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Coming exactly four weeks prior to the start of the athletics programme at the Summer Olympic Games in London, the 2012 Samsung Diamond League will reach its midway point with the Meeting Areva at the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris on Friday night (6) where several stars aiming for Olympic greatness will be making their final tune-ups before tackling the big stage in London.
Rudisha – World record assault?
At the moment, no star on the programme in the French capital looms larger than David Rudisha, the reigning World champion in the 800m, whose every appearance on the track is met with speculation of an assault on his own World record in the event. Given his recent displays – a dazzling 1:41.74 victory in New York’s Diamond League fixture and a dizzying 1:42.12 victory at altitude at the Kenyan trials – such speculation is not out of place. Even the 23-year-old himself doesn’t discount the possibility of setting the first-ever World record at the Paris meeting during his first visit to the City of Lights.
"I’m in good shape," Rudisha understated, with a delivery more akin to a comedian presenting a deadpan punch line than a statement of fact from a prohibitive Olympic favourite. "In New York, I wasn’t expecting to run 1:41. I was planning to do 1:42 and then building up slowly. I just found myself flowing nicely and I did 1:41. And that tells me I’m in good shape. And to run in Nairobi 1:42 at altitude is not something easy, I was just feeling comfortable."
While he confirmed that his pacesetter Sammy Tangui’s assignment is to bring him through the first lap in under 48.9, Rudisha isn’t promising that he’ll further lower his 1:41.01 standard, but did offer a reminder of the kind of mid-summer shape he displayed prior to the first of two World records he set the year before last.
"In July I was already running 1:41. I think I’m in that kind of shape and I’m confident."
On paper, Rudisha is nearly three seconds faster than the rest of the field, with compatriot Alfred Kirwa Yego closest at 1:44.49. Meanwhile, local eyes will be on Pierre-Ambroise Bosse, the 20-year-old Frenchman who raced to European bronze in Helsinki last week and improved to 1:44.97 early last month.
Exuding cautious confidence, Pearson looking to improve world lead
Like Rudisha, Sally Pearson left Daegu with her first World title last year, but outdid the Kenyan by taking the World Athlete of the Year honours as well for her season-long rise in the 100m Hurdles. The 25-year-old Australian has picked up where she left off, producing three of the season’s four fastest times and itching for another fast race – and a second 2012 Diamond League victory – in Paris.
"You always want to go out and run faster, so yeah, another 12.4 would be great," said Pearson, who has clocked 12.49 twice in 2012.
She’ll be challenged by London-bound UK record holder Tiffany Porter (12.65 SB); Ginnie Crawford (12.66 SB), who’s likely to be a London alternate after her fourth place finish a the US trials; and another American, Kristi Castlin, who pushed Pearson to the line in Oslo.
Local spotlight on Lavillenie and Lemaitre
Meeting director Laurent Boquillet admitted that the event’s timing, coming less than a week after high level Olympic trials in the U.S. and Jamaica and continental championships in Africa and Europe, presented its share of challenges. In spite of the difficulties, he and his team have managed to attract a full slate of leading athletes looking to fine tune their preparations with the London Games clearly on the horizon, among them eight world leaders including Rudisha and Pearson.
One of those seven, Renaud Lavillenie, is among the meeting’s poster boys, who’ll be taking centre stage just five days after his thrilling victory at the European Championships.
In Helsinki Lavillenie topped out at 5.97m after a thrilling duel in which he was pushed by Germany’s Bjorn Otto who improved his career best to 5.92m. Otto, his teammate Malte Mohr (5.91m SB, PB), and Cuba’s World silver medallist Lazaro Borges, will be hoping to rain on his home court parade. Lavillenie, along with the expected crowd of 40,000, is simply hoping that the rain in the forecast stays away.
"My goal for tomorrow? To jump and not get wet. Then we’ll see about the performances."
Christophe Lemaitre is another of the meeting’s main draws, but he’ll have his hands full in a 100m contest that features three of the top four finishers from the U.S. trials. The French record holder successfully defended his 100m title last week, but his 10.04 season’s best is at least a gear (or two) behind the form illustrated by U.S. champion Justin Gatlin (9.80 SB) and 2007 World champion Tyson Gay (9.86 SB).
Lemaitre suggested at a press conference yesterday that he’s targeting his first sub-10. Gay is aiming for his first major win of the season, while Gatlin is looking to remain undefeated after victories in Doha, Daegu, Rabat and Eugene. [For more with Lemaitre and Gay, see yesterday's press conference story here.]
Koech and Chemos the favourites in the Steeplechase contests
Both Steeplechase fields feature the year’s fastest: Milcah Chemos, the Kenyan trials winner who is London-bound, and Paul Kipsiele Koech, who is hoping to convince selectors that his lone off day this year came at those Trials where he finished a distant seventh.
Besides that hiccup at altitude, where he generally doesn’t race well, Koech has been without peer on the circuit so far this season. Opening with a fast 7:56.58 win in Doha, he ran faster still in Rome where he threatened the World record with a 7:54.31 performance which elevated the 30-year-od to No. 3 all-time. He then took an easy 8:06.71 win in early June in northern France but was thirty seconds slower two weeks ago in Nairobi, and 25 seconds behind winner Brimin Kipruto, the reigning Olympic champion. Here Koech will again take on Kipruto, as well as Richard Mateelong (7:56.81 PB, SB) and has requested a World record pace.
In the women’s race, Chemos, who’s clocked a 9:07.14 African record this season, will be looking for her fourth Samsung Diamond League victory of the season after triumphs in Shanghai, Eugene and Oslo. Organisers have attracted Ethiopians Sofia Assefa and Hiwot Ayelew, at 9:09.00 and 9:09.61 the second and third fastest of the season. Turkey’s Gulcan Mingir, who’s clocked 9:13.53 this season and took the gold medal at the Europeans last week, is also in the field. Here too a fast pace has been requested.
