If this year’s World Championships is the ultimate “Final” test of the season, then meets such as yesterday’s Golden Gala in Rome are a series of minor tests and pop quizzes. Several athletes were taking early tests in Rome – Usain Bolt (his season debut), Allyson Felix (a look at the double), and L.J. Van Zyl (defining his place) – and in my opinion all three passed.
Van Zyl (RSA) has been hot since the winter time, running 47.66 in the hurdles in February and 44.86 in the open 400 in March. Of course these were races at home in South Africa where Van Zyl has always done well early on. In Rome he was to face Kerron Clement, Angelo Taylor (men with several titles between them) and up and comers Jehue Gordon, Johnny Dutch, and Javier Culson. If Rome was indeed a test for Van Zyl, he passed with flying colors, as he controlled the race throughout, looked very strong in the stretch, and dominated in winning in 47.91 – his third sub-48 in this very young season. Brit David Greene also looked strong as his 48.24 in 2nd was his second best time ever (47.88 PR). The rest of the field was never a factor. At this rate Van Zyl has to be considered an early favorite in the hunt for long hurdle gold. He’s running confidently and fast, and is starting to rack up wins against some of the event’s best talent. The others have a lot of catching up to do if they plan to keep him off the top of the podium.
Felix was also in test mode in Rome, running both the 400 and 200. She has stated that she is considering the double in Daegu, and Rome would be a good test of her ability to pull it off running the 400 and then the 200 within 45 minutes of each other – simulating running a 400 final and then opening 200 round in Daegu. The result was a world leading 49.81 win the the 400 and a 22.81 for fourth place in the 200 (Bianca Knight won in 22.64). While some may have considered it a failure because she “lost” the deuce, I consider her performance a home run. First she dominated the 400 and her chief rival Sanya Richards. Her winning time was her second fastest 400 ever, yet within 45 minutes she was able to return to the track and put in a performance that would get her through the opening round in a major. Much tougher than what she would face at Worlds as the 400 final is on Aug 29, and the opening round of the deuce is on Sep 1 – giving Felix plenty of time to recover and switch gears to deuce mode.
After taking down this field – which included Amantle Montsho (BOT), Francena McCorory (USA), Debbie Dunn (USA), Sanya Richards (USA) and Sherika Williams (JAM) – it would appear that the most serious challenge to her winning a 200/400 double will most likely be Veronica Campbell Brown (JAM) in the deuce. That is unless Richards can return to form in the 400. Here Richards was well beaten back in 50.98 and had no “pop” to her race. She too doubled back in the deuce finishing just behind Felix in 4th (22.88). I think we will see better from Richards as the season progresses, but as Felix gains more confidence in the 400 she could be tough to topple.
The final test of the day was in the men’s 100 as Usain Bolt (JAM) was making his season debut. In the field was former WR holder Asafa Powell (JAM) – looking to assert himself against the defending World and Olympic champion. Compatriots Mario Forsythe and Lerone Clarke were looking to measure themselves against these two as the logjam in Jamaica is getting tight. And Christophe Lemaitre was making his debut, and measuring himself against the upper echelon. Grading on the curve Bolt and Lemaitre got the day’s “A’s”.
Bolt looked a bit sluggish at the start, but showed smooth acceleration mid race and easily moved past the fast starting Powell at the end to win in 9.91 (+0.6). Not the 9.7x that some may have been expecting, but I’m not sure we’ll see that until sometime this summer as both Bolt and Gay work their way to an anticipated showdown. What we saw was controlled speed and Bolt’s ability to relax and close well. A sharp contrast to Powell who was clearly waiting for the rush that would be Bolt at the end. While Powell was well ahead of his countrymen Forsythe and Clarke at the finish (2nd in 9.93), his inability to relax and close out the final 20 meters of his races could bode ill against Nesta Carter, Steve Mullings & Yohan Blake in Kingston – all young and hungry.
Lemaitre gets my other “A” in this race. In with the “big boys” he didn’t panic, ran strongly, closed well, and at 10.00 was near his PR (9.97) and well ahead of all but Bolt and Powell. He’s not yet ready to challenge Bolt or Gay – he’s got to clean up his technique to even think of having a shot there – but he’s on pace to perhaps run near that 9.90 range and is Europe’s best hope for the final.
Rome was a nice start to the weekend. There is lots of action with the NCAA East and West Regionals which started yesterday and the NCAA Division II & III Championships, the NAIA Championships and meets in Cuba and Senegal. Something hot is bound to happen before the weekend is done!