Commonwealth Games champion Nick Willis urged his 1500m rivals to "pick up the pace'' as he became the first New Zealander to make an Olympic Games track final for 12 years.
Willis, 25, was concerned his second semi-final early today (Mon) was progressing at snail's pace and wanted to up the ante at Beijing's Birds Nest Stadium to make sure he made the 12-man cut for the final early tomorrow morning (NZ Time, Wed).
He survived some bump and grind as the field jockeyed for position 250m from home to finish fifth and nail an automatic qualifying berth. He was the ninth-fastest qualifier over all because the pace was slightly slicker in the first heat. But at least he made the 12-man cut which is more than reigning world champion Bernard Lagat could do.
Willis _ the first New Zealander in an Olympic track final since Toni Hodgkinson in the women's 800m at Atlanta in 1996 _ revealed he was so concerned at the pedestrian nature of his race that he resorted to exhorting the other runners to get their skates on.
"I don't know whether it's unsportsmanlike, or not, but (on) the first lap I was yelling at them, 'to come on guys, pick up the pace, we've got a chance to get seven guys through in this heat, that's how pedestrian it was, I was yelling at them to do that'.''
"It's the Olympic Games semi-final, it's a pretty comical experience to know I did that, But in the heat of the moment you do what you can. It really felt like a wasted opportunity for some of our guys to miss out from our heat. Going into a second semi-final, you should always get the next two guys in.''
The first lap took 1min 00.47sec and the 800m split was 2min 02.05sec.
The slowish speed was set by Kenya's Augustine Kiprono Choge, the Commonwealth 5000m champion who, Willis said, was not accustomed to running in a tight bunch. Every time Choge made a break, Spain's Arturo Casado covered the Kenyan's every move.
But Casado almost caused a traffic jam on the last lap and Willis had to work hard to prevent being boxed in. He was tucked in behind Casado, but the Spaniard "ran out of steam with 250 to go'' and others ran by him.
"I thought, 'how do I get out of this position'?'' "It's sort of like pulling out to pass in traffic, if someone else is coming you've got to check your rear-view mirror otherwise you get a blind spot. Luckily, I managed to get out and get around the guys.''
Willis said it was similar to his near-stumble in the 2006 Commonwealth Games heats in Melbourne and had caused him to lose his stride. "It's like getting up from an ankle tap... you're losing momentum and you have to regather your speed.
"Fortunately, I had a little in reserve.'' Willis said he had been fortunate to be able to conserve energy throughout the race and "that was the difference in the last 200m.''
Willis finished in 3min 37.54sec - more than 5sec slower than his personal best. His heat was won by former Moroccan Rashid Ramzi, now running for Bahrain, in 3min 37.11sec. Frenchman Mehdi Baala, Great Britain's Andy Baddeley and Choge also qualified ahead of Willis.
The pace was only slightly quicker in the first semi-final, won by teenage Kenyan Asbel Kipruto with a big finishing kick. Abdalaati Iguider (Morocco), Juan Carlos Higuero (Spain), Christian Obrist (Italy) and Bahrain's Ali Belal Mansoor also qualified as top-five finishers. Juan van Deventer (South Africa) and Daham Naim Bashir filled the places as the two fastest also-rans.
The 1500m title should be wide open this year after the retirement of double Olympic champion and world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj.
- © Fairfax NZ News