For athletics fans, there is no rest for the weary this week. After Zurich witnesses the crowning of 2018’s first 16 IAAF Diamond League champions on Thursday (30), the second 16 titles will be decided at the 42nd AG Van Damme Memorial in Brussels on Friday (31).
In all, nine reigning world champions, eight defending world champions and a dozen 2018 world leaders will be on the slate before another near-capacity crowd of 40,000-plus at King Baudouin Stadium, all having earned the right to battle it out for the series crown in a championship-style format adopted last year which has seen the first 12 Diamond League meetings of the season employed as qualifiers for this week's finals.
That means that every athlete arrives at their respective finals with an equal opportunity of winning their discipline's Diamond Trophy and its accompanying US$50,000 winner’s top prize. That set-up produced several dramatic surprises last year and almost certainly will again in Zurich tomorrow and Brussels on Friday.
Baker vs Coleman, round four
One could come in the men's 100m, where much of the focus will fall on Ronnie Baker and Christian Coleman who spent much of the season distinguishing themselves as the leading US 100m threats.
As the 2017 world 100m silver medallist and kicking off the year with a world indoor 60m record, Coleman has attracted more attention, but Baker has been more impressive in 2018, collecting Diamond League victories in Eugene, Rome, Paris and London, and improving his lifetime best (and the current world lead) to 9.87 in Chorzow, Poland, one week ago. He's also clocked 10.00 or better in each of his dozen appearances this season, heats included. For his part, Coleman picked up victories in Rabat and Birmingham, the latter with a 9.94 season's best, all in a campaign shortened by nagging if minor ailments that followed his world indoor 60m title. Head-to-head, Baker holds a 2-1 edge.
But the field also includes several challengers fully capable of leaving the Belgian capital as Diamond League champion, Akani Simbine, the African and Commonwealth champion from South Africa and Briton Reece Prescod, the European silver medallist, among them. CJ Ujah is also back to defend his Diamond League crown.
Miller-Uibo ready to defend at 200
The shortest race on the women's side is the 200m where Shaunae Miller-Uibo puts her 2018 undefeated streak on the line. The 24-year-old Bahamian arrives unbeaten in eight appearances this outdoor season --five at 200m and three at 400m-- and as the defending Diamond League champion in both events. But she's decided against defending both, opting to contest just the shorter half-lap. With a 22.06 season's best, she's fourth fastest in the world this year; in Friday's field, only Jamaican Shericka Jackson, with 22.05, has run faster. The field also includes two-time world champion Dafne Schippers who'll be flying in after her 100m appearance in Zurich on Thursday, and Jenna Prandini of the US, the London Diamond League winner and NACAC 100m champion.
Will Naser’s rise continue?
With Miller-Uibo choosing to watch, the favourite’s role in the 400m will fall on 20-year-old Salwa Eid Naser, whose notable rise in the event has continued this year. The world U18 champion three years ago and world silver medallist in 2017 is already threatening the 49-second barrier, having improved to 49.08 in Monaco where she finished second to Miller-Uibo. In her eight 400m competitions this season, --including four Diamond League appearances-- that was the only one Naser didn’t win.
The field also includes US champion Shakima Wimbley who also arrives with sub-50 credentials from 2018 and world champion Phyllis Francis.
Gong targeting title No 2…
The meeting gets underway on Thursday afternoon at the Grand Place in central Brussels with the women’s shot put where China’s Gong Lijao will be chasing a second successive series title. The 29-year-old arrives as the world leader at 20.38m with two series victories to her credit this season. Germany's Christina Schwanitz, the Diamond League winner in 2015, could be a threat, as could USA's Raven Saunders, the pair next on the world list behind Gong at 19.78m and 19.67m, respectively.
.. Perkovic No. 7..
But the major story in the throws will be back in the stadium on Friday where Sandra Perkovic will be gunning for a seventh straight series win in the discus throw. She’ll tie Renaud Lavillenie for most Diamond League titles --and boast of the largest women’s Diamond Trophy collection on the planet-- if she succeeds. Logic would dictate that the 28-year-old Croat, who hasn’t lost a competition in more than 13 months and comes armed with the six farthest throws of the year (and eight of the best 10), is among the strongest favourites at the competition.
Cuba's Naime Perez and Denia Caballero, who finished second and third respectively to Perkovic in each Diamond League competition this season, are the closest threats but even at their best, they're three and four metres behind.
Conversely, the men's event has been among the most fiercely fought this season, with Jamaican Fedrick Dacres, winner in Rome, Stockholm and Paris, and world champion Andrius Gudzius of Lithuania, the winner in Oslo and runner-up in Rome and Stockholm, the most consistent. While he hasn't always produced his best in series competition, Swede Daniel Stahl has thrown far, most recently with a 69.72m world lead three days ago.
.. and Lavillenie No. 8
Like Perkovic, Christian Taylor is also gunning for a seventh series title in the triple jump but he’ll have to get past long-time rival Pedro Pable Pichardo to collect it. The two have been a class apart this year, with Taylor emerging victorious in three of the four Diamond League meetings this season, with a 17.81m season’s best. But Pichardo has jumped farther, sailing 17.95m to beat Taylor in Doha.
Being chased from all directions, Lavillenie’s task is to make Perkovic and Taylor’s record-tying bids a moot point by simply regaining the series pole vault title after Sam Kendricks wrestled it away last year, ending the Frenchman’s perfect streak at seven. Kendricks hasn’t replicated his 2017 unbeaten season, but he’s performed well, winning four of the five Diamond League meetings he’s contested and topping 5.96m to arrive in the No. 3 spot on the world lists. Lavillenie won in Shanghai and finished second in London, and has twice topped 5.95m. But they’ll both face Armand Duplantis, the Swedish-American who at 18 is redefining the event after topping 6.05m to take the European title earlier this month. Authorised neutral athlete Timur Morgunov topped 6.00m for the first time at the European championships - he’ll be in the field too.
The women’s long jump may come down to the top-three from the standings coming in: Germany’s Malaika Mihambo, the European champion and winner in Lausanne and Birmingham, Stockholm winner Lorraine Ugen, and her British compatriot Shara Proctor, the winner in London. Ugen is the world leader at 7.05m while Mihambo's improved to 6.99m. Keep an eye on Caterine Ibarguen, who’ll be doubling back a day after competing in the Zurich triple jump.
With Mutaz Barshim out with injury, the high jump is wide open, with Australian Brandon Starc bringing the best momentum, given his recent 2.36 PB victory in Birmingham. Germany’s Mateusz Przbylko topped 2.35m to take the European crown and could be a factor as well.
Harrison vs McNeal in the sprint hurdles
Back on the track, high-powered showdowns in the hurdles await. In the women's 100m hurdles it's world record holder Kendra Harrison, the winner in Doha and London, taking on Olympic champion Brianna McNeal, who picked up series wins in Shanghai, Stockholm and Rabat. On paper, they couldn't be much closer this season, Harrison he world leader with 12.36 and McNeal a few inches back with 12.38. Rome winner Sharika Nelvis is also in the field.
On the men’s side, defending 110m hurdles Diamond League champion and world leader at 12.92 Sergey Shubenkov will start as favourite but will face hurdlers riding better momentum at the moment. Pascal Martinot-Lagarde of France beat Shubenkov to the European title earlier this month while Orlando Ortega, the Olympic silver medallist two years ago, improved his season’s best to 13.08 to win in Birmingham, his most recent outing.
Can anyone stop Korir?
Moving up to the middle distances, the focus in the men's 800m will be directed on Emmanuel Korir, the winner in Doha, Eugene, London and Birmingham and holder of two of the three fastest performances of the season, topped by his 1:42.05 run in London, the fastest in the world for six years. The field also includes Clayton Murphy of the US and Kenyans Wyclife Kinyamal and Jonathan Kitilit who have all run faster than 1:43.50 this season.
Hassan’s double ambitions
Under normal circumstances, Sifan Hassan, winner at the London mile and Birmingham 1500m, would be considered a solid favourite in the metric mile here. But of the handful of athletes attempting an already difficult Zurich-Brussels double, Hassan's may be the toughest. The Dutchwoman will be toeing the line less than 24 hours after the 5000m final in a stadium 650km away. And with European champion Laura Muir and Eugene and Lausanne winner Shelby Houlihan to contend with, Hassan's ambitions may be a bit too lofty. Houlihan has had a breakout year, improving to 3:57.54, the second fastest in the world. Jenny Simpson, always a dangerous racer, is also in the field.
In the women’s 3000m steeplechase, the title appears to be Beatrice Chepkoech’s to lose. The Kenyan shattered the world record with a stunning 8:44.32 run in Monaco last month, and followed up with an impressive performance under difficult conditions to take African title just over three weeks ago. At the moment, she’s on another plane.
And in the men's 5000m, another wide-open race awaits. Four qualification races were held, with each producing a different winner.; three will be in Brussels. Selemon Barega won in Stockholm and finished second in Lausanne while his Ethiopian compatriot Yomif Kejelcha, a two-time world indoor 3000m champion, won in Rabat and finished third in London. Take your pick.
Belgian stars on show
Off of the Diamond League programme, there will be spotlights on Belgian stars in the women’s high jump and the men’s 400m. In the former, it’ll be world and European heptathlon champion Nafi Thiam who topped a world class 2.01m earlier this year, who’ll take centre stage.
And over the full lap, the field includes brothers Kevin and Dylan Borlee and world U20 champion Jonathan Sacoor, three-quarters of Belgium's European champions quartet.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF