SYDNEY, Feb 21 (Reuters) - David Rudisha is proud to be a 800 metres world champion, proud to be a world record holder but as much as anything is proud of being a Maasai and desperate to secure a first Olympic gold medal for his tribe later this year.
The 23-year-old Kenyan, whose father Daniel was the first Maasai to compete at the Olympics and won a relay silver in 1968, has ruled the 800 metres for the last three years and will be odds on favourite to win the title in London on Aug. 9.
“The Olympics is a special event and winning is very important,” Rudisha told Reuters in an interview. “For me as a world record holder and world champion, the only thing I am missing is the Olympic gold medal and that is what I want to achieve in my career.”
There are some who believe that Rudisha should be as big a star in the firmament of athletics as Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt after single-handedly rescuing the two lap race from the domination of tactical sprint finishers.
Rudisha shattered Wilson Kipketer’s 13-year-old world record in 2010 and improved it again the following week as he went unbeaten for 34 meets until the end of last season, including his victory at the world championships in Daegu.
His sensational 2010 season saw him succeed Bolt as IAAF World Athlete of the Year but the difference in profile between the pair is not difficult to explain when you have spent any time in their company.
Bolt is athletics as Rock ‘n’ Roll, oozing charisma, striking dramatic poses before and after his races, speaking confidently to the media and surrounded in public by a posse of assistants and advisors.
The only thing remotely bling about Rudisha is a slender gold chain around his neck and he was alone as he walked into the athletics stadium at Sydney Olympic Park last week to talk to the media ahead of his first race of the season.
“I love my tribe, the Maasai are very good people and humble,” he said, his voice almost a whisper.
“Going to the Olympics as a Maasai I want to make them proud because, after the warm welcome they gave me when I went back and being their leader, I want to also be the warrior in the Olympics.
“That will be something good because that will be the first Olympic gold medal for the Maasai.”
The reception he received after breaking the world record included being made a warrior by his tribe, an honour that would once have required the killing of a lion among the semi-nomadic people.
Rudisha started as a 400 metre runner but was persuaded by Colm O’Connell to try the longer distance while training at the Irishman’s famous St Patrick’s High School in Iten, where Kipketer’s talent was also fostered.
After earning the nickname “Pride of Africa” by winning the world junior crown in Beijing in 2006, Rudisha missed out on a return to China for the 2008 Olympics because of injury.
Back luck continued to dog him the following year when he failed to reach the world championships final in Berlin after being boxed in during the semi-final.
After his Berlin disappointment, his ambitions to further improve his record of one minute 41.01 seconds last year were subsumed to his desire to clinch the world title. That is not the case in 2012.
“Last year I had a lot of pressure because I missed in Berlin three years ago so it was very tough for me to go there and win,” he recalled.
“It was good because I took that pressure off and now I’m going for the Olympics and I will see if I can do better than that and better my time.”
He started his 2012 season in front of 3,400 people at the Sydney Track Classic earlier this month, his smooth loping stride taking him to second in the 400 metres in a time of 45.82 seconds.
“I was here in 2010 and I ran in the 400 metres and my season was very good,” he said, a huge smile on his face. “I came here to test my speed and I’m feeling very good.”
Rudisha said he was also considering following his father’s footsteps by running the 4x400m relay in London, if Kenya make the final at the London Olympic Stadium in August.
Seb Coe, Kipketer’s predecessor as 800m world record holder and now the man in charge of the London Olympics, showed Rudisha around the 80,000-seat arena last year.
“It was such a nice feeling because I remember the first time I met him in Oslo when I broke his stadium record,” Rudisha said.
“He encouraged me and told me I was the future world record holder but that it would take time and discipline to get there.”
Neither Coe nor Kipketer, who ran for Denmark, won Olympic 800m gold, a fact that has left Rudisha feeling he will be running not only for the pride of tribe and country but also for that of the last three world record holders in London.
“I think it’s high time for me to see if I can achieve that to satisfy us all.”
(Editing by Ossian Shine)
(For the sports blog Left Field go to: blogs.reuters.com/sport))
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