Mark Butler for IAAF and Maebashi 99
Gail Devers has made a brilliant return from serious Achilles injury to dominate the 60m sprint this year. The American has seven of the eight quickest times of 1999. Only Merlene Ottey has been able to get reasonably near to Devers, in Liévin. The Jamaican veteran is a non-starter here so the way is clear for the American to pick up her third indoor world title. It would represent a record 10th World or Olympic gold medal for Devers, and would consolidate her strong claim to be the woman athlete of the 1990s.
Sevatheda Fynes (BAH) and Philomena Mensah (CAN) look to be equally clear candidates for the minor medals. No other women in Maebashi have cracked 7.10 this year.
Look for Nigeria to have two finalists. Endurance Ojokojo may improve on her 5th place two years ago, while 18 year-old Joan Uduak Ekah - as she prefers to be known - will be hoping to approach her new world junior best of 7.10.
This is not one of the strongest of events in Maebasi - half of the 1999 world indoor top 10 are missing, for various reasons. Svetlana Goncharenko (RUS) heads the world list at 22.73, but is not nearly so dominant as she was last year when she clocked 22.43 indoors. Romanias Ionela Tîrlea ran Goncharenko close in Liévin, from an inner lane, and may well opt for this distance rather than her more familiar 400m. Another Russian, Oksana Ekk, has raced extensively this year and should be in contention.
It looks as if Australias World Outdoor Champion Cathy Freeman will opt only for the relay here but even without her, a cracking race is in prospect. Multi-European Champion Grit Breuer (GER) is unbeaten at 400m this winter, as is Russias Olga Kotlyarova, who ran a quicker time than Breuer in a separate race at the Stuttgart meeting. So did the rapidly-improving Ana Guevara, who seems certain to become the first Mexican woman to contest a world indoor final.
If she declared, hurdler Tîrlea will be a big threat. Surely though she cannot run both the 200m and 400m; this would involve six races in three days with three on the first. Jearl Miles-Clark ran with superb judgement to win in 1997, but the American has yet to better 51 seconds this year
Mozambiques Maria Mutola bids for a fourth successive world indoor title, which would be a unique achievement for a woman. She has easily the three fastest times of the year, headed by her Commonwealth record of 1:57.06 in Liévin. One of Mutolas closest rivals will be Stephanie Graf, the Austrian whose pacing helped Mutola break the world indoor 1000m record in Stockholm last week.
The European Indoor Champion, Ludmila Formanová is also in fine form but the big threat to Mutola may prove to be the little-known Russian, Natalya Tsyganova. She beat Formanová in Budapest, in the process breaking the Russian indoor record which had belonged to Svetlana Masterkova since 1993.
No Ethiopian woman has ever finished among the first eight of a world indoor final; their best placing has been Kutre Dulechas ninth in the 1500m of 1997. The 20 year-old has since developed into one of the worlds top milers, with the ability to cope with a fast pace and produce a sprint finish. She established herself as favourite by outkicking none other than Gabriela Szabo in Stuttgart in a quick 4:04.88. Dulecha then shattered her best 800m time behind Maria Mutola in Birmingham, and could become only the second African woman after Mutola to win a world indoor title. Violeta Szekely (ROM) was third in Stuttgart and has the worlds fastest time of 1999, 4:04.37. She already has two world indoor silvers to her credit and is entered for both the 1500m and 3000m in Maebashi. Lidia Chojecka (POL) and Silvia Kühnemund (GER), respectively fourth and sixth in Paris, should be prominent again.
Gabiela Szabo has been in terrific form this winter, smashing the world 5000m record in Dortmund and running historys second-quickest 3000m in Liévin. Yet she cannot be regarded as an overwhelming favourite if Moroccos Zahra Ouaziz is among the starters. Ouaziz has improved massively since her ninth place at the 1995 World Indoors, and was close behind Szabo when the Romanian set the European outdoor 5000m record last year in Berlin. If she races one imagines that Ouaziz will set a fast pace, so perhaps we might just see a repeat of the 1989 final where Liz McColgan effectively paced Elly van Hulst to the very world record which Szabo just missed last month.
The new US indoor Champion Regina Jacobs, a former 1500m winner at these championships, is an intriguing entry while Wang Chunmei - the Asian 5000 Champion - is Chinas best track prospect of the weekend.
60 Metres Hurdles
After silvers in Atlanta, Budapest and the 1996 European indoors, Maebashi could provide a golden opportunity for Slovenias Brigita Bukovec. She has the worlds fastest time (7.78) but is 3-2 at 60m hurdles versus Kazakhstans Olga Shishigina, who won in Liévin with a new Asian record of 7.82. The African record has also been lowered to 7.82 by Nigerias Glory Alozie. She generally has a losing record to the big two, but defeated Shishigina in Dortmund. United States Champion Melissa Morrison completes a quartette which may produce as close a finish as in Paris 1997, when 0.02 covered the first four.
Monica Dinescu, as she prefers to be known, was clearly the worlds number one last year and in January set a best indoors or out of 2.03. She has won all six of her contests this year, but a couple of these have been on countback only. One such was Liévin, where both the Romanian and Russias Yulia Lyakhova cleared 1.95. Lyakhova is the only other woman higher than 2.00 this winter.
Last years world number two Tisha Waller has just won her third US indoor title, and is unbeaten in her five contests of 1999. Watch also for 1998 European Cup winner Zuzana Hlavonová (née Kováciková), who has just raised her Czech indoor record to 1.97.
The world record has been broken both indoors and out in the past fortnight, and both of the new record setters are entered. Emma Georges 4.60 in Sydney on February 20 was the Australians 17th world record, and in Maebashi she will be keen to go one better than her silver in Paris 1997.
George lost her indoor record in Stockholm on February 25th, when Germanys Nicole Humbert went over 4.56, a mark which Hungarys Zsuzsa Szabó narrowly missed in Liévin. The defending World Indoor Champion Stacy Dragila has been overshadowed at home by new star Melissa Mueller (4.50), but defeated Mueller at the US nationals with a seasons best of 4.45. The qualifying standard of 4.20 proved to be a little generous as 26 women have entered, meaning the competition will start at 8:30 tomorrow morning.
Greeces two World Indoor Champions from 1997 - Háris Papadiás and Katerina Kóffa - have each vacated their titles because of poor form this season. However, their country could get a fresh World Indoor Champion in Niki Xánthou. This year she has taken the Balkan and Greek indoor titles and on February 24 in Athens leapt a seasons best of 6.80. The 25 year-old from Rhodes has compiled a fine record in global contests (4th in Atlanta, silver in the 1997 worlds), and will be the woman to beat here. Tatyana Kotova (RUS) and Tünde Vaszi (HUN) are also strong contenders. Kotova, the European under-23 Champion, jumped 6.83 to win the Russian nationals. Vaszi, a fine 4th at last years European Championships, improved her national indoor record to 6.82 in Chemnitz. Iva Prandzheva (BUL) leads the world lists at 6.90 but she may decide to concentrate on the triple jump.
The fierce rivalry of World Champion Sárka Kaspárková (CZE) and World Indoor record holder Ashia Hansen (GBR) continues. The score this year is 1-1, with the Czech winning in Birmingham (on countback) and Hansen coming out on top in Liévin. The last time the two met in a championship in Valencia last year, the Briton was spurred on to a world record of 15.16. However, Kaspárková has more medals, one each from the last seven championships she has contested.
We should not be surprised if neither of the big two win. Tereza Marinova leapt 14.76 at the Athina 99 meeting for a Bulgarian record, followed by European outdoor Champion Olga Vasdhéki, who improved her own national best figures.
Less well known - in fact practically unknown - is Chinas Miao Chunqing. When the IAAF received her entry form, they asked for validation for the unreported mark of 14.82 which had been attributed to the 20 year-old. It had been set, outdoors, in Jinan in October. A repeat of that form by Miao would provide the upset of the weekend. Her best before 1998 was 13.70 in 1997.
At the European Championships last year, the Ukrainian Vita Pavlysh produced a put of 21.69, the worlds longest for 10 years. At the Russian Championships this winter, Irina Korzhanenko followed suit by reaching 21.15, the worlds best since 1988. With ex-Olympic Champion Svetlana Krivelyova also going well this winter (20.69), Pavlysh might need to find some of her Budapest form if she is to retain her title. These three are by far the worlds best at the moment and may be half a metre of more ahead of fourth place.
The best on paper this year is Frankfurt winner Mona Steigauf (GER), but the most experienced name on the entry list is the indefatigable Pole Urszula Wlodarczyk. As well as 78 completed heptathlons, the 33 year-old has contested 15 indoor pentathlons. The last of these won her the European title in Valencia last year, and she must start favourite for the 1999 World indoor title. Wlodarczyk won silver in last years European Championships, and the women who filled the next two places - Remigia Nazaroviené (LIT) and Irina Belova (RUS) are also in Maebashi. Look out for a storming run in the last event by Belova, whose outdoor 800m best is 2:02.75.
4 x 400 Metres Relay
Russia broke the world record in 1997 and return with three of the squad which won gold two years ago. Svetlana Goncharenko, who may well have become the new world indoor 200m champion, will be bidding for a third successive indoor relay gold. It was her 51.28 leg which was the key to Russias record and win in Paris. Then, Germany placed third. They have since become World and European outdoor Champions and have an extremely powerful squad spearheaded by Grit Breuer, who is becoming something of a relay specialist. The German team also includes the experienced Anja Rücker and rising star Ulrike Urbansky, who has just started training with Breuer and Thomas Springstein.
Cathy Freeman heads an Australian squad with great potential. The team - including triple Commonwealth medallist Tania Van Heer - are concentrating solely on the relay and lack only indoor experience. One runner who is hugely experienced indoors is Jearl Miles-Clark. She anchored the United States to silvers in Paris 1997 and must be in contention for yet another indoor medal. Her pre-Maebashi total of five from these championships is second only to Merlene Otteys six.