The last time South Korea hosted a full-scale sporting event this big, it was the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Six years old at the time, that was not only my introduction to the spectacle that is the Olympics, but also to track and field. That was when Florence Griffith-Joyner set the world record in the women's 200-meter dash and the Olympic record in the 100, then added two more medals in the sprint relays. Ben Johnson upset track's biggest superstar, Carl Lewis, in the men's 100 in world-record time—but days later was stripped of the record and the gold medal in a steroids scandal. Jackie Joyner-Kersee broke the heptathlon world record, and Edwin Moses' bronze-medal finish in the men's 400 hurdles was only his second loss in a 134-race stretch.
Twenty-three summers later, South Korea will host the 2011 World Championships of track and field in Daegu, and the stage is being set for history once again. Usain Bolt, the new Carl Lewis, is expected to challenge his own world-record times in the 100 and 200, Allyson Felix is setting herself up to become the first woman to win gold in the 200 and 400 at the same World Championships meet and others are looking to make their name at the most significant track meet before the 2012 Olympics in London.
With the World Championships still two months away, and the USA Outdoor Championships—the country's qualifying event for Daegu—taking place this week, here are a dozen Team USA athletes to watch throughout the summer:
The last three times Jimoh competed under notable pressure, she cracked, finishing 12th in the Beijing Olympics, failing to qualify for the finals in the most recent World Championships and finishing 12th in last summer's USA Outdoor Championships.
Since then, however, all she's done is quietly become one of the best long jumpers in the world. In 2011, Jimoh has skied to first-place finishes in Doha, Daegu (the "Pre-Championship Meet") and Dakar with a season-best jump of 6.88 meters (22 feet, 6 inches). Jimoh is No. 1 in the Diamond League standings and ranked No. 4 in the world overall.
If the 27-year-old Jimoh can translate her early-season success to the meets where everybody is watching, she will be a contender for World Championship gold.
At Florida State, Dix was one of the most decorated NCAA sprinters in history. He also reportedly ran a 40-yard dash in 3.75 seconds.
Since turning pro, he's mostly been just outside the spotlight, though he collected bronze medals in the 100 and 200 at the Beijing Olympics. This year may be Dix's pro breakout: He is currently ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200 and is No. 1 in the Diamond League standings—ahead of Usain Bolt.
Dix ran a season-best 20.06 in Doha and won the Prefontaine Classic with a time of 20.19 seconds. It will likely take a sub-20 time to knock off Bolt in South Korea, but Dix is on the right track.
The man with the best chance to beat Bolt is Tyson Gay. He did it last year, in a 100-meter race in Stockholm, and has carried that momentum to his current No. 1 world ranking in the 100.
Gay lost in a photo finish to Jamaica's Steve Mullings at the adidas Grand Prix in New York earlier this month, his only other competitive race this season after running a world-leading 9.79 in Florida. He might try the 100 and 200 at the USA Outdoor Championships, but if not, you can at least pencil in Gay as Bolt's toughest World Championship challenger in the 100.
The reigning Olympic gold medalist need a big year. Brown Trafton unleashed her personal-best throw of 66.21 meters in 2009, but that same year, had a forgettable performance at the World Championships. This season, the 6'4" former college basketball player has reached 64.13 meters (210 feet, 4 inches) with the disc and is currently second in the Diamond League standings.
No definite word yet on whether Felix will try for the 200-400 double in Daegu, but just making the attempt could make her the story of the World Championships.
This season, Felix is ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200 and No. 2 in the 400. Her season-best 22.36 in the 200 happened on the same track where the WC will be run, and her season-best 49.81 in the 400 isn't too far from her career-best 49.70, set four years ago.
The biggest obstacle to Felix's double-gold bid is scheduling. If that works out in her favor, the elements are lining up for her to make history. Because even if she doesn't try the 200-400, Felix will run the 200, where she could become the first-ever four-time world champion.
At 34 years old, Robinson isn't slowing down yet. The four-time USA outdoor and four-time USA indoor champion has a Diamond League win (Rome) under his belt this season, a win at the Kingston Jamaica International Invitational and a second-place finish at the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon. Robinson's season-best time of 1:45.09 is his best since 2009.
There may be no more closely-competitive event in track right now than the women's 100-meter hurdles. From week to week it seems, the wins are up for grabs among a field of about six or seven world-class runners. If one of them is going to break away from the pack, a lot of track fans are hoping it's Lolo Jones.
Talented, attractive and (most importantly) marketable, Jones has star quality in a sport that needs mainstream stars. After her famous flop at the Beijing Olympics—where she kicked the last hurdle and finished seventh—she's been gradually making her way back to prime form. Last year, she won the 60-meter hurdles title at the World Indoor Championships and won five times on the Diamond League circuit.
This year, Jones has been a consistent top-three finisher in the outdoor season and is looking solid for a World Championship medal run.
Don't be fooled into believing the world 110-meter hurdle crown is a two-man race between David Oliver (USA) and Liu Xiang (China). Merritt has been strong so far this season, ranked No. 6 in the world and tied with Oliver and Xiang for first place in the Diamond League standings. The 25-year-old Tennessee alum won the DL race in Oslo earlier this month, finished second in the Daegu Pre-Championship Meet and has two third-place finishes.
Coming off a third-place finish in the 1500 at the Prefontaine Classic and a second-place 1500 run at the adidas Grand Prix in New York, Uceny is ranked ninth in the world in the mile, as well as 10th in the 800.
She has yet to run an 800 in the outdoor season, but her season-best 4:06.32 in the 1500 puts Uceny in good position to make an impact at the USA Outdoor Championships and later at the World Championships.
With reigning Olympic and World Champion LaShawn Merritt (USA) sitting out a PDE suspension, many expected longtime star Jeremy Wariner to step into the lead role as America's best 400-meter sprinter. Calvin Smith is right on Wariner's heels, however.
Smith won the 400 at a Diamond League meet in Shanghai last month and has consistently been running in the 45-second range. Currently second in DL standings, Smith's overall body of work this season has been arguably more impressive than American favorites Wariner and David Neville.
In 2011, an American sprinter going down to Jamaica and winning a race is like a Duke coed winning homecoming queen at North Carolina.
But that's what Carmelita Jeter did early this season, taking the 100-meter title at the Kingston Jamaica International Invitational against a field that included Jamaican stars Kerron Stewart, Sherone Simpson, Aleen Bailey, Carrie Russell and Simone Facey.
Jeter has also posted 100-meter wins at the Daegu Pre-Championship Meet and the Prefontaine Classic, the latter in a season-best 10.70 seconds. She is currently ranked No. 1 in the world and, after two previous bronze medals at the World Championships, is gunning for her first gold medal.
The cagey veteran is still getting it done. Hoffa turns 34 this year, theoretically in the twilight of a career that includes one World Championship gold (2007) and one world indoor gold (2006). But today, he sits No. 1 in the Diamond League standings and No. 2 in the world.
Hoffa has won three out of five competitions this season—finishing no lower than third in the others—while registering a season-best throw of 21.87 meters (71 feet, 9 inches).