London 2012: 6 Olympic Teasers for the Casual Track & Field Fan

Red Shannon@@rojosportsFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2012

London 2012: 6 Olympic Teasers for the Casual Track & Field Fan

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    Usain Bolt is, without question, the face of track and field—and arguably the face of the entire Summer Games. Even the casual sports fan has a working knowledge of the world's fastest human.

    And while the suspense surrounding Bolt—whenever he takes to the starting blocks—is palpable, there are other compelling track and field stories sure to unfold as The Games draw nearer.

    If you're just a casual fan of track and field, we'd like to introduce you to a few rising stars who are not quite to the Bolt level...yet.

    Here are six athletes to follow through the outdoor season, into the various team selection processes, and on to London 2012.

    Remember these faces. One of them could be the next Bolt.

Tatyana Chernova, Russia, Heptathlon

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    Remember Liu Xiang, the Chinese hurdler in Beijing, 2008? The weight of a billion hopes rested on his shoulders. Then, before negotiating a single hurdle, he came up lame in a qualifying heat.

    This year, the pride of the British Empire, heptathlete Jessica Ennis, is carrying a similar weight. The 2009 world champion is already penciled in for gold by many hometown fans.

    But wait. At the recent World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, Ukraine's Nataliya Dobrynska cast some doubt on Ennis' presumed gold, defeating her in the five-event pentathlon. It was a similar result in the heptathlon at the 2011 World Outdoor Championships in Daegu as well, when Russian multi-athlete Tatyana Chernova denied Ennis gold.

    Tall and muscular, Chernova presents a striking contrast to the diminutive Ennis. Her strengths are in the long jump, javelin and 800-meters. Ennis carries in her arsenal speed, and the skills of a world-class hurdler. Dobrynska, the defending Olympic champion, is expert in the throws.

    It should be a classic three-way battle, and it starts on August 3.

    By the way, Liu Xiang is in top form and will try again in London.

    Update: A multi-events meet in Gotzis, Austria on May 26, 27 will provide an excellent preview, as all three (among other top heptathletes) will be testing their readiness in a lead-up to the Olympics.

Renaud Levillenie, France, Pole Vault

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    The men's pole vault is a modern version of the biblical Tower of Babel story—a noble, yet futile attempt by many to reach up into the realm of (pole vault deity Sergey Bubka) the Almighty.

    Bubka's indoor (6.15m / 20'2.25") and outdoor (6.14m / 20'1.75") world records have remained beyond their grasp for almost 18 years. And in pole vault terms, where a single centimeter is critical, it's really not even close.

    So vault fans have had to find contentment in aerial battles beneath the 20-foot barrier. But that hasn't necessarily been a bad thing.

    Unless the struggling Australian, Steven Hooker (6.06m), can regain his Beijing gold medal form, the London gold is Frenchman Renaud Levillenie's to lose. He has been the most consistent vaulter over 5.90 meters (19'4") since Beijing.

    And if Levillenie (6.03m) should falter, American record-holder Brad Walker (6.04m), or German teammates Bjorn Otto (5.92m) and Malte Mohr (5.90m), or current world champion Pawel Wojciechowski (5.91) of Poland will be more than happy to stand atop the podium.

Pamela Jelimo, Kenya, 800-Meters

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    The astute fan may remember this 18-year-old 800m gold medalist from Beijing. It was a fantastic year for Jelimo, as she later lowered her personal best time to an incredible 1:54.01, then won the Golden League jackpot ($1,000,000) by virtue of an undefeated series.

    Then, poof! She suddenly disappeared from public view.

    Some questioned her inner drive. Others speculated that the sudden prosperity and fame had ruined her. She sat on the sidelines as South Africa's Caster Semenya and Russia's Mariya Savinova made 800m headlines.

    But in truth, it was an Achilles injury which had shackled and demoralized Jelimo for nearly three years.

    Now, apparently, she's back...and still young at 22. In her first indoor competition ever, she came away with 800m gold at the recent World Indoor Championships with a world-leading time of 1:58.83.

    Her resurgence has the makings of a great Olympic comeback story. Stay tuned.

Kirani James, Grenada, 400-Meters

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    The casual fan is certainly familiar with Michael Johnson, world record-holder in the 400-meters (43.18).

    And that same fan may be vaguely familiar with LaShawn Merritt (43.75) or Jeremy Wariner (43.45), also great American quarter-milers.

    But except for a few followers of Alabama track, it's doubtful many have heard of the Grenadian galloper, Kirani James. Yet at only 19, young James (44.36) is already a two-time NCAA champ and the reigning world outdoor champion.

    Which is just what the one-lap race needed.

    With Wariner battling injury and Merritt serving a controversial drug ban, the 400-meters had lost its lustre the last two years.

    Now if all three can get to the finals in London, we could have a real barn burner—and possibly a new world record.

Sally Pearson, Australia, 100-Meter Hurdles

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    Probably no one has a lust for Olympic gold like American hurdler Lolo Jones. Many may remember her notorious stumble at Hurdle 9 in the finals at Beijing. Favored to win—and leading in the race—it cost her gold, silver and bronze. She finished seventh in a photo finish.

    Silver medalist in that race was Australian, Sally Pearson.

    Since that race, the two have traveled quite divergent paths. Jones endured nearly three years of recovery from her disappointment, various injuries and back surgery while Pearson continued to hone her craft in rugged competition, culminating in a year of total dominance in 2011.

    Pearson was named the IAAF's 2011 Female Athlete of the Year.

    It's almost a given that a resurgent Jones (12.43) and Pearson (12.28) are on a collision course for London 2012.

Ashton Eaton, USA, Decathlon

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    The latest in a long line of American decathletes, Eaton is...well, the real deal.

    Not much else need be said. In fact, the photo kind of says it all. Even at rest, Eaton exudes "champion."

    If you know of him, you'll understand. If you don't know of him, you soon will.

    Hope this little slide show was helpful. It's not too early to start following these great athletes.

    The Olympics run from July 27 through August 12. While you're waiting, enjoy a local track meet or two.

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