Two of the biggest names in world athletics are set to capture the crowd’s attention at the Meeting Areva in Paris on Saturday (4) when the IAAF Diamond League resumes after a two-week lay-off for various national championships and European team contests.
Unfortunately for the fans and organisers, neither of those names is Usain Bolt after the six-time Olympic champion withdrew from the Paris and Lausanne meetings this week with a painful sacroiliac joint in his pelvis.
Bolt had been due to get back into competitive action after missing the Jamaican Championships last weekend, seeking to defend an 11-race win streak in the 100m but with much to prove after failing to catch fire so far this year.
While the organisers must be cursing the Jamaican’s fragile frame, they will be thankful that his absence barely dents the prestige of a meeting boasting star names across the board, not least the two IAAF world athletes of the year from 2014 who both have winning streaks of their own to uphold.
Pole vault world record-holder Renaud Lavillenie will doubtless be the fans’ favourite at the Stade de France as he resumes his rivalry with Germany’s world champion Raphael Holzdeppe, while last year’s female athlete of the year, Valerie Adams, enters the shot put circle for the first time in 2015 following elbow and shoulder surgery in the autumn.
Aside from a no-height in Stockholm, Lavillenie was undefeated throughout 2014 but lost in April this year at the Drake Relays in Des Moines before bouncing back to win the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Eugene and Rome. He also took maximum points at the European Team Championships in Cheboksary where he beat Holzedeppe.
His record in the St Denis stadium is impeccable, although he is yet to clear six metres on home soil, a minor blemish he’d surely love to wipe away on Saturday.
He may need to, for Holzdeppe matched him for height at the European Team Championships two weeks ago and then improved his personal best to 5.92m at the street athletics event in Baku’s Fountain Square last week. That event, held alongside the inaugural European Games, also featured pole vault’s new kid on the block, Thiago Braz from Brazil, who raised the South American record to the same height and will be another threat to the Frenchman’s dominance.
Of course, not even Lavillenie can equal Adams for dominance of an event, the New Zealander having chalked up a line of consecutive victories that stretches back over five years and a massive 56 contests. It’s one the Olympic and world champion is enormously proud of, and ensuring she’s in shape to defend that record was a major part of the reason for her delayed return to competition this season.
Her lengthy convalescence has been followed by intense training at her perennial summer base in Macolin, Switzerland, from where she hopes to climb rapidly to the summit of the shot put world list once again.
The woman currently occupying that pinnacle is Germany’s Christina Schwanitz, who threw 20.77m in Beijing and heads the 2015 Diamond Race ahead of China’s Gong Lijiao, who won maximum points in Shanghai in May and improved her season’s best to 20.24m last weekend.
If Adams is approaching top form she should be relatively untroubled, but after double surgery and a long lay-off there are bound to be doubts. If Schwanitz can get it right she could inflict a first defeat on Adams since the Zurich Weltklasse meeting on 18 August 2010.
World record attempt
Even without the alluring Bolt, the athletes of the year could still be overshadowed by action on the track, not least by two young Ethiopian runners who plan to attack the 5000m world record. Almaz Ayana and Genzebe Dibaba both have reason to believe they can crack the time of 14:11.15 set by Dibaba’s older sister Tirunesh in Oslo in 2008.
The 23-year-old Ayana announced herself as the latest world beater from her east African country when she clocked 14:14.32 running solo at the Shanghai IAAF Diamond League meeting in May, a time that placed her third on the world all-time list.
Dibaba, nine months older and this year’s Diamond Race leader, then won in Eugene in 14:19.76, the fifth quickest time in history, having broken the world indoor record in Stockholm this February.
Apparently, the pair have agreed to work together and share the pace as they pursue a time run by the legendary Tirunesh when she was at the height of her considerable powers.
Despie Bolt’s absence, the men’s 100m promises to be a sizzling affair as former world record-holder Asafa Powell continues his comeback having won the Jamaican Championships in 9.84 last weekend to go joint second on this year’s world list.
Powell faces two in-form US sprinters in Mike Rodgers and Ryan Bailey, plus 2003 world champion Kim Collins and French favourite Jimmy Vicault. All have broken 10 seconds in recent weeks.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce also looked back to her best in Kingston where she won the national 100m title by two-and-a-half metres in 10.79 to lead the women’s world list alongside English Gardner. The US sprinter will present the main challenge to the two-time Olympic champion in Paris, while Diamond Race leader Murielle Ahoure is also in the field, as is Dafne Schippers, the Dutch star who ran sub-11 for the first time in Hengelo last month.
Kirani James has been little troubled over 400m this year and the prodigious Grenadian will be a big favourite for the one-lap points here following his world-leading 43.95 in Eugene.
Loaded hurdles field
By contrast, the men’s 110m hurdles is impossible to call, featuring an all-star cast of world record-holder and Olympic champion Aries Merritt, world champion David Oliver, European champion Sergey Shubenkov and Cuban firebrand Orlando Ortega, not forgetting French hopes Pascal Martinot-Lagarde, the winner in Eugene, and world junior champion Wilhem Belocian, who’ll both be keen to make an impression in front of their home crowd.
Lavillenie won’t be the only vertical jumper with his eyes on new heights, for Mutaz Essa Barshim resumes his pursuit of the high jump world record, albeit without his nemesis, Bogdan Bondarenko, who has had to withdraw following a foot injury sustained at the Baku street event.
Although lacking his usual consistency, Barshim showed his potential when he leapt 2.41m in Eugene. Erik Kynard will be on hand to push the Qatari here, the US champion having equalled his personal best with 2.37m to take the national title.
Another two-way battle looks likely in the women’s triple jump, where world champion Caterine Ibarguen takes on world indoor champion Ekaterina Koneva with just 16cm between them this season, and men’s discus Diamond Race leader Piotr Malachowski faces Jason Morgan after the 32-year-old Jamaican’s world-leading 68.19m last month.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF