Monday, August 15, 2016

Day 4 - Previews and Picks

for events beginning on
Monday, August 15

M Triple Jump
Olympic and two-time World champion Christian Taylor was ranked second in the world among all athletes behind only Ashton Eaton in 2015. He won the World title in Beijing and scared the world record; his winning 59-9/18.21 jump set the American record and just missed the 60’ barrier.  He has won 18 Diamond League meets in the last 4 years. ‘Nuff said, he’s the favorite.

This season Taylor has won 4/5 Diamond League meets but suffered an upset at the US Olympic Trials when he finished 2nd to Will Claye. However, a loss in the Olympics would be huge, but not entirely unexpected if it’s to Cuba’s Pedro Pichardo. Pichardo had a 59/17.98 jump of his own last year, and he and Taylor pushed each other farther all season. Pichardo was 2nd to Taylor in Beijing; remarkable that his 58-2/17.73 should be 19” behind Taylor’s winner.

Pichardo also was 2nd at ‘13 Moscow Worlds behind France’s Teddy Tamgho, who, most  unfortunately is the poster boy for the toll the force of the triple jump can exact on the human body. His injury list reads like a record of past World championship years: ’11 – broken ankle, ’13 – broken left leg, ’15 ruptured Achilles, and heartbreakingly, a broken ankle at the French Championships in June just after he had jumped his way back into Olympic contention with his seasonal best (by far) of 56-3¼/17.15

Pichardo’s teammate, Alexis Copello, won the Diamond League meet that Taylor did not; the veteran has a World bronze from ’09 and a 4th in ’07; he was a finalist in London. That he should have won a Diamond League meet and backed it up with a very consistent season of 3-4-5-6 in the other Diamond League meets should give his competitors pause.

Chris Benard does not have the deep resume of his better-known US teammates, but in much the same way that 3rd in the Olympic Trials got him where he wanted to go this year, his three 4th -  place Diamond League finishes serve notice that should a single one of the bigger names falter, he is ready to pounce.

Chinese jumper Bin Dong was the popular winner of the World Indoor title in Portland in March, but he has not had the deep season needed to make him a medal pick.

As noted, Will Claye won the US Olympic Trials; the US champ won triple jump silver in London as well as long jump bronze.  While he’s had a relatively thin season in terms of number of meets, his record is far deeper – and more importantly, farther – than Copello’s.

Taylor and Pichardo have separated themselves from the field, and Claye and Copello should duke it out for bronze.

1. Christian Taylor, US
2. Pedro Pichardo, Cub
3. Will Claye, US

W 200m
(Note: I’m including my original text submitted before the prediction contest entry was due on Thursday, August 10, the day before Olympic track and field began. I’ll note updates as necessary. Picks represent those made with the information available on August 11, but I’ll note progress in the events, such as in the women’s distances and sprints.)

Dafne Schippers dominates the world list with 5 of the top ten 200m times, including the world leader at 21.93. She won the gold medal at ’15 Worlds in a remarkable 21.63 to put her #3 on the all-time list behind only Florence Griffith-Joyner and Marion Jones (whose time was legal before she was caught for drugs).

The United States is fielding one of its youngest Olympic teams in history, and one of the places it shows most dramatically is in the women’s sprints. Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of this shift than Jenna Prandini’s lunge at the line to put herself ahead of veteran star Allyson Felix by a hundredth of a second and onto the 200m squad in the US Olympic Trials.

Torie Bowie won that race in 22.25, with Deajah Stevens just .05 back in 2nd, but it’s that one-hundredth between Prandini and Felix that marks the change from one generation to the next in American sprinting. The US duo of Deajah Stevens (21) and Jenna Prandini (23) are likely finalists in their first - but not last - trip to the Olympics.

Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson was ranked #3 in the world last year and was only .03 behind Schippers at Worlds. She withdrew from this year’s Jamaican national championships but passed muster on the medical watch list; she had been awaiting clearance from the Jamaican federation to compete. (As is evident now, she feeling just fine, thank you! She won the 100m on Saturday night.)

Question marks abound about the Jamaican team. Veronica Campbell-Brown and Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce also have been in the Jamaican M.A.S.H. unit. When they’re ‘on’ they are among the world’s elite sprinters; not picking them feels like heresy, but there are very legitimate grounds for wondering whether or not they can survive multiple rounds. Who knows, maybe in an Olympic swansong for Jamaica, they’ll pull a fast one on us.

Thompson and World 100m bronze medalist Tori Bowie - with a PR of 21.99 - seem to be the biggest challenges to hearing Het Wilhelmus (Dutch national anthem) played in the Olympic stadium since 1992 when Ellen van Langen stunned all but the Dutch with her 800m win in Barcelona. As outstanding as she is, I think that Bowie has room to improve. She is one of the hottest sprinters in the world right now; note that her 10.78/21.99 PRs have been run in or since the Prefontaine Classic at the end of May.

Shaunae Miller (BAH) may well double here but has a much stronger chance for a medal at 400m. Dina Asher-Smith (GB) finished 5th in the great ’15 World Championships race and set a national record of 22.07 (imagine running 22.07 and finishing 5th!). It was the best-ever mark for 5th place.

Murielle Ahoure (CIV) won the season-opener Diamond League race in Shanghai but hasn’t competed at the distance since. Will she be doubling back after the 100m?

And if the Dutch national anthem is played in the Olympic stadium, I’ll be standing and singing it, word for word, 56 years after I first learned it as an 8-year-old when I lived in the Netherlands for two years.

1. Dafne Schippers, Ned
2. Torie Bowie, US
3. Elaine Thompson, Jam

(Note: this morning’s start lists for Jamaica have Elaine Thompson, Veronica Campbell-Brown, and Simone Facey as their entrants. I think Thompson and Torie Bowie should still be medalists, with Thompson now the favorite. Schippers did not look fluid in the 100m final and she has hinted at possible injury problems.)

M 3,000m Steeplechase
The Kenyan selectors have made this a much clearer race as much as by whom they chose for their Olympic team as by whom they left off. The first 5 places in this year’s Diamond League standings are occupied by Kenyans, yet this is a bit misleading as Evan Jager (US) has stayed away from the Diamond League circuit.

Conseslus Kipruto has won all five Diamond League races this year – a remarkable feat of dominance against almost all of the world’s best.

Interestingly, those with the next best DL records were left off the Kenyan team. Jairus Birech was second behind Kipruto in three of the DL races and Paul Koech was second the other two. Birech was 4th at last year’s World Championships and was ranked #1 in the world; Koech was ranked #5. Neither is going to Rio. It’s nice depth if you can get it.

Ezekiel Kemboi is the acknowledged master of this event. He has won four World and two Olympic titles; add to that 3 World silvers and you just might have the single greatest all-time in this event. However, he’s had a thin competition schedule and his fastest time this year at age 34 is 8:14.19.

Don’t let that deceive you; his five major championship wins have all been in times over 8:00.00, with his slowest gold his 8:18.56 London Olympic win. He was third in the Kenyan Trials in a race that didn’t tell us much; teammates Brimin Kiprop Kipruto and Conseslus Kipruto went 1-2 ahead of him; the three had separated themselves from the pack and finished in 8:27.68, .86, and .95, over four seconds ahead of 4th.

Brimin Kiprop Kipruto won the Olympic title in ’08; Conseslus Kipruto has won silver at the last two Worlds behind Kemboi. B. K. Kipruto has finished 2-1-5 in the last three Olympics; his World Championships tally is two bronzes, a silver and a gold, and one of those bronzes was won as recently as last August in Beijing.

I’m intrigued by Evan Jager’s approach this year. After his 8:00.45 American record in Paris last year in spite of a fall, he said that he put too much pressure on himself to live up to the ‘what if’ questions that race generated. (In other words, without the fall over the last barrier, what on earth would he have run – 7:56? 57? 58?)

Jager is clearly holding his cards close and says he is preparing for any type of race that develops. I think his best chance for a medal will come from a race that’s very fast from the start; if the race is won in 7:55, he’ll break 8:00 and medal. But it’s more likely to be slower with a mad dash to the podium over the last 1,000m. Five of the last majors in a row have been this type of race, and Jager, who has finished 6-5-6 in his last three majors, does less well in this type of race.

The main question will be: what does Kemboi have up his sleeve? It’s a great race in the making: two Olympic champions against the young two-time silver medalist looking to make his mark on Olympic history, with the new kid from the United States itching to get on the podium.

Kemboi is like Bolt: he’s #1 until he’s not.

1. Ezekiel Kemboi, Ken
2. Conseslus Kipruto, Ken
3. Brimin Kiprop Kipruto, Ken

M 400 Hurdles
Let’s start with a look at 2015 Worlds.

