World Champion Usain Bolt steams ahead to a 19.57 meeting record in the 200m (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview 13 September 2009 – Thessaloniki, Greece

DAY TWO - PREVIEW - IAAF / VTB Bank World Athletics Final

Thessaloniki, GreeceThe last time Usain St. Leo Bolt competed in the World Athletics Final, in 2006, he placed third in the 200m in 20.10.

A brilliant performance by a 20 year-old, but rather overshadowed by the runs of Tyson Gay (19.68) and Wallace Spearmon (19.88). No-one would have thought that just three years later the Jamaican would be on the brink of running a full second quicker than he did that day in Stuttgart. Not that it is reasonable to expect another world record on the second day of the IAAF / VTB Bank World Athletics Final, but given that he “surprised himself” with his 19.57 in Brussels, there might just be enough in the tank to beat Gay’s meeting record. Certainly no-one is going to expect the track record of 20.02 to survive much longer.

While Bolt’s season is winding down, Sanya Richards seems to be heading for a her peak in the 400m. Her 22.29 200m yesterday, finishing second in a photo finish to Allyson Felix, was her quickest in three years. The American is in her element at this time of the year, when the rest of the athletics elite are looking jaded. As an athlete who is refreshingly aware of all her performance statistics, she will know that her American record of 48.70 came not only on the same corresponding weekend three years ago, but also at a Greek venue in the Athens World Cup. She comes to Thessaloniki having run 48.94 and 48.83 in her past two races, whereas none of her opponents here ran quicker than 50.40 in either of those races.

Having finally won a big gold and with no-one posing a threat, Richards can afford to go for broke in Thessaloniki. The result could be spectacular.

The women’s flat one-lap may appear to have only one winner, but things will not be so clear-cut in the 400m hurdles. Melaine Walker was a supreme victor in Berlin, but like Richards Lashinda Demus shines in circuit races such as these. She has rested since Berlin where she had led Walker until the ninth hurdle but then faltered. If she can get it right this time, we may see what could have been at the World Championships.

Successful as all the aforementioned athletes have been, none have remained unbeaten for as long as New Zealand Shot Putter Valerie Vili, a woman who fully deserves to be on the shortlist of candidates for World Athlete of the Year. She has not been defeated since this corresponding meeting two years ago and if she wins again here she will increase her win streak to 25. It is an impressive statistic given how few women’s Shot Put competitions there are on the circuit. Her conqueror from Stuttgart 2007 – Nadezhda Ostapchuk – is entered again, but while Vili has continued her sequence of improvement every year since she started (in 1999), the Belorussian hasn’t reached 20m so far in 2009 and was mysteriously absent from Berlin.

Win streaks don’t matter so much now to high jumper Blanka Vlasic. She had one of 34 before Beijing last year, but it did not translate into an Olympic gold. Now it is a mere seven, but the fourth of these brought World gold and the sixth a personal best of 2.08. After that clearance in Zagreb, she had more of her attempts at a World record of 2.10m.

There would be no better time and place than September 13 in Thessalonki for her to finally clear that height. It would net her a $100K bonus and establish her as a serious candidate for Athlete of the year honours along with Richards and Vili. The Croatian knows the stadium well, having set the stadium record of 2.06m in 2006 and jumped 2.01m here in June.

Paul Kipsiele Koech can make a bit of history in the steeplechase. A win by him would be his fifth in succession, something no-one else has managed at the World Athletics Final. That would be quite a feat considering the turnover of world class performers from his country at that event, but it would need a turnaround in Koech’s fortunes following his fourth place in Berlin. The three who beat him are all here. Eight of the world’s top 10 are in this race, so even the $2000 award for eighth place will be hard fought.

Spare a thought for the American-born Balkan Cross Country Champion Konstadína Kefalá. She is primarily a steeplechaser, but has ended up as the host nation’s only track competitor of the day in the flat 3000m. Her personal best is some way slower than the rest of the field, who collectively will have to follow whatever Usain Bolt does at twenty-five minutes past eight o’clock. In the 3000m, Meseret Defar will now be seeking her ninth victory in the World Athletics Final. Perhaps the Kenyans will make this a fast race this time as the slow pace played into the hands of the Ethiopians on day one.

And so the final World Athletics Final will end with the men’s Javelin Throw, women’s 100m and men’s 110m Hurdles. Thorkildsen versus Pitkamäki, Carmelita Jeter of the USA takes on the Caribbean and Ryan Brathwaite attempting to consolidate his surprise World title. This time next year they will surely all be back, only then the hunt will be for diamonds, not dollars.

Mark Butler for the IAAF