Story written by Eric.
The 2008 IAAF World Indoor Championships take place in Valencia, Spain at the week-end, and there are a number of excellent matchups track fans around the globe are eagerly awaiting.
The women's fields are loaded with superstars which make these championships worthy of their name, and the men have no lack of stars to fill the seats, either.
Two particular match-ups I am looking forward to are the men's 800m and the high jump, with the 800m the first up to be profiled before the week-end's action gets underway.
The first will offer an excellent matchup between experienced veterans against a new player in the game, with the latter a very good possibility of producing a break-through performance between two very fiercely competitive and driven European rivals.
Though the fields are strong across the boards - including the shot put, the 3.000m and the 60m hurdles, Athletics in the News will focus specifically on four athletes among the hundreds competing whom fans should keep their eyes on as the championships unfold.
Sit back, enjoy the upcoming coverage provided by a number of excellent media outlets and take advantage of the excellent information provided in this report.
MEN'S 800M - ABUBAKER KAKI:
Final: Sunday, 9-March at 18.40 CET
Yuriy Borzakovskiy came out to play this season, though not the usual game of sit-and-kick that had been most ineffective for the Russian star the past three years following his 2004 Olympic victory.
Borzakovskiy continued to wait until the final 200m - or last lap - to run down opponents, but the difference this season is the 26-year-old has made a concerted effort to stay in the lead pack through 400m instead of attempting to dash from last-to-first. His quick decision-making steps towed plenty of fields to quick times.
Borzakovskiy, the world 800m leader, is not making the trip to Valencia, however, despite only suffering one loss in the indoor season from events ranging from 400m to 1.000m.
Wilfred Bungei, who defeated Borzakovskiy in Stockholm two weeks ago, will also not make the trip to Valencia due to injury.
The absence of both Borzakovskiy and Bungei -- though a blow to a stellar field -- will be quickly forgotten if a young protégé from Africa is able to live up to the exceptional promise he has demonstrated in an abbreviated indoor campaign.
That young man's name is Abubaker Kaki - one which will echo in stadiums near you as the Olympics approach later this summer.
Kaki, 18, is an inexperienced - yet excellent quick-study Sudanese who has a grand total of three indoor races under his belt in his career, but an athlete who has made the transition to indoor running a smashing success.
Kaki, a former goalee who was discovered by an athletics coach in Sudan only three years ago, has earned terrific international respect after having run-away victories at 800m in Leipzig, Germany (1.46,06), setting an IAAF World Junior record in the 1.000m run here in Sweden (2.15,77) two weeks ago, and following that effort up with a 2.16,15 on 24-February.
Kaki became the fifth-fastest athlete at the 1.000m distance after his victory in Stockholm, and trails world record -holder Wilson Kipketer's leading standard by a mere 0,81 seconds.
The potential match-up with the finalists I expect to round out the field will produce an excellent fight to the finish between a hungry and un-afraid new-comer and athletes who are experienced, and have multiple international championship medals to their credit - including world indoor, world outdoor, European and Olympic Games.
South African Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, the 2004 world indoor champion and Olympic silver medallist behind Borzakovskiy in Athens, has the most experience and the highest credentials of the contestants attempting to make the final.
Mulaudzi, the top returner from the 2006 IAAF World Championships held in Moscow (silver medal), has raced very sparingly this season, recording a 1.45,25 at altitude, and a 1.46,13 four days ago at Oudtshoorn, South Africa - a race he nearly won by two seconds in a tune-up for Valencia.
Mulaudzi gained world-class status seven years ago when he ran a 1.44,01 at the Zürich Weltklasse meeting. His best time ever recorded indoors is a 1.45,43, with his outdoor best an outstanding 1.42,89 set five years ago in Bruxelles.
As with Kaki, Mulaudzi set his 1.000m personal best and national record, 2.15,86, in Stockholm - though outdoors at last season's DN Galan.
Kaki sped the final 200m of his world junior-record race indoors in Stockholm in 26 seconds, and was the 1.500m bronze medallist at the 2005 World Youth Championships.
Having that type of enduring speed under his belt, Kaki may not be caught by pursuing company if he is left out front with one lap remaining, despite the difference in personal bests between the top-ranked athletes like Mulaudzi and their freshman star.
Another contestant with a very impressive athletics CV is Latvia's Dmitrijs Milkevics, third on the world indoor list this season - 0,03 behind Kaki.
Milkevics, the Latvian 800m record-holder, was a star with the University of Nebraska, winning the 2005 NCAA Championships held in Sacramento in 1.44,74.
Milkevics holds a 1.43,67 outdoor personal best set two years ago in Athens.
The IAAF World Indoor Championships have not been viewed by all of the world's top athletes to be a priority to contest - especially in an Olympic year as this one.
That has not stopped great stories from developing in the 12 previous editions, however, nor has it put the breaks on fast running - evidenced by Wilson Kipketer's 1.42,67 world record set 11 years ago in Paris.
The IAAF, who are the sport's world governing body, recently released a statistics booklet for the World Championships which is rich in historical information including trend analysis. Contained in that booklet are winning times and marks as well as other pertinent information any fan would like to have in their collection.
The 2008 field, led by Kaki's 1.46,06 personal best, would not be sufficient to win in most years the event has been contested; six of the 12 finals races have been won with times under 1.46,00.
Kaki, who has stated that he doesn't underestimate his competitors, is likely to challenge the leaders through the 400m mark in about 52 seconds, then make an extended surge for position at the bell. His superlative mixture of strength and speed will make it very challenging for anyone to match strides with him - especially true following his two excellent 1.000m runs over the past two weeks.
If Kaki is able to stay out of trouble and not make mistakes during his race, expect the teenager to run in the neighbourhood of 1.44,7 in the final - a winning time which has only been bettered twice in the World Championships.
First, however, he'll need to make it through the first-round heat on Friday and a tougher semi-final on Saturday, where, historically, athletes this decade who have run in the neighbourhood of 1.47,60 have been unsuccessful in advancing to the final.
Kaki is a precocious star with very high ambitions for himself this season and well into the future. An athlete who enjoys running on the indoor surfaces, Kaki may surpass the record for most championships contested at this distance - a mark which Argentina's Luis Migueles holds at five.
The world indoor championships are contested every other season. The first edition was contested in Paris in 1985.
Trivia: The oldest 800m medallist to-date is Brazil's Osmar dos Santos, who, at 35 years 139 days, won bronze at the 2004 meet in Budapest, Hungary.
2006 World Indoor Champion: Wilfred Bungei, KEN, 1.47,15
WR 1.42,67 Wilson Kipketer (DEN) - Paris, 1997-03-09
World Indoor Leaders in the 800m 2008:
1.45,58, Yuriy Borzakovskiy, RUS.
1.46,06 Abubaker Kaki, SUD.
1.46,09 Dmitrijs Milkevics, LAT.
1.46,24 Dmitry Bogdanov, RUS.
1.46,33 Richard Kiplagat, KEN.
2006 IAAF Indoor World Championships:
Gold: Wilson Bungei, KEN, 1.47,15
Silver: Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, RSA, 1.47,16
Bronze: Yuriy Borzakovskiy, 1.47,38
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