Another impressive race for Nancy Langat, this time in New York (Victah Sailer) © Copyright
Preview 5 October 2010 – New Delhi, India

Kenya looking to dethrone England and Australia in Delhi – Commonwealth Games preview

New Delhi, IndiaFor the last few weeks, athletics news concerning the 19th Commonwealth Games has been all about those who are not coming to Delhi. Stellar performers such as Usain Bolt, his fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell – who won his only big title in Melbourne four years ago – will be sorely missed after ending their seasons with back injuries.

England’s contingent has also been diminished by the early decision by World Heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis to bring her competition to a halt having won the European title, and by the subsequent withdrawal through injury of Christine Ohoruogu, whose 400m victory in Melbourne presaged victories in the IAAF World Championships and Olympics, and Lisa Dobriskey, a breakthrough 1500m champion four years ago.

While Ohuruogu and Dobriskey are injured, World Triple Jump champion Phillips Idowu, another to have earned a breakthrough gold in Australia, elected not to defend his title because of concerns over the conditions and accommodation in India.

This, however, is far from the first time a Commonwealth Games has witnessed such withdrawals.

At the 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur, instance, World 200m champion Ato Boldon and double Olympic silver medallist Frankie Fredericks, having produced an epic 100m final in which the former ran 9.88 and the Namibian took silver in 9.96, missed the 200m in favour of a lucrative meeting that had been set up in Tokyo.

There were also a host of Kenyan absentees in Malaysia, including four sub 1min44sec 800m runners and five sub 8:10 steeplechasers.

A Kenyan sweep in the middle and long distances?

But 12 years on it is Kenya that appears ready to step up and disturb the traditional battle for athletics supremacy between Australia and England once competition begins in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium tomorrow (6).

Twelve times in the last 18 versions of the Commonwealth Games, Australia and England have occupied the top two positions on the medal table - although in Melbourne in 2006, it was Australia on top, followed by Jamaica, and Kenya with England a disappointing fourth.

While Jamaica’s potential in the sprints has been reduced by their absentees, Kenya’s customary strength in the middle and long distances looks undiminished as they field the majority of their top performers.

While David Rudisha, who has twice reduced the World 800m record this season, is not here, his fellow countryman Boaz Lalang, third fastest in the world this year behind Rudisha and Abukaker Kaki with a time of 1:42.95, is.

In 1500m they boast Silas Kiplagat, who introduced himself to the wider athletics world with a victory at the Samsung Diamond League meeting in Monte Carlo in 3:29.27, the world’s fastest time this year.

Tomorrow’s 5000m final will feature Eliud Kipchoge, whose victory in the inaugural Diamond League meeting at Doha in 12:51.21 remained the fastest recorded in 2010.

In Daniel Salel they have the third fastest 10,000m runner this season – he’s done 27:07.85 - and they can also call on the talent of the current Olympic champion at 3000m steeplechase, Brimin Kipruto, fastest in the world this year with 8:00.90. Defending and World champion Ezekiel Kemboi, a second adrift of Kipruto in the 2010 lists, could also win.

In women's events, Kenya has the top-ranked runners in the 1500m with Olympic champion Nancy Langat, the 5000m, which features World champion Vivian Cheruiyot, and the 10,000m, which will see the talented Doris Changeywo in action.

Kenya has the capability of winning at all eight of those distances, and will also fancy its chances in the women's 800m, 3000m Steeplechase and Marathon, and the men's 4x400m Relay.

Kemboi is among a group of World or Olympic champions who will offer Delhi a glimpse of their worth.

Hooker hoping to continue Split momentum

It includes Australia’s pole vaulter Steve Hooker, one of ten defending Commonwealth champions, who rallied after what had been a relatively disappointing year for him by winning the IAAF / VTB Bank Continental Cup in Split with a world-leading effort of 5.95m and looks a clear favourite here given that the next best Commonwealth vaulter has only managed 5.50m.

