Track is my field: Mark Cullen's international track and field website featuring storytelling, commentary, and predictions and event analyses for the Olympics and World Championships. I'll be writing from the 2018 European Championships in Berlin in August. I'm active on Facebook and Twitter: @trackerati.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Day 6 - T+F Events Previews and Picks

for events beginning on
Wednesday, August 17

Decathlon (M)
1. Yo, Ashton!

2. See #1.

Ashton Eaton (US) is as prohibitive a favorite as there is in these Games. The world record setter, World Champion, and Olympic Champion is truly in a class of his own, as he usually wins by margins of 300 points or more.

And yet, so much can go wrong so quickly. At 9:30am on Thursday, August 18, I’ll be holding my breath as the decathlon hurdles begin the second day of competition. If Eaton makes it through, even with a modest time, he is sure to win his second Olympic gold medal in a row, joining Bob Mathias (US) and Daley Thomson (GB) in that exclusive club. A world record is a distinct possibility every time Eaton ‘decathlons.’

Even when he was a bit off at the US Olympic Trials, Eaton scored 8750 points, 295 less than his best. Perspective? He still would have won the London Olympics and Moscow and Beijing World Championships with that score. If stays on his feet, within the rings (that would be shot put and discus, not Olympic), and opens at low heights in the high jump and pole vault – please, let’s not do anything risky here – he’ll make history.

Behind him, Canada’s Damian Warner has followed a classic progression: 5th in London, 3rd in Moscow (2013) and 2nd in Beijing (2015). Warner is poised for the podium. While some may view it as his misfortune to compete in the Eaton Era, Warner should not be underestimated in this event. He won the prestigious Gotzis Invitational in May, and his stellar 8695 in winning silver in Bejing last summer is only 55 points less than Eaton’s Olympic Trials score.

Suddenly, the picture gets a bit clearer: with a pursuer like Warner, Eaton needs to be ON. Warner is sure to enter the 8700-8800 point range in this meet, and I think the final outcome may be much closer – and the competition much tenser – than many expect. Warner will win silver to improve on Canada’s previous Olympic decathlon best of bronze by Dave Steen in 1988.

The battle for bronze will include the second and third qualifiers from the US Olympic Trials. Jeremy Taiwo and Zach Ziemek. Taiwo would be the first Brooks Beast to medal, and isn’t it about time? I mean, how many guys from Renton, WA, US, win Olympic medals in the decathlon? Taiwo has followed a progression not unlike that of Warner, but a critical 200-300 points behind: 8239 in ’13, 8303 in ’15, 8425 in ’16 at the Olympic Trials. Add a hundred points and he will be in the mix for bronze.

Zach Ziemek is only 23 but finished 3rd just 12 points behind Taiwo at the US Trials. Imagine the buzz he’d be getting if he had finished 2nd. You can find that buzz here. He has said that he is acutely aware of the opportunity he has to make a mark in these Olympics and then create a golden legacy in the next two.

Germany’s stellar trio of Rico Freimuth (8561), Kai Kazmirek (8448), and Michael Schrader (8418) finished 3rd, 6th, and 7th at ’15 Worlds. So who’s leading their team this year? Arthur Abele at an impressive 8605; he PRed in three events in winning the Ratingen meet at the end of June. He, Freimuth, and Kazmirek will represent Germany in the Olympics.

I’m from Seattle and would love to see a University of Washington Husky and Newport High School graduate on the podium. But twice Taiwo has made the World championship team only to record the dreaded DNF – did not finish – in both Moscow and Beijing.

While one of the deep German team is most likely to win bronze, I think the electric performance of this decathlon could well be by Zach Ziemek; I like a guy with a sense of history and a sense of place in the sport. A tossup for 3rd between the Germans and Ziemek, with Abele’s recent PRs and almost 200 point PR margin getting the nod here.

1. Ashton Eaton, US
2. Damian Warner, Can
3. Arthur Abele, Ger

M Hammer Throw
Two words, one name, one gold medal: Pawel Fajdek (Pol).
He owns the top ten throws in the world this year.
He is almost 2 meters ahead of the rest of the world.
He is two-time defending world champion.
In this year’s European Championships - always a precursor to the Olympics as considerable hammer depth comes from Europe - all six of Fajdek’s throws were good enough to win.

He is as dominant on the men’s side of hammer throwing as gold medal and world record setting teammate Anita Wlodarczyk is on the women’s.

Teammate Wojciech Nowicki was the surprise winner of Bejing bronze, but the only surprise in the Euro Champs this year was that he finished 3rd and not 2nd. He was topped by Ivan Tikhon’s (Bls) last throw of the competition. Speaking of Tikhon, he just became the second thrower in the world this year over 80m (262-5).

Meanwhile, Dilshod Nazarov (Tjk) has finished second in 4/6 meets this season; his only win came in a meet not entered by Fajdek. Makes me wonder if hammer throwers scour the world to find a meet without him.

Fajdek is a lock for gold; anything else would be a colossal upset for this co-national hero of Poland. Poland will likely be celebrating two men’s medals, and Nowicki now has bronzes in his last two major meets; he is not a surprise anymore. I think Nazarov and Tikhon will duke it out for a third medal, and as Euros shows, it can all come down to the last throw.

With Tsikhan the only other thrower over 80 (262-5) meters this year, it makes for an intriguing battle for silver and bronze in the 78m (255-11) range; indeed, those positions last year were tied at 78.55, and Nazarov topped Nowicki on the countback for World silver.

The next level of throwing is remarkably tightly bunched, with a veritable United Nations  stepping into the circle. Qatar’s Ashraf Amgad Elseify (78.19), Hassan Mohamed Mahmoud (Egy, 78.39), Serghei Marchiev (Mld, 78.39), and Pavel Bareisha, (Blr, 78.60), all figure to make the finals and be in the hunt for a medal.

But you know who’s #4 in the world coming into this meet? Brazilian Wagner Domingos. Could it get any better than this? Hometown hero gets a medal! Pencil this in for the night of Friday, August 19. He wins a medal and no one gets any sleep.

1. Pawel Fajdek, POL
2. Dilshod Nazarov, TAJ
3. Wagner Jose Alberto Domingos, BRA

M 5,000m
Ethiopia’s Muktar Edris has the best competitive record in this event in the world this year. He has won two Diamond League races, with a 2nd and a 3rd to his credit as well. Mo Farah tested himself in London in July in what amounted to a time trial; his 12:59.29 leads the world coming into the Olympics, and his 15-second margin of victory ought to give his competitors pause.

A significant 3rd in London was Bernard Lagat (US). The 41-year old Olympic Trials champion took some notable scalps and showed he could medal in a deep field. 4th in that race was Kenya’s Isaiah Koech, who sports a nifty 12:48.64 PR from 2012. He’s been a World and Olympic finalist 4 times, with one bronze medal to show for it. Teammate Caleb Ndiku split Mo Farah and Hagos Gebrhiwet for silver in the ridiculously slow World Championship final in Beijing last year.

Ethiopia also sends veterans Hagos Gebrhiwet and Dejen Gebremeskal. DG defeated HG in what amounted to an Ethiopian Trials race in Somerville, MA, in June, 12:59.89 to 13:00.20, but both made the team. They could not be more evenly matched; Gebremeskal has Olympic silver and World bronze, and Gebrhiwet has World medals of those same two colors. Either could win this race outright. I think Gebremeskal will see the podium again.

Interestingly, only Farah is known to be doubling among the major contenders. The 5,000m rounds begin four days after the 10,000m final. I’m itching to pick an upset, but then I think of Farah’s 1:48-ish final 800m in Beijing, and pick Farah for his 4th straight 5k/10k double, especially after his 10,000m win here with what amounted to ease.

By the way, when you think Ethiopian Olympic Trials, you think Somerville, Massachusetts, right? It’s OK, their 10,000m trials were held in Hengelo, Holland… which makes far more sense considering the distance-fest held there every year.

1. Mo Farah, GB
2. Muktar Edris, Eth
3. Dejen Gebremeskel, Eth

W 800m
While much is under consideration about Caster Semenya (RSA) and the social issues she represents (most unfortunately for her, whether she wants to or not), I’m going to write this preview based on what the competitors will encounter: each other, and the facts of races, competitions, and performances which help us understand how this event might unfold.

It seems there are three levels in the women’s 800m this year.

First is that of South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who has dominated the women’s 800m. She has won all 4 Diamond League races she has entered, leads the world list by almost a second in 1:55.33, and has won her races with ease. Many believe that Jarmila Kratochvilova’s 1:53.28 WR from 1983 is in jeopardy.

Second is that of Francine Niyonsaba (BDI), who has finished 2nd to Semenya three times this season alone. It seems there is nothing she can do to overcome Semenya’s domination, not even run 1:56.24, which she did in finishing 2nd to Semenya in Monaco. In the history of the event, that time will normally get you farther than it has Niyonsaba this year, but it at least puts Niyonsaba in a second tier of her own and makes her a favorite to medal in Rio.

The third tier consists of a number of terrific middle distance runners who will have quite a contest for bronze; I’ll include PRs so you can see how evenly matched they are.

Eunice Sum (Ken, 1:56.99) picked the wrong time to lose her only race last year when she finished 3rd at ’15 Worlds; she had won in Moscow in ’13. Melissa Bishop (Can, 1:57.43) picked the right time to have the race of her life when she finished second and won silver in Beijing.

22 year old Renelle Lamote of France (1:58.01) ran better in her semi-final race in Beijing than the final (interestingly, as did Bishop); turn that around and she might be standing on the podium.

Ajee Wilson, US, 1:57.67, and World Indoor silver medalist this March, has been the runner of the future since she was a precocious 12-year-old. This is her great opportunity to put it all together at last on the world stage.

Last year’s World champion, Maryna Arzamasova of Belarus, has been quiet on the world scene this year with only two fifth place finishes on the Diamond League trail, while Cuba has quite a history in this event and sends three runners in the tradition of Ana Fidelia Quirot: Rose Mary Almanza (1:57.70), Sahily Diago (1:57.74), and Lisneidy Veitia (1:58.93).

Kate Grace, US, is peaking perfectly and is a canny strategist who gets the most out of each race. She ran a 1:59.1 PR to win the US Olympic Trials and she kept her cool while many were losing theirs. A drop of a second will be required to medal; it’s well within her capabilities.

The OK Corral has got nothing on this battle for bronze.

1. Caster Semenya, RSA
2. Francine Niyonsaba, BDI
3. Eunice Sum, Ken

M Javelin
The men’s ’15 World Championships javelin was one of the greatest stories of the meet. The podium trio of Julius Yego (Ken), Ihab Abdelrahman (Egy), and Tero Pittkamaki (Fin) represented a historic shift in the event, which traditionally had been the province of Central and Northern European countries. In the 14 times the World Championships had been held, those countries had won 37 of the 42 medals. Now Africa reigned supreme with gold and silver, while traditional powerhouse Finland was represented with bronze.

So how is this trio faring one year later?

Yego has finished 2nd and 3rd in two of the Diamond League Meets he’s entered this year and has yet to notch a significant win. Sad to say that Abdelrahman just failed a drug test and is out of these Olympics.

Pittkamaki told me in a one-on-one interview in Beijing that this Olympic year means everything to him and that finishing his career with gold would be the capstone – the classic way to go out. The World Champion has four major meet medals to his credit - Olympic gold would round out his collection rather nicely. However, he finished 6th in the European Championships, over 10 meters off his personal best.

Guys, what gives?

Meanwhile, Antti Ruuskanen (Fin) launched an 88.23/289-5 giant at the European championships, where he finished 3rd in an event won by Sermais Zigismunds in 86.66/284-4. Huh? Ruuskanen threw it in qualifying, not finals. Meanwhile, Zigismunds, the Latvian wunderkind, has not entered a single Diamond League event this year, which makes head-to-head analysis a bit of a challenge.

Germany’s Thomas Rohler placed 4th in Beijing and is making good on the promise he showed there. The thrower of the future has become the thrower of the present. He owns 4 of the top 7 marks in the world this year, and has won two Diamond League meets (3 when you take Abdelrahman out). The only wrinkle in this is his drop to 5th at the Euro meet after having tossed a 91.28/299-6 world leader just before the competition.

Led by Rohler, Germany sends a strong team with Julian Weber hot at 88.04/288-10 on July 10th and Johannes Vetter just ahead of him in 88.23/289-5 in late June. A German sweep is not out of the question. Without fanfare, Jakub Vadlejch (CzR) won the London Diamond League, the last major meet before the Olympics, and was second in Shanghai in May – great bookends on a consistent season. Teammate Vitezslav Veseley was 2nd at Euros but does not have a deep season to back that up.

Must note Keshorn Wolcott of Trinidad, the shocking winner of gold in London at age 19. He’s been off the radar screen this season until… suddenly he was 2nd at London in the final meet before the Olympics. Could he do this twice?

Stat of the day: Pittkamaki has thrown in 5 World championships and finished 4-1-5-2-3 – yes, friends, that’s a total of 1-2-3-4-5.

1. Thomas Rohler (Ger)
2. Antti Ruuskanen (Fin)
3. Julius Yego (Ken)


Special note: at the conclusion of the men’s javelin there will be a spelling test on the competitors’ names.


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