Showtime on the track
BEIJING—This was supposed to be Liu Xiang’s night.
All eyes were to be on the Chinese hurdler as he tried in front of his countrymen to defend his 110-meter hurdles gold medal from the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
If Liu was running, the toughest ticket in town would be at National Stadium. But since a leg injury forced Liu out of the Games, the focus shifts to American Jeremy Wariner.
Can he repeat as Olympic champion in the 400 meters? And with Michael Johnson coaching him, can Wariner make history with a record time?
Let’s take a look inside Thursday’s races in Beijing:
Contenders: Wariner, LaShawn Merritt
Breakdown: Texas native Wariner has four years of hype to live up to since winning a gold medal in Athens. He is following his mentor and coach, Johnson, and wants to etch his name into the record books the same way Johnson did.
His competition is Merritt, a talented young Virginian who left East Carolina during his freshman year to turn pro. Merritt is more of a pure sprinter than Wariner. Wariner is the best in the world at this distance, but Merritt can push Wariner with his pure speed
Wariner is not as fast as Merritt and knows it, but he can run a faster pace for longer. Expect Merritt to get out to an early lead, and between the 150-200-meter mark this race should get interesting.
Wariner can’t fall into the trap of trying to outsprint Merritt in the early stages. If Merritt goes out fast and Wariner is not patient and fires out with him, he will lose. He must run a relaxed race, stick to his race pattern and conserve energy for the last 150 meters. That is where he thrives, and if all goes as planned, that’s where Wariner should win this race.
Wariner need only look to the women’s 400 for the blueprint. American Sanya Richards went out too fast and got caught. She expended too much energy too soon in the race, and it cost her the gold. Wariner is the best quarter-miler in the world, but, like Richards, he can be beaten if he panics and abandons his plan.
Prediction: Wariner will defend his gold medal. He’s confident and experienced and is running very well. This is all new for Merritt. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, but on the track world’s biggest stage, I’d rather be experienced.
Breakdown: Once again, it’s the United States vs. the Caribbean—though while the Jamaicans went 1-2-3 in the women’s 100, this race should be much tighter.
Felix is a two-time world champion in the 200 and was a silver medalist in Athens. She’s in great shape and looks poised to break through here in Beijing. But Campbell, a world champion who won gold at Athens in the 200 and bronze in the 100, sees what her countryman Usain Bolt is doing and knows she could be doing the same. At the Jamaican trials, she finished fourth in the 100 by one-hundredth of a second and watched the three Jamaican qualifiers sweep the podium in the 100 a couple nights ago.
Prediction: This race is a toss-up. It’s a rematch of the 2004 women’s 200, where Campbell took gold and Felix took silver. Campbell and Felix will slug it out here and finish 1-2 in a race too close to call, while Jamaica’s Kerron Stewart should emerge from a six-way race for bronze.
Men’s 110 hurdles
Breakdown: There’s no question Liu wanted to compete in this race as badly as the Chinese people did. He’s a competitor, and no matter how much pressure he was under in his homeland, with the hopes of the nation weighing on his shoulders, there’s nothing he wanted more than to defend his gold medal from Athens.
With Liu out, it looks as though Robles, the world-record holder, is the class of the field. He’s running loose and easy and doesn’t think anyone here can beat him. He has the swagger, the cockiness, you look for in a star athlete. There are 10 chances to make mistakes, though, and with a fast track like the one at the Bird’s Nest, the hurdles sometimes get on the runner faster than the runner expects. That’s the coach’s job—make the athlete aware.
Oliver and Payne should push Robles for gold. Oliver won his heat in the semifinals and has beaten Robles in their only meeting.
Prediction: Robles wins gold, Oliver takes silver and Payne takes bronze.