Rudisha with his World record clock in Rieti (Victah Sailer) © Copyright
Preview 1 March 2011 – Melbourne, Australia

Rudisha the best performer, men’s 5000m the best production? – Melbourne PREVIEW – IAAF World Challenge

Melbourne, AustraliaThe Oscars have just been awarded, so it’s tempting to look at Thursday’s (3) Melbourne Track Classic, the opening leg of the 2011 IAAF World Challenge, in similar manner. David Rudisha must be the favourite for the best performer category, but the men’s 5000m looks the strongest candidate for best production.

The Melbourne Track Classic on Thursday night (Australian Eastern Daylight Saving time) is also the last big invitation meeting at Melbourne’s Olympic Park ahead of the move later this year to a new stadium at nearby Albert Park.

It promises to be a memorable send-off, with not only 2010’s male athlete of the year – Rudisha - but also World and Olympic champions Valerie Adams (Shot Put), Dani Samuels (Discus Throw), Bernard Lagat (1500 and 5000m, 2007) and Reese Hoffa (Shot Put, 2007) competing.

At domestic level, there is 2005 World championships 5000m bronze medallist Craig Mottram’s first major competition since overcoming career-threatening achilles tendon injuries and World 2009, World indoor 2010 Long Jump bronze medallist Mitchell Watt’s return from severe groin injuries and troubled son John Steffensen’s return from a three-month suspension to savour.

Spotlight on Rudisha

Rudisha, who broke Wilson Kipketer’s previous World record for 800m in Berlin last year then ran faster again in Rieti a week later, deservedly takes top billing.

Rudisha also won the African championships 800m at home in Nairobi last year and, the first but definitely not the last of his achievements for 2010, set an Australian all-comers’ record 1:43.15 at the Melbourne meeting.

Having achieved so much, the 22-year-old Kenyan athlete remains focused on the one thing he has yet to do – that is, to win a major global senior title.

At last week’s John Landy Lunch, which launched the Melbourne meeting, Rudisha explained what 2011 was about for him.

“I’ve been running very well,” he told the guests, “I’ve been running fast times. But I don’t have a major title, so that is what I’m aiming for.

“Having the World record and not having a major title – that doesn’t sound good.”

So, Rudisha tops the bill in a city which takes its middle and long-distance running seriously.

Can he run faster than last year’s 1:43.15? It is a formidable task, especially as he races first-up this time whereas he had two 400m races as lead-ins last time. His rivals include sub-1:44 men Nick Symmonds (USA) and Abraham Chepkirwok (UGA). As well, Australian champion Lachlan Renshaw will be looking to step up.

Kiprop v Willis in the 1500m

The 1500 brings together Olympic gold and silver medallists Asbel Kiprop (KEN) and Nick Willis (NZL), along with former teenage prodigy and US Mile record holder Alan Webb and last year’s winner, Jeff Riseley (AUS). Riseley will be keen to atone for missing the rest of 2010 with a foot injury; Kiprop for the fall which cost him his winning chance last year.

Loaded men's 5000m field

The 5000m stands out as the race of the night. Lagat arrived in Melbourne on Tuesday after winning the US indoor 3000m on the weekend; fellow-Americans Chris Solinsky, Matt Tegenkamp and Tom Nelson and Kenya’s Isaac Songok have been here all week. Collis Birmingham, Ben St Lawrence and David McNeill will head the local challenge along with Mottram, who has had a drawn-out and stuttering return from persistent achilles tendon problems.

Luke Kipkosgei’s meeting record of 13:11.11 will definitely be under threat.

In the women’s 800m, Olympic Park hero Tamsyn Lewis, running her 14th consecutive Melbourne meeting, will take on Jamaica’s Kenia Sinclair, while Jemma Simpson (GBR) and Susan Kuijken (NED) add international competition to a strong domestic 1500m field headed by Kaila McKnight.

Big shots in the infield

The strongest individual credentials of any of the night’s events are to be found here, with four World and one Olympic gold medals between Valerie Adams (NZL; two world titles, one Olympic), Dani Samuels (AUS; one world title) and Reese Hoffa (USA; one world title).

Adams and Hoffa are in good form, the former throwing an NZ all-comer’s record 20.33m on the weekend, Hoffa 21.08m in Hobart, while the time is right for Samuels to move deep into 60-metre territory.

Hoffa could challenge the meeting record 21.27m thrown by Scott Martin in 2008. Closest to him will be Australia’s Dale Stevenson who improved to 20.05m in Hobart.

Mitchell Watt has already competed in the sprints on the Australian Athletics Tour, but Melbourne marks his return to the Long Jump pit. He did 8.13m in a low-key competition in Brisbane last week. Something longer than that might be required to win if the mercurial Chris Noffke (8.33m in 2010) has one of his ‘good’ days.

Pearson and Barber headline the sprints

Sally Pearson has ambitions to break Melinda Gainsford-Taylor’s Australian record 11.12 for 100 metres. A world junior bronze medal and an 11.14 in Osaka in 2007 suggest that she has the ability as well.

What has been lacking for the Olympic hurdles silver medallist so far is competition, which could be at hand in the feet of US world championships relay gold medallist Mikele ‘Miki’ Barber. The pair are down to clash at both 100 and 200 metres and should have things pretty much to themselves.

Pick of the men’s sprints is the longest one, with John Steffensen returning from his ban (for comments bringing the sport into disrepute) to meet Commonwealth silver medallist Sean Wroe and national champion Ben Offereins in the 400m.

Len Johnson for the IAAF