The reigning world athlete of the year is getting ready to rumble on the 2011 summer circuit. The reigning world athlete of the year? Outside of the track-and-field fraternity, you would struggle to find many folk who even know his name.
That is a great pity, because David Rudisha is both a huge talent and an intriguing story, like the young man he has succeeded as the planet's No 1 athlete, Usain Bolt. While Bolt's star waned somewhat in an injury-plagued 2010, culminating in defeat by Tyson Gay in Stockholm and then surgery, Rudisha soared to record-breaking heights, yet without the Kenyan 800m runner capturing the kind of global attention the Jamaican sprinter did with his world record-wrecking feats in 2008 and 2009.
Twice within a week late last summer, when the sporting spotlight in Britain had moved on from the gold-medal deeds of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Co at the European Championships in Barcelona to the football season, Rudisha revised the world-record figures for the 800m. In Berlin on 22 August he covered the two-lap distance in 1min 41.09sec, slicing 0.02sec from the global mark set in 1997 by the Kenyan-born, Danish-naturalised Wilson Kipketer. A week later, in the Italian town of Rieti, Rudisha lowered the record to 1:41.01.
At the age of 21, the 6ft 3in giant had matched the feats of Kipketer, Sebastian Coe and Cuba's Alberto Juantorena in becoming a two-time world record-breaker at 800m. Not since the 1880s and Lon Myers, the great American of the professional "pedestrian" foot-racing era, has the record for the distance been broken three times by the same athlete. Rudisha, now 22, clearly has the potential to do so – and to push towards the watershed time of 1:40.00, which would be the equivalent of running eight consecutive 100m segments in 12.5sec, or a sustained sprint for half a mile.
Like Kipketer, who succeeded Coe as world record-holder, Rudisha is a product of the remarkable distance-running stable at St Patrick's High School in Iten, a small town perched 8,000 feet above sea level in the Rift Valley, under the direction of the genial Brother Colm O'Connell.
The Irish missionary from Cork has guided four athletes to Olympic gold – the 1500m runner Peter Rono (1988) and 3,000m steeplechasers Matthew Birir (1992), Reuben Kosgei (2000) and Brimin Kipruto (2008) – coached 20 World Championship gold medallistsand unearthed Kipketer before he left to train and study in Denmark. "Brother Colm is a very good coach," Rudisha said from St Patrick's after a morning training run in preparation for the opening IAAF Diamond League meeting of the year in Doha next Friday. "So many good athletes have come from this camp. We have a great history. The training programme at St Patrick's obviously works very well. We have a good training group here – Augustine Choge [the 2006 Commonwealth 5,000m champion], Isaac Songok [the sixth-fastest 5,000m runner in history] and all the other guys. We train together and motivate each other. Everything here is conducive for good running."
In addition to being coached by an Irish Patrician brother, the reigning world athlete of the year happens to be a Maasai warrior. He was initiated as such at a grand homecoming ceremony last September, following his return from the European circuit. The guests included former Kenyan president Daniel Moi, and Rudisha was presented with his Elongo (Maasai shield) by Billy Konchellah, the 800m world champion of 1987 and 1991, and with his Elemet (spear) by Stephen Marai, an African Games silver medallist at 800m.
"It was wonderful," Rudisha said. "There was a lot of cattle slaughtered. That is what we do at a Maasai celebration. There is a lot of meat eaten."
It was not the first slaughter and warrior initiation in honour of a running Rudisha. David's father, Daniel, was accorded a similar homecoming after he became the first Maasai to compete at an Olympic Games. At Mexico City in 1968 he was a member of the Kenyan 4 x 400m relay team who won silver medals behind the United States.
"My father motivated me a lot," David said. "I wanted to be like him. It was because of him that I became a runner."
Rudisha Jnr actually started his athletics life as a decathlete before switching to the 800m and following the path that is leading him towards the 2012 Olympics in London as the man to beat in the event in which the chairman of the organising committee made his breakthrough. Sebastian Coe set two world records at 800m (1:42.40 in Oslo in 1979 and 1:41.73 in Florence in 1981) but he never won Olympic gold at that distance, just silvers in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 to set alongside his 1500m golds from those Games.
"I have watched his races on YouTube," Rudisha said. "I am a fan of Sebastian Coe. He was a very good athlete. He motivated me. I have met him several times. He has encouraged me. In Oslo last year he told me, 'You can do it. You can break the world record if you focus'."
But exactly how fast might the new giant of the 800m be able to go? After his 1:41.01 in Rieti, he confessed: "I had a feeling that if I tried, I could produce something around 1:40." Now he insists he is focused not on fast times but on the battle for the 800m crowns at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, this coming August and at the Olympics next year.
"If you win a title, everybody remembers you," the young warrior said. "You leave a legacy behind." And a two-lap legacy on Lord Coe's Olympic patch for good measure.
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