletics, Jana Pitman and Tamsyn Manou (formerly Lewis) on opposing teams.  These former foes, who publicly bickered after the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, embraced warmly after the event. The Under 20 Men’s 3000 metres saw rising star Jordan Williamsz (yes, with a z on the end !) once again demonstrate his enormous talent in a keenly contested event.

 

The Zatopek meeting is all about the 10,000 metre races, which are sometimes described as “the marathon of the track.”  Once you’ve run one, you know exactly why, as the mental toughness required to churn out 25 laps is comparable to running a marathon.

 

The 2011 meeting drew some highly-rated Kenyans.  The women’s event saw Joyce Chepkirui and Emily Chebet space the local competitors.  After a couple of leisurely opening laps in heavy rain, the Kenyan pair increased the ante, began to really stride out and cleared out from the rest.  In the great Kenyan distance running tradition they took turns in shouldering the responsibility for leading and it was evident with a few laps to go that they would threaten the existing race record. The less-rated Chebet burst away from her countrywoman in the last lap and broke the race record by 24 hundredths of a second, a deserved reward for a great effort in miserable conditions. The first Aussie, Emily Bricachek, was more than two minutes behind the magnificent Kenyans.

 

Conditions had improved ever so slightly by the time the men stepped up to the start line.  Four top Kenyans joined a strong local contingent including national record holder Ben St Lawrence, Buster Mottram and David McNeill.  The pace was hot right from the start, and the field was soon spread far and wide, with Kenyans Emmanuel Bett, Bitan Karoki and Micah Kogo and the three Australians joining the pacemaker in the lead pack.  Sadly, Buster was dropped off before the halfway mark as the Kenyans employed their usual tactics of surging for a lap or so to test the tanks of the chasing pack.

 

St Lawrence and McNeill hung tough for few more laps before the three Kenyans cleared out. It is always great fun watching the Kenyans strut their stuff, and incredibly difficult to forecast which one will triumph.  As in the women’s race it was not the most heralded that got the prize, as Kogo was the first to fall off before an epic last lap in which Bett held off a desperate last surge from Karoki. Whatever it costs to bring these Kenyans out is money well spent as they nearly always deliver, and both the men’s and women’s races were top quality distance running.

 

St Lawrence lost no admirers with a gutsy fourth, having to run by himself for most of the second half of the race.  As for the other Aussies, McNeill and the less-heralded Harry Summers both performed well.  As for my favourite, Buster, although he is still on the comeback trail after a long absence through injury, I have grave doubts whether he can return to anywhere near the great heights he reached as a 5000 metre World Championships medalist.  This night he finished a minute behind the A-qualifier time for the London Olympics. Hopefully I am wrong (again !).

 

And my verdict on the stadium ?  It is intimate and the athlete facilities appear to be excellent, including a decent warm-up track.  It is slightly unusual in that the jumping pits and pole vault are held in the back straight, and I don’t mind that, as it means that you get a decent crowd in back and front straights which generally leads to a better atmosphere. The biggest change required is that athletes have to pay to train at the track which they didn’t have to do at O Park, which was a very egalitarian venue, open to all for no charge. Track and Field needs everything it can going for it as it competes for talent with the footy codes and cricket, and this must be remedied urgently.

 

It doesn’t feel like home yet, but I’ll get used to it.  In the words of C Montgomery Burns, “I know what I hate, and …I don’t hate this….”

 

Comments

  1. Steve – sounded like an interesting meeting. Am I being too hard on Mottram? I find him a very disappointing athlete. Bit like Ron Clarke; magnificent against the clock, ordinary in a race.

    I know Mottram was underdone but he always seems to have an excuse.

  2. Steve Fahey says:

    Dips, I don’t agree that Buster has been disappointing – the only white athlete to medal in a distance event at Worlds or Olympics in 15 years at one stage. I will agree that the last 4 years have been really tough for him and he was disappointing on Saturday night.

    I don’t know what his best distance is at this stage and suspect he doesn’t either. It was always 5000 metres, but the standard in that event has just kept rising, and he appears to have lost some zip. He may be better at 10000, albeit not on Saturday night’s effort, and I know that he intends to have a crack at a marathon at some stage. I sincerely hope that he comes good.

  3. Mark O'Connell says:

    Beautifully written Steve. I was unaware of the shift to Lakeside.

  4. pamela sherpa says:

    I hope the new venue is a success.
    I adore watching the Kenyans run. Magnificent athletes.

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