London 2012: Usain Bolt and 10 Olympic Track Storylines at Rome Diamond League
The Diamond League is set to kick off its European tour in grand style with Thursday's Golden Gala in Rome.
A star-packed meet with numerous champions will, fittingly, take place in the Italian city's Olympic Stadium, host of the 1960 Games.
The meeting provides a chance for the athletes to begin to set themselves up for the ultimate prize of the season, Olympic Gold in London.
Headlining the Golden Gala is none other than Jamaican Usain Bolt, arguably the most electrifying athlete in sports today.
Bolt and his quest to top his showstopping performances, however, is just one of the intriguing story lines in a typically loaded Diamond League event.
Inside are the top story lines and subplots to look for in what should be a fascinating Golden Gala.
1. Usain Bolt and the 10.04 Heard Around the World
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Usain Bolt doesn't just face the world-class sprinters that line up beside him when he competes in a race.
He faces the clock, sky-high expectations, and an unfathomable standard he's set for 100-meter running.
So, when he gets out of the blocks sluggishly, doesn't explode out in the middle as we expect, and runs a pedestrian 10.04 for the 100, it sure seems like a loss.
The fact is, though, however uninspiring Usain Bolt's run was in Ostrava May 25th, it was a win and a comfortable one at that.
The public was perplexed by the slowest 100-meter final clocking of his senior career, and Bolt seemed to echo the same feelings as he told the Guardian:
''I had some very good starts on the warm-up track so I have no explanation...I had no feeling at all in the race, no feeling. I went out of the blocks badly and then nothing came. The false start did not affect me, that's no excuse. I'll have to go back to the drawing board, talk to the coach. It was just a bad day, I have to get past it and look forward to the next one.''
It is critical to give the time proper context. Overall, the times on the day were slow (perhaps due to cooler weather), Bolt was running into a significant headwind (-0.8), and the field Bolt was facing was decent, not terrible. It was also an early season race, surely not a race circled on Bolt's calendar.
Thus, plenty of things were in alignment for a high 9's or low 10's clocking. Obviously Bolt's start was as bad as we've seen, and his response was far less pronounced that we are accustomed to.
Bolt can quickly erase most of the doubts with a strong showing in Rome, or at least one that replicates last year's thrilling victory over countryman Asafa Powell in the same event.
At the very least, he will almost certainly need a 9 at the beginning of his time to best a field that includes Powell and burgeoning French star Christophe Lemaitre.
His response to last week's race will go a long way in determining whether Ostrava was just a bad day, or the first signs of a bad season.
2. Lolo Jones: Will Her Remarkable Tale Have a Storybook Ending?
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The other Olympian making waves last week was Lolo Jones and her remarkable story of how she became the world-class hurdler she is today.
Coming from a dirt-poor background, Lolo had to shoplift frozen dinners and persevere through adversity. As she told HBO Sports, she also has chosen to maintain her virginity until marriage. I encourage everyone to learn more about her and follow her twitter, as she is definitely one of the more fun athletes to root for.
Inspiring life story aside, though, Lolo faces a pivotal challenge this season to gain redemption for a brutal Olympics twist of fate four years ago in Beijing.
After a strong 2008 season, Jones led into the closing stages of the Olympic final before hitting a hurdle and falling out of the medals.
Ever since, Lolo has failed to replicate her sparkling form of the 2008 season mostly due to a brutal run of injuries.
She must now begin to cut down her time back to the 12.4-12.5 range to have any chance of making it to the podium for the first time in her career.
The event has changed significantly since her 2008 heyday as the otherworldly Aussie Sally Pearson has emerged as the dominant, all-time great competitor the event lacked in Lolo's heyday.
In Rome, Lolo won't face her, but she will face the woman who capitalized on her mistake in Beijing and took Gold in Dawn Harper, as well as numerous experienced and accomplished athletes like Kellie Wells, Brigitte Ann Foster Hylton, and Priscilla Lopes-Schliep.
3. What Type of Season Will Caster Semenya Have?
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There are so many questions to ask about Semenya: Should she be able to compete against women given her medical condition? Would it be unfair to ban or force her to compete against men? Is the reported medical treatment she is undergoing affecting her performance?
I, of course, don't have the definitive answers to these questions.
The most important thing is the IAAF has given her the all-clear to compete against women, and her fellow competitors, some reluctantly, have competed against her since her apparently effortless 2009 title. Whether she should be out there or not, she will be, and her talent will make her a favorite in any race.
Despite her enviable talent, last year Mariya Savinova defeated her in thrilling fashion in the World Championships.
Semenya will continue to be a lightning rod for the media and public due to her controversial features and body-type, but whether she can conquer the spotlight and a strong field once more is just as compelling.
Her consistency and level of engagement in races has come into question, as she's suffered from her share of lackadaisical efforts since her 2009 season.
Rome will be a great test for her, as she will go against an excellent field (more on that later), and give us a good indication if she is ready to challenge for another international title.
4. Jesse Williams: Can He Do It Again in London?
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A true surprise in Daegu was American Jesse Williams, who rode a breakout season all the way to a Gold-Medal winning performance (7'8.5'' was his winning height).
His performance was a revelation as he had never made it to the finals of an international championship event, let alone medalled.
As big a triumph as that was for Williams, he now faces an even bigger challenge in repeating his breakthrough in the biggest stage there is. At London, he won't sneak up on anyone, nor will he turn heads if he advances through the early rounds without any misses.
To illustrate the depth and unpredictability of the high jump currently, Williams finished only 6th in the 2012 World Indoor Championships with a height of 7'7''.
Williams' best is what will be required to add Olympic hardware to his World Championships haul. A good showing in Rome can get him rolling and on his way to a special season much like last year.
With so many athletes in the 7'5''-7'9'' range, it's no surprise that Williams will have his hands full at the Golden Gala. Ivan Ukhov, Moutaz Essa Barship Ahmed, and Aleksey Dmitrik figure to be his strongest competition.
5. Morgan Uceny Tries to Make Up for 2011's Bitter Twist
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Track and Field can be a bitter game, and no one's 2011 made it more apparent than Morgan Uceny.
Uceny had come into Daegu as the favorite for the victory. In the aftermath of her fall, countrywoman Jenny Simpson seized the moment and took the title in a wide-open race.
Now, with that race bitterly stuck in her mind, Uceny will try to erase the bad memories with an Olympic season to remember.
She'll need to lean heavily on her trademark of last year, a blistering kick, and a strong tactical acumen against a long list of competitors with faster personal bests.
The early-season gauntlet has already been thrown down by Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba who easily outclassed the best women's 1500 times from last year with a stunning 3:57.77 clocking in Shanghai. She and other top athletes will challenge Uceny's closing ability in Rome, and undoubtedly in the Olympics.
6. Christophe Lemaitre Could Be Track's Next Big Star
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Even the most color-blind of observers had to admit the hugeness of the Jeremy Lin 'Linsanity' phenomenon had something to do with the uniqueness of an Asian-American athlete excelling the way he did.
Sprinting has its Lin-esque character in France's phenom Christophe Lemaitre, who at just 21 years of age has two individual European titles, a bronze medal at the World Championships in the 200, and a world-class 100m personal best of 9.92.
And, of course, he's white, and that just makes him look different among all of the rest of the world-class sprinters. In fact, he was the first white sprinter to break the now ho-hum, but once vaunted, 10-second 100 meter barrier.
Lemaitre, to his credit, doesn't think about any of it that way as he told The Telegraph:
"In my eyes, sprinting has never been a matter of skin colour. It is a superfluous matter."
Lemaitre's big time performances and credentials suggest the supposed disadvantage of his skin color is the last thing on his mind as he toes the line vs. today's once-in-a-lifetime talents like Usain Bolt.
Still, if he succeeds and springs an upset vs. Bolt in Rome or even on the grandest stage in London, he will no doubt become something of a sensation. The stereotype of white people not being able to sprint is still pervasive (see Jordy Nelson).
Now if only his name worked into a catchier way to capture what he'd be doing.
7. Can Lashinda Demus Get It Done in an Olympic Year?
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Back to the hurdles to highlight the USA's best hope on the women's side in the 400m hurdles, Lashinda Demus.
Demus has been running exceptional marks in her event going all the way back to 2005, but it finally really all came together in 2011 when she ran a superb 52.47 to claim the Gold (3rd fastest of all time) at the World Championships.
A possible reason for that personal best and standout performance was a more measured approach to racing in Europe. Demus made fewer appearances in Europe and made each one count instead of maximizing her earning potential and trying to knock out everyone.
At the end of the season, she looked fresh, and her stellar championship race likely will have her trying to replicate that formula this Olympic season.
Standing in her way both in Rome and almost certainly in London will be the 2008 Olympic Champion, Jamaican Melaine Walker. With almost identical personal bests and considerable Championship credentials for both, this figures to be a fierce battle for the honors in London.
Other strong competitors going in Rome include the Russian Natalya Antyukh and Walker's Jamaican teammate, Kaliese Spencer.
8. Who Will Emerge in the Men's 400-Meter Hurdles?
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The grueling 400-meter hurdles event features almost a dozen athletes who could conceivably emerge as Olympic champion in London.
In Rome, many of those contenders will go in what promises to be a competitive race.
Here's a look at those athletes:
David Greene- Dai Greene used a great stretch run to pull off an upset and win the Gold at the 2011 World Championships. Of course, that triumph has only heightened the pressure and expectation for the Welshman who promises to be one of his host nation's best gold-medal threats. He was absolutely the beneficiary of some notable off-races or years by past champions, but he can't bank on that now, especially in an Olympic year.
Javier Culson- With two straight silvers in the World Championships, the Puerto Rican holds the unenviable position as the event's bridesmaid. His race style of going out hard and holding on in the stretch faces a lot of pressure as fast-closing athletes can sense him slowing and jet by in the final strides. He will need a stronger close or an insurmountable lead if he wants to improve his medal standing.
Bershawn Jackson- The 2005 World Champion, Bershawn 'Batman' Jackson, will try to rebound from a bitterly disappointing showing by himself and the American squad in 2011. Don't be fooled if he looks to be out of it 150 meters in- his unorthodox step pattern allows him to rally the second half of the race. At his best, Jackson's style can put him in the low 47's and match up against anyone in the world.
Also of note in the field is South African L.J. Van Zyl, who typically has run great in the early season before somewhat fading away towards the end. If he can time his season correctly, he can improve on last year's Bronze medal. Twenty-year-old Trinidadian Jehue Gordon is another to watch to see if he can rebound from a disappointing second season as a pro and show off all the promise he demonstrated when he finished 4th in the World Championships Final at age 18.
9. Pamela Jelimo Tries to Return to Her Gold-Winning Form
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In 2008, 18-year-old Kenyan Pamela Jelimo had one of the most sensational seasons in Track history. She burst onto the scene to win the Olympic Gold in Beijing and the Golden League Jackpot (a cool $1 million prize). She dominated like few had before in Europe, running the 3rd fastest 800 meter time of all time for women, 1:54.01.
She accomplished enough in that one season to satisfy a career.
Unfortunately for the next three years, it appeared that that one transcendent season would be all we would remember from her career.
Over the past few years, she was hampered by injuries and incredible expectations to match her supreme form of 2008. Her 2009-2011 seasons were a huge struggle as she failed to even break the two-minute barrier in the last two years of the rough stretch.
In many races, she either dropped out or looked like her old, dominant, front-running self for the first lap, only to crumble and get passed by the entire field in the decisive part of the race.
Fortunately, it now appears she has turned a corner and is the Jelimo of old. At the 2012 World Indoor Championships, she won comfortably in a strong 1:58.83 showing.
If that wasn't enough to put the not-so-easily impressed on Jelimo-watch, her stellar 1:56.94 in Doha has put her firmly back on everyone's radar.
In Rome, she will face strong competition in her Kenyan teammate Janeth Jepkosgei, the World Champion Russian Mariya Savinova, and the other buzz-worthy athlete (though for very different reasons) Caster Semenya.
10. Kenya vs. Ethiopia in Women's Distance
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While Jamaica vs. USA in the sprints might get more publicity, the battle between Kenyans and Ethiopians in the distance events is fiercer, given the longer history of it and the regionalism involved, while being just as competitive.
For the Ethiopian women, it has been a dry few years after a great showing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics that featured a gold-medal sweep in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 by Tirunesh Dibaba.
Dibaba and her Ethiopian teammate, Meseret Defar, dominated the events in the mid-2000s as the Kenyan women were resigned to take silver at best.
Much of the Kenyan dominance has had to do with injuries plaguing Defar and Dibaba. The two appear to be on the mend now after stronger 2011 seasons, and it's just in time for this critical Olympic year.
Defar will restart her rivalry with the ascendant Cheruiyot in Rome in what should be a thrilling finish. Not to be forgotten are numerous other Kenyans and Ethiopian women with strong credentials like Sylvia Kibet and Geleta Burka who could challenge for the win here, and perhaps even top billing in London.
An upset from Defar could give her the psychological advantage over one of the top athletes of all year in Cheruiyot and signal a return to the top for the Ethiopian women.