Friday, August 12, 2016

Day 1 - Event Previews

2016 Olympic Track and Field

Fearless Picks and Predictions

Day 1 – Friday, August 12

by Mark Cullen

Welcome to edition #7 of this guide, which began in 1988 when the Summer Olympics started in Seoul in late September and I wanted to show the high school cross country runners I coached that there was more to the sports world than Michael Jordan – or, for that matter, the men’s 100m. While the fun of this guide is the picks, for me it’s just as much about giving an accurate sense of each event.

I am honored that this guide will be featured on the RunBlogRun website. It is a particular pleasure to work with editor and publisher Larry Eder of Fortius Publications. 

We will post each event as it begins.

For field events, that’s the day qualifying begins.

For running events, that’s the day the opening round begins.

For the marathons, walks, and 10,000m runs (which, thankfully, are finals only events!),
that’s the day the event is held.

References are as follows:

 Major Meets are Olympic Games and World Championships:
’03 – Paris Worlds
’04 – Athens Olympics
’05 – Helsinki Worlds
’07 – Osaka Worlds
’08 – Beijing Olympics
’09 – Berlin Worlds
’11 – Daegu Worlds
’12 – London Olympics
’13 – Moscow Worlds
’15 – Beijing Worlds

My most frequent references will be to the three most recent: ’12 London, ’13 Moscow, and ’15 Beijing, as they are the most relevant meets.

World list
Refers to the yearly top 25 in each event as determined by each competitor’s top mark of this season going into the Games.

Diamond League
Refers to the 14 major meets held on the international circuit every year.

I’m a 1975 graduate of the University of Oregon; I began running in Bill Bowerman’s beginning jogging class in the fall of 1971, a week after he had been named Head Coach of the US Olympic Track and Field team.

I coached varsity track and field for 13 years and cross country for 26, and served as president of the Washington State Cross Country Coaches Association. Now I coach the energetic beginners in Middle School cross country.   

I‘ve been privileged to attend 5 Olympic Trials, 8 World Championships, and the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Now I’m in Rio for my second Olympic Games, 40 years after the first.

In Track and Field News’ 1988 preview of the men’s javelin, they summarized all of this
by saying, “(but) really, anyone could win – and we like the suspense.”

Have a terrific Olympics, everyone!

Best regards from Seattle… and Rio… On Your Mark…

M Discus
He’s ba-aack!

When Piotr Malachowski (Pol), Philip Milanov (Blr), and Robert Urbanek (Pol) went 1-2-3 in the 2015 World Championships, there was a shadow hanging over their achievements – one cast by Germany’s Robert Harting. The 2012 Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion had been the heavy favorite to repeat at Worlds, but he was out with the first serious injury (knee - sustained while running, of all things) of his career.

This is not to understate Malachowski’s achievement in winning Worlds. Clearly nervous going into qualifying, he fouled his first two throws and it seemed he was about to abandon his golden opportunity. He righted the ship with a third-round automatic qualifier and then won Worlds on his first throw in finals. This year he has won 4/5 Diamond League events and is the favorite going into Rio.

Milanov was one stunned pup when he won World silver at the tender-for-discus age of 24. He came back to take silver in this year’s Euro Champs. Looks like a big-meet competitor in the making. And 3rd in those championships? Estonia’s 37-year-old marvel, Gerd Kanter, ’07 World and ’08 Olympic champion. Did I mention his bronzes in London and Moscow? Only in 2015 did he finally fall of the podium – all the way to 4th in Beijing.

’15 World bronze winner Robert Urbanek has had an interesting ’16 with finishes of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in his 5 Diamond League meets. But he bombed out at Euros with an inexplicable 9th place finish.

On the watch list: Jamaica’s Frederick Dacres, who scored a big PR in May and is out to prove that Jamaica is about more than sprinting. In spite of his 223-2/68.02, he has little to back it up. He reminds me a lot of Trinidad’s Keshorn Walcott, who came into London even less well known that Dacres is now. From time to time, Walcott polishes his gold medal. One day… one throw…

I’m intrigued by South Africa’s Victor Hogan who threw a then-world leading 222-8/67.86 at home in Stellenbosch in May. He has a 2nd and a 3rd in Diamond League meets this year, but has not come closer to his personal record since then.

