2016 World Indoors M 800 Preview: Can Boris Berian Get Gold In His First World Championships Appearance?

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No American has medalled since David Krummenacker’s victory in 2003, but that could change in Portland

By LetsRun.com
March 15, 2016 

PORTLAND, Ore. — For the first time in 29 years, the U.S. will play host to the IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships. Portland, Ore., will be the site as the world’s top athletes head to the Pacific Northwest for the four-day meet which begins on Thursday. LetsRun.com is in Portland all week and we’ll have tons of on-site coverage for you to digest. We’ll kick things off by previewing the mid-d/distance events — here’s a look at the men’s 800.

What: 2016 IAAF World Indoor Championship
When: March 17-20, 2016

Where: Oregon Convention Center, Portland, Oregon

Prize Money: A total of US$2,464,000 is on offer from the IAAF. There is also a US$50,000 bonus for any athlete setting a world record during the four-day championships.

Individual events (total US$ 2,288,000)
1st US$40,000
2nd US$20,000
3rd US$10,000
4th US$8000
5th US$6000
6th US$4000

Relays per team (total US$176,000)
1st US$40,000
2nd US$20,000
3rd US$10,000
4th US$8000
5th US$6000
6th US$4000

Schedule * Entries * TV/streaming information * All LRC coverage

Men’s 800 (prelims Friday, 4:55 p.m. ET; final Saturday 9:35 p.m. ET)

NameCountryPBSBComment
Musaeb Abdulrahman BallaQatar1:43.821:45.93Fastest time this year among men entered; 6th at Worlds last year
Boris BerianUSA1:43.341:46.00Has been on fire this year and coasted to U.S. title last week
Mostafa SmailiMorocco1:46.501:46.5019-year-old has gone from 1:48.08 to 1:46.50 this winter
Alvaro De ArribaSpain1:46.631:46.631:46 this winter but only 2nd at Spanish champs
Erik SowinskiUSA1:44.581:47.11Has run between 1:47.11 and 1:47.62 in all 6 races in ’16
Jeremiah MutaiKenya1:44.591:47.21Not one of Kenya’s top outdoor runners but ran 1:45 indoors last year
Mo AmanEthiopia1:42.371:47.24Two-time defending champ is 0-3 in ’16 races; DNF’d last one on 2/20
Edward KemboiKenya1:45.581:47.62NCAA indoor/outdoor champ last year
Andreas KramerSweden1:47.851:47.85
Daniel AndujarSpain1:46.781:47.99
Pol MoyaAndorra1:49.841:49.84
Theofanis MichaelasCyprus1:49.511:50.18
Brice EtesMonaco1:47.031:52.53
Antoine GakemeBurundi1:44.09N/A
Wais KhairandeshAfghanistan1:55.91

On paper, U.S. champ Boris Berian is one of the medal favorites in this event. He has the #2 season best among men entered (1:46.00), #2 personal best (1:43.34) and looked terrific in earning his first national title last weekend. If this were a one-off race, we’d feel very good about Berian’s chances to place in the top three and possibly win it.

But the 800 is one of the most unpredictable events in track and field for a reason. As last year’s outdoor World Championships showed, even making it to the final is tough — Botswana’s Nijel Amos had three of the world’s six fastest times in 2015 but went out in the semifinals in Beijing. Though the competition won’t be as strong in Portland as it was in Beijing, making the final is still incredibly tough as the IAAF only takes six guys (as opposed to eight outdoors) and only the heat winner is guaranteed a spot (with 15 men entered, expect three heats of five).

Berian looked great at USAs but will face a tougher field at Worlds

Berian looked great at USAs but will face a tougher field at Worlds

We like Berian’s chances to make the final as he is a front-runner. So even if he draws a tough heat assignment, Berian can take control of the race early and run 1:46-low, which should be enough to earn one of the time qualifiers. The question is, does Berian have the strength to run 1:46 or 1:47 on consecutive days? Last year at USA outdoors, Berian ran the prelims and the semis on consecutive days and didn’t make it to the final despite having the fastest SB in the field by far. His result at USA indoors last week was much better, as he looked like he had plenty left in winning the final in 1:47.19, but the competition — especially in the heats — was far weaker than what he’ll face at Worlds. Berian was able to run 1:48.96 and still win his heat easily. He’ll probably have to run about two seconds faster than that to win his heat at World Indoors.

We’re not totally discounting Berian’s chances as he’s run phenomenally well this year and is undefeated on the season. But his strength through the rounds is still something of an unknown quantity, and we’ll only know the answer after Saturday’s final (assuming he makes it).

The other American in the field, Erik Sowinski, has shown that he’s plenty strong. His 2015 season best of 1:44.84 came in the USA final, his third race in four days, and he’s been metronomic in his consistency in 2016, running between 1:47.11 and 1:47.58 four times in an 18-day span in February and going 1:47.58-1:47.62 in the semis and final at USA Indoors. The issue is that Sowinski’s ceiling is not nearly as high as Berian’s, though that might not prevent him from medalling this weekend. 1:47.10 was good enough to medal at World Indoors two years ago and 1:48.36 was good enough for gold at World Indoors in 2012. We like Berian’s medal chances more (after all, he did beat Sowinski at USAs) but it’s not inconceivable that Sowinski steals a medal this weekend in a slow race — after all, his season best is #5 in the field and he finished just .10 behind two-time defending champ Mo Aman in Torun on February 12.

