Tyson Gay outclasses Asafa Powell in the final stages of the men's 100m final (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Rome, Italy

Gay vs Powell as Jackpot chase resumes in Rome - PREVIEW - ÅF Golden League

Although there are numerous intriguing face-offs on the programme when the ÅF Golden League resumes at tomorrow evening’s Golden Gala (10), the most eagerly anticipated is the100m showdown between double World champion Tyson Gay and former World record holder Asafa Powell.

Indeed, if any men can challenge the force known as Usain Bolt at the moment, it is the American Gay, history’s third fastest man and the reigning World 100 and 200m champion, or the Jamaican’s compatriot Powell, the second fastest of all time.

Gay, who is fully mended from injury which kept him out of last year’s Olympic final, has raced sparingly thus far this year, but has in those few appearances illustrated form that nearly rivals that of Bolt. In his first race of the season, he sped to a 19.58 dash in New York to become’s history’s No. 3 in the 200m as well, and clocked a wind-assisted but unpressed 9.75 in the opening round at the U.S. championships last month, his first and only 100 of the year.

“I’ve only had two races,” said Gay, who last year lowered the U.S. record to 9.77. Gay said he has high expectations for himself in 2009, and is “looking forward to getting into my season.”

Powell, who’s clocked 10.07 in each of his last two races, is also on the rebound from an injury earlier this year, and said that’s currently “85%” healthy.” He’s already run 9.97, finishing second at the Jamaican championships; another sub-10 would lift his total to 50.

“That would be great,” said Powell, whose career best is 9.72,” but I’m not really focusing on that. I just want to get back in shape.”

Behind the big-2, the field is hardly lacking. Recently minted U.S. champion Michael Rodgers (9.94 PB, ‘09) Olympic fourth place finisher Churandy Martina (9.93 PB, 9.97 in ’09) of the Dutch Antilles, and Berlin winner Daniel Bailey (9.99 PB, ’09) of Antigua lead the challenge.

Stewart faces toughest test as five continue in $1 Million Jackpot hunt

The field in the women’s 100m field is arguably even stronger overall, giving Jamaican Kerron Stewart, one of five who will continue their quest for the $1Million ÅF Golden League Jackpot at the Stadio Olimpico, her toughest test of the year.

Stewart, a double Olympic medallist last year, has raced well and consistently this season, winning six of her eight starts in the 100m, and finishing second at the Jamaican Championships to Olympic gold medallist Shelly-Ann Fraser between her two ÅF Golden League victories. The 22-year-old Fraser will be making her first Golden Gala appearance, and is eagerly looking forward to it.

“When I looked at the start list last night, I thought, ‘here is the World Championships final,’” Fraser said. “I’m going out there to win.”

Besides Stewart, she’ll take on current top Americans Carmelita Jeter and Muna Lee who finished 1-2 at the national championships last month where a hefty wind propelled them to 10.78 performances. Jeter has a 10.96 to her credit this season, while Lee, like Stewart, was a double Olympic finalist last year.

Richards chasing sub-50 No. 36

Conversely, another Jackpot aspirant, Sanya Richards, arrives in the Italian capital head-and-shoulders ahead of her nearest rivals. In Oslo last weekend, she dusted the strongest field yet assembled this year – as possible as it is to dust pursuers on a damp track, anyway - with her runaway victory in 49.23, her fastest run since she broke the American record at the 2006 World Cup with a 48.70 and by far the fastest in the world this year.

Another sub-50 second performance by the 24-year-old American will raise her tally to 36, breaking her career tally record high with World record holder Marita Koch.

“I never noticed how many times I’ve run sub-50 until this season,” Richards said. “It’s an honour to be tied with Marita Koch. She’ll also be chasing the East German in another sense: Koch holds the meeting record at 49.17, which she set 23 years ago, when Richards was barely walking.

Leading the pursuit will be Olympic silver medallist Shericka Williams, who chased Richards in Olso last weekend en route to the second sub-50 of her career, as will her Jamaican compatriot Novlene Williams-Mills, who beat Richards in the American’s first outing of the year two months ago.

Then there is Allyson Felix, the World 200m champion, who joined the field, and said, “Because I feel I need to do some endurance work.” For Felix, who took another US 200m title with a windy 22.02 in Eugene late last month, it will be the third 400m outing of the season after victories in Doha, where she clocked 50.75, and in New York, where she ran 50.50, and beat Shericka Williams.

Attracting significant local interest will be Libania Grenot, the 25-year-old who made a big step forward with her 50.30 victory at the Mediterranean Games, where she won by an astounding two full seconds.

Isinbayeva returns to World record grounds

Like Richards, with whom she shared the 2007 Jackpot, Pole Vault star Yelena Isinbayeva clearly remains in a class of her own and is eagerly awaiting her return engagement in Rome.

A year ago, the 27-year-old Russian returned to her record-setting ways with a 5.03m World record, which she has since raised to 5.05m. Her performance was the ninth World record set at the Golden Gala. Can we expect number 10?

“I’m confident,” she said. “I will try tomorrow.” One thing that won’t be repeated: last year, her record came just after midnight local time. This year, the event opens the main programme at 19:15 CET.

Many of the usual suspects who have made their careers chasing the Russian will be here, including South American record holder Fabiana Murer of Brazil (4.82m, ‘09), Russians Svetlana Feofanova and Yuliya Golubchikova, respectively the Olympic bronze medallist and European Indoor champion, and Poland’s Monika Pyrek, who was second to Isinbayeva in Berlin and Oslo this year and in Rome last year.

Bekele on cruise control

A week ago, Kenenisa Bekele seemed to be on cruise control in Oslo, doing just enough to take his second GL victory. Still well behind his training schedule and with another race on his schedule in just one week’s time, the Ethiopian is expected to largely replay his Oslo race plan. And Bekele concurs.

“To run for fast times is very difficult for me right now,” Bekele told reporters today. “I’m not like I was before. I’m very tired during a race.”

The definition of “fast times” is all relative of course, and what Bekele, a man who’s run under 12:50 six times – more than any other man – might consider “less than fast” is still more often than not, enough for the Ethiopian to prevail. Leading the challengers will be his compatriot Ali Abdosh, the Hengelo winner this year in12:59.56, Kenyan Abraham Chebii, and another Ethiopian, Bekana Daba.

Pitkämäki returns to defend, but this time still in Jackpot hunt

Competition in the men’s Javelin Throw features yet again a square-off between Norway’s two-time Olympic champion Andreas Throkildsen and Tero Pitkämäki of Finland, the reigning World champion. Pitkämäki won here last year, but this year returns still alive in the Jackpot chase. Behind the Big-2, Latvian Vadims Vasilevskis, the world leader at 90.71m, will be looking to break out of his three-meet funk.

Harper, Robles, Clement and Walker the focus in the hurdles

American Damu Cherry, the 100m Hurdles winner in Berlin and Oslo, had never intended to compete in Rome, so the focus shifts squarely on the petite shoulders of Olympic champion Dawn Harper. The 25-year-old has already improved to 12.53 this season, and will be eager to bounce back from a disappointing sixth place finish in the Lausanne rain on Tuesday. That race was won by Olympic silver medallist Sally McLellan of Australia, who is also in the field, along with Beijing bronze medallist Priscilla Lopes-Schliep of Canada.

In the 110m Hurdles, Olympic champion and World record holder Dayron Robles makes his first Golden League appearance of the season, and will start as the man to beat.

Olympic champion and World record holder Dayron Robles of Cuba arrives in Rome as the 2009 world leader (13.04) and undefeated in four finals this season. The winner here a year ago, he’ll be setting his sights on Allen Johnson’s meeting record of 13.01 set a decade ago. Americans David Payne (13.12 ‘09),  Dexter Faulk (13.13 PB ’09) and Aries Merritt (13.15 ’09) will lead the chase.

In the full-lap event, reigning World champion and Olympic silver medallist Kerron Clement faces his second major international test of the summer. The 23-year-old finished a well-beaten second in Lausanne to rising Jamaican star Isa Phillips who may well be the man to watch. Considering the conditions, Phillips clocked an impressive 48.18 in Lausanne, less than two weeks after improving his lifetime best to 48.05 at the national championships. He followed up with another strong showing, clocking 48.09 in Madrid last weekend. Puerto Rican record holder (48.42) Javier Culson arrives in the eternal city with his confidence growing after a solid victory at the Central American and Caribbean Championships over former World champion Felix Sanchez.

