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PortoNovo, BeninAmantle Montsho, the defending World 400m champion leads a stellar line-up at the 18th edition of the African Athletics Championships at the Stade Charles de Gaulle in Porto-Novo, Benin.
Over 800 athletes representing a record 51 nations -missing only Malawi and Somalia - are set to challenge for continental honours and the all important Olympic qualifications from 27 June – 1 July.
Montsho and Ahouré lead the sprint fields
Montsho, a likely medal contender at the Olympics, will be joined by several London hopefuls including South African Caster Semenya, the 2009 World 800m champion and 201 silver medallist; the Beijing 2008 Olympic Long Jump silver medallist South African Godfrey Khotso Mokoena; Mercy Njoroge of Kenya the Commonwealth Games 3000m steeplechase silver medallist; Ivorian sprinter Murielle Ahouré as well as double-amputee runner, Oscar Pistorius.
Montsho, the 28-year-old who won the world title last year by three-hundredths of a second, has her sights firmly set on becoming the first person from Botswana to win an Olympic medal.
"I am here to represent my country and win gold," she stated, more keen on defending her title from Nairobi in 2009.
"I won’t run as fast as I usually run as am not here to break records. I want to save my energy for the Olympics."
A more likely challenger for the 400m crown is experienced Senegalese sprinter Amy Mbacke Thiam (35), a former World champion (2001) who finished second behind Monthso in Nairobi and her teammate Fatou Soumah Ndeye a semi-finalist at the worlds.
"Blade Runner" Pistorius has his last chance for Olympic qualification after missing out in his 46.20 win in a 400m race in Belgium last week.
Mohamed Khouaja, the 400m defending champion leads the Libyan charge in Benin and is certain to be in the medal hunt in the absence of the 2004 African winner Congolese Gary Kikaya.
Double Nairobi medallist Ivorian Ben-Youssef Méité (100m Gold and 200m silver) is tipped to retain his title.
The South African team with a 75 member strong squad is by far the largest contingent in Benin.
Also in the team that will be proceeding to the UK for their pre-Olympic camp from here, is the World 400m Hurdles bronze-medallist LJ van Zyl. He is here for a record fourth back-to-back African title.
The world indoor 60m silver medallist Ahouré has been in superb form this season and is expected to warm up for London with a medal from each of her three events in Porto Novo -100m, 200m and 4x 100m.
The Ivorian ran her personal best (11.00) a national record in Rome in May when she upset Jamaican pair of Olympic Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce and Kerron Stewart, which she followed up with another sterling 200m run in the Samsung Diamond League series in Oslo.
The defending African champion Nigerian sprint star Blessing Okagbare is also highly ranked in the 100m which was one of the three events she won in Nairobi in addition to the Long jump and the relay (4 x100m). She also holds the African championship record of 11.05 seconds from the 2010 edition of the event.
Semenya in the middle distance spotlight
Semenya is the other surprise name that will be running in Benin and the woman to beat in the women’s 800m, as she looks to add the Olympic gold medal to her 2009 world title.
One athlete coming into form who should challenge for the two-lap race is London bound Eunice Sum. To boost her chances of making the Olympics, the Kenyan scaled up to the less competitive 1500m and qualified second and is now looking to boost her speed.
"I will still go to Benin and race the 800m,"said Sum a semi finalist over 800m in Daegu after qualifying second behind World indoor 3000m winner Hellen Obiri at the Kenya trials last weekend in Nairobi.
"My target is to win an an African medal before I go to London."
With the bulk of their long distance Olympic team runners already picked Ethiopia will be fielding a youthful squad in Benin while their rivals Kenya are boosted by some seasoned athletes in Priscah Jepleting, the bronze medallist from Osaka 2007 and 2004 Silver winner, Steeplechaser Mercy Njoroge second behind Milkah Chemos in their quest to retain the overall title in their 10-gold haul in Nairobi.
Jepleting will be looking to smart from a failed double stab at the 5000 and 10,000m at the Kenyan Olympic trials.
Also lining up for Kenya in the 5000m will be Veronica Nyaruai, the former 3000m World Youth (2005) and Junior champion (2006) making a return after a two-year break, since her last major race in the steeplechase at the Beijing Olympics.
Mohammed Merima, the 2010 Ottawa marathon champion is by far the most experienced of the Ethiopian squad and will spearhead the 10,000m charge.
Antony Chemut an Olympic qualifier in Kenya’s 800m squad, is also out to gain championship experience before leaving for London later in July.
Former World cross and World junior champion Caleb Ndiku leads the 1500m entry, yearning to repeat his success at the Pan-African games in Maputo last year.
Teenager Geoffrey Kipsang, the World Cross-country winner from Punta Umbria who has been in stunning form this season should provide an interesting challenge to the double Commonwealth games champion Ugandan Moses Kipsiro in the race for 5000m honours.
Veteran Mark Kiptoo, who missed out on the London ticket has a gold medal insight in the 10,000m, to improve on the bronze medal (5000m) from 2010.
Egypt looks to retain dominance in throws
The Egyptian throwing trio of Omar Ahmed El Ghazaly (Discus), Mohsen El Anany (Hammer) and Ihab Al Sayed Abdelrahman (Javelin) are also looking for successive continental wins after sweeping the boards at the 2010 event.
Four times African champion Kabelo Kgosiemang of Botswana should extend his dominance in the men’s High Jump.
Defending champion South African Sunette Viljoen the bronze medallist from Daegu will be competing in the women’s javelin after Gold in the 2004, 2008 and 2010 editions.
Senegalese Amy Sène, the African Hammer record holder (68.48m) should finalise her London preparations with another gold in the women’s event.
Surprise African triple jump champion in 2010 Sarah Nambawa is in the 12 member Ugandan squad.