By Jonathan Gault
September 5, 2019
The final meet of the Diamond League’s 10th season — its 14th of the season and its 140th overall — is upon us: Friday’s Diamond League final at the Memorial Van Damme meet in Brussels.
In many ways, it’s a farewell. Not to the track season — many of these athletes will be at the World Championships, which begin three weeks from now in Doha — but to the Diamond League as we currently know it. Changes are coming in 2020.
Next year, four men’s and four women’s disciplines will be dropped from the circuit. We already know the 5,000 meters is one of them. The others have yet to be announced, but events like the triple jump and discus are clearly in jeopardy. And what about the 200? Though Noah Lyles has electrified the event in recent years, there’s a significant talent overlap with the 100. If the IAAF is looking to cut a second track event, that may be the pick.
As a result of those cuts, the TV window for DL meets will be shorter (90 minutes in 2020 compared to 120 now), and the IAAF will move to a one-off final, which will be hosted in Zurich in 2020 and 2021. The Memorial Van Damme has seen some incredible performances through the years — Aries Merritt (12.80 110 hurdles), Kenenisa Bekele (26:17.53 10,000), and Saif Saaeed Shaheen (7:53.63 steeple) all set world records here that still stand — but it won’t be quite the same next year without Diamond Trophies to hand out at the end.
Which is all the more reason to make this year’s meet count. For athletes in those endangered events, it’s one last chance to stir up some excitement and make the case to the IAAF that their event should be preserved. And of course, because it’s a Diamond League final, the fields are stacked across the board with $50,000 on the line for the win in each event. The results here will give everyone a very clear picture of where we stand with Worlds just three weeks away.
For the men, the race of the night is the 400, which features a rematch of the terrific USA final between Fred Kerley and Michael Norman. In the 200, Noah Lyles goes for his second DL title of 2019, while Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce leads the way in the women’s 100.
There are four distance finals on tap: the men’s steeplechase and 1500, and the women’s 800 and 5,000. The women’s 5000 is the women’s race of the night. In addition to sadly (Editor’s note: and stupidly) being the final DL 5,000 ever, it also features Sifan Hassan, Konstanze Klosterhalfen, and world champ Hellen Obiri. In the steeple,Olympic and world champ Conseslus Kipruto will try to take another step forward in his comeback from his foot injury as he faces rival Soufiane El Bakkali — who will look to become the first non-Kenyan man to win the DL steeple title. Timothy Cheruiyot goes for his third straight DL title in the men’s 1500 against the Ingebrigtsens and US champ Craig Engels, while on the women’s side, Ajee’ Wilson will try to earn the US an extra spot at Worlds by winning her first DL title.
This will be our last look at most of these athletes before they head to Doha. Don’t miss it. Preview of the top events below.
What: 2019 Memorial Van Damme
Where: King Baudouin Stadium, Brussels, Belgium
When: Friday, September 6
Men’s 400 (2:03 p.m. ET): Norman seeks revenge against Kerley
Last week’s DL final in Zurich saved the best event for last: the epic sub-47 duel between Karsten Warholm and Rai Benjamin in the 400 hurdles. In Brussels, the best race of the night could be the very first event of the TV window, pitting the fourth-fastest man of all time (Michael Norman) against the seventh (Fred Kerley).
The two men have split their first two meetings of 2019, Norman running 44.62 to Kerley’s 45.33 to win at Prefontaine before Kerley turned the tables at USAs, running a PR of 43.64 to Norman’s 43.79 (the fourth-fastest non-winning time ever). Neither man has raced since USAs, so this race should provide the answers to some questions.
Chief among them: which Michael Norman shows up? It seems like ages ago (because it was ages ago) that Norman ran 43.45 at the Mt. SAC Relays. He proceeded to breeze to a DL win in poor conditions in Stockholm, and by the Pre Classic in late June, the hype machine was rolling out of control. There was serious talk that Norman might break Wayde van Niekerk‘s 43.03 world record at Pre, with NBC sprints analyst Ato Boldon telling the Orange County Register there was “no doubt” Norman would break the record at some point this year.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Norman’s last two finals, at Pre and USAs, were bad — for anyone else, in fact, they would be outstanding. But the results in them threw the brakes on the Norman hype train. The question now is whether the Norman that flashed WR potential in April is still around in September.
There is reason to believe he will be. It should be noted that Norman was not at 100% at Pre (where he came down with an illness that week) and almost didn’t run at USAs after he suffered a “setback” (he hesitated to call it an injury, though that’s what it seemed like) that left him unable to run for 10 days in practice. If Norman could go out and run 43.79 in Des Moines in that condition — in his third race in three days — just think what he could be capable of in Brussels with a good block of training in his legs.
Of course, Norman will have his hands full with Kerley. Kerley won last year’s Diamond League final, and is coming off the fastest time of his life at USAs. With no one else under 44 seconds this year, and van Niekerk announcing he won’t defend his world title in Doha, the winner here instantly becomes the World Championship favorite.
As long as an American wins — and there are six of them in this final — the US gets an extra spot at Worlds, which would go to USA 4th-placer Vernon Norwood.
JG prediction: There’s a reason why Norman was so hyped early this year: he has the highest ceiling of any 400-meter runner, ever. Assuming he hasn’t had any setbacks since USAs, he beats Kerley in Brussels.
Men’s steeplechase (2:20 p.m. ET): El Bakkali attempts to end Kenyan hegemony
|Soufiane El Bakkali||Morocco||7:58.15||8:04.82|
|Tim Van de Velde||Belgium||8:33.80||8:33.80|
Kenya’s dominance in the men’s steeplechase stretches back so far that none of the men in this race were alive the last time a non-Kenyan-born man won a world or Olympic title (Italy’s Francesco Pannetta in 1987). In each of the last two years, Soufiane El Bakkali almost became the first non-Kenyan man to win a DL steeple title, only to be turned back both times by Conseslus Kipruto.
In 2017, El Bakkali led by three meters coming off the final barrier, but Kipruto summoned a ridiculous kick and pipped him at the line by .10 of a second. Last year was even crazier; again, Kipruto trailed El Bakkali coming off the final barrier, and again he downed his rival, this time by just .04. Oh, and he did the whole thing with one shoe.
In 2019, however, Kenya’s usual dominance just hasn’t been there. After winning 53 of 59 Diamond League steeple races from 2010-2018, no Kenyan man has won a DL all year. The list of the world’s top 10 fastest men this year contains just three Kenyans (though there is also a Kenyan-born American in Hillary Bor) — the fewest since…well, it’s not exactly clear, since Tilastopaja’s database only goes back to 1996. Of course, it doesn’t help that Kipruto, Kenya’s current standard bearer, has been hurt for most of the season.
Kenya’s recent steeple dominance
|Year||DL wins||Kenyans in world top 10|
*In 2017, the DL switched from seven steeples per year to five
Is this the year the rest of the world finally wins a few of the big races? Kipruto was just fifth in his season debut in Paris, running 8:13 (seven seconds back of El Bakkali), and proceeded to drop out of the African Games two days later. In Paris, Kipruto didn’t look totally fit yet — he ran with the leaders until the bell, but when it came time to kick, he could not shift gears at all. Kipruto has shown in the past two DL finals that he has no shortage of heart and guts, but without an aerobic base, that may not be enough. With three more weeks of training, he may be able to pull off the win in Doha. Winning in Brussels is a tough ask, though it would be foolish to count Kipruto out.
You’d think that would leave El Bakkali, who has won three of the four DLs this year, as the obvious choice FTW, but he was only third at the African Games on home soil behind Benjamin Kigen and Getnet Wale (granted the race was just two days after Paris). He’s the favorite, but not overwhelmingly so.
JG prediction: If El Bakkali can’t beat this version of Kipruto in a big race, he may as well accept that he’s never going to do it. El Bakkali gets it done and wins his first DL title.
Men’s 200 (2:37 p.m. ET): Lyles looks to complete DL double
|Andre De Grasse||Canada||19.80||19.91|
|Jereem Richards||Trinidad & Tobago||19.97||20.14|
There’s not much to say about this race other than that Noah Lyles will win it, probably by a lot. If Lyles prevails, he’ll become the first man to sweep the DL titles in the 100 and 200 meters.
A Lyles victory would also give the US an extra entry at Worlds. Right now, that spot would go to 20-year-old Kenny Bednarek, but he pulled up injured in the USA final and hasn’t raced since. If he can’t go, rising University of Texas junior Micaiah Harris, who didn’t even make the final at USAs, would get the spot as USATF inexplicably wouldn’t let athletes get the standard after USAs (ore get in on the descending order list). That foolishness means 2017 and 2018 US champ Ameer Webb, who was 5th at Worlds in 2017, is ineligible even though he was 3rd at USAs and 19 US men have hit the standard this year.
Women’s 5,000 (2:45 p.m. ET): Obiri goes for three-peat in 5,000 swan song
|Camille Buscomb||New Zealand||15:19.81||15:24.12|
When it counts, no one has been better in the 5,000 meters over the last three years than Hellen Obiri. She’s won every major title available to her since the start of 2017 — Worlds, Commonwealths, the African Champs, and two DL titles — and will go off as the favorite to claim her third straight Diamond Trophy in Brussels. Yes, Sifan Hassan has been tremendous this year, breaking the world record in the mile and crushing everyone to win the DL 1500 title last week, but Hassan has never beaten Obiri in a 5,000, sporting an 0-4 lifetime record — including a defeat earlier this year in London, where Hassan lost despite running a European record of 14:22.12.
How Hassan fares against her rival on Friday may determine which events she chooses to run at Worlds later this month. Her coach Alberto Salazar has been talking about the 5k/10k double since last fall, but if she loses to Obiri here (again), would he really pull her out of the 1500, where she just destroyed some of the world’s best in Zurich (albeit without Shelby Houlihan, Faith Kipyegon, or Laura Muir in the field)?
Salazar and Hassan face a tough decision — something we discussed on this week’s LetsRun.com Track Talk podcast — and the outcome of this race will certainly be a key factor in what he/Hassan decide to do in Doha. At this point, the 1500/10k double, which sounded ridiculous a few months ago, may actually make the most sense. And Salazar is not afraid to attempt unconventional doubles (remember Galen Rupp doubling up in the 10k/marathon at the 2016 Olympics) if he believes his athletes can handle it.
Outside of Obiri and Hassan, there are a few other women who could win here. Agnes Tirop finished just .32 behind Obiri in London, so she’s an obvious threat. Konstanze Klosterhalfen soloed a 14:26 to win the German champs and was the runner-up behind Hassan in last week’s Zurich 1500. And Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey ran 14:23 last year and ran 30:37 to win the Ethiopian 10k trials in July.
The most interesting name on the start list is Beatrice Chepkoech. The Diamond League steeple champ hasn’t run many 5ks (she got into this race based on her 3k at Pre), so her 14:39 pb could be in line for a revision.
JG prediction: Don’t bet against Hellen Obiri in big races. And this is a big race — the DL final, as well as the last DL 5,000 ever.
Men’s 1500 (3:18 p.m. ET): Cheruiyot returns; how fast can Engels go?
It was three years ago on this track that Timothy Cheruiyot first flashed his world-beating potential, running a two-second PR of 3:31 to win the 2016 Diamond League final. Since then, Cheruiyot has gone from World Championship silver medalist in 2017 to nearly-unstoppable winning machine on the Diamond League circuit in 2018 and 2019. Last year, he was a perfect six-for-six in 1500/miles at DL events; this year, he’s four-for-five, with the one loss coming in the DL opener in Doha when he wasn’t quite recovered yet from an offseason injury.
Cheruiyot hasn’t raced a DL in almost two months, since his 3:29 win in Monaco on July 12. With more than enough points to qualify for the final, he skipped Paris to run the 800 at the Kenyan championships, where he clocked a huge PR of 1:43.11 to win. By the time he runs in Brussels, he’ll have had a full two weeks to recover since that race, which means he should be nice and fresh.
Cheruiyot will be favored to win here, but even if he does so, it will only prove what we already know: he is an incredible Diamond League runner. Cheruiyot’s primary goal this year is shedding his reputation as Mr. Silver behind training partner Elijah Manangoi, and he won’t be able to remedy that until Worlds.
Speaking of Manangoi, it’s surprising not to see him entered here. After missing almost two months with a hamstring injury, Manangoi returned to win the Kenyan 1500 title on August 22, but he chose not to enter Brussels. That means that American Craig Engels, who was 13th in the DL standings, gets to run instead.
That’s huge for two reasons. First, Engels gets another chance to test himself against the world’s best — important for a guy who has never run at an outdoor Worlds. Second, this race should go fast enough to give Engels a shot at the Olympic standard of 3:35.00, something no American man has achieved yet. Depending on how USATF decides to pick its team next year, Engels could gain a huge leg up on his US 1500-meter peers heading into the 2020 Olympic year.
JG prediction: Cheruiyot is in the form of his life and so consistent that he’s removed the fun from picking this event. That said, if someone were to upset him, I’d pick either Jakob Ingebrigtsen (who took it to Cheruiyot in Monaco and wound up second) or Ronald Musagala, who has notched recent wins in Birmingham and Paris.
Women’s 800 (3:41 p.m. ET): Wilson chases history (and an extra spot at Worlds)
|Lynsey Sharp||Great Britain||1:57.69||1:58.61|
This is a huge race from an American perspective. Not only does Ajee’ Wilson (and Raevyn Rogers and Hanna Green, for that matter) have the opportunity to become the first American woman to win a Diamond League 800 title — and just the third ever in the mid-d/distance events, after Morgan Uceny (1500 in 2011) and Jenny Simpson (1500 in 2014) — but she can also earn the United States an extra spot at Worlds by securing the bye that comes with a DL title. That means that Ce’Aira Brown, who would be added to the team should the US roster expand to four, is temporarily Wilson’s biggest fan.
Wilson, who has been nigh unbeatable in recent years by anyone other than Caster Semenya and Francine Niyonsaba, is the obvious favorite, but all three Americans in this field have been running well. Rogers has been consistently solid in DL races (she was third at Pre and in Birmingham), while Hanna Green has been a revelation, knocking almost two seconds off her PR this year and winning her first career DL in Paris two weeks ago. It’s the US’s best 1-2-3 since 2013, when Brenda Martinez, Alysia Montaño, and Wilson went 2-3-5 at the Worlds in Moscow.
Jamaica’s Natoya Goule, second at Pre and in Paris, is the best bet to break up the Americans, though Uganda’s Winnie Nanyondo, coming off a 1:58 pb in Paris and a fifth-place finish in the DL 1500 final in Zurich, has been impressive of late.
JG prediction: Wilson, like Cheruiyot in the men’s 1500, has made picking this event easy. She wins it as Ce’Aira Brown books her ticket to Worlds.
Talk about the meet on our world famous fan forum / messageboard. MB: Official 2019 Brussels DL Discussion Thread – Bye, bye to the 5k, Ajee goes for the 800 title, and much more.