Men's 800m: Bucher the best of new breed of middle-distance youngsters

Considering the race has the potential to be a very tactical affair, the men's 800 metres has undergone a stunning youth movement with nearly all the top contenders being under 25. And despite being largely dominated by 24-year-old Swiss sensation Andre Bucher, the 800m has provided a number of the most thrilling races on the IAAF circuit in 2001.

Case in point: the Golden League meet in Monaco in July when Bucher needed to establish a new national record of 1:42.90 - the fastest time in the past two years - just to secure victory over hard-charging 20-year-old Yuriy Borzakovsky of Russia. In race after race this season, these two have left everything on the track in a display of youthful abandon and with Bucher, ranked first in the world by the IAAF, usually prevailing. Bucher is undefeated in three Golden League victories this season, with a clutch of other victories besides, including one in front of an ecstatic partisan crowd at the Athletissima Grand Prix meet in Lausanne.

Unfortunately, we'll be denied an even more dramatic showdown between the two in Edmonton, since Borzakovsky, the junior world record holder, has opted to take a pass on the event. Borzakovsky said that after the glare of the media spotlight during his meteoric rise was getting to be too much and winning the world indoor championship (which he won in Lisbon in March) was quite enough for one season.

Bucher, for one, was puzzled at the Russian's withdrawl.

"I don't know why Yuriy has decided not to run," Bucher told the IAAF. "After all he ran in the Olympics and the world indoors and he certainly would be one of the favourites here and would have had a good chance of winning a medal."

"It's most unfortunate that Borzakovsky is not going," says a disappointed Geoff Gowan, CBC's track analyst. "He's a wonderful contrast to Bucher. Borzakovskiy tries to run an evenly paced race, so he's always down after the first lap, but he catches up in the last lap. But that means you have to be psychologically prepared to be behind and must always be prepared to run the extra distance of running on the outside of the pack when you go into your kick.

"Of course, Bucher's not sorry Borzakovsky's not there, and he's the favourite. He's the fastest this year by a country mile. But there's also no pacemaker in the world championships, which means that this will be a tactical race, and that brings another dimension into play, because Bucher does great with pacemakers, but gets into trouble in tactical races."

As far as predicting the world gold medal hanging around his neck, Bucher says that would be too premature.

"There are still six or seven people in the championships who can run just as fast as me and have just yet not shown it this year."

Normally, Wilson Kipketer would be the main challenger to Bucher, but Kipketer has been missing in action, or just plain out of action in 2001. And as the runners lined up for the 800 in Edmonton, Kipketer was no where to be seen, ending speculation that the fleet-footed runner was going to withdraw from the event.

One of the many Kenyan Kipketers who star in middle distance and long distance events, Kipketer competes for Denmark now, and it was under the Danish flag that he set the current world record, won the 1999 world championship and won the silver medal in Sydney. However, he simply has not been the same since he contracted malaria during a visit back to Kenya in 1998. The Sydney race showed that while Kipketer is an unparallelled tactical runner, his finishing kick is no longer the formidable weapon it once was.

"If Kipketer's there, he's always a medal threat, but who knows if he's fit? Who knows if he's even over his malaria?" Gowan wonders. Otherwise, Gowan is a great admirer of Kipketer.

Kipketer is more than just very fast. He's an outstanding tactical runner and has great pace judgement. You pay a massive price for dozing off in the 800m, especially with Kipketer in the race -- he leaves you very little room to make up for any mistakes."

As usual, the Kenyans should be strong in the 800m, although none really stand out this year. Japheth Kimutai was the best last season, but has kept a low profile this season. William Chirchir, the bronze medallist at Lausanne, is ranked 10th in the world, he's still very young at 22, and he's probably the best of the current crop of 800m Kenyans, although Joseph Mwengi Mutua has more impressive numbers this year.

Hezekiel Sepeng, the silver medallist at the 1999 worlds, won the bronze at Monaco and finshed fourth in Sydney, so he's still a medal contender, especially with Borzakovsky and possibly Kipketer out of the way. Botswana's Glory Dube is another young runner at 23 who is zooming up the rankings and now stands eighth in the world. Djabir Said-Guerni of Algeria, the bronze medallist at Sydney, has been coming on of late and is ranked third by the IAAF, and Anrea Longo of Italy should at least make the final.

But if Nils Schumann of Germany finds himself on the podium, it will be an upset to nearly match the one he pulled off in Sydney when he outgunned Kipketer for the gold. Schumann has done little since.

Canada's best 800m runner at the moment seems to be yet another kid, 20-year-old Achraf Tadili, who won the 2001 Canadian championship, but since he has not yet become a Canadian citizenship, he won't be making the trip to Edmonton. An even younger Nathan Brannen will. The 18-year-old Brannen pushed perennial Canadian champ Zach Whitmarsh down to third at the Canadian championships and was rewarded with a berth at the worlds. Brannen represents a great deal of promise on the rebuilding Canadian track team, but he's not going to Edmonton with high expectations, but looking for experience against a superb field that will help a few years down the road.