A brief encounter, then a rapid exit
Pamela Jelimo stunned Europe on her debut last weekend but Kenyans have snatched her back. By Simon Turnbull
Sunday 01 June 2008
The International Association of Athletics Federations' programme of Golden League meetings gets under way in Berlin this afternoon, but the new golden girl of track and field will be conspicuously absent from the 1936 Olympic Stadium.
Following her stunning debut on the international circuit at the FBK Games at Hengelo in the Netherlands last weekend, Pamela Jelimo has been recalled to her homeland by the Kenyan athletics federation and placed firmly under wraps in a national training camp for "Olympic Probables" in Eldoret. "Maybe they just want to wrap her up in cotton wool and bring her out in Beijing," Britain's Jenny Meadows mused, "because she's probably going to be one of the star performers of the whole Games."
None of those who witnessed the women's 800m in the Fanny Blankers-Koen Stadium will doubt such an assertion. Meadows was one of 11 others on the track with Jelimo in the two-lap race and, a week on, she is still recovering from the experience. "Wow!" she said at the first mention of the 19-year-old Kenyan. "Absolutely phenomenal."
The lingering shock is understandable. Meadows has established herself at elite class internationally as an 800m runner over the past 18 months, breaking through the two-minute barrier and finishing sixth in the final at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia in March. The 27-year-old from Wigan was not exactly at her best in Holland but her time in sixth place, 2min 00.64sec, was her fastest-ever season's opener. Yet she finished almost five seconds down on Jelimo, a veritable street in world-class middle-distance terms.
"I was just absolutely shocked, to be quite honest," Meadows reflected. "I run with some guys in my training group and she was as far ahead as you would expect the guys to be. I've broken into world class myself, and you just don't expect to encounter such a phenomenal gap. I've read some comments from her saying she had plenty in reserve. I'm bewildered to think what time she thinks she can run. This girl is just absolutely phenomenal."
So it would seem. Jelimo's winning time in Hengelo was impressive enough: 1min 55.76sec, a world junior record, the fastest 800m by a woman for five years and the 20th fastest of all time, behind 14 performances that were set in the 1970s and 1980s by athletes from the Eastern Bloc of whom the East Germans at least were documentarily proven to have been on steroid regimes.
If anything, the manner of her victory was even more breathtaking. The teenager simply eased to the front with 300 metres left and breezed away from the field, opening up an increasingly yawning chasm and crossing the line 2.84sec ahead of her closest pursuer, Maryam Jamal of Bahrain, the world 1500m champion.
Rarely has such a middle-distance talent made such a jaw-dropping entrance on the international circuit. The International Track and Field Annual has only just hit the bookshelves at the start of the season and the name Jelimo does not appear among the 4,000 athletes listed in its index. So who exactly is this new wunderkind of the track?
Well, she was born on 1 January 1989 and until three months ago she was a sprinter. Last August she won the 400m at the African Junior Championships in Burkina Faso in a time of 54.93sec – decidedly modest in comparison with Meadows' best for the distance, 52.50sec.
In April she won the 800m at the Kenyan trials for the African Championships, running 2min 01.20sec, then on 4 May showed a hint of what was to come in Hengelo by winning the African title at high altitude in Addis Ababa, clocking 1min 58.70sec and claiming the prized scalp of Maria Mutola, the three-time outdoor world champion from Mozambique.
The question now is whether Janeth Jepkosgei, the 24-year-old Kenyan who took the World Championship 800m crown with a brilliant front-running display in Osaka last August, can contain her rapidly emerging compatriot. The pair, who sometimes run together at the Kapsabet Training Camp in the Rift Valley, were due to meet in Berlin today – until Athletics Kenya issued their urgent recall to Jelimo. "Pamela has shown she can run well but it should be controlled, so that she maintains top shape for the Olympics," Kenya's head coach, Julius Kirwa, said. "I have no opposition to her running in Europe but we should take care."
Jelimo herself is hungry for more. "I am looking for exposure in Europe, so that when I am in the Olympics I am well prepared," she said. "Hengelo was my first race on the circuit and I can do better. I have been doing serious training in Kenya and I have shown there that I am going to do even better. I can improve my time from Hengelo."
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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