Melbourne, AustraliaSuch is the quality of the entry list it’s hard to forecast the likely highlight of Thursday night’s Melbourne Track Classic (4), which is as it should be for the opening meeting of the IAAF World Challenge series.
Steve Hooker, Dani Samuels and Valerie Vili come to Melbourne as reigning World champions (Hooker and Vili as Olympic champions, too) but face only token opposition in their events. Asbel Kiprop and Nick Willis, the Beijing Olympic gold and silver medallists at 1500 metres face each other for the first time since, and must also contend with a group of up-and-coming Australians.
David Rudisha, whose 1:42.01 in Rieti last year made him the fourth-fastest man ever over 800 metres, is predicting a 1:43 clocking in Melbourne, a prediction that has been lost somewhat in the hype surrounding the 1500.
Besides Vili and Samuels, the field also boasts a strong javelin contest between Finland’s 2007 World champion Tero Pitkämäki and Australia’s Beijing sixth placegetter Jarrod Bannister.
Speaking at the John Landy Lunch to launch the Melbourne meeting, Pitkämäki suggested he would be after a performance in the 85-90 metre range. Bannister, who was next in line to comment, added with a straight face that he would be shooting for something between 86 and 91.
And the forecast is for a warm day, which should favour the explosive events but cool off enough into the evening to please the middle-distance athletes, too.
Suffice to say, that whoever comes up with the outstanding performance of the Melbourne Track Classic will have to go some indeed.
Ben Offereins, the youngster who won a senior Australian title back in 2005 before experiencing several lean years, is back with a vengeance. In Sydney last Saturday, he became the seventh-fastest Australian man at 400 metres with his 44.88. Reigning national champion Sean Wroe wants top spot back and David Neville of the USA, a bronze medallist in Beijing, will not want to leave Australia with a mere 45.90 against his name.
In the women’s one-lapper, Tamsyn Lewis will come up against Jody Henry, who almost upset her more experience rival earlier in the year, and Berlin 2009 relay team members Madeleine Pape and Caitlyn Pincott.
Sally McLellan is likely to restrict herself to the 200 metres only, and is looking for a sub-23 second time to qualify her for Commonwealth Games selection in that event.
Just one hurdles race on the programme, but it features veteran Jamaican Danny McFarlane in the men’s 400m Hurdles. The Athens 2004 silver medallist ran 49.12 in Sydney and could produce a sub-49 in Melbourne.
The Pole Vault should be all about how high Hooker can go and that may depend how effectively he can convert his improved runway speed to vertical displacement. If he gets it right, as he almost did in Sydney, a six-metre clearance is not beyond the world and Olympic champion.
Valerie Vili was only 12 centimetres short of the Australian all-comers’ record in Sydney and, like Hooker, is looking to go to the IAAF World Indoor Championships on a high. That will have to be sufficient to motivate her to a big performance, because the competition is not in Vili’s class.
Samuels, too, lacks rivals to push her. But that did not stop the youngest ever world champion in the event from producing a personal best 65.84 in Sydney. Given good conditions, she could push out to and beyond the 66-metres mark in Melbourne.
Pitkämäki is on his first visit to Australia and throwing as early in the year as he has ever done. But he went 84.64 in Sydney (81.15 for Bannister) and Melbourne may see him throwing still further. For what it’s worth, the best mark your correspondent has been able to find by a Finn in Australia is the 86.62 Aki Parviainen, the 1999 World champion, threw for fifth place in the Sydney Olympics.
Mitchell Watt has been the form man of the Australian summer and is looking to go somewhere close to Jai Taurima’s national Long Jump record of 8.49 metres. The World Championships bronze medallist might need something like that against Berlin fourth placegetter Fabrice Lapierre and Trevell Quinley of the USA.
Ryan Gregson, winner of the 1500 in Sydney in a personal best 3:35.42, drops down in distance and he and Lachlan Renshaw will lead the local challenge to Rudisha. The Kenyan will be paced by his teammate Sammy Tangui in quest of a 1:43 time. The Australian all-comers’ mark of 1:43.97, set in this meeting by the late David Lelei in 2000, is under serious threat.
Collis Birmingham, second to Gregson in Sydney, turns his attention to 5000 metres, where he will come up against New Zealand record holder Adrian Blincoe and Ben St Lawrence.
Zatopek 10,000 winner Eloise Wellings meets Benita Willis and Nikki Chapple in the women’s 5000. Willis won the Australian world cross-country selection trial, Chapple recently won the Marugame Half Marathon in Japan, but Wellings has had their measure on the track.
Then it is over to the men’s 1500, where Kiprop and Willis will battle it out against Australian champion Jeff Riseley, Berlin representative Jeremy Roff and Beijing Olympian Mitch Kealey. It looks the race of the night, and Kiprop’s pre-race talk of a 3:32, if fulfilled, would make it so. The all-comers’ record is the 3:31.25 Hicham El Guerrouj ran in Melbourne at the 2001 IAAF Grand Prix Final.
Len Johnson for the IAAF