Lots of suspense in store at worlds
Usain Bolt is not the same dominant sprinter he was in 2008 and '09
Winning the 400 and 200 meters will be a major reach for Allyson Felix
If things go poorly (possible), Team USA could hit a record low in gold
DAEGU, South Korea -- Seven reasons, among many, to make a little time for the World Track and Field Championships, which begin Saturday in this city of 2.5 million people, 145 miles southeast of Seoul.
1) Usain Bolt could get beat. To anyone who watched Bolt only when he won three gold medals and broke the 100- and 200-meter world records at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and when he crushed two of those records a year later at the 2009 worlds in Berlin, this is a preposterous theory. Bolt has become the default metaphor for speed -- "Who do you think you are, Usain Bolt?'' -- and one of the biggest names in international sport.
None of that matters here. His best time for 100 meters in 2011 is 9.88 and his best 200 is 19.86. He could have lost to countryman Asafa Powell here, except that Powell usually chokes on championship pressure and now he's out with a groin injury.
"I still think he'll lose," says three-time world 100-meter champion and 2000 Olympic gold medalist Maurice Greene.
Two other Jamaicans, Yohan Blake, 21, and Michael Frater, and American Walter Dix could all pressure Bolt, who is the not the same sprinter he was in 2008 and '09, and he admitted that here this week. Maybe he's not fully recovered from the back injury that slowed him in 2010. Maybe he's just beat up from running so fast. Maybe he's not training properly. And he might win anyway. But he might not. (More on Bolt in my Saturday column).
2) Allyson Felix going for a double. Felix, a three-time world champion in the 200 meters (2005, '07, '09), is running both the 400 (first) and the 200 (later) here, reaching for a performance that will elevate her already lofty place in the sport. Let me say this about her: She's terrific -- athletically and personally. Great person, great family, great performer and competitor.
All that considered, this double is a major reach. She's not in the top three in the world in either event and her 200-meter best this year is just 22.32, sixth in the world and half a second -- forever in track terms -- off her personal best. What's more, the 400, which begins on Saturday, could jeopardize Felix in the 200. She deserves props for trying this, but if it's a marketing tactic to position her for 2012 (when she absolutely should not double, and just go after her first Olympic gold), it's a big time roll of the dice.
Subplot alert: Felix's U.S. teammate, Sanya Richards-Ross, the American record-holder (48.70 in 2006), 2008 Olympic bronze medalist and 2009 world champion, looked dead in the water in July and then popped a shocking 49.66 in London on Aug. 6, more than 1.3 seconds better than her previous best for 2011. Richards-Ross is clearly back in the mix, but can she duplicate that sub-50 while enduring debilitating rounds?
3) Jenn Suhr getting off the deck. The 29-year-old former college basketball player has been the best female pole vaulter in the U.S. for six years and was the Olympic silver medalist in 2008. But she was compromised at the worlds in 2007 (10th place) and 2009 (withdrew before the competition) by a lingering Achilles tendon injury.
This year, Suhr struggled with the effects of Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that nearly compelled her to withdraw from the U.S. nationals at Eugene, Ore., in June (in which case she wouldn't have qualified for worlds at all). Then on Tuesday, Aug. 16, three weeks after vaulting a 2011 world best of 16-1 ¼ and seemingly fully recovered, Suhr awoke at home in Rochester, N.Y., with painful cramps in her abdomen. "She's the toughest athlete I've ever known,'' says Suhr's husband-coach, Rick Suhr, "and she was crying for four days, just lying on the couch.''
Last Friday, the Suhrs flew to Orlando and Jenn underwent twice-daily massage sessions with a therapist until the pain subsided. On Monday they flew back to Rochester, where Jenn delivered one solid training session and then jumped on a plane to Korea. Neither Rick nor Jenn knows the source of the recent pain, only that's it largely gone.
"I'm in the game and I've got a chance,'' says Suhr, the world leader in an event where world record-holder and '08 Olympic gold medalist Yelena Isinbayeva has not returned to the dominant form that preceded her year off in 2010.
4) A hurdles race for the ages. The three fastest 110-meter hurdlers in history are Dayron Robles of Cuba (the world record 12.87 and also a 12.89 in 2008), Liu Xiang of China (then-world record 12.88 in 2006) and David Oliver of the U.S. (12.89 in July 2010). If all three make the final here, it will be the first time they have occupied three lanes of a global championship final.
For Oliver, in particular, this race and next year's Summer Games in London are crucial for establishing his place in the history of the sport. He is already the fastest American sprint hurdler in history -- faster than Greg Foster, Allen Johnson, two-time Olympic gold medalist Roger Kingdom and Renaldo Nehemiah (yes, tracks are faster, too), but he is still relatively anonymous and says he revels in it.
"That's just track and field, in general, in the U.S.A.,'' says Oliver, a 6-2, 205-pound strong safety replica. "That's the good thing, though, you can have all the fun traveling around and making a good living and just live in relative obscurity. You don't have to worry about people getting all in your business.''
Deep down, Oliver knows better. An Olympic year is approaching and fame will be parceled out to a precious few. Smart, dynamic, telegenic, he can be one of them, but he's got to beat the big boys here.
5) Bekele. Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, 29, is arguably the greatest distance runner in history, with five world championships and three Olympic gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, along with 11 world cross country championships.
But he has not run a track race since September 2009 (just after sweeping the 5K and 10K at the Berlin worlds), largely due to a calf injury. However, Bekele is here and expected to double. If he pulls it off with so little preparation, you can remove the "arguably" from in front of the "greatest distance runner in history'' in the previous paragraph.
6) Jeter's graduation? Late-blooming American Carmelita Jeter, 32, is the fastest woman in the world. Her 10.70 for 100 meters at the Prefontaine Classic in June is .06 faster than anyone else and she has three of the eight fastest times over the course of the year.
However, she was probably the fastest woman in the field two years ago in Berlin, when she ran a panicky final and finished third (10.90). Now the pressure will be applied again by Jamaican veterans Veronica Campbell-Brown, who in addition to two world championship golds at 200 meters also has a world title (2007) and an Olympic bronze (2004) in the 100, and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shelly Ann Fraser-Price (who has not been running fast this year).
Subplot alert: If Jeter chases her demons and wins the 100 meters, could she take down Felix in the 200? Don't rule it out.
7) USA medal count. Team USA's lowest-ever gold total in the 12 renewals of the world championships (the first was in 1983) was five, in 2001. That year was also its lowest total medals tally (13).
The low in medals is probably safe, but the five golds? Not so much. In fact, and this is blasphemous, if Team USA catches some lousy breaks (Felix goes down in the 400, Jeter loses in the 100, Oliver doesn't win the hurdles... all possible), it could find itself heading into the middle of the week without a gold medal, fighting some very negative momentum.