How will athletics look at the Olympics in the post-Usain Bolt era?

Olympics 2020: No single athlete has emerged as an iconic and compelling to watch as Usain Bolt since his retirement in 2017. However, Tokyo may just provide a few stellar performances that could generate and sustain interest in track and field in the immediate perspective.

Sydney McLaughlin smashed countrywoman Dalilah Muhammad’s world record at the US Olympic trials on June 27 to set up a mouthwatering clash between the two in Tokyo.   -  AP

How will athletics look at the Olympics in the post-Usain Bolt era?

This is a question that has been asked several times over during the past four years. Obviously, the excitement of a Bolt sprinting to a 100m victory at the Olympics that had become part of folklore cannot be generated this time now that the great Jamaican would no longer be taking his 41 strides to the finish.

No single athlete has emerged as as iconic and compelling to watch as Bolt since his retirement in 2017. No Jamaican has topped the 100m in the world lists since then. Bolt was not the No. 1 in 2016, but he won the sprint double, his third in succession, an unprecedented achievement in the annals of Olympic history.

This edition of the Olympics is, however, set to produce a clutch of contests that might not truly measure up to Bolt’s pyrotechnics on the track, but could generate and sustain interest in track and field in the immediate perspective.

Eliud Kipchoge will be defending his title won in Rio de Janeiro. If he wins, Kipchoge will have the honour of joining Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia (1960 and ’64) and Waldemar Cierpinski of the former East Germany (1976 and ’80) at the top of Olympic charts as back-to-back winners.   -  Getty Images

 

The fact that matchups have come up, world records have been shattered and analysis has been set off – all part of the excitement building up prior to an Olympics – points towards several razor-sharp duels, perhaps a lot more than in the past.

Many experts had started forecasting a flurry of world records coming up at the Olympics, but some of the athletes could not wait for July. They bettered world records before the Games arrived.

Three of them were bettered at the US Olympic trials, as usual the most-fiercely fought national championships anywhere in the world in an Olympic year.

A repeat of at least one of them, in the women’s 400m hurdles, is a distinct possibility. Sydney McLaughlin, a precocious talent born to an athletics family from New Jersey, smashed countrywoman Dalilah Muhammad’s world record at the US Olympic trials on June 27 to set up a mouthwatering clash between the two in Tokyo.

Since being beaten to second place by her teammate at the Doha World Championships in 2019, McLaughlin has been talked of as one capable of breaking the world record. At every level, she had come through with amazing consistency since clocking 53.78s in the 400m and 55.63s in the 400m hurdles at the age of 14.

Today, the American is the first to have broken through the 52s barrier for the 400m hurdles, timing 51.90s at the Eugene Olympic trials. Just to have an idea how fast that is, no one has touched it in Asia this year for the 400m flat!

Having made the Olympic team as a 16-year-old in 2016, McLaughlin has been the poster girl of US track and field. Another world record in the hurdles in Tokyo cannot be ruled out, and there is a good chance that she would be in the 4x400 team as well, where too a record could be possible.

The battle for the men’s 400m hurdles gold may also bring out a world record as per forecasts since Karsten Warholm bettered the long-standing mark in Oslo on July 1 in his opening meet of the season!

READ: Athletes heading to the Tokyo Olympics in world record form

Warholm, who clocked 46.70s to better American Kevin Young’s Barcelona Olympics record of 46.78s, was quoted as saying that the competition in Oslo had brought the best out of him. Competition at the Olympics is going to be the fiercest this time. Just four days before Warholms record, Rai Benjamin had clocked 46.83 at the US trials.

“To win (in Tokyo), either Rai or Karsten will have the race of a lifetime,” was Young’s response when the expected showdown at the Olympic Games was mentioned after Warholm displaced his name from the record books.

“It is a record that is older than me,” Warholm told reporters after being congratulated by Young.

Throw in Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba alongside the Norwegian and the American, and you have three of the top four athletes in the all-time lists, the fourth being Young, of course.

Bolt has tipped American Trayvon Bromell to be the favourite for the 100m in Tokyo. “Bromell is showing great promise,” the Jamaican told the Associated Press about the rather difficult task of spotting a successor. Bromell, in fact, is most people’s favourite.

Dina Asher-Smith of Great Britain (above) vs Shaunae Miller-Uibo (Bahamas) vs Elaine Thompson-Herah (Jamaica) in the women's 200m could be a great contest to look forward to.   -  Getty Images

 

The typical American-Jamaican rivalry in men’s sprints will be missing this time. Yohan Blake, a former world champion, is still around, but is not in the best form one could have expected. He was beaten to second spot at the Jamaican nationals by Tyquendo Tracey 10.00 to 10.01. With 9.98s, Blake is only joint 17th in the world list, which is headed by Bromell with 9.77s. Akani Simbine of South Africa (9.84s) could be Bromell’s closest adversary.

The men’s 400m is another event that can produce action and drama. World champion Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas has been a late starter this season, but he had the measure of American Michael Norman at the Istvan Gyulai Memorial in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, clocking 44.47s.

The field may probably be the toughest ever assembled, including American Randolph Ross of the US (season leader at 43.85s), Michael Cherry, also of the US, (season’s best 44.35s) and Anthony Zambrano of Columbia (season’s best 44.51s). Bring in the world record holder Wayde van Niekerk (season’s best 44.56s), who is back after missing almost three years due to injuries, and you get the right ingredients for an electrifying contest.

The men’s 110m hurdles potentially has a field that can produce a world record. In fact, world champion Grant Holloway almost did that at the US trials, finishing just one-hundredth of a second outside countryman Aries Merritt’s 2012 record.

In the meantime, reigning Olympic champion Omar McLeod of Jamaica has also shown that he was capable of coming back into top gear with a timing of 13.01s at Florence. McLeod had hit a few hurdles before stepping into a wrong lane and finishing at the Doha worlds only to be unfortunately disqualified. Joining the two champions will be Spaniard Orlando Ortega, the silver medallist at Rio.

Shifting focus a bit on women’s track, we find the world record in the 10,000m has been bettered twice within the space of two days this season!

READ: 'It's time to race' - Dutee Chand is ready to take on the elite in Tokyo 2020

Sifan Hassan, the Dutchwoman born in Ethiopia, first clocked 29:06.82 to better the record set by Ethiopian Almaz Ayana in winning the Olympics title in Rio de Janeiro.

Ethiopia snatched it right back from Hassan when Letesenbet Gidey clocked an awe-inspiring 29:01.03 at her home Olympic trials at the same Hengelo in the Netherlands where Hassan had timed the previous record. Gidey was the runner-up at the world championships to Hassan in 2019. The Ethiopian holds both the 5,000m and 10,000m world records (subject to ratification). Both are adept at running distances from 1,500m to 10,000m, plus road. An intriguing, tactical duel awaits the aficionados of distance-running in the Olympics.

Both the women’s sprints look ready to provide thrilling contests notwithstanding the last-minute suspension of Sha’Carri Richardson for a marijuana offence for one month. The US star who clocked 10.72s (fourth fastest of all-time then in April, now sixth fastest), was not considered for the relay team even though she would have been eligible by then. Incidentally, Richardson could not make an impression in the 2019 season, clocking a poor 11.70s for an eighth-place finish at the national championships.

Richardson’s expected clash with Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who is gunning for an unprecedented third Olympic 100m title, could have been the matchup of the Olympics. But now the fans will have to wait for Fraser-Pryce vs Elaine Thompson-Herah, which in itself would be a high-voltage race.

READ: Sebastian Coe backs reviewing marijuana rules in doping

Shaunae Miller-Uibo (Bahamas) vs Thompson-Herah (Jamaica) vs Dina Asher-Smith (Great Britain) could be another great contest to look forward to in the 200m. Bolt, in fact, told a news agency that he would be concentrating more on the women’s sprints than the men’s, a hint that the men no longer can hold centre stage.

Off the track, the most remarkable performances of the season have come from two throwers, Ryan Crouser of the US and Johannes Vetter of Germany. Crouser now has 134 performances (including within series) over 22m in the shot put, beginning with his 22.11m at the Olympic trials in Eugene in 2016. At the same, but renovated venue, he posted a world record of 23.37m this time.

Crouser has recorded eight marks over 22m this year (not counting within series) including indoor competitions. There is no one near him in the year’s world list, with US teammate Joe Kovacs, a surprise winner at Doha in 2019, at 22.72m. Former world champion Tom Walsh of New Zealand (22.22m) has also rounded into good form in his Olympic run-up. but the question always would be whether the Kiwi would be able to match the two big Americans.

Vetter has posted 90m and above in the javelin throw in seven out of eight competitions this season. He won all and now has an unbeaten run of 17 finals beginning in August 2020. Needless to say, he will be the overwhelming favourite for the gold in Tokyo. Incidentally, Vetter has finished ahead of Neeraj Chopra in all their eight meetings, the last one in Kuortane, Finland, on June 26, when the German was first with 93.59m to Chopra’s third with 86.79m.

Back in a global championship after missing the 2019 world championships will be Eliud Kipchoge. He will be defending his title won in Rio. He is the world record holder at 2:01:39, and in the much-hyped INEOS 1:59 Challenge in 2019 he clocked 1:59:40, the first sub-two-hour marathon, though it was not ratified because of the setup that was arranged with batches of pacemakers, et cetera.

If he wins, Kipchoge will have the honour of joining Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia (1960 and ’64) and Waldemar Cierpinski of the former East Germany (1976 and ’80) at the top of Olympic charts as back-to-back winners.

The heat of Tokyo in July-August was deemed to be a handicap for endurance athletes, and the marathon and walk venues were shifted to the cooler Sapporo. Kipchoge has done one marathon this season, winning the Enschede (Netherlands) event in 2:04:30. The 36-year-old Kenyan looks well set to repeat his Rio show.

It may be pertinent to point out that amid all the celebrations about several world records and “second-best-ever all-time” performances this season, critics have pointed out that inadequate dope-testing in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic could have contributed to larger-scale doping, leading to such records. At the same time, there is also a view that the super spikes have helped improve timings. Whatever it may be, many followers of the sport are sceptical about “natural ability” alone having contributed to the records.

Athletics might yet provide the spectacle that fans look forward to at the Olympics, no matter that given the pandemic situation, there could be half-empty or empty stands, which could be a huge dampener.

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