Rio 2016: The top draws

Sportstar presents a list of athletes who could set the stage on fire in Rio.

Usain Bolt... on the threshold of achieving greatness beyond what anyone would have achieved in the past.   -  Getty Images

Mutaz Essa Barshim, a two-time Asian Games champion, leads the world lists this season with 2.40m. World lists may not matter, but it is time Barshim won on the big stage.   -  Getty Images

Renaud Lavillenie can emulate Bob Richards of the US, who won in 1952 and 1956, if he achieves his second successive title in Rio.   -  Getty Images

Dafne Schippers, the tall, beautiful, muscular sprinter from the Netherlands, has caught the imagination of the fans across the world.   -  Getty Images

The excitement that the track and field events generate in the Olympics is tremendous. With the congregation of great performers, Rio 2016, like many other Games before it, will be throbbing with star power. Here is a list of athletes who could set the stage on fire in Rio.

USAIN BOLT

(Jamaica; 100m, 200m & 4x100m)

One runs out of superlatives when one has to describe this man. “The greatest sprinter ever” would be an understatement.

Bolt is on the threshold of achieving greatness beyond what anyone would have achieved in the past, another unique feat in Olympic history. A treble of trebles. He had won three gold medals each at the last two Olympics. He wants to make it a total of nine.

No one had ever retained a sprint double in the Olympics. Bolt did that in London 2012, making light of a fitness scare and winning the 100m and 200m in characteristic style. Perhaps it was not a commanding performance one had been used to in the past, but a riveting one nevertheless. It was 9.63s for the 100m, the second fastest ever, and 19.32s for the longer sprint, the fourth fastest on the all-time lists, tying with Michael Johnson’s mark in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

You cannot expect sprinters to keep clocking World records every time they compete in big championships or presume that others will continue to be two-tenth of a second behind, as Richard Thomson of Trinidad and Tobago was in the Beijing Olympics 100m final.

Quite possibly, Bolt himself put his World records beyond humans, at least for the next decade or two, with his 9.58s and 19.19s in the Berlin World Championships in 2009. Awesome records those!

Less than a month short of his 30th birthday when he competes in Rio, can we expect Bolt to better those records? Or can we expect him to win again in both the sprints?

Defeat would be unthinkable. A disaster for the sport. “I am not going to lose one of the golds for sure,” he told a media conference in London recently.

Bolt knows he has to win; he knows he has to keep competing to keep athletics breathing, devastated as it has been in recent months by a series of doping scandals. Like so many top stars in every sport, he keeps saying that he would take it on a year-by-year basis from now on.

“I know the sport needs me to win…and come out on top,” he said in London.

With his 6’5” height working out to be an advantage during the second half of a 100m rather than a disadvantage, which it always is off the blocks, Bolt has revolutionised sprinting and mesmerised the world of athletics. The Jamaican has won 11 World titles including relays apart from six gold medals in Olympics, one of which, the 4x100m gold in the Beijing Games, could come in for scrutiny following the revelation that Nesta Carter, one of the Jamaicans, had returned a ‘positive’ in re-tests done by the IOC.

MOHAMED FARAH

(Great Britain; 5,000m & 10,000m)

If there is one athlete who has looked unbeatable ever since he won the distance double in the London Olympics, it has been Mohamed Farah, or Mo Farah as he is popularly known. The Somalia-born Briton had repeated the 5,000-10,000 gold at two World championships after the last Olympics to establish himself as the man to beat in distance events on track.

 

Failing to make the final of the 5000m at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Farah had promised himself that he would win the Olympics title the next time. He did that at home, goaded onto the finish line by 80,000-odd spectators in both the events.

He ended the winning streak of Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele in the 10,000m, posting 27:30.42 with training partner Galen Rupp of the US second and Bekele third.

Farah won again to trigger unprecedented celebrations in a packed stadium, taking the 5,000m and joining such greats as Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia and Lasse Viren of Finland as the ones to win the 5,000 and 10,000 at the same Games.

Since June, 2013 Farah has remained unbeaten in the 5,000m finals through eight races including the two World championships in 2013 and 2015. In the 10,000m, he has been unbeaten through six races since the London Olympics.

With a punishing ‘kick’ from 600 metres or 400 metres in the 5,000m, with his ability to ‘kick’ again on the home straight, Farah has shown the capacity to win any race with ease. In a slow race, the others would be playing into his hands.

While winning the 5,000m in a world-leading 12:59.29, his best since the London Olympics, at the Anniversary Games Diamond League meeting in London in July, Farah showed that he was ready for Rio.

He had conquered the Africans last time; he looks ready to win again.

MUTAZ ESSA BARSHIM

(Qatar; high jump)

Mutaz Essa Barshim had brought about a change in the way Qatar had been looked at traditionally in the athletics world. This was a country known for its sprinters and middle-distance runners from the 1990s, and occasionally, a thrower, but rarely a jumper of class.

Like any other kid in Qatar, Barshim also took to athletics from a young age. Senior Barshim happened to be an international-level middle-distance runner in his younger days and it was natural for Essa to take to running. But at the age of 15, he shifted to high jump.