Aman’s odds of adding World Indoor gold #3 are much longer than they were in 2012 or 2014. From 2012 to 2015, Aman’s slowest non-championship indoor 800 was 1:46.80; this year, his best is 1:47.24. Check out how his 2016 campaign compares to his previous title-winning seasons:

2012
Pre-Worlds races: 1:46.80 (5th), 1:45.40 (1st), 1:45.84 (1st)
Worlds outcome: Won gold

2014
Pre-Worlds races: 1:15.31 (1st, 600), 1:45.08 (1st), 1:44.52 (1st)
Worlds outcome: Won gold

2016
Pre-Worlds races:
1:47.24 (3rd), 1:47.39 (3rd), DNF (fell)
Worlds outcome: ???

Aman has excelled at the past two World Indoors but his form hasn't been great in 2016

Aman has excelled at the past two World Indoors but his form hasn’t been great in 2016

Aman has been training in Ethiopia this winter, and though his coach Mark Rowland has provided some workouts, he has not been as hands-on as he is with most of his athletes.

“It’s really hard to say [what his fitness level is right now],” Rowland told LRC. “He’s been in Ethiopia; I can’t can’t honestly say that I’m fully coaching [him at the moment]. Coaching is something that is making unique decisions on a daily basis when you see what’s going on. I’m more consulting.”

Rowland said that Aman may have been in a bit over his head in his races so far this season (1:47.24 for 3rd in Torun on February 12; 1:47.39 for 3rd in Stockholm on February 17) but expects Aman to be in better shape in Portland.

“We always knew that he was probably not in as sharp a shape, his bottom-end pace,” Rowland said. “He hadn’t been doing too much of the excessive speed, speed-endurance work at that time. Those were a means to an end to assess where he was. Hopefully he’s rested and recovered leading into the phases after that and he’s had three weeks after that. [He] should be in a better place than what he was in the competitions that he ran.”

Overall, however, Rowland is less concerned with getting Aman another World Indoor title than he is with a first Olympic medal.

“I’m going to sound really flippant: I don’t really care about indoors,” Rowland said. “It’s a means to an end for me, the indoors. I’ll be glad when this weekend’s out the way so we can get on with preparation [for the Olympics].”

More than anything, World Indoors will be a chance for Rowland and Aman to assess where Aman is at right now and devise a gameplan moving forward. The two will sit down in Portland after the race and determine whether Aman should return to Eugene or Ethiopia for more training. With that said, he’s a 1:42.37 guy outdoors and only two men have ever run faster than him indoors. If he’s put together some good training over the past three weeks, he can’t be overlooked for the win.

So who is the gold-medal favorite? That would be Sudanese-born Musaeb Abdulrahman Balla of Qatar. Balla has everything you’d want from a potential global champion. He has a fast pb (1:43.82), the fastest SB in the field (1:45.93) and has been in fine form, losing just once this year (to the red-hot Adam Kszczot, who surprisingly is not competing at Worlds). Balla also has major championship experience as he made it to the semifinals at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 Worlds before placing sixth in the final at Worlds last year. He’s our pick for the win.

Since half of the finalists earn medals, the other medal picks really come down to who makes the final, which is very unpredictable in a meet like this. 19-year-old Mostafa Smaili of Morocco has won both of his 800s this year, the latter in 1:46.50, and could be a threat. Apart from Balla, Smaili and Berian, the only other sub-1:47 man on the year is Spaniard Alvaro De Arriba but given his record in championships so far this year (2nd at Spanish U-23 champs and Spanish senior champs), he may not have what it takes to succeed at World Indoors. Kenya’s entrants have a shot but haven’t been overwhelmingly impressive this year. Jeremiah Mutai ran 1:47 and took second in each of his races. 2015 NCAA champ Edward Kemboi (formerly of Iowa State) has fared a bit better: 1:46.79 for second (behind NCAA champ Clayton Murphy) on February 13 in Ames, followed by a comfortable 1:47.62 win in Lincoln, Neb., on February 19.

All of this is a way of saying that given the absence of global heavyweights such as David Rudisha, Adam Kszczot, Amel Tuka and Nijel Amos, the medal race is wide-open in the men’s 800. If Berian can get to the final and merely run well — not exceptional — he has a great shot of earning gold, silver or bronze on home soil.

LRC Prediction: The US medals. 1) Balla 2) Berian. Picking the third medal isn’t easy. Aman has had a month to get in shape so we’ll go with him but then if he’s in shape, we think he might do better than third. Speaking of Aman, the IAAF released a lengthy video interview with him today:

What About The Sport? 

Adam Kszczot’s Race in 2016
Feb 3 – 1:46.00 win in Dusselorf
Feb 6 – 1:45.96 win in Karlsruhe
Feb 12 – 1:46.18 win in Toruń
Feb 17 – 1:45.63 win in Stockholm
Feb 20 – 1:46.23 win in Glasgow

It’s disappointing to not have Adam Kszczot in this race. He’s the reigning World Indoor and Outdoor silver medallist at 800. Two years ago at the Worlds in Sopot, Poland, the men’s 800 with Kszczot and Marcin Lewandowski on home soil was one of the events of the championships as the Ergo Arena was totally rocking in support of the two Polish athletes. Two years later, even though he’s been in amazing form this year, he doesn’t show up as it’s not at home. The reverse is true for many US athletes.

To entice more athletes to do World Indoors, we think it should be moved up to February. February is halfway between Worlds and the Olympics. The end of March is a little late for someone who wants to get two months of base work in before maybe running a few Diamond League meetings before the Olympics.


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