Also watch for Robert Harting’s brother Christoph, who is 4th on the world list this year but has not yet achieved the big throws when they count the most.

Robert Harting’s recovery has been slow and word is that he sustained a chest muscle tear this spring. Harting is by no means a lock to repeat as Olympic champion, even though he is the king of this event over the last decade and is the ultimate big-meet competitor.

“I need time and I need liveliness… I also have to get to the point,” Harting said after his frustrating 3rd place finish in Rome in May. He clearly was upset with the degree to which his injuries are holding him back. I never thought I’d see Robert Harting as a wild card coming into a major meet, but I do think he’s good for a medal if not for gold.

This looks like a remarkably even event, with the top 5 on this year’s world list separated by only 13cm. I think it will be a titanic competition for bronze between the two great veterans Robert Harting and Gerd Kanter.

1. Piotr Malachowski, Pol
2. Philip Milanov, Bel
3. Robert Harting, Ger

W Heptathlon
In this event you’re nothing without a hyphenated last name. Take a look at the outcome of last year’s World Championships:

1. Jessica Ennis-Hill, GB, 6669
2. Brianne Theisen-Eaton, US, 6554
3. Laura Ikauniece-Admidina, Lat, 6516

And fourth?

4. Nadine Broersen, Hol, 6491 See?! Have a single last name and you miss bronze by 25 points!

The Dutch send a strong team with Anouk Vetter third on the world list at 6626 in her European Championship win, rising star Nadine Visser who is as good in the hurdles as she is in the heptathlon, and Nadine Broersen, 4th in last year’s Worlds but only 6th at this year’s Euro Champs.

Why has the heptathlon improved in the Netherlands so quickly? A certain Dafne Schippers left the event to concentrate on the sprints. How is that working for her? Check out the 100m and 200m. But before she left heptathlon, she showed her countrywomen it could be done at the highest levels, and they have followed – quickly – in her trailblazing footsteps.

Jessica Ennis-Hill won London gold in front of ecstatic fans at home in 2012. Add two World titles in ’13 and ’15 and you have the odds-on favorite to win her second Olympic title.

But wait! It’s Olympic storyline time! Wouldn’t that mess up the wife/husband greatest couple in the world story of Brianne Theisen-Eaton and Ashton Theisen-Eaton? Why yes, it would. So what are BT-E’s chances of winning? Actually, much improved, and this will be an intriguing matchup.

JE-H has one heptathlon to her credit this year, a win at Ratingen at the end of June in 6733, a scary 64 points better than her Beijing win. BT-E (the best Canada has produced since BTO) was turning into the silver queen with her Worlds runner up finishes until she won the World Indoor title in March. She followed that with a win in the prestigious Gotzis meet at the end of May in 6765.

One note about last year’s Worlds: JE-H did not set a single PR on her way to her win. But this always comes down to one event, and for BT-E it was the high jump, where she was uncharacteristically off-form. As veteran observer Bob Hersh pointed out, a PR equaling high jump would have given her gold.

And who was second at Gotzis? Latvia’s Laura Ikauniece-Admidina in 6622, with Germany’s Carolin Schafer 3rd in 6557.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson (GB) is 23 and yet she set a stellar PR of 6682 when she was only 21. She was in the mix for a medal in Beijing until she fouled all three long jumps.

The US sends a strong team in Barbara Nwada (whose Trials 6494 just missed her 6500 PR),
Heather Miller-Koch (6423), and Kendell Williams (6402), who is now building her heptathlon resume around her 2014 World Junior hurdles championship.

So deep is this field that we could see a 7,000+ point heptathlon win silver.

1. Jessica Ennis-Hill, GB
2. Brianne Thiesen-Eaton, Can
3. Anouk Vetter, Hol

W Shot Put
Last year’s World champ, Christina Schwanitz of Germany, contested only one Diamond League meet this year and finished 2nd to Valerie Adams in the process. She scored a big win in the European Championships after being off the radar screen most of the season.

Lijiao Gong (Chn) won silver at home in Beijing last summer, and has won five meets in a row this season. She has a total of four major-meet medals, with an additional two World and one Olympic bronze to her credit. She has the longest throw in the world this year at 67-½/20.43.

US Olympic Trials and World Indoor Champion Michelle Carter has a way with last throws. She won both World Indoors and the US Trials with memorable last puts of the competition; the crowd reaction in Portland was unlike any other in the meet. Since winning her Worlds bronze in Beijing last summer, she has come off medical problems which held her back for years; at age 30 she is clearly rejuvenated has a new competitive fire.

Anita Marton (Hun) has finished 2nd in three Diamond League meets this year and has backed those up with a 4th and a 5th – a very consistent performance in an event in which that level of consistency is rewarded. Her seconds in the World Indoor and European Championships should boost her Olympic prospects even further.
Raven Saunders (US) is only 20 years old but is improving rapidly and is half a meter from being in contention for a medal. A fine major-meet performer at such a young age, she will likely make the final.

Valerie Adams (NZ) – lemme see, that name, Valerie Adams… sure rings a bell. Oh, yes, that Valerie Adams. She has heard her national anthem played six times in major meets: 2 Olympics and 4 Worlds. Her last consecutive victory streak ended at 55; any more and she would have exceeded the speed limit.

The dominant thrower in the world this decade, she is clearly resurgent after two years of deep injury frustration. Her bronze medal in the World Indoors produced a torrent of tears, followed by an outdoor season which features 9 competitions with 8 wins. The only one to defeat her outdoors this year is American Tia Brooks, who did not make the US team.

The only thing we haven’t seen yet this season is head-to head competition between Gong and Adams. Fortunately, we get to see it once this year.

I see a titanic battle between Adams and Gong for gold/silver, and between Carter and Schwanitz for bronze and the dreaded 4th place wooden medal.

1. Valerie Adams, NZ
2. Lijiao Gong,  Chn
3. Michelle Carter, US

M 800m
The greatest event of the 2012 London Olympics, the greatest 800m ever run:

1. David Rudisha, Kenya, 1:40.91, WR
2. Nigel Amos, Botswana, 1:41.73
3. Timothy Kitum, Kenya, 1:42.53
4. Duane Dolomon, US, 1:42.82
5. Nick Symmonds, US, 1:42.95
6. Mohammed Geleto, Ethiopia, 1:43.20
7. Abubaker Kaki, Sudan, 1:43.20
8. Andrew Osagie, GB, 1:43.77

It’s not uncommon to see a note after a great race to the effect that, for example, places 4 and 7th are the fastest ever for place. That means that no one finishing in these places has ever run faster. It’s especially small consolation when you run the fastest time ever for fourth and don’t win a medal. In this race fastest times for place were recorded for all eight places.

Repeat? Not even close this time. Take the 5 Diamond League meets that have already been held this year. Take the top 3 places in each for a total of 15 places. These have been held by 10 different runners. This event is wide open. And we haven’t even gotten to David Rudisha yet, who is not among those top 3 in any of the races. Let’s see if we can make some sense of this.

First, there are often 800/1500m doublers, and this time the 800 comes first, which favors the speedsters. The 800m rounds begin the morning of the first day of track and field, Friday, August 12, at 10:10am. Just think, you could be out of the Olympics by 10:30, but at least you’d have time for a nice lunch. Reason? International broadcast schedules, which have eight in-stadium morning finals in non-road (marathon, walks) events.

Two of the Diamond League races have been won by Ferguson Rotich Cheruiyot of Kenya and two by Pierre Ambroise-Bosse. Cheruiyot has finished in the top 3 of each of his races this year.

The third DL winner is front-running Boris Berian of the US. Berian’s tactics have been the subject of much scrutiny - his wire-to-wire win at World Indoors speaks for itself. While many expect this to be a sit and kick race, Berian may well take it out in a manner reminiscent of the 2012 race. Teammate Clayton Murphy has the kind of withering kick that gets you from round to round, and if he’s in the final, that will be a significant advantage.

Bosse shows up. He’s made the final of the last two World Championships as well as the last 3
three European Championships, but has one European bronze to show for it. Still, he’s always in the mix and his two Diamond League wins should give his compatriots pause.

Poland’s Marcin Lewandowski and Adam Kszczot (pronunciation assistance division to the rescue here: as in “Kszczot (shot) in the Dark.” I just knew I could get Inspector Clouseau in here somewhere.) It’s necessary to know how to pronounce it when you’re introduced to last year’s World silver medalist.

Nigel Amos (Bots) was ranked 2nd in the world last year and was absent from the world scene most of this. But he seems to be returning to form with a win at the African championships in June. He is always a force to be reckoned with.

Kenya is sending an All-Star team of David Rudisha (1:40.91) and Alfred Kipketer (1:43.73), in addition to Cheruiyot (1:42.84), While they bring sizzling bests, last year’s World Championship race is instructive in that it was the opposite of the 2012 London race. 400m was reached in a slow 54.17 and everyone keyed off Rudisha. No one would push the pace or attempt to pass him until it was too late.

Rudisha won in 1:45.84 (almost 5 full seconds slower than his London win), Kszczot was 2nd in 1:46.08, and Amel Tuka, who has the fastest Olympic qualifying time of 1:42.51, won bronze in 1:46.30.

Message? Rudisha won from the front in a fast pace in London. He won from the front in a very slow pace in Beijing. Yes, he’s been injured and he may not see 1:40 again.

But have you noticed a consistent theme?

He wins.

1. David Rudisha, Ken
2. Ferguson Cheruiyot Rotich, Ken
3. Nigel Amos, Bot

W 10,000m
The 10,000m isn’t run much internationally anymore and one has to wonder why. The drama of the long buildup to see what the latest incredible second-half tactics and splits will be… it’s one of the most compelling events in track and field. Has the investment of the half hour of time become too much?

Yet one women’s race has come to define this event this year. Just when I thought it was safe to start picking any one of a number of Dibaba sisters for the 10k win, along comes Ethiopian teammate Almaz Ayana who blows them all off the track in the Netherlands’ annual distance -fest at Hengelo, which this time doubled as the Ethiopian Olympic Trials. The result:

1. Almaz Ayana – 30:07.00
2. Geleta Burka – 30:28.47
3. Tirunesh Dibaba – 30:28.53

And here we thought the 5,000m was Ayana’s specialty. Remarkably, Ethiopia had 9 women run under 31:00:00 this day.

Burka won silver at the ’15 Worlds, while Dibaba - in case you are making her acquaintance for the first time – is one of five women ever under 30:00.00 and has 3 Olympic and 5 World golds to her credit. She has two bronzes as well, albeit at half the distance.

Kenya’s Alice Nawowuna, a prodigy who ran 15:16.74 when she was 16 and who finished 3rd in World Juniors at that same age, had since run 31:24.18 last year for 10k, but had otherwise been off the track radar screen and had fared much better in cross country.

It appears Nawowuna really, really, really wanted to go to Rio, and to assure that she blasted a remarkable 30:26.94 in the African Championships to vault to 2nd on the world list and earn the trip. She won by over a minute and set a personal best by over 57 seconds. Meanwhile, her 5k best remains that 15:16.74, or more than half her average pace for both parts of her 10k! Think it’s time for her to give the 5k another go?!

Alas, a repeat of Beijing’s US 3-4 finish with Emily Infeld and Molly Huddle seems unlikely in this race. They will acquit themselves well, to be, sure, and should be in the top 7-10, but not likely in medal contention. At the same time, if the pack is as closely bunched as it was at ’15 Worlds with one lap remaining, watch out for bronze medalist Emily Infeld’s stinging kick – again.

Meanwhile, Beijing World champion Vivian Cheruiyot (Ken) has two kinds of finish… the long 3k drive to burn off the field, and the withering finishing kick – even over the last 100m – in case that 3k drive didn’t work. She has 4 World golds, 1 World silver, and Olympic silver and bronze. Gold would give her a complete set of Olympic medals.

It’s an absolutely intriguing matchup among Ayana, Cheruiyot, Dibaba, and Burka.

As for me, for 3rd, I like a tough cross country runner.

1. Almaz Ayana, Eth
2. Tirunesh Dibaba, Eth
3. Alice Nawowuna, Ken

W 100m
English Gardner upset the form charts to win the US Olympic Trials in a stellar 10.74. While she may be lacking international experience, she is certainly not lacking speed – or competitive drive or spirit. She followed up her Olympic Trials win with her first Diamond League win in Birmingham, England.

The impressive US 100m Olympic Trials results:

1. English Gardner – 10.74
2. Tianna Bartoletta – 10.78
3. Torie Bowie – 10.78

Interestingly, Bartoletta, as Tianna Madison, then 19, won the World long jump title in 2005 in Helsinki. She is the true veteran of the US 100/200m squad now that it is missing Allyson Felix. Torie Bowie has two Diamond League wins to her credit this season, at Doha and Eugene.

Elaine Thompson (Jam) has compiled an impressive resume this season with two Diamond League wins and a world-leading 10.70. Then she became part of the triage unit that is the Jamaican sprint team this year. She pulled out of the Jamaican national championships and just received medical clearance to compete in the Olympics.

Dafne Schippers (Hol) is considered by many to be the favorite here; she was second to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at ’15 Worlds, 10.76-10.81. Interestingly, at this distance, Schippers has lost twice this season, once to Bowie in Doha and later to Gardner in Birmingham.

I fear that the Dutch, including my many Hollandse relatives, expect a coronation here. Schippers is a tremendously strong sprinter and I fully expect her to win the 200m, but last year it was SAFP who was a step ahead (literally) in the Beijing Worlds final; this year it seems that both Elaine Thompson and English Gardner are.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, two-time Olympic and 7-time World champion, is having the most challenging year of her career. After finishing last in the 100m at the Prefontaine Classic in 11.18, she initially walked past reporters in the interview zone, caught herself and turned around to speak briefly, and during this conversation she was clearly guarded and offered little. She acknowledged she was injured but was in no mood to elaborate.

SAFP did not venture far from home for the next month, but ran 10.93 to finish second behind Elaine Thompson’s world best in the Jamaican National Championships. 4th in that race was 34-year-old Veronica Campbell-Brown – speaking of a changing of the guard. The 3-time World and 3-time Olympic champion finished in 11.10, and her career seems to be winding down. But wait! She snuck in a 10.83 in June… would the real VCB please stand up!

Note that third on the world list is Murielle Ahoure (CIV) at 10.78. The Moscow ‘13 double-silver medalist in the 100/200 looks to be in fine form this year, as this came on the heels of a 10.80 semi-final on the same day at the Montverde meet in Florida in June; her 10.78 is the African record.

1. Elaine Thompson, Jam
2. English Gardner, US
3. Dafne Schippers, Ned

M 20k Walk
Few sports have a better preview than race walking’s World Team Challenge, held this year in the shadow of Rome’s Colosseum on May 7. Two-time World silver medalist Zhen Wang (CHN) walked a swift 1:19:22 to win, with teammate Zelin Cai coming back from his World 5th place to take silver this time in 1:19:34. Spain’s Alvaro Martin was just 2 seconds behind in 3rd.

Australia’s Dane Bird-Smith flew to 4th another two seconds back, while Canada’s new star and surprise World bronze winner, Ben Thorne, is not a surprise anymore as he backed up last year’s shocker with 5th here in 1:19:55. A remarkably deep and closely-matched field with 5 under 1:20.00 and only 33 seconds separating the top five.

Notably absent from this top 5 was Spain’s ’15 World Champion Miguel Angel Lopez, who had an off-day but then righted the ship in 3rd behind Wang at La Coruna, Spain, at the end of May.

Few countries have a greater heritage in this sport than Ecuador, and Andres Chocho was 6th in 1:20:07 and seems to be on the cusp of breaking into the bigtime. He is 6th in the overall world rankings which combine 20k/50k performances.

While Mexico’s Pedro Daniel Gomez does not quite have the gaudy PR of others in this field, he has one of the finest competitive records in this year’s IAAF World Race Walk Challenge series, including a win in Taiwan in April.

African walkers are becoming a force; Lebogang Shange (RSA) was 2nd in January’s Oceania Championships in Adelaide in 1:20:06, and Kenya’s Samuel Gathimba scorched a 1:19:24 at the African Championships.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Jared Tallent, citing a tight hamstring, has withdrawn from the 20k to focus on his specialty, the 50k.

In such a tradition-rich sport, it might be easier to pick nations than athletes. Making some of these Olympic national race walking teams is not unlike making the US women’s team in the 100m hurdles. Potential medalists get left at home.

1. Zhen Wang, Chn
2. Miguel Angel Lopez, Spa
3. Pedro Daniel Gomez, Mex

W 1500m
Genzebe Dibaba (Eth) is looking ever so much like an Olympic Champion. With her amazing 3:50.07 World record last year and world title at this same distance, she is a prohibitive favorite. Her ability to run fast off a fast pace is extraordinary, and as the World 1500m race showed, in spite of some heroic efforts, no one could stay with her over the last 800m.

Faith Kipyegon, winner of 3 Diamond League meets and holder of the fastest time in the world this year, is looking ever so much like the silver medalist. She is, in effect, in a second-tier league of her own. She won silver in Beijing and won this year’s Pre Classic in a sizzling 3:56. 41, one of two times she has dipped under 3:57 this year.

That leaves the battle for bronze.

Sifan Hassan (Hol) finished 3rd at Worlds but was a surprising 2nd (surprising in that she did not win) in the European Championships. In what must be one of the great sit and kick races of all-time, Poland’s Angelika Cichocka won in - are you ready? - 4:33.00. But Cichocka won the Stockhold DL race in the rain and has finished no worse than 3rd this season.

Dawit Sayaum (Eth), will turn 20 just before the Olympics begin. Another international season and a PR 3:58.10 behind Kipyegon at the Prefontaine Classic in May put her at a different level than when she finished 4th at Worlds last year as a teenager.

Laura Muir (GB), 5th at Beijing Worlds, ran 3:57.49 in London in late July to put herself in the mix for a medal.

The US duo of Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury did not show well in the ’13 World final, though a spiked - then ripped - then lost shoe didn’t help Simpson. Nonetheless, in her career, Simpson has won gold and silver in this event at Worlds. The longer the pace is slow, the better chance at a medal she has. Teammate Brenda Martinez brings great 800m speed to an event which relies on swift kicks to get you into the next round.

Quick! What’s Genzebe Dibaba’s 800m PR? Well, as Sieg Lindstrom pointed out in Track and Field News, no one knows of an open 800 on her resume. But her last 800 in her 1500m world title win in Beijing was 1:57.0, faster than the winning time in the open 800m.

1. Genzebe Dibaba, Eth
2. Faith Kipyegon, Ken
3. Dawit Seyaum, Eth

W Hammer


Two-time World champion, Olympic and World silver medalist, world record setter, undefeated in 2016.

That’s Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk, as prohibitive a favorite in any track and field event in these Olympic Games. The holder of the highest of standards, Wlodarczyk’s only disappointment coming out of ’13 Worlds in Beijing was that she did not break the world record she had set earlier in the season.

High standards, indeed, and the second-best throw in history had to suffice. This year’s world list is an impressive sight, as she has thrown the top ten throws of the year. The only thing missing from her resume is… well, it’s gold and it shimmers.

Betty Heidler (Ger) holds 3 of the next 6 best marks this season, is 3rd in the IAAF hammer challenge, and claimed silver to Wlodarczyk’s gold at the Euro Champs.

Wenxiu Zhang (Chn) will contest her 12th consecutive World/Olympic championship. She has won four bronzes in ’07, ’08, ’11, and ’13, and silver in front of delirious fans in the Bird’s Nest
last summer. She is #4 on the world list, just behind Heidler and just in front of teammate Zheng Wang, who was 5th in Beijing, a mere 15cm away from bronze.

Azerbaijan’s 24 year old Hanna Skydan was 3rd at Euros; with a 5th and a 3rd in two of the world challenge meets, she is one to watch for a medal. Zalina Marghieva (Mol) is a notable second in this year’s world hammer challenge behind Wlodarczyk. With a PR to her credit in February, she is one of the most consistent throwers in the world this year.

Just ahead of her in 7th place on the world list is US Olympic Trials champion, Amber Campbell, who is fifth in the world challenge series. The veteran is on her third Olympic team and - in the shape of her life at 35 - is ready to make some noise.

The United States’ Gwen Berry’s results were muddied by a drug infraction. It turns out to have been a prescription issue for which she had a clearance; a swimmer in the same situation got a warning, but Berry was given a three-month suspension. This wiped out her 250-4/76.31 American Record. But as her suspension is over and she is on the team, it’s of considerable note that she is second on the world list this year behind Wlodarczyk.

Did I mention that Wlodarczyk has won 28 meets in a row? OK, we get it! She’s the favorite.