In the women’s race, Olympic champion Melaine Walker will be looking to bounce back from a fourth place finish in Lausanne. The winner there, Tiffany Williams of the US, and US championships runner-up Sheena Tosta are among the key contenders.

1500m World leaders Choge and Burka top the middle distance fields

The men’s 1500m promises to be not only a preview of the Kenyan championships to be held later this month, but of next month’s World championships as well. World leader Augustine Choge, who clocked 3:29.47 in Berlin last month squares off against Olympic silver medallist Asbel Kiprop, who makes his 2009 ÅF Golden League debut. Also returning to action is William Biwott, who last weekend in Oslo became the first junior to break 3:50 in the mile with his 3:49.29 run.

With five wins in as many starts and two of the year’s three sub-four minute clockings, Gelete Burka has been the hottest metric miler this season. The Ethiopian will again face Maryam Jamal of Bahrain, who she outsprinted in Lausanne two nights ago. While she hasn’t been quite as fast, Iryna Lishchynska of Ukraine, the  reigning World and Olympic silver medallist, is always a threat. American Christy Wurth-Thomas has made a huge improvement to sub-4:02 territory this season, and could be a factor.

The men’s 800 field includes World champion Alfred Kirwa Yego of Kenya, who’ll face his Olympic teammate Boaz Lalang and perennial speedster Mbulaeni Mulaudzi of South Africa, the runner-up in Lausanne.

In the women’s race, attracting considerable attention will be Italy’s Elisa Cusma, who’ll be looking to bring the momentum from her middle distance double victory at the Mediterannean Games last week to Olympic Stadium. In a wide open field, she’ll face World champion Janeth Jepkosgei, who is still on the mend from injury, Russian Yekaterina Kostetskaya, who clocked 1:59.43 at the European Team Championships, and American champion Hazel Clark.

Samitova’s first international steeple outing

The other distance event on the programme is the women’s 3000m Steeplechase where one name stands out significantly.  She’s only raced once in her specialty event this season, but Olympic champion and World record holder Gulnara Samitova is already nearly three seconds faster than anyone else in the world this season, and nearly five seconds faster than anyone in the field. The Russian, who became the first woman to crack the nine-minute barrier with her stunning triumph in Beijing last summer, hasn’t had a bad outing in distances beyond 1500m this summer; an assault on her own world leading mark of 9:13.70 is as sure a bet as any on Friday night.

Hoping to cling on as long as possible to the Russian’s late race strength will be Kenyan Ruth Bisibori, the winner in Oslo last Friday, and Ethiopian Sofia Assefa, whose pursuit of Bisibori last Friday was rewarded with a 9:19.91 career best.

Cristina Casandra (9:16.85 PB) of Romania was fifth at last summer’s Olympic Games, but has been nearly half a minute shy of her 2008 form thus far this season. Russian Yekaterina Volkova, the silver medallist at the 2005 World championships, the winner in 2007 and the Olympic bronze medallist last year, will be making her 2009 debut.

Berlin men’s Long Jump final preview?

One of the most talked about confrontations of the night will take place in the men’s long jump, where World and Olympic Long Jump champion Irving Saladino goes head-to-head against the man he succeeded in both, American Dwight Phillips. The American signalled a solid comeback with his 8.74m leap in Eugene last month, defeating Saladino, who reached a season’s best of 8.63m. Freshly-minted African record holder Godfrey Mokoena (8.50m) is also in the field. (For more on the Long Jump line-up, see related story here.)

Rounding out the field events will be the women’s High Jump, headed by World champion Blanka Vlasic. The Croatian star, who has won six of her seven competitions this season, has already scaled 2.05m this year. Her key challenger will be home star Antonietta DiMartino, the Italian record holder at 2.03m.

Elsewhere, in the men’s 400m, Irishman David Gillick has the best momentum of the field at the moment. Gillick, who celebrates his 26th birthday today, gave himself an early present in Madrid last Saturday, when he clocked a national record 44.77. With a 44.89 from New York in March, Renny Quow of Trinidad is the only other runner with sub-45 credentials this season.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF