Of the 950 athletes competing in the test event here for the Olympic Games, perhaps only three can have a reasonable expectation of winning gold in August. Two were in action tonight, Liu Xiang qualifying with ease for tomorrow’s men’s 110m Hurdles final and Valerie Vili winning the women’s Shot Put.
In one of the few events at the “Good Luck Beijing 2008 China Athletics Open” which might loosely be described as world-class, Vili beat three good Chinese on home ground in the National Stadium. Li Ling, Li Meiju and Gong Lijiao were all top-seven finishers in the World Championships, in Osaka, last year.
However, it was New Zealander Vili who won in Osaka and she has since added the World Indoor title to a long list of achievements for a 23-year-old. As Valerie Adams, before her marriage to discus thrower Bertrand Vili, she was World Youth champion in 2001 and World Junior champion in 2002.
Fifth in the 2003 World Championships, and third in 2005, Vili continued along her path of progress by taking the 2006 Commonwealth Games title and producing a dramatic last-round victory over defending champion Nadezhda Ostapchuk, from Belarus, in Osaka. Her Commonwealth record 20.54 that day remains her best mark.
After setting a new Commonwealth indoor record at the World Indoors in Valencia (20.19) Vili went to work on improving her technique. It is work in progress which, she said, restricted her to a winning throw of 19.41 tonight. Gong, seventh in Osaka behind Li Ling (4th) and Li Meiji (6th), was the best of the three tonight, runner-up with 19.09.
“It’s not a major competition and I have made a few changes to my technique which I’m working on,” Vili said. “This is the first time I’ve tried it in competition. There’s always room for improvement and we are trying to find those ways. I’ve got two or three months to develop and master it. I’m very confident with how it is going.”
Vili was asked whether, during the competition, she had imagined herself back here in three months time on the rostrum. An emphatic “no” was her answer. “It will be a totally different atmosphere, so many countries and so many different flags other than China’s.”
Although Vili described the new 91,000 seat stadium as “very nice”, she was not entirely happy. In contrast to the stream of positive comments from home athletes, she said: “What we were told was a different story to what we are seeing here.
“We were told the facilities were all going to be done but there are a lot of disappointments in a lot of areas which need to be improved before the Olympic Games. The weights room was poor, they don’t have Olympic bars, and there were no shots available to warm-up with. But I’m happy to take the win and move on from here.”
Vili was not New Zealand’s only success as Stuart Farquhar won the men’s Javelin (79.61). Australians Robert Crowther, in the Long Jump (7.94), and Mark Ormrod, in the 400m (46.45), and Japan’s Asami Tanno, in the women’s 400m (52.51) were the only other non Chinese winners on a night of 13 finals. Almost a full programme of track and field is being condensed into four days.
Eight Chinese wins, but biggest applause for Liu Xiang
The best of China’s eight winners were Zhang Peimeng’s triumph in the men’s 100m (10.23) and Zheng Xingjuan in the women’s High Jump (1.91). A second-evening crowd of 26,000 (22,000 on the first night) gave them every encouragement but the biggest applause once again was for Liu.
Despite a false start in his semi-final, which caused him to put his hand across his face in embarrassment, Lui was the fastest athlete into the sprint hurdles final (13.46). Shi Dongpeng, who was fifth in the World Championships in Osaka, is Liu’s likely closest challenger.
The only other likely candidate for an Olympic gold medal who chose to compete here is Zhou Chunxia, the 2007 World Championships Marathon runner-up, who was fifth in the 10,000m yesterday.
David Powell for the IAAF