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Stars shine on Weltklasse anniversary

Gabriela Szabo of Romania was one of five runners to set a new year’s best time Keystone

Zurich’s prestigious Weltklasse athletics meeting celebrated its 75th anniversary on Friday night with some fittingly strong performances by the world’s top athletes.

Swiss world champion Andre Bucher was unable to make much impression on the 800 metres however, finishing in eighth place.

With temperatures considerably cooler than in the days leading up to the event, five runners were able to post new season’s best times.

One of the night’s most thrilling races came in the men’s 3,000 metre steeplechase, which pitted Kenyan runner Ezekiel Kemboi against a man who 24 hours earlier had been one of his compatriots.

Having received an offer from Qatar on the eve of the Zurich meeting, Kenyan star Stephen Cherono elected to change his nationality – and his name. Running at the Weltklasse as Saif Saeed Shaheen, the newly ‘Qatarised’ athlete edged Kemboi in a gripping finish to knock more than two seconds off his own year’s best record.

That race in particular saw the Zurich fans live up to their own top billing as some of the loudest athletics supporters in the world.

Bucher disappoints

Boosted by two vociferous standing sections at either end of the stadium, the Letzigrund was at its noisiest though as Bucher took up his starting position.

But with just over a week to go until the start of the world championships in Paris, the reigning 800 metres champion failed to live up to the hopes of the local supporters.

Crowded out in a fast start, the 26-year-old from Lucerne found himself languishing in last place at the half-way stage, and was only able to overtake three of the backmarkers before crossing the finish line.

“This certainly wasn’t the best I can do,” Bucher told swissinfo shortly afterwards. “It was a very fast start and no-one was giving away any space. So it cost me a lot of energy to try and get back in the race.

“It was simply a bad race for me but there’s no need for me to change anything. It’s a pity though that it had to happen in Zurich.”

Business as usual

Aside from the night’s records, there were also popular wins for regular crowd-pleasers Felix Sanchez, Gail Devers and Maria Mutola.

Mutola has now won an incredible 11 straight victories at the Weltklasse, although this may prove to be her most lucrative yet. The 30-year-old runner from Mozambique is the only athlete still in with a chance of scooping the Golden League jackpot.

If she can win at the final Golden League meeting in Brussels, Mutola will pick up one million dollars as the only athlete to have won at all six events in the series.

And while most of the stars competing in Zurich will now have their sights firmly set on the Paris world championships, Mutola is unsurprisingly looking a little further ahead.

“It was a case of one race at a time and business as usual,” Mutola insisted near the finish line. “The hardest race of my career awaits me in Brussels. Let’s wait and see.”

With a tight schedule to get through, organisers at the legendary Zurich meeting had little time to officially celebrate the event’s 75th birthday. A string of former superstars, including Sergey Bubka, Sebastian Coe and Michael Johnson were on hand though to pay tribute to the Weltklasse’s golden past.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

Although the Weltklasse is 75 years old, this year’s edition is only the 53rd. Regular annual meetings didn’t begin until 1973.
More than a dozen former Weltklasse champions are due to take part in the anniversary celebrations.
A book commemorating the event’s history will be published later this year.

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