Thessaloniki, GreeceWhoever confirmed the timetable for the first day’s action at the IAAF / VTB Bank World Athletics Final wanted to start proceedings with a bang, because we have the women’s Hammer Throw and Pole Vault, two events which have seen World records* in the past month.
Sadly the new Hammer World record holder Anita Wlodarczyk is out with a damaged left ankle, but Betty Heidler was within a metre of the Pole’s new mark (77.96m) in Berlin and must feel a record is within her grasp. After her disappointment at the World Championships , Yelena Isinbayeva showed with her 5.06m vault in Zürich that she is still improving after all.
No-one will be surprised if she were to attempt 5.07 at the Kaftanzoglio.
The significance of this World record speculation is of course that there is a bonus of $100,000 for those who can break (rather than equal) a world record, and if anyone thinks that athletes must be too tired at this time of the year then think back to Stuttgart 2008 when Barbora Spotaková set new figures of 72.28 in the Javelin Throw.
The Czech will be in action again on day one, but whatever the winning mark, the event will be greatly significant as it will be the final ever competition of Steffi Nerius. The 37-year-old German will retire at the very top, having just become World Champion last month. So for the second year, the IAAF / VTB Bank World Athletics Final will be the farewell contest of one of the sport’s all-time greats. In 2008 it was high jumper Stefan Holm, but the international career of Nerius stretches back even further than the Swede’s. She was European junior bronze medallist as long ago as 1991 ... in Thessaloniki. I am reliably informed that the German for having come full circle is “zurück zum ursprung”.
Steffi’s goodbye might be the emotional highlight of the day, but there are plenty of chances for further defining moments of the season, let alone the meeting. There will be the World Championship revenge matches: Bekele versus Lagat at 3000m quickly followed by Harting versus Malachowski in the Discus Throw. In both cases the World Championship silver medallists got their noses in front in Berlin with the finish in sight, only to be overhauled by opponents who refused to be beaten. There’s no reason not to expect a pair of thrilling sequels.
In the women’s 5000m, it is more a case of national retribution rather than individual revenge. In Berlin not only did Kenyans out-kick Ethiopians for the first time at that level, but they took places 1-2-6 to Ethiopia’s 3-4-5. The same six go again in Thessaloniki, but now Ethiopia will strike back with their heaviest artillery. Not only will a rested Meseret Defar attempt to add to her record total of seven wins from this meeting, but the mighty Tirunesh Dibaba is scheduled to start what would be only her third race of the season.
Statisticians will have their stopwatches cocked at the bell because the final lap – covered in 58.62 by Vivian Cheruiyot in Berlin – should be another scorcher. Involved will be all the World or Olympic champions in this event since 2003.
Another mouth-watering clash – and at a much greater speed – is set for the women’s 200m. It is one which no promoter has yet managed to assemble at this event: Allyson Felix v Sanya Richards v Kerron Stewart. Richards will be moving down in distance, Stewart will be moving up from her speciality this year. Add in Debbie Ferguson McKenzie and Shericka Williams and we have five individual Berlin medallists in one race.
It is a feature of the first day that there are few clear-cut favourites on the track, apart from LaShawn Merritt who looks likely to win the 400m by rather more than the 0.01 margin he enjoyed over Jeremy Wariner (not here) at this corresponding meeting last year. The men’s 400m Hurdles may well be more competitive with Kerron Clement facing local star Perikles Iakovakis, who has promised something “ambitious” following on from a successful training test on Wednesday.
The other hurdles event – for women at 100 metres – promises to be even closer if Zurich and Brussels are anything to go by. There are no signs of fatigue among the principals with Brigitte Foster-Hylton, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep and Dawn Harper all running in the high 12.4s since Berlin and Delloreen Ennis-London not far behind. In this race more than any other, the merest fraction of a second at the finish will translate into thousands of dollars difference in prize money.
The day’s closing two events feature two veterans of the World Athletics Final, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi and Asafa Powell.
Mulaudzi, has never missed a World Athletics Final, and his victory in Berlin was entirely of his own making, having taken up the pace in the final and held off all-comers. If anyone can thrive in an un-rabbited race such as the one in prospect, it should be him. Though this time he faces the new African record holder David Rudisha.
Powell is another whose limelight has been taken in recent months, but the Jamaican has quietly been adding to his reputation as one of the greatest-ever 100m runners. No other man has more World Athletic Final victories as Powell (five), and no other man ever will. No other man has broken 10 seconds as often as Powell (57). It is going to take some headwind to stop us seeing #58 (minus 1.5 wasn’t enough in Rieti), but even if Powell can beat the wind, can he defeat Tyson Gay? That is the last question which will be answered by a fascinating session of athletics.
Mark Butler for the IAAF
*World records subject to usual ratification procedures