Time for settling scores

Many of the forecasts and predictions did not come true in Beijing, and the athletes who suffered surprise defeats should be waiting for the opportunity to turn the tables on the Olympic champions in Berlin, writes K. P. Mohan.

The Beijing Olympic Games was a memorable landmark in the world of athletics; two stunning world records by a tall, 22-year-old Jamaican that had the world in awe and his rivals in disbelief. Usain Bolt, the owner of those two world records, is not exactly in prime condition this season but there are not many around the world who will bet on another sprinter taking the gold in the 12th IAAF World Championships in Berlin.

The championships, from August 15 to 23, in the German Capital, should showcase the sprint showdown that never materialised in Beijing. The competition, if anything, should be stiffer than what one had witnessed in the Olympics, but experts predict nothing other than a Bolt victory in both the sprints.

Does this mean the others would be running a different race as was the case in Beijing when Bolt clocked 9.69s and 19.30s?

Tyson Gay does not think so. The American, who was supposed to challenge Bolt in Beijing but could not recover from an injury in time, failing eventually to make the 100 metres final, has clocked the year’s best of 9.77s while winning the Golden Gala in Rome. He also has the year’s best of 19.58s, third on the all-time list, for the 200 metres. Only Bolt and Michael Johnson have run faster.

Despite a persistent groin injury troubling him, Gay exuded confidence, saying in London that he was the man who could take on Bolt.

“Right now I’m running on faith and that’s more dangerous than anything. When I hear the gun and just run, it’s just dangerous,” said Gay.

Bolt, in the meantime, has made light of rains and opposition in clocking some smart timings in the Grand Prix and Golden League circuit with a best of 9.79s coming in St. Denis, Paris. The Jamaican says he is not exactly 100 per cent fit but he could cope. Needless to say he should be the overwhelming favourite for the sprint double.

Where does Asafa Powell figure in this company? Obviously third at best and that too could be close. The former world record holder’s main hope should come from the fitness worries of Bolt and Gay. He has not won anything major since March this year when he took the first place in the Melbourne Grand Prix. He has a best of 9.88s this season and could be challenged by a few Caribbeans and Americans in Berlin even as Bolt takes on the double world champion Gay.

One can only hope that the contest does not fizzle out into a one-horse race like in Beijing, notwithstanding the exhilaration that Bolt triggered with his superhuman effort there.

Many of the forecasts and predictions did not come true in Beijing and the athletes who suffered surprise defeats should be waiting for the opportunity to turn the tables on the Olympic champions in Berlin. None would be keener than Jeremy Wariner in the men’s 400 metres.

Wariner, a protege of Clyde Hart, who trained Michael Johnson to athletics immortality, was beaten in the US Olympic trials and again in Beijing by LaShawn Merritt. Wariner is only second best to Merritt in the season’s standings, 44.66s to 44.50s, but the two haven’t met since Beijing. The tall and lithe Wariner has a 14-5 career win-loss advantage over the muscular Virginian. The two have remained unbeaten this season. It should be a great one-lap race in Berlin.

The picture looks rather hazy in the middle distances, with the Olympic 800m champion Wilfred Bungei of Kenya left to hope for a wild card entry after sitting out the trials back home and 1500m winner Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain out on suspension for a doping charge reported from Beijing.

Long distance has become Kenenisa Bekele’s domain. At 27 years, the Ethiopian is already a veteran in the business with three successive World Championship titles in the 10,000 metres from 2003 in his bag apart from three Olympic gold medals including a double in Beijing, and countless World cross-country triumphs.

Bekele owns the world records in 5000 and 10,000 metres. He suffered his last loss in the 5000 in London in the summer of 2006 and has not been beaten in the 10,000 since 2003. He has never lost to any of his likely challengers in Berlin in either distance. Awesome record.

The great expectations of the Chinese were dashed in Beijing when Liu Xiang pulled out of the 110m hurdles heats because of an Achilles injury. The defending world champion is yet to get back onto the track after surgery and that should clear the way for Cuban Dayron Robles to take the high hurdles. Possible opposition could come from Americans Terrence Trammell and David Payne.

In the run-up to the Worlds, the jumps in the men’s section have had an open look about them. Olympic high jump champion Andrey Silnov of Russia has not been in any kind of form, having only a season best of 2.21m. Silver winner Germaine Mason of Britain and bronze medallist Yaroslav Rybakov of Russia have done well. At the top is American Andra Manson with Russian Ivan Ukhov, tied at 2.35.

Defending champion Donald Thomas of the Bahamas has had a low-key season so far with only one Grand Prix victory (Osaka) with 2.28m and a season best of 2.30m in April. Twice in July, at Athens and Lausanne, he no-heighted.

Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie is the only pole vaulter to have gone over six metres this season. Another Frenchman, Romain Mesnil (5.82m) and Olympic champion, Australian Steven Hooker (5.95m) have also been in good nick. Defending champion Brad Walker of the US should be very much in contention. It could be a close contest. Olympic champion and defending World champion Irving Saladino of Panama will have his task cut out against an in-form Dwight Phillips of the US in long jump. Phillips, back from injuries, leads the season charts with a personal best of 8.74m. At the ripe age of 32, Phillips, champion in 2003 and 2005 and Olympic champion in 2004, has shown the kind of form which only the great Carl Lewis showed. King Carl jumped his best of 8.87m in Tokyo at the age of 30 and won his last Olympic gold in the event at 35, with a jump of 8.50m.

Olympic champion Nelson Evora of Portugal should slug it out with Britain’s Phillips Idowu in triple jump. Evora had a season-leading 17.66m in May, while Idowu was only sixth in the charts but consistent. Leevan Sands of the Bahamas should be as tough a customer as he always has been while the unpredictable could come from Cubans Yoandris Betanazos, Alexis Copello and Arnie Girat.

The clash of the giants in shot put should be eagerly awaited. Olympic champion Tomasz Majewski showed that he has not lost any touch from last August with a hefty heave of 21.95m to win the DN Galan in Stockholm, while Americans Reese Hoffa and Christian Cantwell, both over 21.80m, are breathing down his neck as favourites. It could be a real toss-up. On the women’s side, the sprints could once again hold the spotlight as it did in the Beijing Games.

The Jamaicans had swept everything before them in the sprints, not just men’s, in Beijing.

The American women were rather subdued in Beijing. They look to be in good form this season, though in the shorter sprint, Jamaicans Kerron Stewart, Olympic silver medallist, and Shelly-Ann Fraser, Olympic champion, lead the season with 10.75s and 10.88s respectively. Carmelita Jeter in 100m and Allyson Felix in 200m are the leading American contenders in the sprints with the latter clocking 21.88s in Stockholm for the 200 metres.

Yet another Christine Ohuruogu-Sanya Richards battle is brewing in the 400 metres. Briton Ohuruogu clinched the verdict in the Olympics while Richards, who was the overwhelming favourite, faded to the third spot. Richards has once again shown terrific form and has six of the top 10 marks this season with a world-leading 49.23s in Oslo. The American has a 9-1 record against Ohuruogu, her only loss coming of course in Beijing. Ohuruogu was beaten to the sixth place in Oslo (51.19) but looked to have regained some ground towards the end of July. The Briton, who was once suspended for missing three dope tests, is the defending champion.

Olympic 800m champion Pamela Jelimo was beaten by defending world champion Janeth Jepkosgei in the Kenyan trials which also saw the defeat of another Olympic champion, Nancy Lagat, in the 1500 metres by former World junior champion Irene Jelagat. It was Jelimo’s first loss to Jepkosgei and has set the stage for an engrossing battle in Berlin in the two-lap race. As for the 1500 metres, Bahrain’s Maryam Yusuf Jamal looks unbeatable.

Tirunesh Dibaba, if she is entered in both the distance events, should once again rule as she did in the Olympics. The 23-year-old Ethiopian is unbeaten in the 10,000 metres since June 2005. Her clash with Meseret Defar in the 5000 metres in Berlin should be worth the wait. If another Ethiopian, Meselech Melkamu, the top 10,000m runner this season, also joins the 5000m fray then we can expect a real tough contest. Defar has a 12-11 edge over Dibaba in the 5000 while she has a 17-13 record over her team-mate in all races put together. In 13 meetings, Dibaba has lost only once to Melkamu in the 5000 and in 23 races, over all distances, just twice.

Blanka Vlasic of Croatia suffered two crucial defeats last season; one was to Tia Hellebaut of Belgium in the Beijing Olympics and the other to Ariane Friedrich of Germany. Vlasic has seven of the top 10 marks this season including a best of 2.05m, but the Olympic silver medallist is not leading in the high jump. It is home favourite Friedrich with 2.06m. Hellebaut has not been heard of much this season.

A rare defeat for Yelena Isinbayeva, the peerless pole-vaulter whose Bubka-like record-breaking feats have now become part of the athletics folklore, should not be an indication of the things to come. Her six-year winning streak ended in London in July when, on a countback, Pole Anna Rogowska claimed the gold. Both had 4.68m. Isinbayeva, however, leads the season with 4.85m and she will be looking for her third World Championship title on the trot.