1. Anita Wlodarczyk, Pol
2. Betty Heidler, Ger
3. Wenxiu Zhang, Chn

M 400m
Stacked. That’s what this event is: stacked.

The top seven times in the world this year have been run by three athletes: Wayde van Niekerk (RSA), La Shawn Merritt (US), and Kirani James (Grenada). Funny, they finished in that order in last year’s World Championships. They also each have won one of the last three World titles, and James took home London gold in 2012. Can anyone else displace the top three?

Luguelin Santos (DR) ran 44.11 at Worlds last year and finished fourth, as the Big-3 ran 43.48, 43.65, and 43.78 to win their medals. Santos may be well-placed for a medal this year, as the tendency might be for the stars to key off each other and go out too fast – and for a meteor to go shooting past.

Isaac Makwala (Bot) ran some scorching times last year (PR 43.72) but is ‘only’ at 44.85 this year. He’s a bit of a mystery right now, but he and teammate Baboldki Thebe (44.22A) could combine to do some damage in the long relay.

Meanwhile, Caribbean nations are very well-represented on this year’s world list. Michael Cedenio (TTO, 44.34, 7th at Worlds), Bralon Taplin (Grn, 44.41), and Steven Gardiner (Bah, 44.46) make one wish for an all-Caribbean relay team. Each is poised to step in should any of the famous four falter.

Similarly, US Trials 2nd and 3rd placers Gil Roberts (PR 44.67 in Trials semis) and 2015 US national champ David Verburg (2 golds in Worlds 4x400m relays) are poised to contribute to one of the deepest finals in history.

1. Wayde van Niekerk, RSA
2. Kirani James, Grn
3. LaShawn Merritt, US

M Long Jump
The men’s long jump at the US Olympic Trials was an unexpected treasure. On a day when the rest of the athletics world was focusing on Ashton Eaton, Allyson Felix, LaShawn Merritt, and teenage high jump sensation Vashti Cunningham, the long jump was an overlooked event.

Until it began.

It was, statistically, the greatest men’s long jump competition in history. Nine men jumped over 8 meters (26’3”). Seven jumped over 27’/8.23, and two over 28’/8.53. Jeffrey Henderson won at 28’2 ¼”/8.59, while NCAA triple champion Jarrion Lawson was a mere ½” behind.

Initially, Marquis Dendy was the 3rd qualifier on the US team (tied with Will Claye who did not have the qualifying standard), but he has withdrawn from the Olympics due to injury and has been replaced on the US squad by Mike Hartfield.

It will be an interesting Olympic competition with the two Americans and the dominant jumper of the past Olympiad, Greg Rutherford (GB), going head-to-head for the medals. The Americans (Dendy, Mike Hartfield, and Henderson) fell apart – to put it generously – last year at Beijing Worlds while Rutherford won with a jump of 27 7 ¼”/8.41.

Most memorably, Rutherford won the London Olympics at home. He doesn’t always jump the farthest and so has his share of critics. But he frequently jumps far enough, as his World, Olympic, European, and Commonwealth titles attest.

South Africa has a talented trio in Khotso Mokoena, Rushwaii Samaai, and Zarck Visser, any one of whom is capable of popping a long jump and making a surprise appearance on the podium.

Not unlike China, which fields a deep team. Xinglong Gao placed 4th just behind teammate Jianan Wang’s bronze in Beijing, and Changzhou Huang won bronze indoors in Portland. Gao has two Diamond League wins to his credit this year.

Australia’s veteran Fabrice LaPierre has been around for quite a while; he finished 4th in Berlin Worlds in 2009 – and his competitive record makes him one to watch in Rio. He finished second in the last two Worlds: ’15 Beijing and ’16 Portland, outdoors and in.

The one who has my attention is Jarrion Lawson. This year he has done nothing but show up: his 100m, 200m, LJ NCAA triple, and his Olympics Trials 2nd at over 28’, make him the competitor of the year so far.

Sorry to say that Jeffrey Henderson’s meltdown in Beijing at Worlds last year – he fouled twice and finished 9th – not to mention his 4th in World Indoors, leaves me uneasy picking him here, even though he won the Olympic Trials. Words I’ll likely be dining on the evening of August 13.

1. Jarrion Lawson, US
2. Greg Rutherford, GB

3. Fabrice Lapierre, Aus

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