Elena Isinbaeva of Russia celebrates as she wins gold in the Women’s Pole Vault Final during day three - WIC Istanbul (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Monaco

Isinbayeva heads up six Olympic and seven World champions in Monaco – PREVIEW – Samsung Diamond League

Yelena Isinbayeva’s return to Samsung Diamond League action and a red-hot showdown in the men’s high hurdles will be just a pair of the expected highlights at the Herculis Meeting in Monaco on Friday (20), the final major stop before the Athletics world turns its full attention to the Olympic Games in London.

Isinbayeva, the World record holder in the Pole Vault, will be one of six reigning Olympic champions – seven current World champions are on the programme as well - who’ve been attracted to the sun-drenched Principality for their final pre-London tune-ups, but her appearance here will be one of the most eagerly anticipated.

Since she began her rise in the ranks back in 2003, the Russian, now 30, is very much at home here. She’s a resident of Monaco, trains on the Stade Louis II track, and set one of her numerous World records here. That 5.04m leap in 2008 came just three weeks prior to another World record which brought her a second successive Olympic title and solidified her stature as the event’s preeminent shining star. Her fortunes waned over the next several seasons, a period during which she struggled to reignite a passion for the event she so long dominated while others gradually narrowed the wide gap she created. Last winter she signaled that the old Isinbayeva was back, first by improving her World indoor record to 5.01m and then taking the World indoor title in Istanbul, her first global medal of any kind since her triumph in Beijing.

She’s competed just once outdoors, topping 4.75m in Sotteville-lès-Rouen, France, nine days ago. She’ll be aiming for something higher in Monaco tomorrow night, and she’ll likely need it too if she wishes to extend her unbeaten streak to seven. The field includes World champion Fabiana Murer, who topped 4.77m to win in New York; freshly crowned European champion Jirina Ptacnikova (4.65 SB); German Silke Spiegelburg, who has a 4.76m to her credit this season; and Briton Holly Bleasdale, who’s scaled 4.71 and 4.70 in two of her last three appearances.

Merritt looking to lock in to his rhythm

While Isinbayeva will reveal a bit more about her pre-London form on Friday night, there’s no denying that one of the hottest runners on the circuit at the moment is Aries Merritt.

Istanbul was also a turning point for Merritt, the U.S. hurdler who’s clearly entered another level since taking the World indoor crown in the 60m Hurdles. A 13.12 hurdler a year ago, the 26-year-old improved to 13.03 in early May and has since produced sizzling back-to-back 12.93 performances to win the brutally competitive U.S. trials late last month, and in London Samsung Diamond League last weekend.

He’ll again face the World champion, Jason Richardson, who continued rise in the event included two 12.98 performances at the U.S. trials. Most recently he clocked 13.06 to finish second to Merritt in London. The quality field also includes the top two from the European Championships, Sergey Shubenkov from Russia and Garfield Darien from France, Olympic-bound American Jeff Porter, and US record holder David Oliver who despite missing out on London has a fast 13.13 to his name this season.

Okagbare takes the spotlight at 100m

The dynamics of the women’s 100m shifted a bit after last weekend’s race in London when Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare surprised a strong field with her 11.01 victory after clocking her first wind-legal sub-11 (10.99) in the heats. That won’t elevate the 23-year-old into the role of Olympic favourite, but it will put the former NCAA standout and Olympic bronze medallist in the Long Jump into the spotlight.

The field includes U.S. Trials runner-up Tianna Madison (10.96 PB, SB), a former World champion in the Long Jump; Jamaican Kerron Stewart, the double Olympic silver medallist four years ago, and European champion Ivet Lalova of Bulgaria.

James-Merritt rematch at 400m

The stand-out sprint on the men’s programme will likely be the 400m pitting reigning World champion Kirani James against the Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt.

Merritt is unbeaten in six finals this season, arrives as the world leader at 44.12 and clearly the man to beat. He brings an eight-meet win streak over the distance to Monaco, his last loss coming to James in the Daegu final. James, still just 19, has raced sparingly this season but does arrive with the momentum of a 44.85 victory from the London Samsung Diamond League stop.

Given the field, this one has the makings of an Olympic final preview: Daegu bronze medallist Kevin Borlee, Dominican Luguelin Santos who recently won the World Junior title and European champion from Helsinki Pawel Maslak are also in the field.

The men’s 200m looks to be a showdown between Dutchman Churandy Martina and U.S. champion Wallace Spearmon. Martina improved his personal best and the national record to 19.94 in New York prior to collecting the European title, while Spearmon, a three-time World championships medallist in the event, took the U.S. title with a wind-aided 19.82. He’ll arrive in Monaco unbeaten over the distance in five starts this season. Also in the field is Nickel Ashmeade, fourth at the Jamaican Trials, who also has a 19.94 to his credit this year.

Kiprop wants a fast race

Turning our attention to the middle distances, the focus falls on reigning World and Olympic champion Asbel Kiprop, who has come to Monaco in search of a fast race for his final pre-Olympic tune-up.

The 23-year-old opened on an up note, improving his career best to 3:29:78 for second in Doha and won Mile races in Eugene and Oslo before finishing third at the Kenyan Trials.

He’ll have some fast company mainly in Nixon Chepseba, the runner-up at the Kenyan Trials who won a fast race in Hengelo with a personal best 3:29.90. Others to watch include Morocco’s perennial speedster Amine Laalou (3:31.92 SB), Kenyan Bethwell Birgen (3:31.17 PB, SB) and U.S. champion Leo Manzano.

Meanwhile in the women’s 800m, a fast race is in the cards with U.S. champion Alysia Montano leading the field. The 26-year-old has fond memories of Monaco, the site of her 1:57.34 career best back in 2010. She’s come tantalisingly close to that this season after her 1:57.37 victory in the Eugene Diamond League fixture. This will be her first race since her victory at the U.S. trials.

The field also includes Caster Semenya, the 2009 World champion and silver medallist last year, who’s clocked 1:59.18 this season, along with Russians Yelena Kofanova and Irina Maracheva who have both dipped under 1:58 this season for the first time.

Another record assault for Koech?

The men’s 3000m Steeplechase will be all about Paul Kipsiele Koech who has produced three of the season’s four fastest times courtesy of his Samsung Diamond League victories in Rome, Doha and Paris. At 7:54.31, Rome was particularly fast, the second quickest of all-time.

Organisers are hoping that the Kenyan will mount an assault on the 7:53.64 stadium record set by Brimin Kipruto last year. Such a performance would almost certainly result in the World record that Kipruto missed by just 0.01. Given the right conditions, Saif Saaeed Shaheen’s World mark, set nearly eight years ago, is not outside the realm of possibility.

On paper his chief opposition will be compatriot Richard Mateelong, who notched a career best 7:56.81 when finishing second to Koech in Doha.

In the women’s 3000m, Kenyan Sylvia Kibet, the 2009 and 2011 World silver medallist at 5000m, is the main attraction. Look for Ethiopians Azemra Gebru (8:44.41) and Buze Diriba (8:44.62) to look for a fast race, along with American Jenny Simpson, the World 1500m champion and U.S. record holder in the 3000m Steeplechase.

Demus vs Walker in 400m Hurdles

Rounding out the action on the track is the women’s 400m Hurdles, which like the men’s 400m flat, features the reigning World and Olympic champions. Jamaican Melaine Walker won in Beijing but will need to find form considerably faster than her current 54.62 season’s best would indicate. Conversely, Daegu winner Lashinda Demus is gradually working her way into top form, and will make her first appearance since her 53.98 victory at the U.S. trials. Czech Denisa Rosolová, a former heptathlete, is making a name for herself in the full lap hurdles as well. She took silver at the European Championships last month with a 54.24 PB, currently the sixth fastest in the world.

Moving onto the infield..

In the men's High Jump, the battle looks to be between World champion Jesse Williams and European champion Robbie Grabarz of Great Britain. Both have topped 2.36m this season, with Williams winning in New York and finishing runner-up in Doha and Rome while Grabarz won Rome and took second in New York.

Another jumper to watch is Erik Kynard, the two-time NCAA champion who scaled 2.34m this year, and who will be making his professional debut ahead of his first Olympic appearance.

In the men's Long Jump, Australian Mitchell Watt (8.28m SB) brings the momentum of his London victory to the Riviera but will face some stiff opposition. European champion Sebastian Bayer (8.34m SB) of Germany is in the field along with U.S. champion Marquise Goodwin (8.33m PB, SB) and South African Olympic silver medallist Godfrey Mokoena (8.29m SB). Defending Olympic champion Irving Saladino will be jumping as well, but with just a 7.87m season's best, is a shadow of his former self.

Caterine Ibarguen of Colombia and Olga Rypakova of Kazakhstan are the class of the women's Triple Jump field. Ibarguen, the winner in London last weekend and the Daegu bronze medallist last year, has jumped 14.95m at altitude this season and has won her last three meetings. Rypakova meanwhile, the Daegu silver medallist, has collected Diamond League victories in Doha and New York and finished second in Rome with a 14.73m season's best.

The women’s Discus Throw field also includes the reigning Olympic champion, Stephanie Brown-Trafton of the US, who improved her career best to 67.74 earlier this season. She’ll be joined by most of the world’s current best on form, including Croatia’s twice European champion Sandra Perkovic (68.24 PB, SB), and Germany’s Nadine Muller and Yarelis Barrios of Cuba who’ve improved their career bests to 68.89m and 68.03m this season respectively.

Meanwhile, the men’s Javelin Throw contest is wide open, with three of this season’s 86-metre men in the field. Vadims Vasilevskis of Latvia has the best credentials with an 86.50m season’s best, marginally ahead of Ukrainian champion Oleksandr Pyatnytsya (86.12m) and New Zealander Stuart Farquhar, who’s reached 86.31m.

Non-Diamond League action

In non-Diamond League action, men’s 800m specialists will be putting in one final high intensity two-lap run. It’ll be a particularly important one for Abubaker Kaki who despite one sub-1:44 effort this season, will be looking for a confidence booster after a sub-par 1:46 run in London last weekend. U.S. champion Nick Symmonds, European silver medallist Andreas Bube of Denmark, and reigning World Youth champion Leonard Kosehncha are also in the field.

The first events on the track will feature 4x100m Relay action highlighted by the appearance of the London-bound U.S. squads. In the women’s race, Allyson Felix and Carmelita Jeter will be teaming-up against squads from France and The Netherlands. In the men’s contest, teams from the U.S., France, Italy, Canada and Hong Kong will be competing. U.S. record holder Tyson Gay and U.S. trials winner Justin Gatlin will be among the competitors.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF

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