Friday, August 19, 2016

Day 8 - Olympic Track+Field

Fearless Picks and Predictions

for events beginning on
Day 8 – Friday, August 19

M 50k Walk
There is always a risk in being repetitive when evaluating the walks, as so many racewalkers cross over and do both the 50k and 20k. There is little action on the 50k front so far this year, as racewalking 31.1 miles is a little like running a marathon, only farther. You don’t want to do it too often, and you want to save yourself for the year’s biggest race.

Andres Chocho (Ecu) walked a 3:42:57 PR and South American record to win the Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, race in early March, while Portugal’s Rafal Augustin won the Dudince, Slovakia, race two weeks later in 3:43:22. I’d be leaning more heavily to Chocho for a medal here if he weren’t doubling back from the 20k, which is held first.

Italian drug baron Alex Schwazer, just back from a four-year positive-test suspension, blew the field away in the Rome Team Race Walking Challenge in 3:39:00 to win by 3:36 over Australia’s Jared Tallent. The ever-defiant Schwazer promptly tested positive again and is so outta these Olympics – and with some luck, the sport for good. (That he cost me a retroactive gold medal pick in the London Games is the least of his many crimes… well, maybe not the least…)

Majeth Toth (Svk) won the World title in Beijing in 3:40:32, and none other than Jared Tallent was second in 3:42:17. Japan’s Takayuki Tanii led his team to a 3-4 finish with a 3:42:55, with Hiroki Arai 4th in 3:43:44. Moscow gold medalist Robert Heffernan (Ire) was 5th.

France’s Johann Diniz is the world record holder at 3:32:33, while Toth is 3rd on the all-time list at 3:34:38. Diniz has a terrible record in major meets: a DQ and a DNF in the last two Olympics, and a DNF in the ’11 World Championship race in Daegu. Still, he leads the yearly list at 3:37:48 from his win at the French Championships in March. He will either medal or evaporate; anything in between is unlikely.

Toth has had great consistency in major meets and has finished in the top 8 in the last four, including his Beijing win. What is notable about his Beijing race is that he led almost literally from start to finish for the entire 50k.

Jared Tallent (Aus) withdrew from the 20k here in Rio to give a gimpy hamstring another week to heal. Nonetheless, he is a terrific big-meet competitor. With ’08 Olympic silver and ’12 gold, and two silvers and a bronze in Worlds (and this is just the 50k), he is one of the most decorated walkers in history.

There’s a big gap on the yearly lists between Diniz’s 3:37:48 and the second place of Zhendong Wang of China at 3:41:02 from the Huangshan race in March. China sends a strong team with ’15 Worlds 6th and 7th placers Lin Zhang and Wei Yu, in addition to Wang.

It’s interesting to note that so many of the recent major 50k walks have been won in 3:40+ times, unlike the many gaudy but suspect sub-3:40 times in an event riddled with drugs.

So what does this look like? Toth handily won Worlds and flew to his 3:34 at home in Dudince in 2015. Tallent shows up on the medal stand almost every time he races, but is gimpy coming in. China and Japan send ever-improving teams. Diniz is faster than anyone else but blows up in major races. At the same time, any one of 5-7 walkers could drop their PR by 2-3 minutes and grab an unexpected medal. For that category, I like the rapidly improving Chocho.

1. Matej Toth, Slo
2. Jared Tallent, Aus
3. Andres Chocho, Ecu

W 20k Walk
Much to the delight of the hometown crowd in Beijing – and a live national television audience to boot – China won gold and silver in the women’s race walk in the ’15 World Championship race. Hong Liu and Xiuzhi Lu had the same time of 1:27:45, but Liu had the all-important win.

As with the men’s 20k walk, the IAAF Race Walk series helps us sort things out. Coming off her Beijing win, this year Liu has won both of her races, one a major title in the World Team Race Walking Championships. The third member of China’s Olympic team is Shenjie Qieyang, silver medalist in the London Olympics in a swift 1:25:16. In her four races this year, she has finished 1-2-3-4, including 3rd in the world team race in Rome.

China may well sweep this race; Liu is clearly having the best year of the three, with Qieyang not far behind. Lu has finished 2nd and 6th in her two 20k races and is certainly in the podium mix.

6th in Beijing was Erica de Sena, who took bronze at the team championships in May in 1:27:18, 4th on the world list behind the three Chinese. It’s a huge breakthrough and just at the right time for a member of one of race walking’s two great couples.

Australia’s Rachel and Jared Tallent are one; de Sena and her partner Andres Chocho of Ecuador are the other. Chocho could well break through and medal in the men’s 50k, though I think de Sena has the better medal chance of the two.

De Sena needs to beat at least one of the Chinese to medal, and her 1:27:18 is 49 seconds faster than Xiuzhi’s best time this year. Note, however, that the breakthrough race of the year goes to Mexico’s Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez, whose 2nd place 1:26:17 in Rome is an Area Record and cause for concern in the upper echelons of this discipline.

One of the exciting prospects in the race is the multi-talented Anezka Drahotova (Cze), who is as good on a bicycle as she is on the walking - and running - roads. The ’14 World Junior Champion has not yet fulfilled her promise in racewalking; will this be the race?

Oh yes, just one other detail about this South American couple of Chocho and de Sena

De Sena is from Brazil.

Don’t you just love the universe sometimes?

1. Hong Liu, Chn
2. Shenjie Qieyang,Chn
3. Erica de Sena, Bra
W 4x400m relay
The women’s 4x400m race between Jamaica and the United States at the World Championships last year ranks as one of the finest events of the meet. Jamaica’s ageless wonder Novlene Williams-Mills anchored in 49.14 to Francene McCorory’s 49.93. While that sounds like a substantial margin, it was just enough as Williams-Mills passed McCorory with 30 meters to go and Jamaica won by a scant .31, 3:19.13 to 3:19.44.

While it may seem unkind to say that no one else was in this race, it’s not intended that way – it’s just a realistic assessment of the fact that when 3rd is 4.18 seconds behind 2nd – a margin of over a second a lap – well, no other team made a difference in determining the winner.

Great Britain was 3rd in 3:23.62, and they and usual suspects Nigeria, France, Ukraine, and Canada will be in the mix. The event isn’t run often before major meets except on the US collegiate circuit, and until the European Championships, Arkansas’ 3:25.48 run in the NCAA West Regional (when you think west you think Arkansas, right?) topped the world lists. Great Britain now leads Arkansas by .43.

With Jamaica having scared 3:18 last year, it begs the question of records.

The world record is 3:15.17 by the Soviet Union in 1988. Olga Nazarova (400m bronze) ran the second leg in 47.82, which is nice work if you can get it, and Olga Bryzgina (400m gold) anchored in 47.80, which is even nicer. To be clear, those are not typos.

OK, then, how about the Olympic Record?

That 3:15.17 is the Olympic record, run in 1988 in Seoul.

How about the American record?

It’s 3:15.51 for silver in the Seoul final.

Here is what the top two teams bring to the table; these are 400m PRs:

Jamaica
Christine Day 50.14
Shericka Jackson 49.99
Stephanie Ann McPherson 49.92
Novlene Williams-Mills 49.63

US
Allyson Felix 49.26
Phyllis Francis 49.94
Natasha Hastings 49.84
Francena McCrorory 49.48
Courtney Okolo 49.71
Taylor Ellis-Watson 50.25

With a half second or so for each of the three running starts, US looks like a team that could dip into the 3:17 range, while Jamaica looks like a team headed for the 3:18s. Note that both teams can add depth, especially in qualifying, with terrific 400m hurdlers.

And note that Felix split 47.72 at ’15 Worlds – on the third leg, leaving the world to wonder why on earth she was not on anchor.

1. United States
2. Jamaica
3. Great Britain

M 4x400m Relay
Quick! Which sprinting powerhouse has 7 men at 46.00 or faster – led by a 43.72 and a 44.22? Stay tuned, the answer will surprise you.

The United States is the favorite in this event even though Bahamas defeated them in the 2012 London Olympics. In 2008, Bahamas won silver, so their 2012 performance was not a one-off. Nonetheless, the US has dominated this event over time, with 16 golds and 3 silvers.

What has the US done since London? How about two World titles with wins over Jamaica and Russia in 2013 – in Moscow, no less – and in 2015 over Trinidad and Great Britain in Beijing. With its usual deep field coming out of the US Olympic Trials, led by Rio 400m bronze medalist LaShawn Merritt, the US is a strong favorite in this event.

Who leads the world list? Why that would be the independent republic of Louisiana State, NCAA champs, whose seasonal best of 3:00.38 is faster than Belgium, Poland, and Great Britain; those teams occupied the European Championships podium in that order in a modest low-3:01 range. Great Britain ran without its two best, including ’15 World championships anchor Martin Rooney, who ran a nifty 43.97 in the Beijing Worlds to nip Jamaica for bronze.

And if you really have guts? The US should put Ashton Eaton on the relay. His PR is 45.00. And Jamaica - how about Usain Bolt?

At ’15 Worlds, Botswana ran 2:59.95 and did not advance to finals. That’s tough company. With 800m star Nigel Amos, Baboldki Thebe who ran 44.22 at altitude this year, and 400m star Isaac Makwala whose PR is a track-melting 43.72, I have them at 2:58.75 based on PRs, all from block starts.

Give Botswana a second based on running passes instead of stationary starts and what do you get? A time .07 faster than the US winning time at ’15 Worlds. Depth? This is the squad with 7 at 46.00 or better. What a story this would be…

1. United States
2. Great Britain

3. Botswana

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