He won the Asian Championships in Kobe, Japan, in 2011 at a height of 2.35m, a national record. From then on, he has not looked back.

Barshim’s success at the highest level might not have matched his talent. His wiry frame sailed over the bar at 2.43m in Brussels, an Asian record, in September 2014. Only World record holder Javier Sotomayor (2.45m) has jumped higher.

At the last Olympics, Barshim tied for the bronze with two others at 2.29. Ivan Ukhov of Russia won the gold at 2.38m.

A silver medal came for the 25-year-old Qatari at the Moscow World Championships in 2013 but he could not get a medal from last year’s Beijing Worlds despite clearing 2.33m, the same as the joint silver winners, Zhang Guowei of China and Bogdan Bondarenko of Ukraine.

Barshim, a two-time Asian Games champion, leads the world lists this season with 2.40m, achieved at Opole, Poland, in June. World lists may not matter, but it is time Barshim won on the big stage.

Olympic champion Bondarenko (2.37m) and World champion Derek Drouin of Canada (2.38m) should be equally strong contenders once again. World indoor champion Gianmarco Tamberi who has jumped 2.39m outdoors this year should also be looking for a podium finish.

RENAUD LAVILLENIE

(France; pole vault)

In a long list of impressive French pole vaulters, Renaud Lavillenie towers in isolated splendour. Jean Galfione, Romain Mesnil, Pierre Quinon and Thiery Vigneron readily come to mind when French pole vaulters are recalled, all of them excellent jumpers. But they had one exceptional pole vaulter to contend with: Sergey Bubka.

Bubka had inched his way up in posting his World records in pole vault that he took a decade from 1984 to improve from 5.84m to 6.14m outdoors. He had a World record of 6.15m indoors.

Lavillenie achieved the impossible by clearing 6.16m at an indoor meet in Donetsk, Ukraine. Bubka was in the stands on his home turf. The great man applauded and then came down to congratulate a dazed Lavillenie.

The Frenchman couldn’t believe he had jumped more than anyone else in the world; he held his head, pulled his hair to see for himself if it was real before slumping to the ground.

Lavillenie is no Bubka though. Not yet, any way. Though the IAAF no longer differentiates between outdoor and indoor performances while ratifying World records, it must be mentioned the Frenchman’s outdoor best is 6.05m, registered in 2015. Bubka vaulted 6.14m outdoors at the altitude of Setriere, Italy, in 1994.

In all Bubka has cleared 6.05m or better 13 times. He set 35 World records, 17 outdoors and 18 indoors.

Lavillenie is the defending Olympic champion. He cleared 5.97 in London, went for 6.02, failed once and then tried 6.07 two more times without success.

Bubka won only one Olympic title, in Seoul in 1988. He shockingly no-heighted in Barcelona in 1992. Lavillenie can emulate Bob Richards of the US, who won in 1952 and 1956, if he achieves his second successive title. He has had a good season, with 5.97m as his best, but had the bitter disappointment of no-heighting in the European championships at 5.75m.

CHRISTIAN TAYLOR

(USA; triple jump)

Breaking a national record or an Area record and winning a World championship gold or Olympic title has to be special. Christian Taylor did that at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. In a season where he produced 18-metre triple jumps in Doha and Lausanne, Taylor was the favourite for the gold. But Cuban Pedro Pablo Pichardo was a tough challenger.

 

The contest picked up only during the last three rounds and medals changed hands in an exciting finale. In the end, Taylor came up with the history’s second longest jump, at 18.21m, just eight centimetres short of Briton Jonathan Edwards’ World record set in the 1995 World Championships. Pichardo was second, also with his last jump that measured 17.73m.

Taylor has not jumped 18 metres after that. The Olympic champion this season has a 17.78 recorded in London during the last week of July, the last stop for most leading athletes before they taper off towards Olympics.

Will Claye is the No. 2 in the world lists this season at 17.65m, achieved while winning the National championships in Eugene. Taylor and Claye are rivals and training partners. They are more like brothers.

In London, it was touch and go for Taylor. Two fouls at the start of the final put him at risk of being eliminated from the final three rounds. Then he came up with a 17.15m that was enough to take him into the last set of jumps. His fourth measured 17.81m. Claye finished second with 17.62m.

The Americans look set to dominate the event, as they did four years ago. And Taylor, as his twitter handle suggests, always looks ‘taylored2jump’.

DAFNE SCHIPPERS

(The Netherlands; 100m & 200m)

Not many had heard about her outside the athletics circles before she became a World champion in the 200 metres in Beijing last year. Dafne Schippers was a bronze medallist from the previous edition in Moscow, not in the sprints but in heptathlon. By the time she won the silver in the 100m, Schippers, though, had become the talking point and a favourite to win the 200m.

The tall, beautiful, muscular Dutchwoman has caught the imagination of the fans across the world and she should once again have the edge in the longer dash in Rio, especially since Allyson Felix could not come through the US trials.

Felix was missing from the 200m line-up in Beijing also, concentrating as she was on the 400m. The Dutchwoman had pushed the American hard in the Lausanne meeting last year, eventually losing 22.29 to 22.09.

Her longer, powerful strides through the second 100 do help Schippers gain the edge over her rivals in the 200 as was evident in Beijing, where she clocked 21.63s. Only the late Florence Griffith-Joyner, who holds the World record of 21.34s since the Seoul Olympics, and the discredited Marion Jones (21.62s at the altitude of Johannesburg in 1998) have ever run faster. Flo Jo also had a 21.56s in the semifinals of the 1988 Olympics.

Any extraordinary timing in an athletics event comes in for questioning nowadays. Track and field having plunged into one doping controversy after the other, the questions, though painful, are unavoidable. Schippers knows it, though she finds it difficult to cope, she told an interviewer recently.

ALLYSON FELIX

(USA; 400m)

Allyson Felix wanted to go for the 200-400 double in the Rio Olympics. Fate willed otherwise. In April this year, in a freak accident at the gymnasium, she tore ligaments on her right ankle. She hobbled into the US Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, in July, won the 400m in a then world-leading 49.68s, but failed to make the ‘cut’ for the US Olympic team in the 200m by one-hundredth of a second, coming fourth.

 

It was heart breaking for Felix. She was looking to aim for four gold medals this time, after having won four in all in three previous editions, three of them in relays. In 2008, she was part of the 4x400 relay team and claimed the 200m gold and figured in the gold-winning 4x100 and 4x400 teams in the London Olympics.

The graceful California-born runner, who competed in the Athens Olympics in 2004 when she was only 18, is one of the most successful athletes in the US. Felix has won nine World championship gold medals including five in the relays, two Olympic silvers, apart from her gold medals, in the 200m in 2004 and 2008, and three World championships silvers including both the relays in 2015.

In the Beijing Worlds last year, Felix ran the third fastest 400m split in a relay with 47.72s. Only Jarmila Kratochvilova of the then Czechoslovakia and Marita Koch of the GDR have run faster splits. It is hoped that if Felix could clock 49.68s in the US trials when she was yet to recover from her ankle injury, she would be ready to win her second individual gold in Olympics.

Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas leads the world lists this season with 49.55s in the Anniversary Games in London in July.

CASTER SEMENYA

(South Africa; 400m & 800m)

Paula Radcliffe said the other day that it was terribly unfair to have an Olympic race in which you knew who the winner would be weeks before the Games began. There is unanimity among commentators this season that only Caster Semenya can win the women’s 800m in Rio. The only uncertainty could be about the timing the South African would be able to return.

 

Semenya will be in her second Olympics in Rio. She had taken the silver last time behind the now discredited Maria Savinova of Russia, who has been recommended for a life ban by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Last time, coming back from a traumatic gender verification test at the World Championships in Berlin, where she won in 1:55.45, Semenya had timed 1:57.23 to Savinova’s 1:56.19 to take the silver in the Olympics.

Semenya won the silver at the World Championships in Daegu in 2011 and the Olympics last time, but her performance started sliding from 2013 onwards. She ended last year with a best of 1:59.59. This year has seen her dramatically improve through almost every meet, so much so that experts, columnists and rivals are predicting that she would not only win the Olympic gold in 800m hands down, but may also come close to the World record of 1:53.28 standing since 1983 in the name of Jarmila Kratochvilova of the then Czechoslovakia, if not break it.

The CAS decision in the Dutee Chand case, critics say, has helped Semenya more than anyone else this season. She won the 400m, 800m and 1500m in one day in the National championships at Stellenbosch last April to cause a sensation. Then she timed a national record of 1:55.33 for the 800m in winning the Monaco Diamond League meeting. In recent times, no one has returned such a performance. Semenya is reportedly going for the 400-800 double in Rio. She is unbeaten in 800m this season.

SANDRA PERKOVIC

(Croatia; discus throw)

Sandra Perkovic looks set to defend her discus title that she won in London four years ago. The 26-year-old Croatian looks to be in the form of her life this season, completely dominating her event in the run-up to the Rio Olympics.

 

In seven finals this season including the European Championships in Amsterdam, Perkovic has remained unbeaten. She has six of the top 10 marks this season with a best of 70.88m recorded at the Diamond League meeting in Shanghai last May.

Having won the Olympic gold and the World Championship title in Moscow in 2013, she was the favourite at last year’s World Championship in Beijing. But Cuban Denia Caballero upstaged her, 69.28 to 67.39.

That loss, so disappointing for the Olympic champion, happened to be the only one against the Cuban in 12 meetings in which Perkovic won the final on nine occasions.

Another Cuban Yaimi Perez, fourth in Beijing last year, is the No. 2 discus thrower in the world this season with 68.86 in Havana in February. Dani Samuels, of Australia, the 2009 World champion, with 67.77m is at fourth position. Julia Fischer of Germany (68.49m) is ahead of the Aussie.

Perkovic has an 18-1 record against Perez, 22-7 against Samuels and 18-2 against Fischer. One couldn’t have asked for a better rating than this while going into an Olympic Games.