New Zealand’s World and Olympic shot putter Valerie Adams is expected to retain her title. She leads the Commonwealth performance list with 20.86m while Cleopatra Brown of Trinidad with 19.30m and Zara Northover of Jamaica with 17.04m are next.

Australia’s World indoor Long Jump champion Fabrice Lapierre leads this year’s rankings with 8.40m, while Ignisious Gaisah of Ghana is sixth with his season best of 8.18m. England’s pair of Greg Rutherford and Chris Tomlinson are both capable of making the podium if they have a good day.

Other internationally acclaimed athletes vying for gold medals include Australia’s 100m hurdler Sally Pearson and fellow countryman Jared Tallent in the 20 km Race Walk.

Can Willis and Ramadhani defend?

New Zealand’s Nick Willis, who got his tactics right to win the 1500m in Melbourne, will need to repeat the process if he is to challenge the likes of Kiplagat – he is only ranked fifth, with England’s Tom Lancashire being the closest to the Kenyan with a 2010 best of 3:33.36.

In the Marathon, Samson Ramadhani of Tanzania, who ran 2:11:29 to win in Melbourne, will again start as favourite. His 2:09.46 is the only Commonwealth time below 2:10 this year.

Defending 400m Hurdles champion Louis van Zyl of South Africa, with a best this year of 48.51, will find himself under pressure from Wales’s European champion David Greene, who has reduced his personal best to 47.88 this year.

Trecia Smith of Jamaica, the 2005 World champion with 15.13m, enters the women's Triple Jump as the only competitor to have cleared more than 14m this season and looks favourite to win gold.

Elizna Naude of South Africa, who threw the discus 61.55m to win the 2006 Commonwealth Games, is also in a good position with her 64.49m, the leading mark of 2010. Another strong competitor is Krishna Poonia of India with 63.69m.

Another South African, Sunette Viljoen, looks capable of dominating the javelin. She won in Melbourne with 60.72m, but her 2010 best of 66.38m puts her ahead of all rivals.

India looking to end 52 year gold medal drought

India is desperate to end a run of 52 years without a Commonwealth Games gold medal in athletics. The last Indian to manage that feat was Milkha Singh, who became known as “The Flying Sikh” when he won the 440 yards at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

India’s athletes, who are expected to contribute to a medal target of 100 medals, will receive passionate crowd support, but the host nation's only realistic chances, apart from Poonia, appear to be Vikas Gowda, ranked third in men's Discus, Tintu Luka in the women's 800m and Renjith Maheswary in the men's Triple Jump and Mayookha Johny in the women's Triple Jump.

52 titles up for grabs

Delhi 2010 marks the first time since the 1938 Commonwealth Games in which the number of Athletics events has decreased. In 2006, 53 events were held. In 2010 only 52 gold medals will be awarded in the various disciplines. Since 1990, Kenya has always won the men's 3000m Steeplechase, and Australia always won the women's Race Walk event.

England has won the most Commonwealth medals in athletics, securing a total of 507 thus far. The withdrawals of the bulk of their top rank athletes will place an extra onus on others to rise to the challenge.

Maybe someone like Andy Baddeley, who has demonstrated his world class ability in winning events such as the Oslo Golden Mile, will step up to the plate for England here, or high jumper Martyn Bernard, who established himself as a high jumper to be reckoned with in winning the silver at Melbourne with the same height – 2.26m – as the eventual winner.

Mark Lewis-Francis, buoyed by his season’s achievements of winning European silver and then running 10.16 in the Continental Cup, also looks capable of a podium finish, although he will have to produce something special to defeat the clear favourite, Daniel Bailey of Antigua, who has run 10.00 this year.

Meanwhile Ben Offereins believes Australia can get three men into the 400m final, something it has not achieved since 1990.

Offereins believes he and fellow athletes Sean Wroe and Joel Milburn all have medal chances in the individual and relay events.

"I'm aiming for the final. We all are," said Offereins. "We've all got the ability to do it."

Such is the spirit which has carried so many Australians to success in the last 80 years at an event where they remain the overall leaders in terms of medals won.  But they have a fight on their hands in track and field this week.

Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF