2017 Worlds Men’s 800 Preview: Can Emmanuel Korir Cap an Incredible Freshman Year with a World Title?
July 31, 2017
Editor’s Update: After we published this story, David Rudisha announced he won’t be competing due to injury: MB: Breaking: Rudisha announces he’ll be a no show at London 2017 due to quad injury.
In 1988 a freshman from Kenya took the NCAA and, eventually, the world, by storm. Paul Ereng arrived at the University of Virginia as a 400-meter runner but took up the 800 in his first collegiate season, winning the NCAA title in that event. Ereng then headed to Europe, lowered his PR to 1:44.82 and then went to the Olympics in Seoul, where he ran PRs in the semi and final to earn the gold medal at the age of 21.
Twenty-nine years later, history could repeat itself.
Emmanuel Korir, another converted 400 runner, touched down in the U.S. last year and has yet to lose a track race since. The 22-year-old Korir, who came to the US with a 1:46.94 pb, rolled to NCAA indoor and outdoor titles as a freshman at UTEP and has been even more impressive this summer, running 1:43.86 to win the Kenyan Trials in Nairobi and, most recently, a world-leading 1:43.10 in his Diamond League debut in Monaco. Now he has a chance to follow in Ereng’s footsteps and claim gold at the World Championships in London at the slighly older age of 22.
Oh, and did we mention the name of Korir’s coach? Paul Ereng.
Korir’s rise from unknown to world champ would be a terrific story, especially with the obvious parallels to his coach. It would also fulfill a prophecy of Ereng’s, who told us back in February he thought Korir could be a world champion one day. But to win in 2017 would be incredible. And if Korir is gion got win, Korir will have to overcome the two men who lit up the same London Stadium track at the Olympics five years ago: red-hot Nijel Amos, who ran 1:41.73 to take silver and the GOAT of the 800, David Rudisha, who set a world record of 1:40.91 in that epic race.
We break down the men’s 800 — including the chances of America’s own 800 phenom Donavan Brazier — below.
Prelims: Saturday, August 5, 7:45 a.m. ET
Semis: Sunday, August 6, 4:15 p.m. ET
Final: Tuesday, August 8, 4:35 p.m. ET
2016 Olympic results
1. David Rudisha, Kenya 1:42.15
4. Pierre-Ambroise Bosse, France 1:43.41
5. Ferguson Rotich, Kenya 1:43.55
2017’s fastest performers
One More for David Rudisha?
David Rudisha has had an incredible career: two world titles, two Olympic titles, and the three fastest times ever run. He’s the greatest half-miler who ever lived. We hope you’ve enjoyed watching Rudisha as London 2017 may be the last chance to see him at close to his best.
The sad reality is that most elite 800 runners don’t make it much past 30. Since 1920, only one man, Paul Ruto in 1993, has won the World or Olympic title in his 30s. Rudisha will be two months away from his 31st birthday at the next World Championships in 2019. Of course, no human had ever broken 1:41 until David Rudisha came along, so it’s not like the man isn’t used to making history. But it’s possible that this represents his last shot at adding to his pile of gold medals.
Rudisha’s 2017 season has been limited and largely disappointing. He skipped his traditional Australian season and did not open up until May 13 in Shanghai, where he led for the first 600 but ran out of gas and faded to 4th. His next two races (2nd at the Racers Grand Prix, 4th in the 1000 in Ostrava) proceeded in similar fashion. Rudisha finally got his first victory by tying his season’s best of 1:44.90 in Hungary on July 4, but he hasn’t raced since then, during which time Amos and Korir have both been brilliant on the Diamond League circuit.
Whether Rudisha defends his title or not comes down to which Rudisha shows up in London. Last year, Rudisha didn’t look great early in the summer (4th Stockholm Diamond League, 3rd Kenyan Trials) but won in Hungary before steamrolling the competition in Rio. The difference is, he ran significantly faster in Hungary last year (1:43.35). In fact, 1:44.90 is by far the slowest season’s best Rudisha has brought into a major championship (the next slowest is from all the way back in 2009, and it was still 1:43.53). If Rudisha can regain his Rio form, he’s going to be almost impossible to stop. That Rudisha ran 1:42.15 in the final — the fastest time since his own WR four years earlier. But it’s hard to say. Based on what we’ve seen in 2017, Rudisha hasn’t been great, but if anyone can step it up for Worlds, it’s him.
Assuming Rudisha is back to close to 100%, what makes him so dangerous is he can win many different types of races. He’s won the past two global titles in contrasting fashion. In 2015, he won in 1:45.84. In 2016, he won in 1:42. The common dominator is he’s had a lot left in both races over the final 200. Rudisha showed in Rio, even when someone throws a wrench in his plans to try to control things from the front (like, say, Alfred Kipketer taking it out in 49.23), he can adjust. But everything is easier tactically when you’re the fittest guy in the field. If Amos or Korir is fitter than Rudisha right now, can King David outmaneuver them?
The Contenders to the Throne
We have a ton of respect for Rudisha, but we don’t think he’s the favorite for Worlds. Two men stick out as co-favorites: Korir and Amos.
Korir, as we noted in the intro, is undefeated on the year. He almost broke the NCAA record with his 1:43.73 in Berkeley back in April and demolished a quality field with a world-leading 1:43.10 in Monaco on July 21. Korir has also run 44.53 for 400 meters this year. He’s absurdly talented.
The biggest question about Korir: how will he handle three rounds of tactical racing in four days at the end of a long season? Remember, Korir set a world indoor best in the 600 way back on January 20 and has been racing at a high level for over six months now. Korir did run the Kenyan Champs last year in the 800, but this is his first track season of any significant length. How will his body hold up?
Korir is also short on big-meet experience. To be fair, he did win a stacked Kenyan Trials in addition to Monaco, but Monaco could not have gone any better for him as it was a time-trial style race — all he had to do was follow Brandon McBride. How will he fare if he finds himself in bad position in a slow race? Of course, the counter to that is that Korir can just try to go wire-to-wire in all three rounds. But that’s hard to do against the world’s best.
Amos has had his struggles in the rounds recently (he failed to make the final at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics) but he is far more experienced than Korir and is much healthier than when he exited in the first round in Rio. Recently, Amos has been attacking from the front early in races and it’s been working for him, to the tune of victories in Paris (1:44.24), London (1:44.18) and Rabat (1:43.91). The fact that Amos, who this year joined Mark Rowland‘s Oregon Track Club, is racing and beating the best guys in the world routinely is a very good sign. And though both Rudisha and Korir are crazy talented, so is Amos: remember, this is a guy who ran 1:41.73 at age 18.
In many ways, Amos is the key man in London. He’s shown a willingness to try to string it out and lead races wire-to-wire, and if he does that in the heats and/or final, it makes it easier for guys like Korir and U.S. champ Donavan Brazier, both of whom prefer to sit just off the leader in a fast race. Of course, that clashes with what Rudisha has done recently, as Rudisha also likes to get to the lead early but he prefers to keep it slower until the final 200.
Brazier will have a tough time defeating Korir, Amos and Rudisha in London, but he’s been exceptional in his first full year as a pro, impressively winning the U.S. title and finishing top three in three DL races with an SB of 1:43.95. Brazier, still only 20 years old, looked shaky in the rounds at USAs, so it’s no guarantee that he even makes the final in London. But if he does, and he has a guy like Amos or Korir to chase at the front, he’s absolutely a medal contender.
The Mess in Kenya
The other Kenyans will also be medal threats. Even though the 800 rounds are brutal, all three Kenyans made the final in 2015 and 2016. And this year, Kenya gets four entrants. Exactly who those four men will be has been the subject of much confusion.
Before its Trials, Athletics Kenya announced that it would take the top three finishers in each event to Worlds. Rudisha, with a bye as defending champion, sat out of the Trials (with permission from AK), where the results were as follows:
1. Emmanuel Korir, 1:43.86
2. Kipyegon Bett, 1:44.04
3. Michael Saruni, 1:44.61
4. Ferguson Rotich, 1:44.86
After that, chaos erupted. Initially, AK did not announce Rudisha to the team, to the shock of those in the stadium at the Trials. Then AK named five guys to the team: Rudisha, Korir, Bett, Saruni and Rotich. The problem? Only four guys can compete at Worlds. Eventually, AK went against its own policy and left off Saruni — like Korir, a UTEP freshman — in favor of Rotich, who has a bye as Diamond League champ. Saruni left Kenya’s pre-Worlds camp after being told he was left off the 800 squad but is now back with the team — though he won’t run the 800. What event Saruni will run in London, if any, is unclear. Kenya can’t enter him in the 400 as he doesn’t have the standard. He may be able to run the 4×400.
Athletics Kenya allowed this situation to spiral out of control because it didn’t make an allowance for the fact that, even though both Rudisha and Rotich had byes to Worlds, they can only take four guys to London. As a result, AK didn’t make it clear what would happen if one or, as it happened, both did not place in the top three at the Trials.
AK’s biggest mistake was not clarifying its selection policy before the meet. But we still think they’re taking the wrong team to London. You can’t leave off the defending World/Olympic champ, so Rudisha goes. After that, just take the top three from the Trials. Saruni raced Rotich at the Trials. Saruni beat Rotich at the Trials. Saruni, not Rotich, should be on the team, simple as that.
Canadian champ Brandon McBride and World Indoor silver medalist Antoine Gakeme of Burundi finished 2-3 behind Korir in Monaco. Both have been in good form this year and are threats to make the final and possibly sneak a medal. Frenchman Pierre-Ambroise Bosse was 4th in Rio last year and 5th in Beijing in 2015 but is coming around after getting a late jump on his season. He’s gone from 1:46 to 1:45 to 1:44 in his three races and with another two weeks of training, he should be even fitter in London. Poland’s Adam Kszczot hasn’t looked great recently (4th Stockholm, 6th London in his last two DL races) but he’s the reigning silver medalist and won in Rome earlier this year. He’s certainly got the balls to medal again.
Then there are the other Americans, Isaiah Harris of Penn State and Drew Windle of the Brooks Beasts. Based on SBs, they’re contenders to make the final (Harris is #8 in the field at 1:44.53, Windle is #9 at 1:44.63) and it’s a realistic goal for both men. Harris hasn’t raced since USAs — probably a smart decision as he’ll have some time to rewind from a grueling NCAA season — but the 20-year-old has been in great form this year. He even challenged Korir in the homestretch at NCAAs before the Kenyan pulled away to win. Windle, meanwhile, showed that his 1:44 at USAs was no fluke as he replicated that time at the TrackTown Summer Series final and in Monaco.
Neither man has raced in a global championship before, though Harris survived three rounds at the Olympic Trials last year and USAs this year. Windle’s come-from-behind style carries risk — Nick Symmonds, Windle’s idol/erstwhile training partner used that strategy and it took him four attempts to make a global final — but it’s been working for him so far this year. If Windle keeps running 1:44s, that will give him a chance to advance no matter what.
Getting the final will be a difficult task, but if either of them makes it…well, 37.5% of the finalists gets a medal. It’s not out of the question. We don’t think it’s realistic for Harris (but heck if he’s in the final he’s already proven us wrong) but Windle’s come from behind strategy is a great way to get a bronze.
LRC prediction: 1. Amos 2. Korir 3. Rudisha
The last time we picked Amos over Rudisha, King David made us look silly. But Amos has been on a roll and looks to be peaking at the perfect time while Rudisha has yet to look like Rudisha in 2017. Amos is also 6-2 in his career against Rudisha — though those two defeats came in their only meetings in global championships (2012 Olympic final, 2015 Worlds semi). If Rudisha gets rolling in the rounds, all bets are off, but we’re taking Amos FTW.
Betting Advice: Looking at Paddy Power, none of the odds are enticing for us to recommend a wager. When last we checked, Korir was the favorite at 6/4 with Amos 2/1 and Rudisha 5/2.
Talk about the 800s on our fan forum / messageboard: MB: Official pre-race men’s and women’s 800 discussion thread – Can Semenya and Rudisha keep winning?