800m Worlds Preview: Can USAs Ajee’ Wilson Get the Elusive Gold Medal? Or Does Niyonsaba Keep Rolling?

By LetsRun.com
February 28, 2018

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Ajee’ Wilson has run faster than any other American at 800 meters, she has won a World Championship silver medal (indoors 2016) and a World Championship bronze medal (outdoors last year). The two big things missing on her resume are a Worlds gold medal and an Olympic medal of any color.

Wilson gets the chance to rectify the first of those things this weekend in Birmingham. She enters Worlds as one of the favorites, but winning gold at this level is never easy, even if she doesn’t have to defeat the great Caster Semenya to do it.

Last year, by running 1:56.65 to win bronze at the outdoor World Championships, Wilson broke up the big 3 of women’s 800m running — Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba, and Margaret Wambui — though Wilson already had beaten Wambui to nab silver at World Indoors in 2016.

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Wilson was second at World Indoors two years ago to Niyonsaba Wilson was second at World Indoors two years ago to Niyonsaba (recap of that race here)

To win gold in Birmingham, Wilson will have to do something she has never done before: defeat defending World Indoor champ Niyonsaba over 800m. Lifetime, Wilson is 0 for 7 versus Niyonsaba. Wilson will also have to beat three other women — Habitam Alemu, Natoya Goule, and US teammate Raevyn Rogers — who have done something this year that Wilson has never done officially: go sub-2:00 indoors (Wilson did run 1:58.27 last year indoors but that result was stricken from the books after she tested positive for Zeranol which USADA accepted as being in tainted beef she ate).

Before Winning Gold, You Have to Make the Final

The 800m final indoors is the hardest final to make at Worlds because the IAAF only accepts six people into the final. Likely there will be three heats with the heat winners and the next three fastest losers making the final at Worlds. (We’d prefer if they just took the two heat top runners from each heat and/or took eight people to the final). In reality, that means the athletes should run the prelims of the 800 as a time trial, but often athletes think they can kick their way to the heat win. That is a risky proposition to make. Take a look at the top contenders at Worlds this year. No one should be confident in a slow race that they are guaranteed to kick to the heat win.

Athlete Indoor PB 2018 best Notes
Habitam Alemu ETH 1:59.69 1:59.69
6th at 2016 world indoors. Undefeated in her 2 800s this year. Didn’t make outdoor final.
Natoya Goule JAM 1:59.86 1:59.86
Ran world-leading time at meet at Clemson. Beaten by Wilson at Dr. Sander Invite. Hasn’t raced since February 3rd.
Raevyn Rogers USA 1:59.99 1:59.99
Went sub-2 indoors for first time at prelims of USAs. Can she do it at World level? Needs to make final first.
Shelayna Oskan-Clarke GBR 2:00.06 2:00.06
Big indoor PB to win British champs
Margaret Nyairera Wambui KEN 2:00.44 2:00.48
2nd in 2 800s this year. Beaten by Alemu in Lieven. Bronze at last indoors. Her big frame isn’t great for indoor running.
Angelika Cichocka POL 2:00.37 2:00.70
Got silver at worlds in 2014 indoors
Ajee Wilson USA 2:00.09 2:00.90
Believe it or not, has never been sub-2 indoors. Silver at last World Indoors. Undefeated this year. Ran great anchor leg for 4×800 WR, won USAs
Olha Lyakhova UKR 2:00.92 2:01.08
7th in Lieven this year, which isn’t great
Jenna Westaway CAN 2:01.22 2:01.22
Beat Raevyn Rogers at New Balance meet.
Francine Niyonsaba BDI 2:00.01
Defending champion has been training with Wambui in Kenya. Has only won 2 indoor races in her life, yet won 2016 Worlds.

Wilson is so good and has so much experience (even though she’s still only 23) that we’re confident if she wants to do it, she can go out and lead and go sub-2:00, even if she has never officially done it indoors. That is what her teammate Raevyn Rogers did in her prelim at USAs, and right now Wilson remains a step or two ahead of Rogers.

Presuming the favorites make the final, how will they stack up? Let’s go through the pros and cons of each woman:

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  • Francine Niyonsaba (Burundi)
    Defending champ. Consistently better than anyone else in the field outdoors.
    Cons: Has run zero races this year indoors or outdoors (but has been training with Wambui in Kenya). Has only run two indoor races in her life (at the last World Championships, where she left with gold). Wilson closed the gap on her last year outdoors and has a lot more experience indoors.
  • Ajee’ Wilson (USA)
    Pros: Has the greatest combination of success and indoor experience. Running very well in 2018, even if she hasn’t gone sub-2:00 (except on a relay).
    Cons: Has never beaten Niyonsaba at 800 (but did beat her at 600 last year).
  • Margaret Wambui (Kenya)
    Pros: One of the Big 4 in women’s 800m running. Has run two races this winter, so race-sharp.
    Cons: Very big runner, not suited to the indoor style. Has lost both races she’s run this year.
  • Habitam Alemu (Ethiopia)
    Has run faster than anyone else indoors this year and is undefeated.
    Cons: Has never been near a medal at a Worlds
  • Natoya Goule (Jamaica)
    Pros: Has run very fast this year and runs well indoors.
    Cons: Is her top end good enough to win at Worlds? Has never run under 1:59 outdoors.
  • Raevyn Rogers (USA)
    See comments for Goule.
  • Shelayna Oskan-Clarke (GBR)
    Pros:  Has run very fast this year, and did get 5th at 2015 Worlds.
    Cons: Huge jump up to win at this level.

LRC prediction: We’ll know a lot more about Niyonsaba after the prelim, but as of now, Wilson, Niyonsaba, and Alemu are the ones to beat. Wambui’s size isn’t very well-suited to indoors. If anyone else is going to break through, it will be Raevyn Rogers.

At the 2013 World Championships, when 17-year-old high schooler Mary Cain made the 1500-meter final and was talked about being a future gold medallist, 18-year-old Ajee’ Wilson made the 800 final and placed higher than Cain (5th vs 9th). Longtime track writer Elliott Denman remarked to us that he thought Wilson, not Cain was going to be your future medallist. He was right and she may make it gold in Birmingham.

Initially, one of our staffers wanted to pick this:

1) Wilson gets the gold 2) Alemu 3) Rogers

Wait a second. Niyonsaba, who has consistently kicked everyone’s ass the last two years except for Semenya, isn’t even going to medal just because she hasn’t raced yet? That doesn’t sound right. And Wilson, though she is undefeated this year, hasn’t looked as dominant as in 2017. Remember, Rogers almost ran her down at USAs.

We’re hesitant to pick Niyonsaba FTW since she hasn’t raced since August, but she hadn’t raced at all in 2016 and showed up and won World Indoors. And that was without dominating the previous two years, as she did in 2016 and 2017 (dominating here meaning “beating everyone except Semenya”). Even at her absolute best last year, Wilson couldn’t beat Niyonsaba. And Wilson is not at her absolute best right now. SO here are our official picks:

1) Niyonsaba 2) Wilson 3) Alemu

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What: 2018 IAAF World Indoor Championships

When: March 1-4, 2018

Where: Arena Birmingham, Birmingham, England

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