Time for show of speed and power

A clutch of track and field super stars, including sprint king Usain Bolt, set to rock the world

Twice in the last three years, the rangy Jamaican showman treated the world to wonderful exhibitions of his sprinting powers. Beijing 2008 and Berlin 2009 stand as milestones in sprinting history, thanks to his achievements that are nothing less than stunning.

Three gold medals at the Olympic Games and three more at the World Championships have lifted Bolt to the ranks of the sprinting greats of all-time, but the man himself doesn’t consider himself a legend, at least not yet. Daegu, for him, is another step towards that journey and on the eve of the championships, athletics fans worldwide can only wonder what that step might be.

“A lot of people have said I am a legend but I don’t look at it like that,” Bolt said the other day in Daegu, explaining that defending the territory was vital for him to be considered a legend. “Other people have won championships and other people have broken records. But only a few have repeated that year in, year out. Especially in the sprints, it’s really hard to win and win again four years later. That is what it’s going to take to become a legend.”

Three more gold medals in Daegu will certainly push him closer to that goal and his chase got a shade easier on Thursday when compatriot Asafa Powell pulled out of the 100M. Though Powell has no big reputation as a championship performer, Bolt will breathe a bit easy, for the champion himself has not scorched the tracks this season.

With a season’s best of only 9.88 seconds, Bolt doesn’t even top the year’s charts in the 100M but in 200, it’s a different story with the Jamaican sitting pretty with a 19.86. Bolt might have admitted that he is not in ‘tip-top’ shape but since his return from injury, he has been meticulously building up to these championships and it won’t be a surprise to see him stay ahead of his rivals once again in the final on Sunday.

Powell’s pull-out means Trinidad and Tobago’s Richard Thompson – who ran a 9.85 at his country’s national championships – and Jamaican Michael Frater (season’s best of 9.88) will be Bolt’s main challengers in the short sprint while the longer dash looks very much in the sprint king’s comfort zone.

On the new blue track at the Daegu stadium nestled in the lap of hills, Bolt will not be the only one challenging his limits, with an array of classy performers lining up to bring gloss to the biennial fiesta. A clutch of hot rivalries, intriguing comeback attempts and daring trips to the unknown lurk behind the giant shadow of the Jamaican, ready to burst forth and steal the spotlight.

Right at the top of the list is Allyson Felix, the three-time 200M defending champion aiming to become the first woman to do the 200-400 double at the Worlds. A tight programme and the presence of worthy rivals in fellow American Sanya Richards-Ross and Botswana’s Amantle Montsho did trigger doubts in Felix’s mind, but that didn’t deter her.

“I was torn with deciding if I wanted to have fresh legs to defend my 200M title an unprecedented fourth time. Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone and try something different,” Felix, who will also run the 4x400M relay, wrote in the IAAF online diary earlier this month.

A similar but more daunting challenge beckons Kenenisa Bekele, the four-time defending champion in the 10000M. Going for an unprecedented fifth title, the great Ethiopian has not even run a competitive race for close to two years but has put his record of never having lost over this distance on the line against challengers like red-hot Briton Mo Farah.

“I have worked hard and I hope I can do well,” said the world record holder, also the defending 5000M champion, as he quietly slipped into Daegu on Friday night. “I feel fit and may even go for the double, depending on the 10000M verdict.”

The 110M hurdles pitting Liu Xiang, Dayron Robles and David Oliver for the first time in a championship race and pole vault ace Yelena Isinbayeva’s desire to erase the blot of not clearing a height in Berlin could also light up the arena but even as they struggle for a piece of yellow metal, one man will walk away with gold for sheer grit even before the first race is run.

Oscar Pistorius, the ‘fastest man on no legs’ may not even make it to the final of the men’s 400M but as he lines up for the qualifying rounds, applause is due for the South African Blade Runner for exemplifying the never-say-die spirit on which this sport thrives.

WATCH THEM CLOSELY
* Men: 100M & 200M: No one can touch Usain Bolt in his prime. He is not there yet but his feats of Berlin, when he hoisted world marks of 9.58 in 100M and 19.19 in the 200, mean you can’t turn your focus away when the Jamaican is on the track.

* 400M: Kirani James of Grenada, the world junior champion, awaits his coronation in a race where defending champion LaShawn Merritt is returning after a doping suspension. The man to watch out for is, though, is double amputee Oscar Pistorius, in the qualifying rounds for having made it here, earning the right to compete with normal athletes.

* 800M: David Rudisha vs Abubaker Kaki. The Kenyan has the world record (1:41.01) but no world title yet, having faltered in the semifinal in 2009. Kaki, from Sudan, has the class to challenge Rudisha and the Kenyan has to be wary of the lurking threat.

* 10000M: Mo Farah vs Kenenisa Bekele. Farah, the double European champion, is in the form of his life. No one knows what form Bekele is in but he has a big reputation to protect. This is one race you don’t want to miss.

* 110M hurdles: Liu Xiang, The 2004 Olympic champ, has fought back from injury brilliantly. Cuban Dayron Robles is the Olympic champion and the world record holder (12.87). David Oliver of the United States is the fastest this year at 12.94 seconds. Can the Chinese champion (PB 12.88) return to his glory days by trumping the other two in the first championship race featuring the big three? Tough to say but one thing is sure – sparks will fly in this race.

* Women: 100M & 200M: Carmelita Jeter, the third fastest over 100M at 10.64 seconds, needs the gold most, having won bronze medals in Berlin and Osaka. Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica will be her main threat in the shorter spring while the latter will be a serious threat in the 200M as well, where Allyson Felix is gunning for her fourth title.

* 400M: Sanya Richards-Ross (SB: 49.66), the defending champion, faces a stiff challenge here from Felix, Amantle Montsho of Botswana and Russian Anastasiya Kapachinskaya. Montsho (SB: 49.71) has made big strides this year while Kapachinskaya, the 200M champion in 2003, clocked a world leading 49.35 at the Russian Championships. A terrific three-way tussle.

* 5000 & 10000M: Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot is gunning for a double and is in top form. Her Ethiopian rivals seem to be on the wane. And after running a fabulous 14:20.87 in the 5000 earlier this season, she has promised a better show in Daegu. Compatriot Linet Masai will challenge her but more importantly, can Meseret Defar protect Ethiopia’s pride?

* Pole vault: Yelena Isinbayeva is struggling to reach the heights that made her famous. But after missing the last outdoor season, she has made an encouraging return.

Competition is intense at her current levels and the likes of Jennifer Suhr (USA, SB of 4.91) need extra watching. But the Russian is defiant. “I want to show that I am the best in the world and nothing has changed,” she said last month. The answer will come in the course of the week.

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