The Rio de Janeiro Olympics have been in full swing for almost a week and it’s time for the stars of track and field to join the parade. From August 12 to August 21, the João Havelange Olympic Stadium, with an expanded capacity of 60,000 for the Games, will host the vast majority of the 47 events that comprise the Athletics’ program, with the exception being the marathon, scheduled to end at the Sambodrome, and the race walks that will take place at Pontal beach.
From the climatic sprint events to the long-distance races, the field events or the road runs, some 2000 athletes will compete in the sport of athletics, the biggest slice of Olympic populace. Every country is limited to three representatives per individual discipline and six for the relays, with 24 events planned for the men and 23 for the women, who skip the extraordinarily taxing 50 km race walk
In comparison with previous editions, the main innovation at these Games is the scheduling of eight finals in the six morning sessions (kicking off at 9:30 am local time, 13:30 BST), split evenly between men’s and women’s and spread across all days, something not seen since Seoul 1988. Naturally, the five road races (both marathons and the three race walks: 20km W, 20km M, 50km M) will also be contested in the early hours, as usual. Meanwhile, the night sessions will commence around 8:30pm local time (00:30am BST) and end, at worst, by 11pm – a much more reasonable compromise than the swimming sessions arranged in Rio -accommodating a larger percentage of fans looking to follow the proceedings across the Atlantic Ocean and cheer on Usain Bolt and company.
The Jamaican icon will say goodbye to the Olympics while looking to become the first man to win three gold medals in a trio of consecutive editions, and his alluring personality and showmanship will be deeply needed to deflect aside the dark clouds hanging over a sport plagued by claims of corruption at the highest levels and widespread doping allegations. The rampant state-run program that cost all Russian athletes the chance to compete in Rio turned away an heavyweight that won 16 medals in the sport at London 2016, but more nations are under suspicion, including long-distance powerhouse Kenya.
The field of candidates in some disciplines will be slightly depleted as a result of the absences, but a flurry of magnificent performances is still expected in Rio. Thus, in this article, I tried to shed some light on some of the most tension-packed events that may be carried out over the next 9 days. From the 47 sets of medals in the balance, I handpicked seven disciplines that should provide ample entertainment to the audiences and expanded on the names apt to contend for victory or honourable positions. Later, a few quick considerations were added regarding another dozen of events, which for a variety of reasons can also be considered appointment viewing for athletics’ enthusiasts.
All starting times from here onwards are BST (Rio +4)
Men’s 100m, 2:25am, August 14
Oh right, the “most electrifying 10 seconds in sports”. Where else could we start.
Usain Bolt will chase history, trying to become the first runner to win the same individual event three consecutive times, but the polarizing Justin Gatlin will again play the role of the devil, trying to squash another meeting with history. The 34-year-old American, who served a four-year doping ban from 2006 to 2010, already knows the taste of Olympic gold in the 100m – he triumphed in Athens 2004 – but his experience wasn’t enough to repel the nerves at the World Championship final last year, getting pipped by Bolt despite leaving the blocks as the favourite. Similarly to 2015, Gatlin is the fastest man in the World entering the grand stage, recording 9.80s and 9.83s this season, but Bolt has shown time and time again that he owns the big moments and battling time constraints to recover his best form –his preparation has been disrupted by a hamstring tear- isn’t anything new for him. In 2012, Yohan Blake seemed on top but Bolt charged ahead to renew his honours, and the Jamaican doesn’t get rattled that people are once again favouring another man.
Bolt’s 9.88s rank him just fourth this season, with another American, Trayvon Bromell, appearing right after Gatlin with the 9.84s posted at the US Trials. The 21-year-old Bromell, who stands at just 175 cm, held his coming out party in Beijing last season, winning bronze alongside Canada´s Andre de Grasse, who’s yet to match the 9.92s of last summer but likewise has time on his side. Yohan Blake was once Bolt’s main foe but since 2012 he has slid into the background due to several injuries, arriving in Rio settled on the second row of contenders with the 9.94s dispatched in Kingston last June, exactly the same time as teammate Nickel Ashmeade, another man looking for a final berth.
South Africa’s Akani Simbine (9.89s) and Qatar’s Femi Ogunude (9.91s) clocked eye-popping times this season and are definitely two names to keep under consideration, while France’s Jimmy Vicault tied the European record of 9.86s for the second consecutive year. However, the 24-year-old sprinter disappointed at the European Championships, leaving Amsterdam only with bronze (10.08) after getting edged by Dutch veteran Churandy Martina (10.07). Former World Championship medallists Asafa Powell (Jamaica) and Tyson Gay (USA) couldn’t qualify during their nations’ trials, while Saint Kitts and Nevis’ eternal speedster, Kim Collins, is still running below 10 seconds – 9.93s in 2016 – at age 40 (!), two decades after his Olympic debut.
Men’s 400 m, 2:00am, August 14
Some years ago, Usain Bolt vented the possibility of making an attempt to add the 400m to his repertoire, but the Jamaican never actually raced the event at a major international meeting despite some promising returns in early 2015. His presence in Rio would have transformed what should be an explosive matchup into a full-blown supernova, but pitting the two most recent Olympic Champions and the reigning World Champion is more than enough for a lot of fireworks. In Beijing, LaShawn Merritt, Kirani James and Wayde van Niekerk broke 44 seconds, something that had never been done before in a single race by three athletes, and much of the same is expected in Rio, with Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old World record (43.18s) serving as an inspiring mirage.
With 43.48s, the fourth best mark of all-time, the South African van Niekerk took gold on that occasion and the rising superstar kept impressing this season, becoming the first sprinter to post sub-10 (100 meters), sub-20 (200 meters) and sub-44-second races in history. The 23-year-old is the favourite but the only man below 44s this season is Merritt (43.97), who has medalled in this race on the last five World Championships. The defending Olympic Champion, Grenada’s Kirani James, clocked 44.08 this season and is eager to regain the leading position he enjoyed in 2011 and 2012, when he was still a teenager.
Behind the Big Three, the field is stocked with young talent, from 20-year-old Machel Cedenio from Trinidad and Tobago – 44.36 last season – to Botswana’s Babolocki Thebe, the 19-year-old African Champion that has run 44.22 in altitude in 2016. Dominican Republic’s Luguelín Santos (22 years old) clocked 44.11 at Beijing to come fourth on the 2015 World final, and was the runner up to James in London 2012. From the fifteen fastest man this season, are also heading to Rio de Janeiro Bralon Taplin (23 years-old, Grenada), Steven Gardiner (22, Bahamas), Nery Brenes (Costa Rica), Gil Roberts (USA), Lalonde Gordon (Trinidad, bronze in 2012) and Javone Francis (22, Jamaica), while Europe’s finest are conspicuously missing.
Only Rabah Yousig (Great Britain, but born in Sudan) represented the continent in the 2015 final, and they can be completely shut out at Rio, even if two-time European Champion Martyn Rooney, fellow Brit Matthew Hudson-Smith, Czech Republic’s Pavel Maslák and Belgium’s Jonathan and Kévin Borlée can sneak in if they approach their personal bests.
Men’s Pole Vault, 00:35h, August 15
Rénaud Lavillenie has dominated the men’s pole vault since 2009, collecting Diamond League titles and leading the World Rankings, but he’s had a tough time extending that to most major competitions, with the Olympic title in London operating as the crucial exception. The 29-year-old French – also the WR holder since 2014 with 6.16m indoors – failed again spectacularly at the European Championships last month, declining to start before the bar was set at 5.75m, which he failed to clear. However, crucial blunders aside, the four-time World Championship medallist still wins much more than he loses, and will arrive in Rio as the clear-cut favourite, with a bevy of opponents expecting to feast if he again withers under pressure.
The reigning World Champion, Canada’s Shawnacy Barber, is one of those, having become this season the youngest ever to clear 6m. He did it indoors, but the 5.91m outdoors this summer are nothing to sneeze at, while American Champion Sam Hendricks, 23, posted a career-best 5.92m this season, placing alongside the Frenchman at the indoor World Championships podium in Portland. Brazilian Thiago Braz da Silva, 23, is yet to compete in the final of a major Championship, but the 5.93m he cleared in February are an indication that he can thrill the home crowd.
As for the rest of the European contingent, the main threats for Lavillenie come from the German-Polish axis. Germany’s Raphael Holzdeppe, bronze medallist in London 2012, pipped Lavillenie in the 2013 World Championships and came second last year in Beijing, but has seen his preparation hampered by an ankle injury. Nonetheless, someone with his resume can never be dismissed. The German trio is completed with National Champion Tobias Scherbarth and Karsten Dilla, while the Polish team signed up Piotr Lisek, bronze medallist in the 2015 Worlds shortly after clearing 5.90m indoors, and Paweł Wojciechowski, who tied Lisek and Lavillenie in Beijing with 5.80 m, and is a former World Champion with a career mark of 5.91m dating from 2011. The other Polish in the competition is the 2016 European Champion Robert Sobera, who claims a personal best of 5.80m outdoors, while Czech Jan Kudlica is an outsider having cleared 5.83m this season. Kévin Menaldo, Lavillenie’s teammate, jumped 5.81m last year and is one of the candidates to reach the final and eventually soar a little higher.
Rénaud Lavillenie may be the only man in the World capable of passing the 6m barrier regularly – despite having yet to do so outdoors this season – but in a potential firebrand event like this, the bar might be raised to heights he hasn’t experienced before.
Men’s Triple Jump, 13:50pm, August 16
The suspense behind this event doesn’t particularly rest on stiff competition for gold, but on the potential for a new World Record. In 1995, Great Britain’s Jonathan Edwards jumped an outstanding 18.29m in Göteborg, and since then few have even toed the 18m barrier, much else impend the mark. However, in 2015, two men posted 18+ jumps and the American Christian Taylor came within 8cm of the WR at the World Championships, returning 12 months later ready to replicate his Olympic title and take another crack at the history books.
Taylor’s season best is 17.78m, a bit far from the target, but the major competition environment promises to power up his attempts, something he’d probably need anyway just to solve his closest challengers. His compatriot Will Claye landed at 17.65m this season and dreams of bettering the outcome of London, when he collected silver. He also boasts bronze medals from the 2011 and 2013 World Championships, and can surely expect to surpass a personal-best of 17.75m (2014). The American pair can provide a tense finish, but Cuba’s Pedro Pablo Pichardo might join them as he seems due for an encore from last year’s breakthrough, when he led the World final until the final round. Doubling down on the 17.73m of Beijing should merit a medal, but he’s shown to be capable of more, delivering a thunderous 18.08 mark in May 2015, the fourth best jump of all-time. Pichardo has been off the grid this season but is obviously someone to keep an eye on.
The 2013 World Champion, France’s Teddy Tamgho, will be absent with a fractured leg, and the event will miss the supremely talented 27-year-old with a personal best of 18.04m, yet the depth of the field (41 men did the 16.85m necessary to qualify) guarantees that the battle for premium positions will be vibrant. The third best triple jumper this season is India’s newcomer Renjith Maheswary (17.30m), who is followed by China’s Bin Dong (17.24m) – the 2016 indoor World Champion – and the third American, Chris Bernard (17.21m). Meanwhile, Germany’s Max Heß was recently crowned European Champion with 17.20m.
The dark horses for podium positions are two men that have yet to fly past the 17m this season, the 2008 Olympic Champion Nélson Évora (Portugal), third last year at the World Championships with 17.52m, and Cuba’s Alexis Copello, a former World bronze medallist with a personal best of 17.68m from 2011.
Women’s 100m, 2:35am, 13th August
Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce’s success has naturally been overshadowed by her compatriot’s heroics, but Jamaica’s “Pocket Rocket” is also angling for a third consecutive Olympic title in the 100m, which similarly hasn’t happened in any women’s individual event in Athletics’ Olympic history. Fraser-Pryce has dominated the field in this race over the last eight years, adding three World Championship titles, but her ascendancy may be on the tail end, as became evident at the Jamaican trials where she was outperformed by compatriot Elaine Thompson.
A 24-year-old sprinter that broke through spectacularly last season with the 200m silver medal at the World Championships, Thompson didn’t compete in the 100m at the time, but blitzed to 10.70s in July to tie the national record and set the world lead, in the process climbing to the top of the pile on this event. Jamaica boasts two leading candidates for the 100m, but the USA banks an equally impressive pool hoping to recapture a title that has escaped since 1996, showcasing three athletes that have run below 10.80 this season. Tori Bowie, bronze medallist in Beijing, put 10.78 at the American trials in Eugene, but that wasn’t enough to win or even settle for silver by her own, since English Gardner crossed the line in 10.74, and Tianna Bartoletta, the reigning long jump World Champion, tied Bowie for second.
Cote d’Ivoire’s Murielle Ahouré is the other woman that has posted in the 10.7s range this season, and at age 28 seems more than capable of snatching the first medal on major international competitions. However, on the pre-race pecking order, she’s also squarely behind Fraser-Pryce – 10.93s as season best while bothered by persistent toe pain – and Dafne Schippers, the surprising silver medallist in Beijing. The Dutch (10.83 in 2016) sprinter skipped this event at the European Championships to focus on the 200m, but will be on the blocks at Rio, looking to be a thorn on the Jamaica-USA Cold War as soon as she reaches top speed.
The three medals should be allotted to some combination of the seven women referred, but if the race isn’t as fast as expected, a few more faces can butt in, including Trinidad and Tobago’s Kelly Ann-Baptiste (bronze in the 2011 Worlds) and Michelle-Lee-Ahye (10.96s in 2016), Ahouré’s teammate Marie-Josee Ta Lou (10.96s), and Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare, a former Olympic medallist in the long jump (Beijing, 2008). The veteran Veronica Campbell-Brown, the two time 200m Olympic Champion (2004, 2008) and twice bronze medallist in the 100m (2004, 2012), missed out on a 100m spot during Jamaica’s trials.
The 2012 London Final saw first and last separated at the finish line by 0.26 seconds, and in Rio things could get even tighter.
Women’s Heptathlon, August 12 and 13*
*First event (100m hurdles) at 13:35 on the inaugural day of the meeting, the last heat of the final event (800m) starts at 3:18 am on the following day
The competition that crowns the more well-rounded female (track and field) athlete was a highly-prized showdown heading into the Beijing World Championships, but it ended up well short of expectations. The three ”double-barrelled” contenders are back in the fold and Rio can finally feature a two-day bloodbath for gold between Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, and Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton.
Ennis-Hill returns to the Olympic stage four year after charming her way to the title as the poster girl of the London Olympics, and in that period she gave birth and regained form in time to stun Theisen-Eaton at the 2015 Worlds. Now 30 years old, Ennis-Hill recently achieved a personal-best on the long-jump, an indication that she’s still improving even if matching the 6995 points of London can prove tricky. The Sheffield-native posted 6669 to win in Beijing and has already improved to 6733 in 2016, yet those marks have been bested by Theisen-Eaton over both seasons. However, the Canadian finished just second at the Worlds and will have to cope better with the pressure to seize her first major international triumph, emulating her husband, USA’s Ashton Eaton, the prohibitive favourite to win the decathlon in Rio.
The 23-year-old Katarina Johnson-Thompson possesses the raw potential to aspire victory, but inconsistency and an inability to stay fit has ruined some of her opportunities. In Beijing, she was right in the tick of the action before three fouls on the long jump – by far her best event – ended her chances. She has already improved several personal records this season, and if Johnson-Thompson can put it all together in Rio, watch out.
Latvia’s Laura Ikauniece-Admidina, who secured bronze in Beijing, has already posted a personal best of 6622 this season and may again leave with some silverware, while Netherland’s Anouk Vetter amassed 6626 points to triumph at the European Championships, her first major result. Fellow Dutch Nadine Broersen was fourth at the 2015 Worlds coming within a whisker of 6500 points, a barrier Germany’s Carolin Schäfer cleared last May. The 21-year-old Nafissatou Thiam, of Belgium, is a youngster poised for a breakout, while the 2013 World Champion, Ukraine’s Hanna Melnychenko, has been toiling away in the last couple of years. France’s Antoinette Nana Djimou was fifth in London 2012 and boasts two European titles in her résumé, thus she’s expected to fight for a top eight position.
Women’s 800m, 1:15am, August 20
An event expected to deliver a mesmerizing one-woman show is indelibly coated with a storyline impossible to ignore: Caster Semenya’s controversial return to the spotlight.
The South African rose to prominence in 2009 after taking the 800m at the World Championships as an 18-year-old, and that victory attracted a whirlwind of questions about her genre, which ultimately forced the IAAF to command testing to determine her sex. The outcome is well-documented, with Semenya’s body found responsible for producing high levels of testosterone, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport responded by mandating that she needed to undergo regular hormonal therapy to adjust her levels back to “normal”.
Semenya’s performances suffered after the verdict, especially following the 2012 Olympics where she took silver, but last summer the “female hyperandrogenism” policy was suspended and his form shot up, with the 25-year-old breaking her personal best – without even unleashing her blazing closing speed – to become the 12th best of all-time (1:55.33) on the 800m. She became virtually invincible in international meetings and at the South African Nationals Semenya actually bagged the 400m, 800m and 1500m in a single afternoon. She ditched the other events ahead of the Olympics to focus on the two-lap race in Rio, but there’s no doubt she’s in the shape of her life.
Semenya’s languishing times may be a thing of the past, but her recent renaissance is bound to ruffle some feathers as she’s expected to claim the 800m title in imposing fashion, possibly smashing the 33-year-old World Record to boot. Many in the Athletics world believe she benefits from an unfair advantage, and controversy will once again break in full force when she dazzles at the Olympic stage.
With all eyes cropped on Semenya, the fight for the lower podium positions is spearheaded by Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, the only other woman to run sub -1:57 this season. Four years after finishing sixth in London, the 23-year-old is widely regarded to become his country’s maiden female Olympic medallist in any sport,.
Kenya’s Eunice Sum, the 2013 World Champion, is the fourth fastest woman this season, with her teammate Margaret Wambui, just 20 years old, placing right behind. The reigning World Champion, Belarus’ Maryna Arzamasava, should also contend, while Canada´s Melissa Bishop, silver in Beijing, posted a career-best 1:57.43 last month to ascend to third in the World Rankings. Nataliya Pryshchepa, the 2016 European Champion, is one to watch as she navigates her first senior world competition, while the British and American delegations can use the strength in numbers to disturb strategies and define the rhythm of the competition.
The best of the rest:
Usain Bolt’s path for a triple three-peat will be equally tortuous on his favourite race, the Men’s 200m (August 18, 02:30am), despite his ambition to go out with a new World Record in the 18 seconds range. Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin will also compete on this race but don’t sleep on LaShawn Merritt (a WL PB of 19:74 this season) and 21-year-old Miguel Francis (19.88) of Antigua and Barbuda.
Bolt’s last Olympic appearance is scheduled to be on the Men’s 4 x 100m relay (August 19, 02:35am), where the USA and Jamaica (who took gold in 2008 and 2012) will renew hostilities if the American’s manage to keep hold of the baton and not bomb out. Both teams clocked 37.3 seconds last year and look evenly matched, therefore it may all come down to the Bolt-Gatlin (Bromell) final dash. Great Britain has the two best times this season at around 37.8, but is also known to regularly drop out of contention.
On the Women’s 4 x 100m relay (August 19, 02:15am), the USA ladies are the defending Champions and favoured to repeat, but a group with Elaine Thompson, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell-Brown won’t surrender easily. Trinidad and Tobago, Great Britain and a Dutch squad anchored by Dafne Schippers should contend for bronze.
Before that, the Netherland’s difference-maker will try to add the Olympic title to her World crown in the Women’s 200m (August 17, 02:30am). Schippers has edged her rivals so far this season with a WL 21.93s, but can’t rest against the American trio headlined by Tori Bowie (21.99s) and the Jamaicans Thompson and Campbell-Brown.
Allyson Felix, the reigning 200m Olympic Champion, missed out on a spot for that race and will have to settle for the Women’s 400m (August 15, 02:45am), where she’ll try to become the first woman in athletics history to win five Olympic gold medals. However, Felix will be pushed to the brink by Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller, the world leader in 49.55s, with Phyllis Francis and Natasha Hastings also threatening her compatriot.
The always volatile Women’s 100m hurdles (August 17, 02:55am) will miss the last two Olympic Champions (Australia’s Sally Pearson and USA’s Dawn Harper Nelson), the reigning World Champion Danielle Williams (Jamaica) and the new World record (12.20) holder, Kendra Harrison (USA), who shattered the mark just days after being supplanted at the US trials. The Americans could comfortably fill the eight final spots – the seven fastest women this season hail from the USA – but are limited to three participants, with Brianna Rollins (12.34) as the athlete to beat.
On the mid-distance races deserve recognition the Men’s 800m (August 15, 02:25am) and the women’s 1500m (August 16, 02:30am), where two WR holders are seemingly in danger of being upstaged. Genzebe Dibaba (Ethiopia), the 1500m World Champion, is nursing a toe injury and has been overshadowed by Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon, the world leader who’s yet to be defeated this season. Meanwhile, David Rudisha (Kenya), who authored a masterpiece on the 800m at the London Games, is being pressured like never before by compatriots Alfred Kipketer and Ferguson Rotich, 1-2 at the National trials in front of Rudisha. Botswana’s Nijel Amos, silver in 2012, is also a contender.
Four years after lighting up the Olympic stadium in London, Mo Farah is widely expected to collect another double triumph in the Men’s 10 000m (August 13, 01:27am) and Men’s 5000m (August 20, 01:30am), something only the “Flying Finn” Lasse Viren manage to complete in consecutive editions (1972 and 1976). Farah also picked up both victories at the 2013 and 2015 World Championships, and his rivals should be growing beyond annoyed of having to witness his mighty final sprint followed up by the iconic “Mobot” celebration. The prole of Ethiopians and Kenyans getting used to aspirate the sole of Farah’s shoes has the word once again.
Amongst the bevy of throw events, the major attentions befall on both shot put contests. On the Women’s Shot Put (August 12, 02:00am), New Zealand’s Valerie Adams is charging for an unmatched third consecutive individual title. However, her once unimpeachable place on top of the pedestal is a thing of the past, with reigning World Champion Christina Schwanitz (Germany) and world leader Gong Lijiao posing serious challenges. On the Men’s Shot Put (August 18, 00:30am), the 2015 World Champion Joe Kovacs is the front-runner, having consistently thrown above 22 meters, but he will be pushed by fellow American Ryan Crouser, Germany’s David Storl, a consistent top-2 performer in major competitions, and the trio of Polish heavyweights: 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion Tomasz Majewski, 19-year-old phenomenon Konrad Bukowiecki and 24-year-old Michal Haratyk.
The Men’s discus throw (August 13, 14:50) is one of the most unpredictable events in the calendar, with defending champion Robert Harting (Germany) fighting to regain the supremacy. The world leader is the reigning World champion Piotr Malachowski (Poland) and the younger Harting brother, Christoph, comes next, with the two other podium finishers from Beijing, Philip Milanov (Belgium) and Robert Urbanek (Poland), also craving an Olympic medal.
The last event of the Athletics Olympic program, the Men’s Marathon (August 21, 13:30pm) is known to deliver surprising winners, with the defending Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich (Uganda) functioning has a ready-made example. Kiprotich isn´t expected to repeat in Rio since world-leader (2:03:05) – and London Marathon winner – Eliud Kipchoge and fellow Kenyan Stanley Biwott appear on the pole position. On the contrary, Dennis Kimetto, the world record holder (2:02:57) since Berlin 2014, was left out of the Kenyan squad.