Originally I thought about putting together a list of 10 athletes to watch this year. But as I surveyed the track and field landscape I decided that there are so many more athletes that deserve to be mentioned. So I’m going to do this in stages, starting with Ten International (non US) stars that I will be watching this year. I will also be taking a look at some Americans that I will be watching closely as well as some young talent that I think may have an impact this year – there is a lot of good young talent out there.
But first I will take a look at some of the global talent out there. Daegu should be one hot meet and there will be a lot of talent on display. But these ten, for me, could be the best stories to watch on the way to Daegu – and during the meet itself. So here is my list of ten to watch in 2011.
David Rudisha – Kenya – 800 Meters
I will start my list with the reigning men’s AOY. Rudisha’s exploits in 2010 have been thoroughly covered – twice WR setter, three times under 1:42, undefeated and dominant. After the previous WR setter (Wilson Kipketer) had his all conquering season it was followed by an off season (no major championship) so he didn’t immediately get the chance to validate his all conquering season. Rudisha gets his follow up season with a championship on the line. So the challenge for Rudisha will be to win gold on the heals of becoming the greatest half miler ever on the clock. Previous WR setters Kipketer and Sebastian Coe had their difficulties doing just that. Illness curtailed Kipketer and Coe was beaten by Ovett in ‘80 and Cruz ijn ‘84. So Rudisha’s journey will be one to watch as he will be in everyone’s sight on his way to Daegu. And it was only ‘08 when Abubaker Kaki set the WJR and looked prime to take a shot at Kipketer. Rudisha beating him to the mark should make him a bit hungry. And a hungry athlete is a dangerous athlete.
Yelena Isinbayeva – Russia – Pole Vault
Yelena returns to competition following her one season sabbatical last year. Once one of the most dominating track and field athletes ever she came up empty in Berlin, and following a not up to her standards 2010 indoor season decided she needed indefinite time off. That lasted through the end of the 2010 outdoor season as she has stated that she will be returning to competition in February. After her time out to reenergize, it will be interesting to see if she can step back in and dominate the event that she has owned since 2004 – winning outdoor titles in Athens, Helsinki, Osaka, and Beijing while setting 13 outdoor WR’s.
Usain Bolt – Jamaica – Sprints
Double sprint gold (100/200) and four WR’s in Beijing and Berlin have made Bolt a household name. It’s also put a huge target on his back. Not that there are many capable of hitting the bull's-eye, but he is competing with the #2 & #3 all time performers in the 100 (Tyson Gay & Asafa Powell) and the #3 all time performer in the 200 (Tyson Gay) – Gay himself was double gold medalist in Osaka. In addition, 2010 did see several young athletes begin to get “in range” – most notably Nesta Carter (Jam, 9.78) – as well as a return to form of perennial 200 medalist Wallace Spearmon (USA, 19.65). No one one has repeated as double World Champion – only Maurice Greene, Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay have turned the trick once. Bolt will be attempting to become the first to do so.
Teddy Tamgho – France – Triple Jump
Mark off 59 feet and then imagine someone ”hop, skip, and jumping” their way across that distance. Only three men in history have done so – and Teddy Tamgho is one of them. Tamgho had a solid season in 2010, but was unable to capture the European title finishing a disappointing third. In Daegu he will not only be facing Barcelona conquerers Phillip Idowu (GBR) and Marian Oprea (ROM), but most likely Sweden’s Christian Olsson and the Cuban trio of Alexis Copello, David Girat, and Yoandris Betanzos – a formidable group indeed. Tamgho has proven he can jump far, now he has to show he can compete.
Veronica Campbell Brown – Jamaica – Sprints
While the world has become quite familiar with Usain Bolt, Veronica is the most decorated athlete in Jamaica’s stable of sprinters. Campbell Brown lead the world on the clock in both sprints in 2010 (10.78/21.98) and has won two Olympic titles in the 200 (‘04/’08), and one World title in the 100 (‘07) to go with seven total individual medals in global majors. Campbell Brown showed an improved start in the 100 last year which makes her even more dangerous in the 100. And in the deuce her only real challenge comes from three time World Champion Allyson Felix (USA). The women’s sprints haven’t had a double sprint champion since the 1991 version (Katrin Krabbe, GER). Campbell Brown will be gunning to be the first in two decades.
