Road To The Olympic Games

Kaki: The man to beat in 800m

Anyone who witnessed Abubaker Kaki's performance at Oslo's famed Bislett Games Golden League meet June 5 knows the Sudanese teenager appears the man to beat in the Olympic 800 metres.

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Anyone who witnessed Abubaker Kaki’s performance at Oslo’s famed Bislett Games Golden League meet June 5 knows the Sudanese teenager appears the man to beat in the Olympic 800 metres. 

In only his first 800m of the outdoor season he followed countryman  Abdalla Abdelgadir through the first 400 metres in 50.17 seconds before unleashing a kick that withstood the attack of Kenya’s recently crowned African champion David Rushida. 

When he crossed the finish line and saw his time on the trackside clock he pumped his fist in the air. It had stopped at 1:42.69 a new world junior record, almost a full second under the former record which has stood for more than a decade. It is also the fastest 800m run in the past five years. 

A day earlier he had told CBCsports.ca he has done no speed training and hoped to snatch the record by the end of the season.  

"I don’t feel I am in 100 per cent shape," he said at that time. "I don’t want to be in 100 per cent shape yet. I think I have lots of time to sharpen up. I run the competitions like Oslo to see where I am and to see how the competitors race. I want to be in 100 per cent shape at the Olympics." 

Crying in hotel room

What a contrast to a year ago when he failed to get out of his first round heat at the 2007 IAAF world championships in Osaka. Afterwards he sat in his hotel room crying. The encouragement of his coach Jama Aden, the former Somali Olympic 1,500m runner, got him back on his feet, and he brushed aside the humiliation to win the Pan Arab Games in a then-Sudanese-record of 1:43.90, the fastest time of the year. 

Then came the 2008 IAAF world indoor championships in Valencia, Spain. There, he won Sudan’s first-ever gold medal in a world-leading time of 1:44.82 and beat Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist. The South African was so devastated he rushed out of the arena without uttering a word to the press. 

Kaki addressed the Sudanese people on national radio via a cell phone. A crowd of 15,000 greeted him upon his return to Khartoum. A national hero had been created.

"After Valencia they rewarded me well," Kaki says of the government support he has received. "They gave me some land. They gave me money. But the Olympics is different. This is my dream. This is Sudan’s dream. I am sure I would have something big. The president has promised any medal for the Olympics will be rewarded. Myself, I want to win a medal and then from there whatever comes I am satisfied." 

Kaki is from a small village midway between Darfur and Khartoum called Al Mougalid. He is the only boy among seven children born to a self-taught electrician and his wife. Life was difficult growing up and one of his sisters died a few years ago. He has built a house for his family and pays for his sister’s education.  

Aden and dad

When Aden first met the father and said he wanted to bring Kaki to the national training centre in Khartoum, there was resistance. Education should come first, the father reasoned. Now, says Aden with a laugh, whenever Kaki returns home his father insists the girls wait on him hand and foot so he can preserve his energy for training. 

All the attention he received after the world indoor victory quickly became a distraction and Aden realized he must get his athletes out of the country to start their Olympic preparations. A training camp was arranged at a ski resort in Yemen. But just as they were preparing to leave rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement attacked the capital. 

"We were a little bit worried because it was the first time that something like that had happened in Khartoum," Kaki reveals. "The coach was in Egypt with his family and we were delayed one week meeting him. We were training normally in the stadium. We were careful. We didn't know what was going to happen. 

"We had heard the rebels had captured half of Omdurman (across the river from Khartoum). But things were safe. We got out and now Khartoum is settled again. We worried at one point that we would not get out to go to the training camp." 

Kaki will run another 800m in Ostrava, Czech Republic, on June 12. Then he plans on representing Sudan at the IAAF world junior championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, July 8-13. He turns 19 on June 21. One might wonder why he would turn up at a junior meet when he’s ranked number one in the world and an Olympic gold medal candidate. 

"It was part of the plan to win the African Championships, Arab championships, world indoors and world juniors," he explains. "Then I hope I can win a medal at the Olympics. The country needs me to run at the world junior championships. 

"We have never had a gold medal at the world juniors.  We had a silver in 2004 and one bronze in 2006. I was injured in 2006 and finished 6th so this is my chance to help the country." 

Wilson Kipketer’s world record has stood since 1997 when the Kenyan turned Dane ran 1:41.11 on a perfect night in Cologne, Germany. Kipketer was 25 when he achieved this. It is unfathomable that Kaki won’t attack this revered mark at some point in the next year or so. 

His idol

"I won’t be surprised if next year or in the future I run 1:41," he says. "The 800m world record is very hard, not easy at all. When I ran 1,000m in  2:15.77 indoors I thought, ‘The only guys faster are Kipketer and (1996 Olympic 1,500m champion) Noureddine Morceli,’ and they were among the greatest of all time.

"My idol is Kipketer. I would like to run like him. I met him at the African championships. I finally met my idol. But for doubling Sebastian Coe was a tremendous athlete, even though he didn’t win the 800 title he won the 1,500 twice." 

Kaki himself has designs on the longer distance. Three days before his Oslo victory he won a 1,500m on a cold and windy night in Malmo, Sweden. He ran 3:39.71, a personal best by six seconds. Many people, including Jama Aden, believe the 1,500m will ultimately be his best distance. Kaki has seen videos of British milers Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram and secretly dreams of running both distances as they did. 

But for now, Abubaker Kaki will be pleased to hear the Sudanese national anthem in Beijing’s Olympic stadium during the men’s 800m victory ceremony. That would be good for his country. 

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