Usain Bolt in Ostrava (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Paris, France

Paris set to marvel at Bolt’s brilliance; four $1 Million aspirants go for win four - PREVIEW - ÅF Golden League

Usain Bolt at a dash, local heroes with Berlin ambitions, and four athletes who are seeking win ‘number four’ in their chase for the $1 Million ÅF Golden League Jackpot define the attractive start list of the Meeting Areva, the fourth of sixth meetings of the ÅF Golden League 2009 which takes place in the Stade de France on Friday 17 July.

‘Bolt mania’ is how organisers have touted the first ever appearance in the Stade de France of Jamaica’s triple Olympic champion and, to go by the buzz at yesterday’s press conference which was held in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Paris has already taken the 22-year-old to its heart.

Go to ‘Related Content’ under the photo to the right of this text to read Bolt’s comments yesterday.

If the Tower is an iconic representation of Paris, then Bolt is fast becoming Athletics face to the world. He’s fast, it goes without saying, but it’s his polite, exuberant personality which has marked the World 100m and 200m record holder out as the most important asset that nature has gifted Athletics in a generation.

After a season in which Bolt has already run the 100m seven times, with a best of 9.86sec - and 9.77sec windy - his show has hit Paris and the ÅF Golden League for the first time.

Bolt is not currently the fastest man in the world in 2009, that ranking is held by World champion Tyson Gay’s wind legal 9.77 last Friday (10) in Rome, but Bolt has been working on his start and it is difficult to imagine that that time won’t be seriously challenged on Friday.

The presence of three other men in the race who have run under 10sec this season - Bailey, Blake and Martina - would normally be a major talking point but in the shadow of Bolt’s pedigree and persona that talented trio is just a statistical footnote.

Four look for number four

Aside the justified fuss surrounding Bolt no one should forget that a $1 Million prize is still at stake in the ÅF Golden League and four athletes continue in their goal to achieve six wins out of six meets, the criterion by which they will at least share that Jackpot.

Click here for Jackpot Contenders

Click here for Jackpot Structure

Bekele vs Lagat

Olympic 5000m and 10,000m champion Kenenisa Bekele is the remaining male combatant for the Jackpot, and over 3000m he possibly faces his stiffest challenge of the season so far. Stepping into the ring is USA’s World 1500m and 5000m champion Bernard Lagat who sped to a tasty 3:32.56 season’s best in the shorter distance last Sunday in Tangier.

Bekele steadily returning to form from an injury sustained last autumn showed in Rome last week with his 12:56.23 over 5000m that some of the old power is returning, and he’ll certainly need more than his reputation to hold off Lagat who ahead of his own approaching World title defence in Berlin would obviously love to take such a lofty scalp.

Lagat won over 3000m in Eugene on 7 June in 7:35.92, while Bekele has yet to race that distance in 2009, his PB is 7:25.79 (2007), Lagat’s career high is 7:33.51 (2000) though he’s been faster indoors. Incredibly these two men have never met over this distance before!

Bekele was all confidence today commenting, “Maybe I’ll try for a World record. If not, then maybe for my personal record. It’s 7:25 so it’s not easy.”

But it’s most likely we can forget any notion of record attempts by the Ethiopian, if fast times do result they will come thanks to an epic head to head battle.

Stewart, Richards, Isinbayeva…

The remaining three contenders for the Jackpot are Kerron Stewart (100m), Sanya Richards (400m) and Yelena Isinbayeva (Pole Vault), and not wanting to repeat the wealth of information we have already published about the Jackpot contenders during the first half of the ÅF Golden League - Berlin, Oslo and Rome - please can we ask you to go to ‘Related Content’ under the photo to the right of this text to read our previous stories.

But specifically related to Paris…

The titled opposition for Stewart in the 100 comes in the shape of two former World champions Torri Edwards and Lauryn Williams of the USA, with the added ingredient of double World 200m champion Allyson Felix, who after a sluggish run over 400m in Rome will be looking to put some spice back into her legs.

Richards has given no quarter to her opponents this season, and leads the world of 400m running with her 49.23 from Oslo. Richards seems every inch a World champion in waiting and for the prodigiously talented 24-year-old Olympic bronze medallist, who first took a global medal in 2005 such a title is a longtime coming. The field in Paris includes 2001 World champion Ami Mbacke Thiam of Senegal who is running into form, African champion Amantle Montsho of Botswana, and Jamaica’s Novlene Williams whose 50.05 is the next quickest time of the Paris participants to Richards this season.

Isinbayeva who competed in Rome last Friday with her left leg heavily strapped above the knee - which we are assured by her management is not inhibiting her run-up - remains undoubtedly better than her opponents but has hardly been hitting the heights in her opening three meets this season - 4.83m, Berlin14 Jun; 4.71m, Oslo 3 Jul; 4.85m SB, Rome 10 Jul. Pole Monika Pyrek pushed her close in Oslo with Isinbayeva only winning on count back at 4.71m, and Pyrek was also second to her in Berlin, while last week in Rome it was Russian compatriot Yuliya Golubchikova who was the World record holder’s nearest challenger. Both vault here in Paris.

Lavillenie leads local heroes with high hopes

In an innovative change to the original meeting schedule, last month a men’s Pole Vault was added to the programme and as such two simultaneous competitions will take place in the Stade de France.

Given his current form it’s most unlikely that Renaud Lavillenie will do anything of the kind but god help the new French record holder if he no heights, as the addition of the men’s discipline has only been made to honour the 22-year-old, this winter’s European Indoor champion, who cleared a national record of 6.01m in Leiria (21 Jun).

Thankfully Lavillenie is the picture of confidence. In Reims on Tuesday he comprehensively defeated the Olympic champion, Australian Steve Hooker, and also bettered chief national rival Roman Mesnil, the World silver medallist. Frankly in the context of Friday high bars while desirable are not important, the Stade de France faithful are coming for a home victory anything else is a bonus.

See ‘Related Content’ under the photo to the right of this text to read previous story about Renaud Lavillenie

European record attempt

The Pole Vault begins Paris’ international programme and the men’s 3000m Steeplechase will conclude the action two hours later. It’s a schedule which showcases two of France’s surest World championship medal chances. In that bracket with Lavillenie comes Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad.

Mekhissi, to keep it short, was the surprise Olympic silver medallist in Beijing who saved France from the embarrassment of an empty medal cabinet in 2008.

This season Mekhissi has run 8:06.98, second again behind Beijing champion Brimin Kipruto this time in Hengelo on 1 June, but the Kenyan who is also World champion doesn’t start on Friday and for that matter neither does Bob Tahri, who with all the hype surrounding Mekhissi it is easy to forget is the fastest Frenchman of all-time (8:02.19) thanks to his European record in Metz on 3 July.

In their absence Mekhissi has outlined his own record ambitions for Paris and has requested a 5:20 pace for 2000m in attempting to beat Tahri’s mark.

Tasty Triple includes one for the future

Home hopes don’t end there on Friday.

World Junior champion Teddy Tamgho was as much a revelation of the last indoor season in the Triple Jump as was Lavillenie in the Pole Vault. Well that was until the last and most important competition of the winter the European Indoor Championships in Turin.

Victories in Mondeville (17.37m, 31 Jan), Paris (17.58, 13 Feb) and  Liévin (17.44, 20 Feb) raised Tamgho into the top international league of his event, only for a non-qualification in Turin to deflate much of the expectation surrounding the 20-year-old Frenchman. In the long run of Tamgho’s career it probably will be looked back upon as a fortuitous episode because quietly nurtured Tamgho has the event’s future at his feet. It’s something that retired World record holder Jonathan Edwards (GBR) reflected on earlier this year:

“When I look at him (Tamgho), I say to myself that he belongs to the same category of triple jumpers as me, namely athletes that are fairly slender, fast and agile,” confirmed Edwards. “He jumped 17.58m at the age of 19, and has exceeded 17m on a number of occasions. It's proof of a very great talent. At the same age, I was jumping 15, maybe 16m.”

Since setting a season’s best of 17.01m in Montreuil-sous-Bois on 11 June
Tamgho has been concentrating on his exams, the French Baccalauréat, reappearing in competition only recently with a 16.63m leap in Sotteville-lès-Rouen on 5 July.

He faces a huge task in Paris as of the world elite ‘only’ Nelson Evora, the World and Olympic champion is missing. Battle will be joined by Olympic silver and bronze medallists Phillips Idowu (GBR) and Leevan Sands (BAH) and the top Cubans Yoandri Betanzos, Alexis Copello and David Giralt.

French heroes also in the men’s 400m and High Hurdles

While USA’s World 400m champion Jeremy Wariner seeks redemption after his below par 2008 season - See ‘Related Content’ under the photo to the right of this text to read previous story about Jeremy Wariner - France’s Leslie Djhone will be the crowd's focus when it comes to the one lap.

Wariner’s 'failure' last year was relative to his previous stature as he still took the Olympic silver medal in Beijing, while Djhone finished fifth in the final. Djhone set his season’s best two days ago (44.99) and Wariner is still a level above that, his 2009 top being 44.66.

Joining them on Friday will be fellow Beijing finalists, USA’s bronze medallist David Neville, Chris Brown of the Bahamas (4th), Renny Quow of Trinidad and Tobago (7th) and Sweden’s Johan Wissman (8th).

In the 110m Hurdles, Ladji Doucouré the 2005 World champion whose European indoor victory this winter seemed to signal a resurgence in fortune for the now 26-year-old has not been followed through outdoors, with his best being 13.44sec (26 June). France’s Olympic fourth placer must beat a wealth of faster men this season headed by USA's Dexter Faulk (13.13) who was once a Jackpot contender.

No jackpot but High Jump and Javelin still of the highest appeal

Two reigning World champions, who also have already lost out on the chance of the $1 Million Jackpot, go again in their respective events as they have done throughout this ÅF Golden League season. Croatia’s Blanka Vlasic, is currently the second highest high jumper of the summer with 2.05m, while Finland’s Tero Pitkämäki is the third furthest javelin thrower (86.78m). Vlasic’s Jackpot nemesis in Berlin, German Ariane Friedrich, citing tiredness, is not in Paris but the Finn’s conqueror last week in Rome, double Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway is back to engage his arch rival once more. Vlasic is joined by her fellow reigning World championship medallists, joint silver medallists Antonietta Di Martino (ITA), a good winner over Vlasic last week in Rome, and Anna Chicherova (RUS).

Also on tomorrow night’s card are women’s sprint and one lap hurdles which are blessed by their respective Olympic champions Dawn Harper (USA) and Melanie Walker (JAM), while there are two quality 800 metres with Sudan’s Ahmed Ismail, the Olympic silver medallist, with 1:43.83 this season, and American Anna Willard who won in New York on 30 May (1:59.29), the fastest of those fields.

Chris Turner for the IAAF