Great Dane of Africa

Mike Rowbottom watches an awesome performance by a runner of rare class
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The Independent Online
The audacious performance of a naturalised Danish runner here on Friday night has made it virtually certain that the longest standing track world record - Sebastian Coe's 16-year-old 800 metres mark of 1min 41.73sec - will be broken this season.

The man to do it will be Wilson Kipketer, late of Kenya, now of Denmark, whose world indoor 800m record in his opening heat on Friday night was one of the surprises of these or any other world indoor championships.

The ease with which the 26-year-old took nearly a second off the mark of his former compatriot Paul Ereng was an awesome testimony to the way he has worked on his fitness during a recent two-month spell in Arizona. Barring injury, he appears perfectly placed to improve last season's outdoor best of 1min 41.83sec - a time bettered only by Coe and the Brazilian Joaquim Cruz, who ran 1:41.77 in 1984.

That would provide a final confirmation of the judgement of Kip Keino. Kenya's legendary Olympic champion spotted Kipketer's talent as a 16-year- old and recommended him to Father Colm O'Connell, the Irish priest who runs St Patrick's - the school at Iten, in the Rift Valley, which has nurtured so many outstanding runners in recent years.

The only problem at the time was that Keino, who was sponsoring several other promising youngsters through the school, could not afford to support another. In an effort to establish just how determined this young farmer's son was, O'Connell asked him if, in return for a place at the boarding school, he would be prepared to re-paint the walls during holidays. Kipketer readily agreed and thus, after all the other pupils had vacated the premises to return home, the one pupil went about his work.

That single-mindedness has marked Kipketer's whole career. Having travelled to Denmark as an exchange student in 1990, taking up a course in electronic engineering at Copenhagen Polytechnic, he sought Danish nationality in 1995.

That decision cost him a place at last year's Olympics, as delays prevented him gaining a new passport, but Kipketer - whose name means "born on the verandah" - has been welcomed into his new home.

For all that, the man whom he went out of his way to thank immediately after running 1min 43.96sec was not a Dane, but a Pole - his coach, Slavomir Novak.

Despite Kipketer's insistence that he had only decided to go for the world record - and its accompanying bonus of $50,000 - when he had completed the first 200 metres of his race, Novak revealed afterwards that they had spoken together of the possibility of him setting a new indoor mark.

Whatever the case, Kipketer - who was only persuaded last month by Novak to enter these championships - seized his moment supremely well, simplifying his task here to the remaining matter of winning the gold medal - and a further $50,000. Afterwards, Kipketer insisted that the prize money had not been a factor in his appearance, or performance. But he and his coach have a reputation for being secretive about their preparations, and Kipketer seemed unwilling to disclose even his winter training location on Friday.

Had he, someone asked, been surprised to beat Ereng's mark by so much? "The answer could be yes or no," he replied with a wide grin. How, someone else asked, did he think he would fare this summer given his astonishing form? "We are here, we are in winter," he replied. "We cannot talk about summer before we reach summer."

As far as Wilson Kipketer is concerned, the events of the summer seem likely to speak for themselves.

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