Renaud Lavillenie – France – Pole Vault
Steven Hooker is more well known and is the defending champion having won in Berlin, but France’s Lavillenie has been improving every year the past couple of seasons and has been the more consistent vaulter during the “normal” summer seasons. Like Tamgho, Lavillenie has proven that he can vault high – now he has to prove that he can compete. Winning the European title last year was a good start, but in Daegu he will have to overcome Hooker, fellow countryman Romain Mesnil (himself on the rise) and potentially American’s Brad Walker and Derek Miles. Lavillenie has 20 foot potential in my opinion. He’s going to have to show 20 foot heart as well.
Blanka Vlasic – Croatia – High Jump
The women’s 2010 AOY, Blanka has been THE name in female high jumping since 2007 and won the World Championships in both Osaka and Berlin. She proved her competitive mettle last year as time after time she repelled the challenge of Chaunte Howard Lowe who co-lead the world last year with Vlasic. While repeating as World Champion will be a challenge, with Howard Lowe and Emma Green (SWE) giving chase, the bigger challenge may be in Vlasic’s pursuit of Stefka Kostadinova’s WR – set way back in 1987! She came within a tantalizing centimeter in 2009 and has taken several shots in the past couple of seasons. She has the ability, but will she finally conquer the height?
Liu Xiang – China – 110 Hurdles
Between 2004 and 2007 Liu did it all, winning an Olympic title (‘04), a World title (‘07) and setting two WR’s. Liu was beginning to look nearly unbeatable when it mattered and then was struck down by injury. He has spent the last two seasons trying to recover from an Achilles injury, and his 13.09 win at the Asian Championships to close out 2010 gave glimpse that he may be back. At his peak, Liu was one of those athletes that did not look fast but always found a way to get to the line first. A tremendous competitor, his competitiveness will be challenged in 2011 as the emergences of Dayron Robles (CUB, 12.87) and David Oliver (USA, 12.89) now give him two foes that can run stride for stride with him on any given day. His path to Daegu will be closely watched – and should he, Robles and Oliver all make it to the final it could be a run for the ages.
Jessica Ennis – Great Britain – Heptathlon
Jackie Joyner Kersee (USA), Ghada Shousa (SYR), Carolina Kluft (SWE) – in my opinion the studs of Heptathlon in the 80’s, 90’s and ‘00’s. Watching Ennis compete, my gut tells me that she is going to be the stud of the next decade. To win in Berlin, London, and/or Moscow she will have to be because there are some strong women out there, most notable Natalya Dobrynska (UKR), Jennifer Oerser (GER) and Hyaleas Fountain (USA). She defeated them for the title in 2009, but all are much improved since then – but so is Ennis. I believe that she should be 6925 this year and over 7000 in London. We will see how close I am.
Kenenisa Bekele – Ethiopia – 5000/10000
This is the man that took the 10000 title from Haile Gebrselassie in 2003 in perhaps the most stirring distance battle ever in a major – 26:49.57 to 26:50.77! Since his emergence he’s become the WR holder at both 5000 & 10000, and has won eight World and Olympic titles – including both the 5000 & 10000 titles in Berlin. Bekele sat out the 2010 campaign with injury so, as with several other stars in 2011, the question for this year is can he get back to his dominant winning ways? So far in his career Bekele has proven to be the second coming of Gebrselassie – which means the odds are strongly in his favor. But the distances are highly competitive and there is a strong rivalry between the Ethiopians and the Kenyans for global distance supremacy. Not to mention the crafty Bernard Legat (USA) who set a new AR last year and Chris Solinsky (USA) who set multiple PR’s and showed that he may be ready to compete at this level. Until he is taken down, however Bekele is the man to beat. It will be fun watching him run with the target on his back.
These are the Ten International stars that I will be watching most – but certainly not the only ones that I will be watching. This sport is as hot as ever and there is depth at every event. So watching them all maneuver their way to Daegu should be a lot of fun.