Enchanting panorama

Yelena Isinbayeva, owner of 29 world records outdoors and 24 indoors, looks set to conquer Londoners with her poise and vaulting ability.-AP

Usain Bolt could still be the 100m favourite in London, but Yohan Blake, Tyson Gay, Justin Gatlin, and even former world record holder Asafa Powell could be in contention. Over to K.P. Mohan.

Usain Bolt is not invincible. We all thought he was when he set his world record of 9.58 seconds for the 100 metres and 19.19 seconds for the 200 metres in the World championships in Berlin in 2009.

Even when he was beaten by Tyson Gay in the 100m, ending a 14-race winning streak that started in the Beijing Olympics final, at the DNG in Stockholm in August 2010, we thought it could just be an aberration.

His disqualification in the Daegu World championships 100 metres final for a false-start was one of those things that could happen to any sprinter. We still believed he was invincible.

Till World champion Yohan Blake beat him twice within the space of two days in the 100 and 200 at home during the Olympic trials.

“There are a lot of people now in the 100, it is open for the Games,” American Tyson Gay was quoted as saying after the Diamond League meeting in Paris where he beat compatriot Justin Gatlin, referring also of course to Bolt’s setback a few days earlier.

Beijing 2008 was a Bolt show. Bolt struck like lightning. His speed was awesome; he beat his opponents by a mile. He had plenty of time to look either side and celebrate well before the line and yet clock a stunning world record 10.69s. He did run through for the 200m when he timed 19.30s to better Michael Johnson’s fabled record of 19.32s in the Atlanta Olympics.

Bolt exceeded expectations in Berlin in 2009. Today, even after his sensational defeats, someone like Tommie Smith, former world record holder in the 200m, is saying the 25-year-old Jamaican can go below nine seconds for the 100.

Bolt could still be the favourite in London, but Blake, Gay, Gatlin, who is coming back from a four-year doping suspension, and even former world record holder Asafa Powell could be in contention.

Or could they be if Bolt regains his fitness? He was supposed to have a “minor problem” with a hamstring and pulled out of the Monaco Diamond League meeting after the Kingston debacle.

Blake, world champion in 100 metres in Daegu, has the top time this season, of 9.75s. Bolt is just a hundredth of a second behind, followed by Gatlin (9.80) and Asafa Powell (9.85). Gay, who is coming back from injuries, is at joint fifth with Trinidadian Keston Bledman, his training partner, with 9.86.

Bolt has a 5-2 record against Blake, the losses being the disqualification in Daegu and the stunner in Kingston in June. He has a 2-0 record against Gatlin, 2-1 against Gay and 12-1 against Powell.

If the Jamaican is fit and is off the blocks well enough, he should retain the 100m title to become the first man to do so on the track. (American Carl Lewis was awarded his 1988 gold in 100m to add to his 1984 one after Ben Johnson was stripped of the gold on a doping charge.) Bolt could also be expected to retain the 200m gold and if he does that he would have a unique double.

Jamaica had swept the sprint titles in both men and women’s sections in Beijing, with a one-two-three sweep of the medals in the women’s short sprint. The Jamaicans ended with a tally of six gold, three silver and two bronze, their country’s total medal tally coming from athletics.

The Americans should be looking out for revenge in the sprints. It looks unlikely that the U.S. would achieve that especially with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the defending champion in the women’s 100m in great form, and Veronica Campbell-Brown, the 200m champion also in fine nick.

Carmelita Jeter, women’s 100m world champion, and Allyson Felix, the 200 specialist, will have their task cut out.

As usual, the U.S. should, however, be hoping to take away the maximum medals from athletics. In Beijing it had 23 medals, seven of them gold; in Athens in 2004 it had 25 medals, eight of them gold.

The defending champion in the 400 metres, LaShawn Merritt, who has a doping past and who was beaten by Grenada’s 19-year-old Kirani James in the Daegu Worlds, has escaped an Olympic ban thanks to a CAS ruling which threw out an IOC rule seeking an additional Olympic ban on dopers from 2008. He is once again the favourite.

Christian Taylor who came up with a sensational 17.96m to win the World championships last year looks set to extend his triple jump supremacy to the Olympics. The 22-year-old American leads the charts this season with 17.63m recorded in winning the U.S. Nationals.

Decathlete Ashton Eaton who set a world record of 9039 points at the Olympic trials in Eugene should start the overwhelming favourite in London. He will have team-mate and two-time world champion Trey Hardee for company among the closest challengers. German Pascan Behrenbruch, the European champion, could be another contender.

Long jumper Marquise Goodwin (SB 8.33) will have to cross swords with home favourite Greg Rutherford (SB 8.35) while shot putter Reese Hoffa could have a fight on his hands from his own team-mates Christian Cantwell (world leader at 22.31) and Ryan Whiting as well as Bejing Olympics champion Tomasz Majewski of Poland and world champion David Storl of Germany.

Among the American women, Sanya Richards-Ross (400m) beaten by Britain’s Christine Ohuruogu and Jamaican Shericka Williams in Beijing four years ago, Lashinda Demus (400m hurdles), long jumper Brittney Reese, two-time world champion, and the relay teams look the best bets for gold.

Russia, which took seven gold medals in Beijing, is looking to better that performance. Like it was before Beijing, the Russians have been embarrassed this time also by a set of doping cases prior to naming their team.

It has gold medal hopes in its world-leading performers, high jumpers Ivan Ukhov (2.39) and Anna Chicherova (2.03), world champion hammer thrower Tatyana Lysenko (78.51), 400m runner Antonina Krivoshapka (49.16), 400m hurdler Natalya Antyukh (53.40) and a bunch of walkers led by 50km expert Sergey Kirdyapkin.

Of course, we should not be forgetting Yelena Isinbayeva, the undisputed queen of pole-vaulting who is back in the thick of it and is looking for a hat-trick of Olympic gold medals. She had no-heighted at the Berlin Worlds in 2009, finished sixth in Daegu with only 4.65 after a partial break in 2010, but had a 5.01 indoor world record this year.

Isinbayeva only has a 4.75m as her best outdoors this season as against 4.81m for American Jenn Suhr, Beijing silver medallist, and Brazilian Fabiana Murer, world champion last year, who has a 4.77. The Russian, owner of 29 world records outdoors and 24 indoors, however, looks set to conquer Londoners with her poise and vaulting ability.

Britain had just one gold in Beijing that by Ohuruogu in the women’s 400m. Ohuruogu has made a comeback after having faded away since Beijing. Everyone might expect some home advantage for the British athletes this time, though the task is not going to be easy at all for them to swell its gold collection.

Heptathlete Jessica Ennis is Britain’s brightest gold medal prospect this time. With some hope, though they are not the favourites, could be triple jumper Phillips Idowu and 400m hurdler Dai Greene. Long jumper Rutherford, No. 1 in the world lists, mentioned earlier, could be another strong candidate.

Mo Farah, world champion in the 5000m is another home athlete who is expected to rise to the occasion as he did in Daegu last year after being beaten narrowly in the 10,000m.

Kenya, which won 14 medals last time, six of them gold, looks set to better that record. In David Rudisha (800m), Silas Kiplagat and Asbel Kiprop (1500m), Ezekiel Kemboi (3000m steeplechase) and Abel Kirui (marathon) among men and Pamela Jelimo (800m), Vivian Cheruiyot (5000), Milcah Chemos (3000m steeplechase) and Mary Keitany (marathon) among women, Kenya has athletes who are capable of maintaining its hold on the middle distance and distance events.

Ethiopia, which has fallen behind in this race for distance running supremacy with Kenya, had won seven medals last time, four gold medals included. Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba provided the men and women’s doubles to underline Ethiopia’s supremacy on the track in distance events.

Bekele was eclipsed in the last World championships, not finishing in the 10,000m and pulling out of the 5000m. Though he made a comeback after Daegu he is no longer the force he was while Haile Gebrselassie, perhaps the greatest distance runner we have had the privilege to watch, could not get selection in the track team after he failed to make it to the marathon team.

Bekele has been named in the Ethiopian team for the 10,000m while Dibaba has only been named as a reserve in both 5000 and 10,000.

The whole of China will once again be glued to the television sets on August 8. That is the day Liu Xiang will run the 110m hurdles. The Chinese superstar had pulled out tearfully at home last time because of an injury. He is the No. 2 in the season lists at 12.97s behind American Aries Merritt (12.93s). With world champion Jason Richardson of the U.S. (12.98s) also rounding into form there could be a high-voltage contest. Liu Xiang has to make up for the Beijing disappointment.

Some of the keenest battles will unfold in the throws where the dominant athletes would be from Europe, barring in shot put. Watch out in particular for the men’s discus contest (also discussed elsewhere in this issue). Also of special interest could be the men’s javelin duel where two-time Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway will be taking on in-form Czech Vitezslav Vesely, the latter pushing towards the 90-metre mark this season with a world-leading 88.11in Oslo in June.

Surely there is much to look forward to besides the Bolt v Blake show for the athletics buffs as action unfolds at the Olympic Stadium from August 3.