Kenya’s Nicholas Bett, who was off the radar screen, won out of lane 9 in 47.70, a great place for symbolic as well as actual placement of one of the two lowest seeds of the race. Second was Russian Denis Kudryavtsev, who will not be competing here due to the Russian drug ban. Third was a runner as unheralded as Bett, Bahamas’ Jeffrey Gibson in 48.17.

This year’s US Olympic Trials winner, Kerron Clement, was 4th in the Beijing race, and Michael Tinsley, the third 2016 US team member, was last in Beijing after he made the acquaintance of a number of hurdles on his ever-slower way home.

This was an uncharacteristic place for him, as he won silvers in London and Moscow. Note that he has qualified for 4 consecutive Olympic/World teams. Tinsley won the first two Diamond League races this year, and in the remaining three, the wins wealth has been spread among Yasmani Copello (Tur, 29), Javier Culson (Pur, 29), and Kerron Clement (30).

Clement is the hottest hurdler coming into Rio as his biggest wins and fastest times have been in July. He followed his 48.50 at the Olympic trials with 48.40 in the London Diamond League meet. Clement is much decorated in this event: he is two-time World champion (’07 and ’09) and he mined Olympic silver in ’08.

Behind him in London? Culson and Copello in 2nd and 3rd, with three-time major meet finalist L. J. van Zijl (Rsa) and GB’s Jack Green also under 49.00 in a very deep field in what was an accurate preview of the Rio final.

Culson has two World silvers and London bronze on his sparkling resume, though 2012 is the last time he won a major meet medal. He has backed up his Diamond League Stockholm win with two DL 2nds this year.

Van Zijl, 31, has been a major meet finalist 3 times, and Beijing bronze winner Jeffery Gibson (Bah) has been hanging around the lower reaches of a couple of Diamond League meets.

Here’s a bar bet I’ll win: seven of the eight finalists in this Olympic will not be in the sport four years from now. Byron Robinson (US, 21) is the youngster in this aging field and is perfectly positioned to be the 400m hurdler of the future. Making the final would be a terrific achievement for him.

Remember, he just beat Michael Tinsley at the US Trials – and I have Tinsley picked for 3rd.

And who showed up to finish 5th in the rain in Stockholm? None other than Nicholas Bett, who preceded that with two Diamond League 6th place finishes. He just doesn’t seem to be in the same form as last year; join me after the race while I dine on my words.

1. Kerron Clement, US
2. Javier Culson, Pur
3. Michael Tinsley, US

W Discus
World and Olympic Champion, Sandra Perkovic (Cro), seems a heavy favorite in this event. But that’s what we said last year, even though Cuba’s Denia Caballero had a longer seasonal best than Perkovic going into Worlds – where Caballero soundly defeated her. Caballero’s huge first-round throw shook Perkovic’s confidence, and Caballero went on to dominate the competition.

Is this year ‘second verse same as the first?’

Perkovic is more dominant than ever. She is 5-0 in Diamond League meets, while Caballero has three 3rds to her credit. She won the European title by a whopping 4.3m - over 14’ - with the German trio of Julia Fischer, Shanice Craft, and Nadine Muller in her wake in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.

Dani Samuels (Aus) and German veteran Nadine Muller have two Diamond League seconds each this year, and once again it seems the question is: who will win silver and bronze? Muller has World silver and bronze to her credit, but needs to master notorious nerves to realize her full potential. Samuels won ’13 Worlds in Moscow but dipped to 6th in Beijing. I like how her season is developing: she was over 67m/219-10 at the beginning of May in Shanghai and just crossed that barrier again on July 29.

Yaime Perez (Cub) had long throws in February and June, but has modest (4th and a 5th) Diamond League results; she was 4th in Beijing and sits in 2nd place on this year’s world list. Yet her June throw scared 68m/223-1.

Meanwhile, note that Ashley Whitney (US) has finished 4-5-6 in her three DL meets and was 9th in Beijing. Making the top 8 would be a terrific achievement for this tremendously talented US Olympic Trials champion who is widely viewed as a US thrower of the future. Might she make it thrower of the present? It would not be a surprise for her to finish as high as 5th in this deep and accomplished field.

1. Sandra Perkovic, Cro
2. Dani Samuels, Aus
3. Denia Caballero, Cub

M 110m Hurdles
With Russia’s Sergey Shubenkov out due to his country’s drug DQ, and with the inspirational story of the last two seasons, the US’s Aries Merrittt, having missed the US team by 1/100th of a second, two of the top 3 finishers at Beijing Worlds are absent from this competition.

That leaves silver medalist Hansle Parchment of Jamaica as the only returnee from last year’s podium. Check that! He just withdrew as he did not pass Jamaica’s ‘proof of fitness’ test. Remarkably, this leaves all three World medalists out of the Olympics.

Jeff Porter (US), apparently the only member of his family still a US citizen (see women’s hurdles), ran a seasonal best of 13.21 to make the US team, but his remaining marks and places just don’t add up to a medal pick.

Ronni Ash was 2nd in the US Trials ahead of Porter, though his competitive record leaves much to be desired; his last title of any note was the NCAA 2009 crown. At the same time, there’s much we could have learned but didn’t when he was subject to a very controversial false-start DQ in his World Championships heat in Beijing.

Omar McLeod (Jam) got the wins at the two earliest Diamond League meets, Doha and Shanghai. He won the World Indoor title in Portland and has scorched a 12.98 to lead the World lists; he has 5/7 top times on this year’s list.

Orlando Ortega (Sp) has more recent Diamond wins at Rome and Monaco, and he preceded those with a third at Doha. He has won 6/9 finals this year and that third at Doha is his lowest finish of the season; he won the Spanish Championship on 7/24 in 13.09.

The French duo of Dmitri Bascou and Pascal Martinot-Lagarde, 6th and 7th on the world list at 13.12 and 13.17, are almost certain finalists. Martinot-Lagarde has a better indoor championships record than outdoor, with two World silvers and a bronze. Bascou has shown great late-season form with a win at the European Championships followed by a Diamond League win in London, in swift times of 13.25 and 13.20.

No hurdler in the world is hotter than the US’s Devon Allen. He has been at the start line of major championships four times in the last two years: 2014 NCAA and US National Outdoor, and the same combination in 2016, except that in ’16 we called it the Olympic Trials.

He won all four.

The reason you see a gap in 2015 is that he blew out his knee while playing wide receiver for the University of Oregon.

One more time: Dude, it’s time to stop playing football.

I’d be hard put to think of a time I’ve picked a gold medalist with less international experience. I think that for Allen the greater challenge than winning the Olympic final will be making it. A whisker between Bascou and Ortega for bronze.

1. Devon Allen, US
2. Omar McLeod, Jam
3. Orlando Ortega, Sp

W 400m Hurdles
Delilah Muhammad impressed in the US Olympic Trials by winning all three of her rounds with times of 55.33, 54.14, and 52.88. Muhammed won silver in Moscow in ’13, finishing second to none other than Zuzana Hejnova of the Czech Republic; Hejnova’s winning time was .05 faster than Muhammad’s Olympic Trials winner.

Hejnova won bronze in the London Olympics and then started her domination of this event with a Worlds win in Moscow, struggled with a major foot injury in ’14, and returned to a repeat World title in Beijing.

This has all the makings of a classic matchup, and the world record should be nervous. Yuliya Nosova-Pechonkina’s (Rus) 52.34 has stood since 2003. The Olympic record is in jeopardy as well; Melaine Walker’s (Jam) 52.64 has stood since ’08.

Eilidh Doyle (GB) (previously Child – ahhh, that’s who that is!) sits 7th on the world list at 54.09. She has won two World bronzes and has tremendous strength built from years of relay work on very successful British 4x400m teams. And thanks to the ‘power of 10’ website for this nugget: she won the Scottish Schools Under-13 butterfly (swimming) title two years in a row. So that’s where her remarkable strength comes from.

Ashley Spencer was 2nd in the US Trials at 54.02; the Moscow silver medalist finished 2nd in the ’13 Worlds race to Hejnova. She has tremendous foot speed, as witnessed by her silver over 60m at the World Indoor Championships in Portland in March.

In the Diamond League this season, Doyle has won twice as has Jamaica’s Janeive Russell, who ran 53.96 to win in Rome.

Teenage sensation Sydney McLaughlin is the question mark of this meet. She set the world junior record of 54.15 in finishing 3rd at the US Trials and is bursting with talent.

Hejnova has been off the radar screen with an Achilles injury this year, but late word is that she ran 39.44 over 300m hurdles on 8/2 in Cheb, Czech Republic.

Two are clear of the field and the rest are remarkably evenly matched at a very high level. In terms of marks, this will be one of the deepest events of the meet, and records are sure to be set for place. While watching the top two, don’t forget to watch what may be one of the best battles of the meet for bronze.

As for me, I’m going with the upset.

1. Delilah Muhammad, US
2. Zuzana Hejnova, Cz Rep
3. Ashley Spencer, US

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