Can Aregawi’s momentum continue?
The women's 1500m features one of this season's breakout middle distance finds in the guise of Ethiopian Abebe Aregawi, who celebrates her 22nd birthday today (5 July). After opening with a strong 3:59.23 run for second behind compatriot Genzebe Dibaba's national record in Shanghai, Aregawi returned the favour in Rome 12 days later with a 3:56.54 national record and world leader of her own. She followed up with a victory in Oslo and is hoping for another fast race here to extend her Diamond Race lead.
The top notch field aiming to bring Aregawi down a notch includes Kenyan Helen Obiri who's clocked a PB 3:59.68 this season; Moroccan No. 1 Ibtissam Lakhouad (4:01.69 SB); and Kenyan trials runner-up Eunice Sum, who more recently took second over 800m at the African Championships.
Men’s 5000m - Bekele’s last stand?
With Sunday’s deadline for Olympic qualification fast approaching, there’s a lot on the line in the men’s 5000m, most notably for reigning Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele.
After three sub-par showings over the distance this season, Bekele will have to convince Ethiopian selectors that he is not only over the calf injuries that slowed him over the past few seasons, but that he is indeed up to the task of defending is Olympic title. At the least, he'll have to finish among the top three Ethiopians in the race, and he'll quite likely have to be very fast. Pace-setters have been given a 12:50 assignment, a pace Bekele said he'll be comfortable with.
"I can do that," he said. "I'm feeling confident."
Five men in the field have dipped below 13 minutes this season, a dozen during their careers. Among the quickest this season are Hagos Gebrhiwet (12:58.99 SB, PB), Dejen Gebremeskel (12:58.92 SB)) and Tariku Bekele (13:00.41, SB), all Ethiopians. Given the elder Bekele's stature in the sport, this may be the most dramatic contest of the night.
Montsho riding high
World champion and Diamond Race leader Amantle Montsho tops the field in the women’s 400m, six days after she collected a second consecutive African title. And she illustrated solid form as well, clocking a national record 49.54 in Benin to win unchallenged by more than a second-and-a-half.
Her chief competition should come from Novlene Williams-Mills, the Jamaican trials winner (50.60), one of the few athletes from the island nation to make the trip to Paris, and who beat Montsho in Shanghai. The 30-year-old has a 49.78 season's best. Keep an eye on Christine Ohuruogo, the defending Olympic champ who'll be looking to improve on her 50.69 season's best.
Rounding out the sprint programme is the women’s 200m which organisers hope will be a showcase to celebrate the European bronze medal won by Myriam Soumare, although she’ll be expecting a tough battle from rising sprint star Murielle Ahoure of Cote D’Ivoire, the Diamond Race leader after her 22.42 PB in Oslo. Ahoure, who struck 60m silver at the World Indoor Championships this year, collected a surprise 100m win at Rome’s Golden Gala where she clocked a PB 11.00.
The men’s 400m Hurdles features a square off between World champion Dai Greene and Javier Culson of Puerto Rico, the 2009 and 2011 World silver medallist and current world leader at 47.92.
Culson is unbeaten in four races this season while Greene has won just once in three starts and has a more modest 48.98 season's best.
The next fastest this season is former World champion Bershawn Jackson who finished a disappointing fourth at the U.S. Trials, just 0.05 seconds from an Olympic ticket.
Vesely, Perkovic and Armstrong the class of the throws
Another world leader (88.11m) on the programme is Czech Vitezslav Vesely. Ending last season as one of the rising stars in the Javelin, the 29-year-old is building a record that could see him arrive in London as the Olympic favourite. Vesely has collected seven wins in eight starts this year, including the Shanghai and Oslo legs of the Samsung Diamond League and recently took the European title.
He’ll again face Latvian Vadims Vasilevskis (86.50 SB) and Finn Ari Mannio (84.31 SB), the bronze medallist in Helsinki.
The field in the women’s Discus Throw features another Helsinki winner, Croatia’s Sandra Perkovic who successfully defended her title. Perkovic, who improved her national record to 68.24m this season, is undefeated in seven starts, including Samsung Diamond League stops in Shanghai, Eugene and Oslo. Closest on paper is Cuban Yarelis Barrios who’s improved to 68.03m this season. Notable too is 2009 World champion Dani Samuels, who makes her second Samsung Diamond League start.
And in the men’s Shot Put, Canadian Dylan Armstrong is clearly the class of the field which also includes 21-metre men Joe Kovacs (21.08m, PB, SB) of the U.S. and Portugal’s Marco Fortes (21.02m, PB, SB).
Lowe vs Beitia in the High Jump
Returning to the jumps, Diamond Race leader Chaunte Lowe, who won in Shanghai and Oslo and took third in Eugene, resumes action after her victory at the U.S. championships where she scaled a season’s best of 2.01m. Here her primary challenger will be Spanish veteran Ruth Beitia who after seven years of fairly consistent podium finishes at continental and World championships indoors and out, finally collected her first major gold in Helsinki.
The women’s Long Jump field includes two who have leaped beyond seven metres this season: Russian Yelena Sokoleva and Janay Deloach of the U.S. Sokolova will compete just two days after her 7.06m victory at the Russian championships; Deloach, this year’s World indoor silver medallist, reached a wind-assisted 7.08m to finish third and secure her London ticket at the U.S. trials, and backed it up with a legal 7.03m. Local eyes will be watching Eloyse Lesueur, whose 6.81m season’s best propelled her to the European title last week.
And finally, in the men’s Triple Jump, Cuban Alexis Copello (17.17m SB) leads four men who’ve have sailed beyond 17 metres this summer.