PARIS AREVA MEET HIGHLIGHTS
By Roy Stevenson
Touted as being one of the “majors” in the Diamond League series, the Areva Paris meet attracted a huge amount of hype due to the appearance of superstars Usain Bolt, Blanka Vlasic, Kirani James, Tirunesh Dibaba, Ezekiel Kemboi, Paul Koech, Valerie Adams, Aries Merritt, and a half dozen of the world’s top milers.
The Stade de France is an enormous facility and simply swallows up the huge crowd. Nevertheless, the fanatical French crowd created enough noise to carry their favorite athletes around the track and over the pole vault bar with much fervor; they had high expectations for local heroes Renaud Lavillenie, Christophe Lemaitre, and Madiedine Mekhissi Benabbad.
The stellar women’s 5K field featured 8 starters under 15 minutes, 6 of them Ethiopians. Pacemaker Gabriele Anderson set a fast pace for the first kilometer with a group of 9 hanging on. After passing through the 2K in 5:45 the pack was down to 6, and by 7 laps the pack had been further whittled down to 3 with race favorite Dibaba leading from fellow countrywomen Gelete Burka and Almaz Yyana.
Just after 3K, Burka wrested the lead from Dibaba and Ayana, but at 4k Dibaba regained the lead.
By now their small pack had a 100m lead over the next group of three. With 3 laps left, Burka was dropped and Ayana was hanging on to Dibaba by her fingernails. At the bell, these two had a gap of 50m back to Burka.
Dibaba launched her famous kick with 300m to go and buried Ayana by 16m at the tape with a world leading (and meet record) 14:23.68 to Ayana’s new PR of 14:25.84. Burka was 3rd in 14:42.07 and Ethiopians rounded off the top 5 places with Molly Huddle running an honest race for 6th in 15:10.56. Dibaba: “I was expecting a fast time. I have already done the standards for the world champs, and will double in the 5K and 10K. Next year I will go up to the marathon”.
The women’s 100m featured a premiere field with 3 sub-11.0 second starters this season and 7 of the 9 with career sub-11.0 seconds. Favorites were Jamaicans Kelly-Ann Baptiste and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and Ivet Lalova (Bulgaria). Oregon standout , English Gardner, was having her first race in France. “This is my first visit to France. I’m still learning”, she said before the race. Race favorite, SAFP, “I’m still undefeated this season, but I haven’t got a big time yet”.
The early leaders were Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price and Blessing Okagbare with SAFP prevailing by a hundredth of a second, SAFP’s 10.92 being a season’s best. Said the winner, “Today was not the best race technically, but I still managed to win. I just ran my own race. And yes I will for sure double in Moscow”. Gardner’s 5th place in 11.13 gave her good experience with the big guns.
Seven of the starters in the Men’s 3K steeples had best times under8:10. After his racy steeples last week when he just missed the European record, France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi Banabbad announced he would be chasing the European record tonight. Said Benabbab, “My goal on Saturday night is to beat the European mark. I’m confident I can achieve it”. This was fine and dandy, we journalists thought, but he’d still be hard pressed to beat an on-form Ezekiel Kemboi;” I’ve only raced twice this season. In Eugene and Oslo. No victories so far. With my friend Mekhissi and Paul Koech in the race I know it can go very fast”. Paul Koech would also be a hard nut to crack, but as it turned out Benabbad did have his measure.
Haron Lagat set a very fast pace that had the field spread over 40 me by the 2nd lap. Tailing Lagat were the anticipated trio of Kemboi, Benabbad, and Koech. They stayed in this order for most of the race, with a brief mid-race challenge by Koech, who then faded with 2 laps to go.
Benabbad looked strong throughout the race, hurdling well and maintaining good leg speed between the hurdles, and it was only Kemboi’s extra, faster sprint gear that got him across the line first, (although he did run wide and slow down to encourage Benabbad in the final 40m and urge the French crowd to cheer Benabbad on to a record).
Kermboi unleashed a mean sprint with 250m to go, just before the hurdle on the back straight, immediately opening up a 5-meter gap that he maintained all the way to the tape. Benabbad was clearly spent, but held together well down the home straight with the crowd going berserk at the prospect of a record.
Kemboi’s world leading meet record of 7:59.03 would have been a second or two faster without his generous assistance to Benabbad. Benabbad’s 8:00.09 did establish a new European Record that was well received by the enthusiastic French crowd. Koech was a clear third in 8:09.17. Said Koech, “I wanted to run a sub-8 this year so this goal is fulfilled. Next is to win in Moscow”. Benabbad said, “The European record was my objective, so I am very pleased. But I would have also liked to have won”.
The men’s metric mile is always a crowd pleaser and this one was stacked to the gunnels with heavy lifters like Americans Manzano, Lomong, Lagat, and Centrowitz, plus Moustaui and Iguider (Morocco), Seurei (Brunei), Souleiman (Djibouti) and Gebremedhin (Ethiopia); all with best times under 3:33!
This was one fast horserace with quick pacing and leads changing as they went through 800m in 1:50.51, and through the bell at 2:50.12 The kick was on and Souleiman led the stampede down the home straight from a fast finishing Aman Wote (Ethiopia) and a huge pack fighting it out for third. Souleiman’s winning time of 3:32.55 held off Wote by .1 second, and fast finishing Manzano third in 3:33.14–a qualifying time for the U.S. team for Moscow. Lomong’s 3:34.55 was also a qualifier. Centrowitz suddenly withdrew from the race with just over 200m left in the race. Ten runners finished within two seconds of Souleiman’s winning time.
After Lavillenie’s pole vault win (5.92m) and Benabbad’s fine steeplechase, the French crowd was at fever pitch for countryman Lemaitre’s 200m face-off against the lightning Bolt from Jamaica. Despite being tired from his trip from Jamaica, Bolt led all the way from the cradle to the grave in the long sprint. By the home straight, Bolt had established a clear 2 yard advantage over fellow Jamaican Warren Weir and maintained it all the way to win in a rapid 19.73, a world leader and meet record. Meanwhile, back in the pack, Lemaitre sneaked through into 3rd (SB 20.07), over a meter behind Weir’s (19.92).
Said Bolt at the pre-race press meeting, “I want to dominate sprinting until the Rio Games–remain the best”. So far, it looks like he’s on track.
In other events Lavillenie easily won the pole vault by 22cm from Czech Jan Kudlicka, and Greek Konstantinos Filippidis who had the same vault (5.70m).
Blanka Vlasic, back in competition after an Achilles tendon injury, jumped a solid third, in 1.98m, tying this distance with American Brigetta Barrett, and Kiwi Valerie Adams won her 36th straight shot put. The AREVA meet easily lived up to expectations, and a happy French crowd wasn’t even phased by the hot crowded train ride back to Paris.