Track & Field World Championships Preview: 25 International Athletes to Watch

Amaar Abdul-Nasir@amaarabdulnasirAnalyst IIAugust 22, 2011

Track & Field World Championships Preview: 25 International Athletes to Watch

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    This is the pageantry of the Super Bowl, the tension of the World Series and the individual pressure of The Masters. This is the most major of the major track meets, at least until the next Olympic year.

    This is the 2011 Track & Field World Championships (Aug. 27-Sept. 4), coming to you from Daegu, South Korea.

    If you've watched any of this summer's Diamond League track meets or if you caught the USA championships last month, then you know the punchline to almost every track story line ends in "Daegu."

    For athletes in the U.S. and worldwide, everything they've done this year is aimed at the world championships. Every time a star skips a meet, every strategy used to combat an injury, every time and distance recorded, it's part of each individual's plan pace themselves to turn in a peak performance in Daegu. An career-best outdoor season can be deemed meaningless without medal at the worlds, one of the two meets (including the Olympics) at which legacies are made.

    Here are 25 international athletes to watch at the world championships, with my list of 25 Team USA athletes to watch coming soon:

Andreas Thorkildsen (Javelin)

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    Represents: Norway

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    Why no one has made the "Mighty Thor" nickname stick to Thorkildsen, I have no idea. Not only is he the reigning king of his event—twice an Olympic gold medallist, defending World and European champ, currently ranked No. 1 in the world—but he's also got the whole-ripped-warrior-flinging-a-sharp-spear thing going for him.

    Despite taking a month off during the season with a groin injury, Thor has been improving his distances at every major meet this year and should be peaking at precisely the right time in Daegu. He has four of the top five throws in the world, including a 90.61-meter (297 feet, 3 inches) season best that he unleashed at the Norwegian Championships.

Amantle Montsho (400 Meters)

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    Represents: Botswana

    2009 World Championships: Eighth place

    The road to Allyson Felix's 200/400 double-gold attempt has to run past Montsho.

    Currently No. 1 in the world rankings and Diamond League standings, Montsho has four of the top 400-meter times this year, including a 49.71-second mark that broke her previous career best.

    Felix (USA) beat Montsho in the 400 at the Diamond League meet in Doha on May 6, then again in Rome on May 26. Montsho has gone undefeated since then and will be favored to knock off both Felix and defending world champion Sanya Richards-Ross (USA) in Daegu.

Asafa Powell (100 Meters)

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    Represents: Jamaica

    2009 World Championships: 100m bronze medal, 4x100m relay gold medal (WC record)

    On pure athletic talent, Powell is easily the second-best sprinter in the world behind You-Know-Who, and could make a good argument for the No. 1 spot. But when you throw in the intangibles—coming up in the clutch, staying focused throughout the heats, etc.—Powell falls back into the rest of the pack a couple of strides behind You-Know-Who.

    This season, however, Powell is putting it all together. He has the fastest 100-meter time in the world so far (9.78 seconds), and hasn't lost a race since June. With Tyson Gay out of the World Championship field due to injury and You-Know-Who running subpar times by his standards, Powell has a golden opportunity to wear the Fastest Man in the World crown that he's been so close to before.

Blanka Vlasic (High Jump)

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    Represents: Croatia

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    Take the swagger of Nicki Minaj in one hand, the boldness of Lady GaGa in the other, mix it together and make it sleek enough to routinely clear two meters (6 feet, 6 inches) in the air—then you have Blanka Vlasic.

    One of the most entertaining personalities in the sport, Vlasic normally would have gone into this World Championships as the odds-on favorite to win her third straight high jump title. She is ranked No. 1 in the world and has five of the top 12 heights. But a partial muscle tear in her left leg suffered in training last week threatened to keep her out of the WC altogether. She said she will defend her crown, but obviously won't be in prime condition.

    When healthy, Vlasic sets the bar for the rest of the field. When she's hurt, the competition is wide open.

Brimin Kipruto (3000-Meter Steeplechase)

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    Represents: Kenya

    2009 World Championships: Seventh place

    Starting with his silver-medal effort at the '04 Olympic as an 18-year-old, Kipruto had a streak of finding the medal podium at the biggest meets—bronze at the '05 World Championships, gold at the '07 Worlds, gold at the '08 Olympics—that was snapped at the last WC when he finished seventh.

    In case you thought he was slipping, though, the 26-year-old Kipruto put the steeplechase field on blast last month when he turned in a near world-record performance.

    At a Diamond League meet in Monaco, Kipruto won the steeplechase in 7:53.64, one-hundredth of a second off Saif Saaeed's seven-year-old world record. That gave Kipruto three of the 10 fastest times in the world this year.

Caster Semenya (800 Meters)

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    Represents: South Africa

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    After she blew away the 800-meter field for a decisive win at the '09 WC, Semenya was supposed to become one of track's breakout young stars. Instead, she became an international story for all the wrong reasons.

    Because the 18-year-old had dominated so soon and seemingly out of nowhere, Semenya was dragged through an IAAF gender-testing process that stretched into the summer of 2010, when she was finally allowed to resume competing internationally against women.

    Semenya has been effective but inconsistent since her reinstatement. How inconsistent? During a four-meet span of Diamond League meets from June to July this year, she finished third in the 800 in Oslo, 13th in the 1500 in Lausanne, first in the 800 in Paris, then 12th in the 800 in Stockholm.

    Semenya currently ranks fifth in the world 800-meter rankings, and third in the DL standings. Her season-best time of 1:58.61 is more than three seconds slower than her winning time at the '09 WC and barely cracked the top 20 times in the world.

Christophe Lemaitre (100 Meters, 200 Meters)

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    Represents: France

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    The next great white hope of sprinting has all the surface requirements to be a superstar. Most importantly, he's fast. Lemaitre was actually the first Caucasian man to break the 10-second barrier in the 100-meter dash, which he accomplished last year, and has since clocked a personal best of 9.92 seconds.

    Just like he did at last year's European Championships, Lemaitre swept the 100 and 200 at this year's French Championships. He goes into his first WC meet ranked No. 4 globally in both events and is a dark horse pick to crash the medal podium that seems reserved for Jamaican and American sprinters.

Christina Obergfoll (Javelin)

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    Represents: Germany

    2009 World Championships: Fifth place

    Watch her compete this week and tell me Obergfoll doesn't look like she could be Dirk Nowitzki's sister.

    Obergfoll is on pace to follow the path of Dirk (unrelated) by winning her first major championship this year after coming close a few times before—two World Championship silver medals, a bronze in the '08 Olympics and another silver at last year's European Championships.

    She has the second-best throw in the world this year at 68.86 meters (225 feet, 11 inches), which is one of her four international top-10 marks.

David Rudisha (800 Meters)

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    Represents: Kenya

    2009 World Championships: Failed to qualify for final

    If Rudisha is on the track when runners take their marks for the 800-meter final in Daegu, it will be exactly one year and one day since he set the world record in that event (1:41.01).

    A natural sprinter who has 45-second speed in the 400, Rudisha often gets out so fast you'd think he was a pace-setter until you realize he can keep up that pace for the whole two laps. He has five of the 10 fastest 800-meter times in the world this year, topped by his 1:42.61 at a Diamond League meet in Monaco last month.

Elena Isinbaeva (Pole Vault)

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    Represents: Russia

    2009 World Championships: Failed to clear height in finals

    Imagine if an in-his-prime Michael Jordan led the Bulls to the NBA Finals, then averaged 10 points per game while turning the ball over five times a night as Chicago got swept. That's kind of like what happened to Isinbayeva at the '09 Worlds.

    The greatest female pole vaulter of all-time failed to clear the bar at any height in the Berlin finals, a rare and shockingly feeble loss for the two-time Olympic and two-time WC gold medallist.

    She bounced back to break her own outdoor world record in the pole vault later that year—Isinbayeva has set the world outdoor record 15 times and the indoor record 12 times—but still decided to take about a year off to recharge her batteries.

    She returned this season and his back to her winning ways, although her season-best height of 4.76 meters (15 feet, 7.4 inches) is only fourth-best in the world and would be her lowest season-best since 2002.

Dayron Robles (110-Meter Hurdles)

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    Represents: Cuba

    2009 World Championships: Failed to qualify for final

    If Liu Xiang (China) is the fastest and David Oliver (USA) is the strongest among 110-meter hurdlers, Robles completes the Big Three because he is the most technically sound hurdler in the world. You can watch a year's worth of film on Robles—in practice and meets—and you might see him clip a hurdle once or twice.

    Robles has used that flawless technique to win an Olympic gold medal (2008) and set the world record in his event (12.87 seconds), but his track record at the World Championships hasn't reflected his greatness. In '09 he was injured and didn't make it out of the semis, and in '07 he finished fourth in the final.

Liu Xiang (110-Meter Hurdles)

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    Represents: China

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    The casual fans who only pay attention to track during the Olympics and World Championships haven't seen Liu Xiang since he painfully had to bow out of the Beijing Olympics before his first heat with an Achilles injury.

