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The African long-distance runners striding confidently towards the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki for the Athletics World Championships in two weeks may not know whose statue dominates the stadium forecourt. Their opponents from the rest of the world, however, might draw some strength of purpose from a glance at the bronze of Paavo Nurmi. For it is reminder that all things, even African domination of distance running, must pass. The only problem is, there is no sign of it yet.
Nurmi was the apogee of Finnish distance running, winning nine gold medals and two silvers in three Olympic Games. Only accusations of “professionalism”, excluding him from the 1932 Los Angeles Games, prevented him from winning more. But Nurmi was only the best of his compatriots, who between 1912 in Stockholm and 1936 in Berlin won six out of seven Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m golds, with either silver or bronze as well, culminating with all three medals at the longer distance in Berlin.
There have been brief resurgences since then, notably through Lasse Viren, who won the 5,000m-10,000m double at both Munich in 1972 and Montreal in 1976, with Pekka Vasala depriving Kip Keino of the 1,500m title in Munich. But nowadays, the chances of a local athlete winning a medal in the events between 800m and the marathon are about as remote as finding a Finn without a mobile phone.
The Finnish experience is being repeated virtually everywhere outside of East Africa, with Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco providing a little relief for the Maghreb. So complete is the African domination that in the Olympic Games last summer Alistair Cragg, representing the Republic of Ireland (a country he has never lived in), was the only non-African to even reach a distance final, the 5,000m, in Athens. And even he was born in South Africa.
The proving ground for distance runners is the World Cross Country Championships, and for the past 25 years that event has been utterly dominated, alternately, by the Kenyans and Ethiopians. The only significant foreseeable change is one of allegiance.
For example, there was widespread consternation two years ago when Stephen Cherono of Kenya was “bought up” by Qatar and, rebranded as Saif Saeed Shaheen, promptly beat his former compatriots (for the first time ever) to the world steeplechase title in Paris.
Since then the Qataris have acquired more Kenyans, and picked up a couple of team medals in the last World Cross Country Championships. And so did Uganda, which is importing a different kind of Kenyan expertise – coaching from the International Association of Athletics Federations regional centre in Nairobi.
But a similar policy by the Bahrain Athletic Federation is producing problems. At least two of its medallists in the World Youth Championships in Marrakesh last week were former Kenyans, who appear to have been several years too old for the 16 years age limit.
Bilal Mansour, who won the 1,500m by a street, was formerly John Yego, born in 1984. His colleague, Tareq Mubarak Taher, who set a world youth best of 5min 23.95sec in the 2,000m steeplechase, was entered as born in on 1.2.89, 1989, but appears to be Denis Kipkirui Keter, whose birthdate was in 1984.
The response to the legitimate East African domination has not been terribly sophisticated elsewhere either. Half-a-dozen years ago, the US road-running circuit introduced better prize money for domestic athletes to finish tenth than for foreigners, ie Africans, to win a race. However, there is little sign that this has done anything other than enrich mediocre athletes.
But USA Track & Field responded with a much more sensible idea. It instituted high-altitude training camps around the country, and incentives for its leading runners to focus their training towards championships.
The reward was a full complement of runners across the spectrum of Olympic track events in Athens, while the UK squad, for example, had no one in the men’s 5,000m, and just one representative in the 10,000m and marathon.
The women were only marginally better represented, but more amply rewarded through Kelly Holmes’ unexpected middle-distance double.
Unless schools athletics in Britain is improved back to the level of sophistication that produced stars such as Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram and Dave Moorcroft 25 years ago, then the chances of track medals in London 2012 will be as slim as the possibility of the regeneration of east London without the impetus of an Olympics. The same goes for nurturing the current young distance runners with investment in altitude camps abroad, and the enticement to train as hard as their predecessors.
That is one US policy that a British governing body, UK Athletics, and its European counterparts might slavishly follow without fear of widespread criticism.
Pat Butcher’s book, ‘The Perfect Distance: Ovett & Coe – The Record Breaking Rivalry’ is published by Phoenix Sport, £7.99