Up until one month ago, the women’s 400m hurdles looked set to be one of the most open events of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
World silver medallist and early season world leader Shamier Little failed to advance to the semifinals at the US Olympic Trials, Olympic finalist Georganne Moline did not start in the heats of that competition, while the likes of two-time world champion Zuzana Hejnova and Jamaica’s Janieve Russell were temporarily sidelined with fitness issues.
And then the US Olympic Trials final happened.
Dalilah Muhammad produced the race of her life to win in 52.88, the fastest time in the world for three years. The 2013 world silver medallist took almost a second off her lifetime best and tops the list of Rio entrants by more than a second.
Behind her, Ashley Spencer – in her first full season as a 400m hurdler – took second place in a PB of 54.02, while teenage phenomenon Sydney McLaughlin, who turned 17 just a few days ago, finished third in a world U20 record of 54.15.
All three US women are genuine medal contenders heading into Rio, provided their lack of experience at this level doesn’t work against them.
Muhammad has only once before represented the USA at a senior global championships, while world indoor 400m silver medallist Spencer is still relatively new to the barriers. And although McLaughlin is mature beyond her years, she will be up against women who have been hurdling since before she was born.
If anyone is capable of breaking up the US dominance, it’s Hejnova; or at least it would be if she was at her best.
But the Czech hurdler has had an interrupted build-up to Rio and has contested just one 400m hurdles race this year, clocking 55.69 to finish third at the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Ostrava.
Hejnova tested her form for Rio – as she often does ahead of each major championships – with a low-key 300m hurdles race in Cheb, clocking 39.44. To put that into context, before winning the 2013 world title in 52.83, Hejnova ran 38.16 in Cheb; before her successful world title defence in 2015, she ran 38.94 at the same meeting.
While she might not be at her best, Hejnova will be keen to improve upon the bronze medal she won at the 2012 Olympics.
Russell could also prevent a US sweep of the medals. The Jamaican won at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Rabat and Rome but was forced to miss the Jamaican Championships due to a minor injury.
She recently passed a fitness test, though, so will be keen to show the same kind of form that took her to a 53.96 PB in Rome.
Britain’s 2014 European champion Eilidh Doyle has been one of the most consistent 400m hurdlers in the world during this current Olympic cycle.
This year the 29-year-old has moved up a notch, winning at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Doha and Monaco, clocking a lifetime best of 54.09 at the latter. If she can replicate that form in Rio, it may well be enough for a medal.
Sara Slott Petersen was one of the big breakthrough performers of 2015, setting several Danish records throughout the summer before finishing fourth at the IAAF World Championships 2015. She won the European title last month and went on to clock a season’s best of 54.33 at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London.
If she wins in Rio, she will become the first track and field athlete from Denmark to win Olympic gold.
Wenda Nel also emerged last year as a rising talent in the 400m hurdles, reducing her PB to 54.37 and finishing seventh at the World Championships. The South African appears to be rounding into form at the right time too, clocking a season’s best of 54.47 in her final race before heading to Rio.
Kemi Adekoya won the world indoor 400m title earlier this year, but is yet to translate that form into the 400m hurdles. The Bahraini record-holder clocked 54.87 to finish second at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Doha back in May and then finished fifth at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Rabat, Rome and Birmingham.
Jamaican champion Ristananna Tracey and Switzerland’s Lea Sprunger could also feature in the final.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF