Belgium's Jonathan Borlee won the 400-meter dash in Monaco.
The Diamond League, the premier series of meets featuring the world’s greatest track and field athletes, made its final stop prior to the Olympics on Friday in Monaco.
With the meet being the last major event prior to the 2012 London Games, where track and field competition begins Aug. 3, it came as no surprise that many of the world’s best showed up for their final preparatory meet in advance of their most important competition in four years.
While the results of Olympic competition could be very different than how they stacked up in the Diamond League, the results from Monaco are a good measuring stick of what the top Olympic contenders who competed could be capable of in London.
In the following slides, I highlighted the most eight most meaningful results from Friday’s event.
The most significant news to come out of the Monaco meet was not a first-place performance, but the bad news for a competitor who placed last in his event.
U.S. sprinter LaShawn Merritt, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist and current world leader in the men’s 400-meter dash, was forced to pull out before the finish of Friday’s 400 due to a “twinge in his left hamstring,” as reported by The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
Merritt, who returned in July 2011 following a 21-month suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, had established himself as the favorite to repeat as gold medalist in London with the world’s two fastest times in the event this season.
However, while Merritt told the AP he is “feeling confident” that he will be fully healthy for London, the injury certainly creates uncertainty as to whether Merritt will be at his best, with the first round of competition beginning on Aug. 4.
At the front of the pack, the 400 also featured a surprising result, with Belgium’s Jonathan Borlee defeating 2011 world champion Kirani James of Grenada.
James will remain the favorite if Merritt if at less than 100 percent, but if that is the case, the field will become wide open.
Jonathan Borlee and his twin brother Kevin Borlee, who finished third in Monaco, and Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic, who finished fourth in Monaco but has the world’s fastest time this season from anyone not named Merritt, will all be favorites along with the United States’ Tony McQuay, who did not compete in Monaco.
Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare pulled off a very surprising victory in the previous Diamond League meet, the London Grand Prix, where she defeated both 2011 world champion Carmelita Jeter of the United States and 2008 Olympic gold medalist and current world-leader Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce to win in the women’s 100-meter dash final.
Okagbare continued her winning streak in Monaco, with a season-best time of 10.96 seconds which allowed her to beat a field including U.S. Olympian Tianna Madison and Jeneba Tarmoh.
Tarmoh was the odd woman out in the U.S. Olympic 100-meter dash contingent, after conceding third place in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials to Allyson Felix in the “dead heat” controversy.
Six women have run faster times than Okagbare in the 100 this year, but none will go into the Olympics with as much winning momentum. Jeter and Fraser-Pryce remain the favorites to win at the Games, but Okagbare has certainly made the event’s entire field take notice.
Differences in wind speed and competition have not made any difference for U.S. hurdler Aries Merritt in his last three meets. Friday’s meet in Monaco was the third consecutive meet Merritt won with a time of exactly 12.93 seconds, which is faster than any other men’s 110-meter hurdler has run this year.
2011 world champion Jason Richardson came into the season as the U.S. favorite to win gold in the 110-meter hurdles, but it has become clear that Merritt has surpassed him, having beaten him in the last three consecutive meets.
Richardson, China’s Liu Xiang and Cuban world-record holder Dayron Robles will all be tough competition for Merritt in London, but if Merritt runs with the same consistency at the Games, he is unlikely to leave with anything less than gold.
U.S. discus thrower Stephanie Brown-Trafton was not among the world’s leaders going into the 2008 Games in Beijing, but she surprised the entire field to win gold. If Brown-Trafton is to repeat as Olympic gold medalist in London, she will have to do it in similar fashion.
Going into the Games, she looks to be far from the favorite.
Brown-Trafton finished fourth in Monaco, behind Croatia’s Sandra Perkovic, Germany’s Nadine Muller and Cuba’s Yarelis Barrios, all who had previously thrown farther this season than Brown-Trafton’s season-best mark of 222 feet, 3 inches, which is also her career-best throw and a U.S. record.
Brown-Trafton proved in 2008 that she can surprise the competition to win gold, but that also came with the help of the field’s other top throwers not throwing their farthest. She is going to need similar circumstances to take place if she is to repeat as gold medalist.
Kenya’s three-man Olympic 1,500-meter run contingent of Asbel Kiprop, Silas Kiplagat and Nixon Kiplimo Cheseba have the world’s three fastest times in the event this year, and could easily take the top three places in London.
But with his performance in Monaco, Kiprop may have established himself as the favorite going into the Games.
In a very fast field, Kiprop was victorious with a time of 3:28.88, the fastest time in the world this year.
The previous world-leading time was set by Kiplagat at an earlier Diamond League meet this season in Doha, Qatar, a race in which Kiprop finished second. Kiplagat was not in the Monaco field.
It is unclear whether Kiprop or Kiplagat should be considered the favorite going into the Games, but it is clear that Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist, is peaking at the right time, with the first round of 1,500-meter competition set to begin on Aug. 3.
A new favorite for Olympic gold has emerged in women’s pole vault, over 2011 world champion Fabiana Murer and U.S. champion Jenn Suhr.
The new favorite is Germany’s Silke Spiegelburg, who won in Monaco with a jump of 15 feet, 9 3/4 inches, the highest mark in the world this season.
Spiegelburg has achieved three of the world’s current 10 best marks, while no other woman has more than one of the top-10 vaults this season. She has not only vaulted higher than anyone else this season, but has been the most consistent performer among the top vaulters.
An American record was set in Monaco by Evan Jager in the 3,000-meter steeplechase with a time of 8 minutes, 6.81 seconds, the fastest time ever run in the event by a U.S. athlete.
If Jager can duplicate his record-breaking performance, he has a shot to medal in London. While his time was only good enough for third in the event, behind two Kenyans, Conselus Kipruto and Paul Kipsele Koech, neither Kipruto nor Koech will be going to London.
With the six fastest steeplechasers in the world this season all being from Kenya, the three favorites to win gold in the event are the nation’s three Olympic representatives, who according to Athletics Illustrated are Brimin Kiprop Kipruto, Ezekiel Kemboi and Abel Kiprop Mutai, none of whom competed in Monaco.
Jager now stands as one of the favorites to medal among non-Kenyan, along with Ethiopia’s Roba Gari. Jager may have to improve upon his national record to medal in London, but he certainly showed in Monaco that he has a legitimate shot.
U.S. hurdler Lashinda Demus is the defending world champion in women’s 400-meter hurdles, but up to this point in the 2012 season, she has not looked like an Olympic gold medalist.
Demus was victorious at U.S. trials, but finished second in Monaco to Czech hurdler Zuzana Hejnova, who had a time of 54.26 seconds. Even her best time this season, 53.98, which ranks as the fifth-fastest in the world this season, is 1.51 seconds off of the time she ran to win gold at the 2011 Outdoor World Championships in Daegu.
While no hurdler has come close to running the time Demus ran at last year’s world championships, Demus herself needs to at least be much closer to that time if she is going to win Olympic gold. She remains the favorite to win in London, but after a disappointing performance in Monaco, she definitely looks to be a vulnerable champion.
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Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and also a member of B/R’s 2012 Olympics Coverage Team. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.