Plenty of interesting match-ups in store in field events

The sprints look a bigger toss-up than ever before, a few scores are out to be settled over the long distance and there are plenty of interesting match-ups in store in the field events.

K. P. MOHAN

Maurice Greene, though has limited success this season, has the second fastest time, 9.94 clocked in June. But in Paris, it is not going to be easy for the American. — Pic. MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES-

The sprints look a bigger toss-up than ever before, a few scores are out to be settled over the long distance and there are plenty of interesting match-ups in store in the field events. The build-up for the ninth World Championships, though seemingly slow, has raised expectations of an excitement-filled athletics extravaganza in Paris.

How things change in two years time! Edmonton looks as though it had happened only the other day. The shock defeats of Marion Jones and Haile Gebrselassie are still fresh in memory. Two years ago, both groped for words to explain the debacles, broke into those patented smiles in between and yet could not hide their disappointment. Both vowed that they would be back on the big stage.

Time brings with it changes, new relationships, new developments. Jones separated from her husband, C. J. Hunter, found a new boyfriend in world sprint record holder Tim Montgomery, talked about the `drive for five' that had characterised her Sydney Olympics campaign, but pregnancy and childbirth put a stop to her World Championships plans. Pappa Montgomery, in the meantime, has suffered shattering defeats this season and is no longer being talked of in the same breath as he was last year when he clocked that superb world record of 9.78s in Paris.

Gebrselassie made his marathon debut, came back to the track, got beaten, not just once but thrice this season, and is entered for both the 5000m and 10,000m at Paris. Revenge should be uppermost in his mind. Edmonton has to be avenged and then there is this business of how good he still is against the younger generation from his own country and Kenya.

Come to think of it, Gebrselassie's attempt to win his fifth world 10,000m title in 10 years will be one of the most keenly-awaited events of these championships.

``I don't know what happened,'' Gebrselassie had said last time, in Edmonton, as he trudged back towards the interview room, beaten by Kenyan Charles Kamathi in the 10,000m, pushed to the bronze status eventually by countryman Assefa Mezgebu. He had talked about moving onto the marathon even at the end of the Sydney Olympic Games, but now he wasn't sure. He felt that marathon would have to wait. He ran the marathon all right in 2002, placing third in the London Marathon, behind Khalid Khannouchi of the US and Paul Tergat of Kenya. For once, Tergat had overcome his nemesis.

But this season, Gebrselassie was focussed on the track and despite three losses, two to Kenyan Abraham Chebii and one to countryman Kenenisa Bekele, the `Emperor' should remain a hot contender in Pairs. He had been troubled by bronchitis and he no longer has that devastating kick that can destroy a field, as was evident in his defeats in Hengelo, Rome and Paris. Maybe he is still not showing all the trumps he has.

The possibilities are enormous if Gebrselassie either shifts or decides to go for the 5000m as well in Paris. There, he might have to contend with world 1500m record holder Hicham El Guerrouj, apart from Kenyan Chebii. Add to the line-up, Kenya's world junior record holder Eluid Kipchoge and world two-mile record holder Haylu Mekonnen of Ethiopia, you have a dream line-up.

Haile Gebrselassie's attempt to win his fifth world 10,000m title in 10 years will be one of the most keenly-awaited events of these championships .— Pic. STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES-

Talking of line-ups, the women's 100m will surely lack class, what with Marion Jones not competing. Even as reports came in about her quick return to the track after she gave birth to Tim Junior on June 28, the women's dash showed a topsy-turvy form that could suggest an even contest among the top three or four in Paris.

Chandra Sturrup was the early leader in the season, with victories in Oslo, Paris and Rome that kept her in the running for the million-dollar Golden League jackpot. Till the ISTAF meet in Berlin, that is. She lost there to Americans Kelli White and Chryste Gaines.

``I still feel confident for the World Championships. I have improved a lot this year and I feel a lot stronger,'' said Sturrup after her Berlin defeat.

Kelli White, the sprint double at the US championships in her kitty, should pose the biggest challenge to Sturrup. And then there will be the defending champion, Zhanna Block. Hampered by injuries through the season, Zhanna has made a determined bid to come into top form in time for the most crucial meet of the year, though in her comeback race at Heusden, Belgium, she lost to Chryste Gaines.

A comeback that could have mesmerised the Parisians at the Stade de France never materialised. Marie-Jose Perec, who left Sydney in a huff, alleging that she had received death-threats in the build-up to the Olympics clash with Cathy Freeman, could have been a serious contender on her comeback after being out for three years. But bar an initial flurry, nothing much was heard of the woman from Guadeloupe till news trickled in that she was troubled by sciatic pain.

Dwain Chambers stands a good chance of winning the gold in 100m. — Pic. STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES-

The French kept a door open for Perec to compete in the relay, but the 35-year-old, double gold medallist at the 1996 Olympics, turned it down, citing her condition.

Freeman herself dithered about retirement before finally announcing it, leaving the 400m another open affair a second time.

Mexican Ana Guevara, third last time but the top quarter-miler in 2002, should be the automatic favourite in such a scenario. Jamaican Lorraine Fenton and the defending champion Amy Thiam Mbacke of Senegal, fighting injuries in a desperate struggle to come into form in the run-up, should be the other main contenders over the lap.

Despite recovering from an injury and a spot of further bother because of bronchitis, Briton Paula Radcliffe has been entered in both 5000 metres and 10,000 metres. The most outstanding athlete of 2002 does not have a World championship gold, or for that matter an Olympics gold, in her collection so far. She will have to strain every nerve to meet the challenge of Ethiopians Berhane Adere and Derartu Tulu, the latter bidding to become the first woman to successfully defend the 10,000m title.

No such scarcity for Maurice Greene. He has three of the yellow metal ones, just as Carl Lewis had. Greene in fact won the last three on the trot, but after having raised visions of a serious comeback this season after a lacklustre one last year, the Kansas man has remained in the shadows of the lesser lights. Don't rule him out yet.

Greene has the second fastest time of the year, a 9.94 clocked back home in June. But after that he has had limited success in a season where he and Australian Patrick Johnson are the only ones to have cracked 10 seconds. Yet, Greene has struggled to get among medals and that should put a question mark over his ability to get back into the winning mode. Of course, the others have been no better when it came to consistency.

Dwain Chambers put himself in front of the bunch of gold medal contenders in the 100 metres by beating almost everyone that mattered in the Norwich Union Grand Prix in London on August 8. After initially showing an astonishing world record of 10.53s, it was found out that the electronic system had failed. The top four were thus given a manual 10.0s.

Behind Chambers were the Commonwealth Games champion Kim Collins of St. Kits and Nevis, Nigerian Deji Aliu, in fine form this season, Bernard Williams, bronze winner at Edmonton last time, and Justin Gatalin. Montgomery was eliminated in one of the heats, finishing sixth. He had finished sixth in Stockholm three days earlier.

Yelena Isinbayeva has the top three marks in pole vault this season. — Pic. ALEX LIVESEY/GETTY IMAGES-

``One race does not make you, but sometimes it can break you,'' said Montgomery. ''In my case, I hope that Stockholm has not broken my spirits for this year.''

Bernard Williams looks good, but will be as focussed as Chambers? Deji Aliu has also impressed, but does he have the championship class to last the rounds and keep his nerves in check?

In the longer dash, the comeback of veteran Frankie Fredericks of Namibia will be keenly followed and so will the fortunes of American Tyree Washingston in the 400 metres.

Dane Wilson Kipketer, Swiss Andre Bucher and Russian Yuriy Borzakovskiy will have to tackle Kenyan Wilfred Bungei in the 800m while Hicham El Guerrouj continues to be unmatched in the 1500 metres.

American Allen Johnson (110m hurdles) and Dominican Republic's Felix Sanchez (400m hurdles) looked strong nearing the Worlds as they shaped up to defend their titles.

If track looks slightly off the spotlight in the build-up, the field events have acquired that extra edge this season, so much unlike the past. Two women's events should attract attention in this respect more than any other event, the high jump and the pole vault.

Since Stefka Kostadinova set the women's high jump world mark of 2.09 in 1987, no one had crossed 2.05 barring the Bulgarian herself. Now, we have the brilliant Swede, Kajsa Bergvist at 2.06m, a mark she achieved at Eberstadt, Germany, on July 26.

Before one could plump for Bergqvist as the favourite, the defending champion, Hestrie Cloete of South Africa produced two excellent results, 2.02 in London followed two days later with a personal best 2.05 in Berlin. Cloete now joins Bergqvist and Ukrainian Inga Babakova, as the active jumpers in the 2.05m club. Kostadinova holds 10 of the top 12 marks, all 2.06 or better.

Stacy Dragila held the centre-stage last time when she cleared a championship record height of 4.75m in women's pole vault, an event that has started stabilising at the top level. Since then the American has had her moments, but had been pushed into the background by two Russians, Svetlana Feofanova and, more recently, Yelena Isinbayeva.

Isinbayeva, just turned 20, has the top three marks this season including the world record of 4.82m she set at Gateshead, England. Dragila has clearly struggled, her best being 4.62m. But the smooth-talking, glamorous American is a tough customer. She might not be ready to give up yet. Russian Tatyna Polonova and German Yvonne Buschbaum should be the others to watch <147,4,0>out in this scintillating contest.

Men's pole vault continues to be starved of top-class calibre since the exit of Sergey Bubka, now an IOC member. But men's high jump has suddenly evoked interest with the little-known Pole, Aleksander Walerianczyk clearing 2.36m, the season's best, while winning the European under-23 title. South African Jacques Freitag, American Matt Hemingway, Russian Yaroslav Rybakov and Swede Stefan Holm are close on his heels in the season's charts.

Kelli White, with the sprint double in the US Championships in her kitty, is a top contender. — Pic. LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/GETTY IMAGES-

Ivan Pedroso of Cuba, four time world champion in long jump, looks beatable, though the Cuban is a big-stage performer. American Savante Stringfellow, silver medallist last time, has the better credentials, including an 8.46m early in the season.

In women's long jump, the top performer this season, with the only <147,5,0>seven-metre jump of the year (7.06m at Milan in June), Maurren Higa Maggi of Brazil, is under a doping suspension. The rest including Olympic champion Heike Drechsler of Germany, who might not be there, and defending champion Fiona May of Italy have remained well below par. Only Tatyana Kotova of Russia has shown some amount of consistency in the 6.80-plus range while Commonwealth Games champion Elva Goulbourne of Jamaica has rounded into form with a couple of major titles close to the championships.

India's main hope lies in women's long jump, with Anju George having won a Grand Prix silver apart from doing fairly well in the circuit. However, her inability to go beyond 6.60m, her best for the season achieved in the US, where she was training under world record holder Mike Powell, should cause concern. To qualify for the final in itself will be an achievement, but Anju and husband Bobby George have worked hard towards a medal they keep dreaming about. At the world level medals are hard to come by.

The injury that Jonathan Edwards suffered at the London Grand Prix has practically robbed the men's triple jump contest of much of its charm. Swede Christian Olsson, with a national record of 17.77m for the season, towers above everyone else. Maybe a fit Edwards might have stretched him.

Women's triple jump has been dominated completely by Cuban Yamile Aldama this year (best of 15.29m) and her tussle with Russian Tatyana Lebedeva, champion in 2001, should decide the gold.

Barring the hammer, the throws have remained below par in both sections this season. Japanese Koji Murofushi threw the hammer to a distance of 84.86m, 15th on the all-time lists, at Prague in June. He became only the third man to reach that far behind world record holder Yuriy Sedykh and Sergey Litvinov, both from Russia. Belarus's Ivan Tikhon and Hungary's Adrian Annus could spoil Murofushi's dream of winning his first world title. He had missed it very narrowly last time, losing to Poland's Szymon Ziolkowski.

The multis should produce a high-class contest. World record holder Roman Seberle of the Czech Republic and American Tom Pappas start the favourites in decathlon while the hepathlon should see a close battle between Eunice Barber, coming back from injuries, and the supremely talented Swede Carolina Kluft. The home turf should provide the extra incentive for Barber.

India's main hope lies in the women's long jump, with Anju George having won a Grand Prix silver apart from doing fairly well in the circuit. — Pic. P. V. SIVAKUMAR-

Off the field, Olympic champion Denise Lewis's association with the former GDR doping programme architect, Dr Ekkart Arbeit, had evoked such a debate in the media that it was a wonder that the British hepathalete managed to stick it out.

At a time when the world's sporting community has seemingly shifted its focus onto the anti-doping campaign, with the World Anti Doping Agency successfully formulating a uniform code, Lewis's action has surely attracted attention world-wide. Even as we go into yet another edition of the world championships we need no reminder that doping is a curse that has tarnished the image of track and field athletics considerably for the past 15 years. One can readily recall that banner Paula Radcliffe held in the stands in Edmonton, `EPO cheats out' to protest against the inclusion of Russian Olga Yegorova who had tested positive for EPO just prior to the last Worlds.

That Yegorova is still competing, was the leader in the 1500m this season till Turk Surreya Ayehan took over in Berlin with a 3:59.58, and should be one of the hottest contenders in the 5000m in Paris should tell its own tale.