    During an extended sabbatical that ate up most of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Liu has regained his position among the sport's elite performers. He is ranked No. 3 in the world in the 110-meter hurdles with a season-best time of 13.00 seconds and high-profile victories at the Diamond League meet in Shanghai and the Asian Championships.

    If things go as planned during the preliminary rounds, the WC final showdown between David Oliver, Dayron Robles and Liu Xiang on August 29 will be one of the most anticipated events in Daegu.

Jessica Ennis (Heptathlon)

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    Represents: Great Britain

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    Ennis' strengths in the seven-event hepthathlon are the sprints and jumps. On her way to an '09 WC gold medal, she won the 100-meter hurdles, 200-meter dash, high jump and 800-meter run. She also holds the British national record in the high jump and is No. 2 all-time nationally in the 100-meter hurdles.

    Where she allows her competition to catch up is in the throws. Ennis placed sixth in the shot put during the 2010 European Championship heptathlon and eighth in the javelin.

    She has improved her distances in both events to a respectable 43-45 meters in the javelin and 13-14 meters in the shot put, which has been enough for Ennis to record a world-leading heptathlon score (6,790) this year.

Irving Saladino (Long Jump)

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    Represents: Panama

    2009 World Championships: 12th place

    Most of the focus in the long jump competition will be fixed on world leader Mitchell Watt (Australia) and defending world champion Dwight Phillips (USA). But nobody should count out Saladino.

    The reigning Olympic gold medallist and '07 world champion has a season-best jump of 8.40 meters (27 feet, 6 inches) and has a chance to redeem himself after fouling out of the '09 WC finals.

    That performance aside, Saladino has a penchant for coming through in the clutch. He won his '07 WC gold medal on the final jump of the competition, and in the Beijing Olympics, barely qualified for the finals before popping off his gold-winning jump amidst a series of fouls.

Kaliese Spencer (400-Meter Hurdles)

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    Represents: Jamaica

    2009 World Championships: Fourth place

    Because of the star power on her country's track team and relatively low profile of her chosen event, Spencer has stayed under the radar as another emerging force for the Jamaican squad.

    The 24-year-old has the world's fastest 400-meter hurdle time this year (52.79 seconds), and at a Diamond League meet in Stockholm, she set the meet record (53.74) seemingly by accident. When Spencer crossed the finish line that day, TV announcers said her race was ugly before realizing her time.

    With that kind of talent, Spencer will be a beast when she gets the technical aspects of her race on-point.

Kirani James (400 Meters)

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    Represents: Grenada

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    Not trying to put too much on the kid too soon, but James is building a case to justify comparisons to Michael Johnson.

    At just 18 years old, the long sprint specialist already has two NCAA 400-meter championships with Alabama to his name and won at the last Diamond League meet before the World Championships. James has posted the world's best time this year (44.61 seconds) and also has a career-best time of 20.41 seconds in the 200-meter dash, a time Johnson didn't hit until he was a few months shy of his 20th birthday.

    James has gone for the 200/400 double in a few major international youth meets, but not yet in his nascent pro career. With so many years and so much potential ahead of him, though, I don't see why James couldn't try to match Johnson's historic 200/400 double-gold at a future Olympics.

Maryam Yusuf Jamal (1500 Meters)

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    Represents: Bahrain

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    The two-time defending world champion has had the kind of season you want when aiming for a win on track's biggest stage. She started her outdoor campaign strong, got her mediocre performances out of the way in the middle portion and got back near peak performance in the meets leading to the World Championships.

    Jamal ran a 4:00.33 in an early-season meet in May, the fastest time in the world this year. Then at a Diamond League meet in late July, she posted a 4:00.59, the second-fastest time in the world this year.

Leonel Suarez (Decathlon)

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    Represents: Cuba

    2009 World Championships: Silver medal

    Trey Hardee and Ashton Eaton of Team USA will get most of the attention when the decathlon gets underway at the World Championships. But Suarez, defending silver medalist from '09 and bronze medalist from the '08 Olympics, has just as much talent and just as much of a chance to win.

    Suarez's personal bests in the high jump (2.17 meters), javelin (77.47 meters) and 1,500-meter run (4:16.70) are better than both Eaton and Hardee's best. Suarez's best shot put (15.20 meters) and discus (47.32 meters) throws are also better than Eaton's best efforts.

Sally Pearson (100-Meter Hurdles)

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    Represents: Australia

    2009 World Championships: Fifth place

    In the most closely competitive, unpredictable event in the world over the past couple of years, Pearson is beginning to stand out as the class of the field.

    She is the No. 1-ranked 100-meter hurdler in the world this year, undefeated in four Diamond League meets and has five of the top 10 times globally. That includes a career-best mark of 12.48 seconds, faster than anyone else this year.

    Pearson will also anchor Australia's 4x100-meter relay team in Daegu.

Mo Farah (5,000 Meters, 10,000 Meters)

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    Represents: Great Britain

    2009 World Championships: 5,000m seventh place

    In case you thought the world's epicenter of long-distance running was a self-contained operation in Kenya and Ethiopia, Farah comes along as a Somali-born British citizen who trains in Oregon to dispel that concept.

    Farah has the fastest time in the world this year in the 5,000 meters (12:53.11), and the fastest time in the 10,000 meters (26:46.57). He'll go into the WC aiming to pull off the gold-medal sweep and redeem himself after some notable failures at big meets in the past. Farah failed to qualify for the last Olympic finals in the 5,000 and finished seventh in that event at the last World Championships.

    Last year Farah was ranked 13th and 17th, respectively, in the 5,000 and 10,000. This year he is No. 1 in both and hasn't lost any of his last 10 races. That season-best run in the 10,000 was almost a minute and a half faster than his previous PR.

Sentayehu Ejigu (5,000 Meters)

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    Represents: Ethiopia

    2009 World Championships: Fourth place

    For a long time, Ejigu was the women's track answer to Warren Moon (probably the NFL's greatest quarterback to never play in a league championship game). Ejigu was always in the mix as one of the elite at her speciality, but she never did well enough to make it onto the podium at the major events.

    Following a frustrating fourth-place finish at the '09 WC, Ejigu turned her fortunes around in 2010. She took bronze in the 3,000 meters at the World Indoor Championships, bronze in the 5,000 meters at the African Championships and silver at the Continental Cup in Croatia.

    This year she has has recorded the third-fastest time in the 5,000 with a 14:31.66, one of her three marks in the international top 15.

Oscar Pistorius (400 Meters)

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    Represents: South Africa

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    The made-for-Hollywood story of Oscar Pistorius—the Paralympic world record holder (100, 200, 400) who had both lower legs amputated as a kid and is now running with the world's elite able-bodied athletes—goes from inspiring indie film to Disney-backed machine if he even sniffs the medal stand at the World Championships.

    Daegu's most high-profile underdog, "Blade Runner" time-qualified for this year's WC with a 45.07-second dash in the 400, but he'll have to consistently run in the 44-45 range if he wants to make it to the final, let alone medal. Pistorius is currently ranked 23rd in the world in the 400.

    He hasn't finished higher than fifth individually in any major meet this season, but he will have everybody from Hollywood to Helsinki rooting for him as he tries to beat the odds at the World Championships.

Valerie Adams (Shot Put)

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    Represents: New Zealand

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    Adams has six of the 10 best throws in the world this year, topped by a 20.78-meter mark (68 feet, 2 inches) in July that solidified her international No. 1 ranking.

    The reigning Olympic champion and two-time world champion hasn't lost in a major meet this season, a stark turnaround from last year when she was repeatedly beaten by Nadzeya Ostapchuk (Belarus). If Adams is on top of her game in Daegu, nobody should be able to snap her unbeaten streak.

Phillips Idowu (Triple Jump)

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    Represents: Great Britain

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    Triple jumpers are kind of a strange breed. And yet Idowu—with his diversely dyed hair, eyebrow piercing, lip piercing, high socks, headbands and other random pieces of flair—still manages to stand out as the Dennis Rodman of the bunch.

    He's also the man the rest of field has to knock off at the World Championships. Idowu is the defending world and European champ, and won a silver medal at the '08 Olympics.

    He had a setback earlier this month when he finished third at a Diamond League meet in London, and his season-best jump of 17.59 meters (57 feet, 8.5 inches) is only sixth-best in the world currently. But until somebody takes him down on the big stage, Idowu is still the man to beat and the event's main attraction.

Usain Bolt (100 Meters, 200 Meters)

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    Represents: Jamaica

    2009 World Championships: 100m gold medal (world record), 200m gold medal (world record), 4x100 relay gold medal (WC record)

    The face of track and field has reached that rarefied air where simply winning races isn't enough anymore. Bolt is expected to make history every time he touches the track.

    So that's why this season has been considered a "down" year for Bolt, even though he hasn't lost a race and he's still cranking out sub-10-second 100s and sub-20-second 200s.

    Bolt does look vulnerable in the 100, where his season-best time of 9.88 seconds is tied for seventh-best in the world. And he got all he could handle from countryman Nesta Carter in a Diamond League meet a few weeks ago.

    Bolt has been closer to dominant in the 200, though, where he is also undefeated and mostly unchallenged. His season-best time of 19.86 seconds is the fastest in the world.