Track & Field World Championships: Breaking Down the Top 10 MVP Candidates

Amaar Abdul-Nasir@amaarabdulnasirAnalyst IIAugust 31, 2011

Track & Field World Championships: Breaking Down the Top 10 MVP Candidates

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    We live in a superstar-driven sports culture.

    Check the advertising for any game in any sport. It's not the Bulls versus the Suns; it's "Derrick Rose and the Bulls" against "Steve Nash and the Suns." It's not Colts versus Eagles; it's "Peyton Manning's Colts" facing "Michael Vick's Eagles." Pro golf tournaments don't get nearly as much coverage if Tiger Woods isn't playing (even better if he's winning), while tennis tournaments suffer whenever Roger Federer or Serena Williams isn't on the marquee.

    Track and field is no different.

    Any kind of major track meet—be it the Olympics, World Championships, NCAA championships or the Diamond League—becomes that much more memorable when one athlete (or two) becomes the anchor story of the proceedings.

    The 2008 Olympics and '09 World Championships unquestionably belonged to Usain Bolt. The 1984 Olympics were defined by Carl Lewis' rise to superstardom, while the '96 Olympics were memorable for both Lewis' swan song and Michael Johnson's ascent. We know the 2000 Olympics for Marion Jones (before the scandal), and the 1988 Olympics for Florence Griffith-Joyner.

    Approximately 50 athletes will leave this year's Track & Field World Championships with gold medals in their possession, but only one—and maybe two—will be able to say that 2011 was the year they owned the World Championships. And that's not even a certainty.

    Midway through the competition, here's a breakdown of the top 10 "MVP" candidates and their odds of being the transcendent athlete whose name we will always associate with these World Championships:

Yohan Blake (Jamaica)

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    Events: 100 meters, 4x100 relay

    MVP Odds: Fair

    Before Daegu, the best-kept secret in sprinting was that Blake was running the 100 as well as anybody in the world—including Usain Bolt.

    Blake won at the Diamond League meet in London a few weeks before the World Championships, clocking 9.95 seconds to wipe out a field that featured four eventual WC semifinalists and Mike Rodgers (USA), who probably would have made the WC final if not for a failed drug test.

    But when the 21-year-old Blake made history by becoming the youngest-ever world champion in the 100, all anybody wanted to talk about was Bolt's false-start disqualification. Blake's win was overshadowed by the controversy and discredited by many because Bolt wasn't in the race. His gold medal came with the same unofficial asterisks that people gave Hakeem Olajuwon's two NBA championships that he won while Michael Jordan was off playing baseball.

    Blake does still have a small chance, however, to emerge from these World Championships being known for his own accomplishments and not simply the guy who fell into a puddle of good luck. He should be featured on Jamaica's 4x100 relay squad, maybe even on the anchor leg. A gold medal in that race in spectacular fashion would raise Blake's profile.

Tatyana Chernova (Russia)

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    Event: Heptathlon

    MVP Odds: Poor

    She's young (23), talented and can now call herself the best female athlete in the world after upsetting '09 WC gold medalist Jessica Ennis (Great Britain) for the heptathlon gold medal.

    But the fact of the matter is that the women's heptathlon doesn't get nearly as much public or media attention as the men's decathlon. Chernova is certainly respected by the track world and viewing audience, but her story wasn't presented in any kind of compelling fashion to make her a lead character in this made-for-TV drama.

Trey Hardee (USA)

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    Event: Decathlon

    MVP Odds: Great

    This track season opened with predictions of a USA medal sweep in the World Championship decathlon, and although one-third of the Big Three (Bryan Clay) didn't make the WC roster, the decathlon was still prominently under the spotlight in Daegu.

    Despite being the defending world champ, Hardee was something of an underdog coming in, with teammate Ashton Eaton getting the majority of the pre-meet hype. Hardee pulled off the "upset" and claimed his second WC gold medal, putting himself on the short list of Team USA's most popular and successful athletes.

Valerie Adams (New Zealand)

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    Event: Shot put

    MVP Odds: Not good

    The same instant-gratification explosiveness that makes the 100-meter dash the main event of almost every track meet ironically hurts the popularity of field events like the shot put.

    Adams won her third straight world title with one throw (21.24 meters) that tied the WC record and set a new national record. But because that one throw took only a few seconds from approach to landing—just like in the discus, long jump, javelin, etc.—TV stations only need a short window to sporadically cover field events before focusing back on the track.

    There's also the lack of rock-star aura when it comes to Adams. She is just as dominant in her chosen event as Yelena Isinbayeva (Russia) is in hers—even more dominant in recent years—but she's nowhere near as glamorous and popular as the "Princess of the Pole Vault."

    The loud outburst of emotion by Adams after unleashing her monster throw may allow her to stick in the minds of those with short attention spans, but it's unlikely she will be the athlete they'll remember when it's all said and done at the end of this week.

Kirani James (Grenada)

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    Event: 400 meters

    MVP Odds: Good

    The challenge with teenage phenoms—for us, not them—is learning to balance realistic expectations with ambitious goals for their prodigious talent. As much as some people hate LeBron James for being cocky while not living up to his potential, remember that he didn't nickname himself "King James" in high school, nor did he compare himself to a combination of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. That was us.

    In the case of 18-year-old Kirani James, the newly minted world champion has the talent at his age to draw comparisons to the likes of Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner. He could potentially go for a 200/400 double at the Olympics in London or Rio. He could break world records and rack up gold medals.

    But is that putting too much on James? In the name of being realistic and patient, let's just appreciate his accomplishments of 2011 and see how he fares while running a full pro schedule in 2012.

Carmelita Jeter (USA)

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    Events: 100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100 relay

    MVP Odds: Great

    Jeter has everything working in her favor to leave the WC as this year's signature superstar.

    The Underdog Story

    After costly mistakes earned her bronze medals in the 100-meter dash at the World Championships in '09 and '05 WC meets, Jeter finally delivered a gold-medal performance in Daegu in the marquee event of sprinting. Not to mention, Jeter should be running anchor for a USA 4x100 relay team that has its own demons to overcome.

    The Momentum

    Now that the pressure to come through with that 100-meter win is off, Jeter can be relaxed going into the 200. She's already running better in that event than she ever has, posting a career-best 22.20-second time about a month ago. As the only competitor with a gold medal in this WC meet, Jeter could have the psychological edge over 200-meter favorites Allyson Felix (USA), Veronica Campbell-Brown (Jamaica) and first-timer Shalonda Solomon (USA).

    The Name Recognition

    Jeter didn't become a star in Daegu; she already was one. On the women's side, she was behind only Felix and Isinbayeva as the most talked-about athletes going into the World Championships, and Jeter only increased her profile with her showing in the 100. If she keeps it up in the 200 and the relay, her popularity could reach Flo-Jo or Marion Jones levels.

David Rudisha (Kenya)

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    Event: 800 meters

    MVP Odds: Fair

    Rudisha runs like he has somewhere else to be. None of this tactical, wait-for-my-opportunity strategizing. No hanging in the back to conserve energy. He jumps out in front at the sound of the starter's pistol and never takes his foot off his opposition's collective throat, because he knows he's the fastest man on the track.

    From the qualifying heats to the semifinals to the 800-meter final, Rudisha was never really challenged in Daegu. He won the gold medal in a 1:43.91 dash that he made look like a jog in the park.

    Two factors holding Rudisha back from being the story of these World Championships are that he didn't break a world record (which he already owns) and that he's been so dominant since last year that this wasn't exactly a breakout performance. Just a reminder that he's at the top of his game.

Allyson Felix (USA)

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    Events: 200 meters, 400 meters, 4x400 relay

    MVP Odds: Good

    Just because Felix didn't achieve her goal of winning gold medals in the 200 and 400, it doesn't mean she's done in Daegu. Far from it.

    A silver medal in the 400 is nothing to be ashamed of, plus Felix lost in a dramatic photo-finish to the No. 1 runner in the world at that distance (Amantle Montsho of Botswana). It's not like she lost decisively. So now if Felix comes back and wins gold in the 200—which would be her fourth WC gold medal in that event, a new record—she'll have a lot more jewelry around her neck than most athletes in this competition.

    Felix is also listed as a potential member of the USA 4x400 relay team. I'm thinking she'll take a pass after so much was made of her grueling schedule to do the 200/400, but if she does help the traditionally strong USA team win another gold, Felix will only add another shining piece to her legacy.

Usain Bolt (Jamaica)

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    Events: 100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100 relay

    MVP Odds: Great

    Don't get it twisted; Bolt is still very much a favorite to make these World Championships all about him. And in a good way.

    The disqualification in the 100-meter final was the biggest disappointment of his career, but Bolt still has the 200 coming up. Last time I checked, he's still the world record-holder, still ranked No. 1 in the world this year and still the reigning Olympic and world champion at that distance. Not to mention it's actually his favorite event.

    If Bolt uses the 200 to remind everybody why he's the biggest superstar in track and the fastest man of all time, he may not even need to run the 4x100 relay as a cherry on top.

Oscar Pistorius (South Africa)

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    Events: 400 meters, 4x400 relay

    MVP Odds: Fair

    It would take a special circumstance for somebody who finished in last place in a semifinal heat of their best event to find themselves cast as the story of a major track meet, but Pistorius definitely qualifies as a special-circumstance athlete.

    As a double-amputee who had dominated the Paralympics but was never supposed to be running against the best able-bodied sprinters in the world, "Blade Runner" got his moral victory by qualifying for the WC and making the 400-meter semifinals.

    He still has some running left to do for the South African 4x400 relay team, and if they make the final and get anywhere near the medal podium, Pistorius would have the storybook ending his fans are hoping to see.