Yelena Isinbayeva improves her own world pole vault record to 5.05m to secure Olympic gold (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Berlin, Germany

Spotlight on Isinbayeva, Bekele, Richards and Vlasic as ÅF Golden League kicks off in Berlin – DKB-ISTAF PREVIEW

World champions Yelena Isinbayeva, Kenenisa Bekele and Blanka Vlasic will attract much of the spotlight as the six-meeting ÅF Golden League kicks off tomorrow afternoon (14 June) with the DKB-ISTAF meeting at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.

The ten ÅF Golden League event disciplines designated to the Jackpot in 2009, five for men and five for women (men: 100m, 400m, 3000m/5000m, 110m Hurdles, and Javelin Throw; women: 100m, 400m, 100m Hurdles, High Jump, and Pole Vault) will dominate the main two-and-a- half hour programme before an expected crowd of more than 65,000.

Athletes are required to win at all six meetings to acquire at least a share of the $1 Million ÅF Golden League Jackpot, and it is Isinbayeva, Bekele, and Vlasic, along with Olympic 400m bronze medallist Sanya Richards who, at the moment, stand the best chance to capture at least a slice of that Jackpot pie.

Isinbayeva’s eagerly-anticipated debut

Yet even among these predicted front-runners in the Jackpot chase, one name clear stands out, that of Isinbayeva, the reigning Olympic, World and European champion in the Pole Vault who has already amassed 26 World records in the event. To say that the 27-year-old is head and shoulders above the field is an understatement: her current World record of 5.05m is 13cm higher than any other woman has ever cleared, and 23cm above the best of anyone who’ll be competing on Sunday. Two years ago the popular Russian took home a $500,000 share of the Jackpot, and brings a 14-meet win streak to Berlin.

Leading the chase pack is the steadily improving Fabiana Murer, who just last weekend improved her South American record to 4.82m; European indoor champion Yulia Golubchikova of Russia; and local favourite Silke Spiegelburg, this year’s European indoor runner-up.

[For more on the field, see the ÅF Golden League Jackpot Jumps preview here]

Bekele joins the Jackpot chase again

As dominant as Isinbayeva has been on the women’s side of the sport, so too has Bekele been on the men’s. The two, virtually the same age – Bekele celebrates his 27th birthday today, while Isinbayeva celebrated hers 10 days ago – have to a large extent defined the sport for the past half decade. Each has a slew of World records to their credit, Olympic and World titles. But conspicuously missing from the Ethiopian’s trophy case is a perfect six-for-six season in ÅF Golden League competition. He won a lesser share in 2006 after collecting five wins, and will be hoping to go one better this time around.

Bekele’s season opener was a brief one, dropping out of the Hengelo 1500m 12 days ago, just two laps into the race. He cited a minor pain in his thigh which his manager Jos Hermens confirmed was nothing serious. The double Olympic champion admits however that he is a little behind in his training, and will have a fierce battle on his hands as his Jackpot ambitions begin.

Among his chief challengers will be Kenyans Micah Kogo, the 2008 Olympic bronze medallist in the 10,000m, and Edwin Soi, the Olympic 5000m bronze medallist. Kogo has impressed in 2009, setting a 27:01 World record in the 10Km on the roads and most recently with a solid 13:02.90 victory in the 5000m over reigning World champion Bernard Lagat in New York.

[For more on the field, see the ÅF Golden League Jackpot Distance preview here]

Like Isinbayeva, Richards looking for 2007 GL repeat

In recent years, few have been as dominant on the one-day meeting circuit as Richards, the American record holder in the 400 who shared the 2007 Jackpot with Isinbayeva. And as was the case two years ago, the 24-year-old American will be hard to beat.

Richards arrives in the German capital as the World leader after her 49.86 victory in Eugene last weekend, the season’s only sub-50 second performance. Her challengers in Berlin include Russian Yuliya Gushchina, who finished fourth in Beijing and collected Olympic gold in the 4x100m and 4x400m relays; another Russian, Tatyana Firova, a Beijing Olympic finalist and gold medallist in the 4x400m; and Amantle Montsho of Botswana, the reigning African champion and 2008 Olympic finalist.

[For more on the field, see the ÅF Golden League Jackpot Sprint preview here]

Vlasic vs. Friedrich in the High Jump

Like Isinbayeva, Bekele and Richards, Vlasic is no stranger to Golden League competition, but the Croatian star’s experience is far less memorable. With victories in the first five ÅF Golden League fixtures a year ago, the reigning World champion suffered a shock defeat on countback – only her second loss of the season – to Germany’s Ariane Friedrich in Brussels, dashing her Jackpot hopes and costing her $500,000. The German will also be starting tomorrow, making the event, from a local perspective, the afternoon’s most anticipated.

In their last meeting, Friedrich dominated the field to take the European indoor title in March, with Vlasic finishing a disappointed fifth. But as has become customary, Vlasic has begun the season on a roll, topping 2.05m in Doha and 2.04m at home in Split last month. For her part, Friedrich improved to 2.05 indoors last winter, and cleared 2.00m on 5 June.

[For more on the field, see the ÅF Golden League Jackpot Jumps preview here]

Thorkildsen vs Pitkämäki

Strong head-to-head clashes a focal point of Meeting Director Gerhard Janetzky’s philosophy, and there will be several on the programme besides the Vlasic-Friedrich battle.

[For more with Janetzky, please see an interview, Words From the Meeting Directors 2009 ]

In the men’s Javelin Throw contest, it would be difficult to assemble a better field than the one which will gather here on Sunday. That gathering includes one of the sport’s finest rivalries between reigning World champion Tero Pitkämäki of Finland and Norway’s two-time Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen. The pair have met 41 times since 2001, with the Finn bringing a narrow 22-19 edge to the German capital. Last year, the two each took home two Golden League victories. Few head-to-heads in any sport are closer.

Neither however will kick off their Jackpot ambitions as the world season leader. That role belongs to Latvian Vadims Vasilevskis, the 2004 Olympic silver medallist who also took the World Athletics Final title last year, whose spear last month landed at 90.71m at a national meeting in Valmiera, Latvia. Thefield also includes another Latvian, Ainars Kovals, the man who finished between Thorkildsen and Pitkämäki in Beijing to take Olympic silver

[For more on the field, see the ÅF Golden League Jackpot Throws preview here]

Elsewhere in the Jackpot chase, wide open

Surprises of course, can and do occur. Just nine months ago in Brussels, Pamela Jelimo capped an unprecedented rise from obscurity to become the sole claimant to athletics richest prize. Are more surprises in store?

In the men’s 100m, 22-year-old Daniel Bailey of Antigua brings the finest momentum to Berlin. A 10.12 sprinter a year ago, he’s improved dramatically already this season, most recently to 9.99 in Belem late last month. Another sprinter to watch is American Rae Edwards, who is on the verge of the sub-10 club with a 10.02 PB this season.

In the women’s 100m, the sprinter to beat is clearly Kerron Stewart, the Jamaican who emerged from Beijing last summer as the only double dash individual medallist after her silver medal performance in the 100m and bronze over the half lap. She’s already dipped under 11 seconds twice this season, first with a 10.92 in Kingston and 10.93 in Doha.

The key entrants in the men’s 400m are Bahamian Chris Brown, Leslie Djhone of France, and Swede Johan Wissman, all finalists from Beijing. Watch for African record holder Gary Kikaya from the Democratic Republic of Congo as well.

[For more on the field, see the ÅF Golden League Jackpot Sprint preview here]

Payne and Cherry lead the sprint hurdles fields

The World championships bronze medallist in 2007 and Olympic silver medallist last year, American David Payne has been progressing as most athletes would like. He’ll start as favourite in the men's 110m Hurdles, where he’ll face Frenchman Ladji Doucouré, the 2005 World champion and fourth place finisher in Berlin, and rapidly improving American Dexter Faulk.

In the women’s 100m Hurdles, the Jackpot chase will be led by American Damu Cherry, who finished fourth in Beijing, and who will start as the marginal favourite. She’ll take on Jamaicans Delloreen Ennis-London and Brigitte Foster-Hylton, who were fifth and sixth in Beijing and just 0.01 and 0.02 seconds behind the bronze medallist.

[For more on the field, see the ÅF Golden League Jackpot Hurdles preview here]

Elsewhere, a strong German presence

German athletes who’ll be aiming for the podium when the athletics world returns to Olympic Stadium in August for the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Berlin, Germany (15-23 Aug) play a prominent role in the rest of the programme.

While the event’s current big Two, reigning Olympic and World champion Irving Saladino and two-time World champion Dwight Phillips not in the German capital this weekend, rising German star Sebastian Bayer will certainly attract the bulk of the attention in the men’s Long Jump. At the European indoor championships in March, he stunned the world with his final round 8.71m leap, second only to World indoor record holder Carl Lewis.

Bayer opened his outdoor season with an 8.02m leap, but will have to perform significantly better to beat the likes of South African Godfrey Mokoena and Cuba’s Ibrahim Camejo, respectively the Olympic silver and bronze medalists. Frenchman Salim Sdiri brings significant momentum to Berlin after his national record 8.42m leap in Pierre-Benite, France, on Friday (12).

In the men’s Discus Throw, Robert Harting, the reigning World championships silver medallist who finished fourth in Beijing, is the lead hope for the locals. His task too will be daunting, with the entire Beijing Olympic podium – Gerd Kanter of Estonia, Piotr Malachowski of Poland, and Lithuanian Virgilijus Alekna – in the field.

There will be strong local flavour in the women’s Shot Put as well, with the German trio of Denise Hinrichs, Nadine Kleinert and Petra Lammert in the field. Kleinert, an Olympic and twice World championships silver medallist, reached 19.80m 11 days ago, and is currently in the best form among the Germans. Their work will be cut out for them though, with Natalia Mikhnevich and Nadezhda Ostapchuk of Belarus, the Olympic silver and bronze medallist, starting here as well.

Elsewhere, Kenyan Haron Keitany, last year’s World Athletics Final 1500m champion, leads a solid field in the metric mile. His primary challenger is compatriot Augustine Choge, who edged Keitany in Doha by just 0.02 seconds in 3:30.88.

The programme also includes a men’s 4x100m Relay designed for teams to achieve qualifying berths for a return visit to Olympic Stadium in just over two months time.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF