Athletics Kenya, the national governing body of track & field in Kenya announced on March 15 that Kenya will hold their men’s 10,000 meter Olympic Trials race in Eugene, Oregon in June 2012. This announcement means that all other Kenyan Olympic Trials races will take place at the Kenyan national championships in Nairobi on June 21-23.
News that Athletics Kenya was considering having the men’s and women’s 5000 and 10,000 meter Olympic Trials races at the Prefontaine Classic first broke in late February. While it was not official, Prefontaine meet director Tom Jordan confirmed that they were considering the possibility.
Many people were immediately opposed to the idea of Kenya holding some of their Olympic Trials races outside of Kenya. Former Kenyan Olympic stars Paul Tergat and Moses Tanui went on record against the trials being in the United States. “The national Olympic team selection should be done by Kenyans, run in Kenya and witnessed by Kenyans,” Tergat said in a press statement. “We have always been doing the selection in Kenya and we must bring the country’s idols to compete at home so as to encourage youngsters,” said Tanui, who also added that, “The youth of this country are being denied a chance to represent the country because they cannot afford to travel there (Eugene),” Tanui also pointed out that the money spent on sending Kenyan runners to the Prefontaine Classic would be better spent developing runners in Kenya.
Another leading former athlete, Martin Keino, son of the famous Kenyan runner Kipchoge “Kip” Keino, wrote an opinion piece in which he pointed out the positives of the Olympic Trials taking place in Kenya both for the Kenyan fans and for the athletes. “It is unique in the sense that it is the convergence of as many as 20 of the world’s top distance athletes fighting for just three spots through a rigorous system of selection,” said Keino, “The men’s 5000m and 10,000m races are generally some of the most exciting races at an Olympic trials here in Kenya. Not to hold these events in such important trials is to deny thousands of fans their only opportunity to watch their stars in person before the Games. As a former athlete who participated in several trials, the pressure cooker environment, high altitude and the toughest competition in the world made for the best preparation for any championship to follow,” he said.
From a financial point of view, it did seem odd. It would be much more expensive for athletes to get to Eugene than to Nairobi. There were suggestions that Nike, the sponsor for the Prefontaine Meet, was paying for the travel expenses for the Kenyan runners to come to the United States. One can’t help but wonder if Nike also promised a payment to Athletics Kenya for holding their Olympic Trials races at Prefontaine. It makes sense that Nike would be willing to spend some money to make this happen because from a marketing point of view having the Kenyan Olympic Trials in Eugene would create more interest in the Prefontaine Meet. The Star, a daily newspaper in Nairobi, quoted Kenyan Commissioner of Sports Gordon Oluoch as saying “You do not hold national trials in another country because you have an all expenses paid trip by Nike.”
Details such as, would there be special races only for Kenyans or would the Kenyans run in the usual 5000 and 10,000 meter races that are open to runners from all countries, were heavily speculated by track fans. United States runners like Chris Solinsky (via twitter) speculated about the situation just like other running fans.
Amid all the controversy, Athletics Kenya stated that the reason for holding their Olympic Trials outside of Kenya was simply for competitive reasons. Athletics Kenya felt that since Kenya has not won an Olympic gold medal ever in the women’s 5000 or 10,000 and the last men’s gold medals were 1988 (5000-John Ngugi) and 1968 (10,000-Naftali Temu), they needed to do something different to get their best possible team on the line at the 2012 London Olympics to go after the gold medals that the country covets. Having the race at sea level (Nairobi’s elevation is 5,600 feet) would simulate the London conditions better. After all, the top finishers in a 10,000 meter race at altitude in the heat may not be the runners who would perform the best in a 10,000 meter race at sea level. Athletics Kenya’s has released a plan to hold a training camp in Eldoret, Kenya beginning on March 12 for runners with the Olympics A and B standards. Then there would be a mini trials on April 17 to determine which athletes would go to Eugene in June for the Olympic Trials. A couple weeks ago the rumor was that Athletics Kenya planned to send five men and five women each for the 5000 and 10,000 meter races at Prefontaine. Thus a total of twenty athletes only would vie for the twelve Olympic spots (three each in each event, both men and women).
On March 15, Athletics Kenya made an announcement that only the men’s 10,000 meter Olympic Trials race would take place in the United States. The men’s 5000 and the women’s 5000 and 10,000, as well as all other track & field events will take place in Nairobi as in past years. The Kenyan 10,000 meter Olympic Trials race will take place on Friday June 1, the night before the Prefontaine Classic. There will be no charge for admission for this special meet, being billed as “Hollister Night at Hayward” in honor of one of the original Nike employees, Geoff Hollister, who passed away on February 6. The 10,000 meter race will have fifteen Kenyan athletes (selected by Athletics Kenya). There will be no pace maker and the top two finishers will qualify for the Kenyan Olympic team. An Athletics Kenya panel will select the third runner to represent Kenya at the London Olympics. Other events scheduled for the Hollister Night at Hayward are the men’s triple jump and mile and the women’s discus, hammer, 1500 and 800.
There has been much speculation, many announcements, comments, and re-announcements on this event over the last three weeks. The final decision has been announced but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is not the last of this controversy. The best part? No matter what’s decided there are sure to be some exciting races to determine Kenya’s Olympic team followed by more exciting races in London.
Pace setters, a.k.a. rabbits or pacers, are pretty common in the sport of running. If you went to the Brutus Hamilton Meet at Berkeley or the Payton Jordan Meet at Stanford last spring you saw rabbits in many of the races. On Friday, August 7 at the Diamond League Meet in Stockholm the rabbits will be an important part of Meseret Defar’s World Record attempt in the women’s 5000 meters. Lauren Fleshman is one of the rabbits and she talks about it in her most recent blog post.
These pace setters set a goal pace for part of the race and then usually drop out. The rabbit nickname came from the 1920’s when a mechanical rabbit was used in dog racing to give the dogs a target to chase.
In track races, pace setting creates fast races because the pace setter runs the goal pace while taking the wind. One study on wind resistance found that at middle distance race speed the energy spent overcoming air resistance is 7.5% of the total energy cost. So running one meter behind another runner (such as the rabbit) can reduce energy expenditure by a significant amount. The other runners can draft behind the pace setter, running relaxed, using less mental energy worrying about the pace and splits, with confidence that they will be on pace, and they are using less energy. A really nice article about rabbits was written up in conjunction with the 2009 Kansas Relays.
While there is no known record of the first pace setter, history suggests that they have been around for quite some time. When Roger Bannister broke four minutes for the mile, for the first time in history, in 1954 he employed two pace setters – fellow teammates Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. Brasher paced the first two and a half laps of the record setting run and then Chataway paced until there was only a half lap to go.
In fact teammates often run team tactics in championships races, which is in essence pacing. It requires one teammate to set the pace while the other(s) sit back, and save energy for a late race surge to (hopeful) victory. This tactic has been employed most famously in 1500 meter races, such as the 1968 Olympics (Kenya and Kip Keino over Jim Ryun), the 2000 Olympics (Morocco and Hicham El Guerrouj), and the 2005 World Championships (the Russians).
Pace setting, however, is most commonly seen at track meets where the athletes are going for a certain fast time. These rabbits are usually athletes who are not quite good enough to be in the race but are close. They’re hoping to be like Noah Ngeny, who once rabitted El Guerrouj to a world record and then came back and beat El Guerrouj for the gold medal at the 2000 Olympics. Pace setters are told what pace to run and they are expected to run an even pace. And that’s where it’s an art. The pace setter is not helping if they are way out in front of the pack. The pace setter needs to be aware of where the pack is and must try to get them to hit the correct splits while also keeping them right on his or her shoulder.
Pace setters are not required to drop out of the race but they do need to get out of the way so that they aren’t blocking the other runners. Usually you will see the pace setter peel off to the outside or jump off the track onto the infield when their pace work is done. After that, they become cheerleaders with a great seat; and they tend to cheer pretty hard because there is often bonus money for them if the race winner hits a certain time or sets a record. Pace setting, while not super glamorous, does not go uncompensated. At major US meets, pace setters are paid about $300 with another $100-$200 in bonus money if a certain time is achieved (for example $100 for a sub-four mile and another $100 for a meet record). The pay is higher at the big meets in Europe where it is said to be the equivalent of what the third place runner might be earning, which can range from $4,000 to $8,000.
In February 2010 when Bernard Lagat set a new American record for the indoor 5,000 meters Lagat got a great deal of media attention. But the pace setter was not overlooked; Adam Perkins got a write-up in Runners’ World.
In 2005 one of the best pace setters of all-time, Martin Keino, son of the aforementioned Kip Keino, retired. Martin’s prowess as a pace setter was evident in the media coverage that his retirement garnered. Even five years after his retirement he gets interviewed about his career as a pacemaker. This is a man whose resume includes: pacing world records for Daniel Komen (2 mile and 5,000), Haile Gebrselassie (5,000 and 10,000) and Kenenisa Bekele (5,000 and 10,000).
Pace setting is not without its share of controversy. Team tactics are certainly part of the sport, but there are people who question the ethics of pace setting for world records or fast times. If the point of the sport is head-to-head competition, perhaps it isn’t ethical that someone who is not trying to win the race (and in fact has no intention of finishing the race) participates and effects the race.
For the casual track fan, these pace setters can create an element of confusion (“look at that guy way out in the lead, I bet he wins” or “how come the woman that was in the lead at the beginning dropped out?”). For fans of head-to-head competition pace setters disrupt the mano-a-mano aspect of the sport. For fans of fast times and records pace setters are invaluable.
You can love them, hate them, or feel indifferent but, pace setters at least at this current time, are part of the sport and you will be a more knowledgeable fan if you understand what their role is.