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Olympics:  Men's 800-Meter Hotly Contested - 2004-08-24

The men's 800-meter run is expected to be one of the most hotly contested races at the Athens Olympics. Most of the favorites are from Africa.

The 800 meters is two laps around the track at Olympic Stadium and it's a race where the runners must have some strategy, because they cannot run all-out for the entire distance.

Four years ago in Sydney it was a slow, tactical race. In fact, it was so slow that for the first time since 1936, the Olympic final was slower than the semifinals. That's not likely to happen here in Athens.

While there is not a clear-cut favorite for the gold medal, the edge could go to Wilfred Bungei of Kenya, who recently ran the fastest time in the world this year (1:43.06). This is the 24-year-old athlete's first Olympics.

"I would like to take advantage of being the favorite, but I need to remain focused and work on my [race] plan that I had all along and try to see that I remain focused to the last, to the middle of the [finish] line," he says.

There is another top 800-meters contender from Kenya, but world record holder Wilson Kipketer, who won the silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, has a Danish wife and runs for Denmark.

Two South Africans should provide a strong challenge, Hezekiel Sepeng and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi.

Many thought the 30-year-old Sepeng should have won the gold medal in Atlanta in 1996, but he came away with the silver. Then he was fourth in Sydney. Sepeng feels fortunate to be in Athens. He had had a dispute with his country's athletics governing body and was originally left off the South African Olympic team.

"Things were sorted out at the end, and I'm happy," he says. "I nearly did not make the team because of a misunderstanding between me and my federation. But in the end I made the team and I'm very happy because it's been my long-term plan to come to Athens and run here."

Sepeng says now that he's here, his goal is to win an Olympic gold medal.

"I've won silver in Atlanta. I've won silver in the world championships. I just feel like I've never done my best," he adds. "I'm always hungry for something. There's something that I'm missing. [In] both my races that I've won silver, I feel like I've made mistakes in the races and I can fix it. So my aim coming here is to come up and try to run the perfect race for me, and I know myself if I feel good on that day I will do my best."

Another South African 800-meter runner hoping to do his best is first time Olympian Mbulaeni Mulaudzi. He is 23 years old. He won the bronze medal at last year's world championships in Paris and won gold at this year's World Indoor Championships in Budapest.

He says he does not want to think about winning an Olympic medal until he qualifies for the final.

"I'm just going to take it step by step," he says. "My first round I have to be careful. Run, like, in the front, you know make sure I don't get boxed [in]. Just to secure myself to the next level is the most important thing."

Before Saturday night's final in the men's 800 meters, there is one round of heats Wednesday night under the lights at Olympic Stadium and semifinals on Thursday night.