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One week to go - 2011 IAAF World Challenge opens in Melbourne

As the indoor season in the Northern Hemisphere is about to reach its continental climax at the Paris European Championships, ‘down-under’ the outdoor season is about to embark on another world wide tour as the 2011 IAAF World Challenge series of one-day meetings begins in Melbourne, Australia, 3 March.

The 2011 World Challenge has once again, a broad embrace, beginning in Melbourne, ending in Zagreb (CRO) on 13 September and taking in all six IAAF Areas over 14 meetings in the six months between.

The Challenge series will feature meetings in Africa, Asia (including Daegu, host of this year’s IAAF World Championships), Europe, Oceania, North America and South America (2016 Olympic Games host Rio de Janeiro).

Click here for calendar for 2011 IAAF World Challenge 

In 2010, one athlete epitomised the breadth of the IAAF World Challenge virtually on his own. Male Athlete of the Year, David Rudisha, competed from the first meeting almost to the last, running an Australian all-comers’ record 1:43.00 for 800 metres in Melbourne and then World records in Berlin (1:41.09) and Rieti (1:41.01) in late-August. Magic stuff, indeed!

Rudisha will be back in Melbourne, headlining the meeting. With his main goal this year being the IAAF World Championships, Daegu 2011, and atonement for being run out in the semi-finals in Berlin 2009, whether he will be quite in the same early-season shape as last year remains to be seen.

As one door opens and the 2011 IAAF World Challenge begins, another closes – the Melbourne Track Classic will be the last big invitational meeting staged at Melbourne’s Olympic Park.

The 3 March meeting will not be the last competition staged at Melbourne’s home of athletics for almost 100 years – the Victorian state championships follow on 4-6 March and the Australian championships on 14-16 April. From later this year, the home of athletics will move to the nearby Albert Park.

From the early 1950s twilight meetings staged to provide ideal conditions for John Landy to attack the four-minute mile to the present day, however, it has been the big invitational meetings which have drawn the biggest and most appreciative athletics crowds to Olympic Park.

More than 20,000 spectators tried to cram in to the old Olympic Park venue to watch Landy race in 1954. Such were the queues trying to get into the ground that Landy had to climb the fence to get in or the star attraction would have missed his race.

A similar number of fans watched in far more comfortable conditions on a memorable 1996 night when Cathy Freeman broke 50 seconds for 400 metres for the first time; a youngster named Paul Cleary upset Moses Kiptanui in the 1500, firing up Kiptanui to such a degree that he jumped into, and won, the 5000; and Rohan Robinson set a national record in the 400 metres hurdles.

Fond memories will play a prominent role at each of the last three meetings at Olympic Park which, fittingly, embrace its international, national and local heritage.

This year’s Melbourne line-up pays homage to the city’s reputation for middle and long-distance running. From Landy, Dave Stephens, Herb Elliott and Merv Lincoln in the 1950s, to Ron Clarke, Ralph Doubell and Derek Clayton in the 1960s, Rob de Castella and Steve Moneghetti in the 1980s and 1990s and Craig Mottram in the 2000s, Melbourne’s biggest stars have been distance men, its biggest races men’s and women’s distance races.

Internationally, it’s a similar story. Vladimir Kuts was the star of the 1956 Olympics with his 5000/10,000 double, Hicham El Guerrouj enlivened the 2001 IAAF Grand Prix final with an Australian all-comers’ record for 1500 and Sonia O’Sullivan (now a resident) set great marks in the women’s distances at the Melbourne meeting.

The men’s 1500 at the Classic will feature Olympic champion Asbel Kiprop, Olympic silver medallist Nick Willis and Melbourne’s Jeff Riseley.

The 5000 boasts even more stars – 2007 World 1500 and 5000 champion Bernard Lagat, Mottram, Isaac Songok of Kenya, Americans Chris Solinsky and Matt Tegenkamp and Collis Birmingham.

It puts several prestigious meeting and all-comers’ marks at risk. Rudisha owns both in the 800 with his 1:43.00 from 2010; William Chirchir holds the meeting record at 3:32.55 in the 1500, El Guerrouj the all-comers’ at 3:31.25; Luke Kipkosgei holds the meeting record at 13:11.11 in the 5000, Gus Choge the all-comers’ mark at 12:56.41.

In the women’s sprints, Mikele Barber of the USA will provide the competitive stimulus Sally Pearson has been looking for as she chases the Australian national record in the 100 (11.12 to Melinda Gainsford-Taylor) and a sub-23 second 200.

Reese Hoffa has already broken the 21-metre line in the Shot Put in Hobart. Next in his sights is the 21.27 meeting record held by Scott Martin. The 2009 World champion Dani Samuels will be competing in the women’s Discus Throw.

It should add up to a good opening night for the 2011 IAAF World Challenge and one of several great closing nights for Melbourne’s Olympic Park.

Len Johnson for the IAAF