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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Beijing 2008: Event previews

Men's 100m and Women's Marathon predictions

Men's 100m

Today sees the "Race of the Century" in Beijing, as the three fastest men in history line up for the men's 100m Olympic title. Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Tyson Gay are the stars of the show - three "heavyweight prize fighters" who will compete for the title of World's Fastest Man. Their journeys to Beijing have dominated track and field news for the last 3 or 4 months, and the event, so tarnished by positive dope tests and cheats (men and women), has for a change found a more positive spin thanks to their rivalry.

A chronology of rivalry

To appreciate just how spectacular that rivalry is, you have to go back to almost exactly one year ago, when Tyson Gay of the USA took on and beat the world record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica over 100m in Osaka to become the World Champion. One week later, he was a double world-champion, having added the 200m gold. He went on to claim the 4 x 100m relay gold and was the star of track and field in 2007.

Powell, having failed in Osaka, bounced back with a vengance to break his own world record over 100m with a time of 9.74 seconds in a low-key meet in Italy. It served only to re-inforce the prevailing opinion that Powell is not a big-pressure runner, and chokes when the stakes are highest. Powell has since been out to dispel that perception, and if ever there was an occasion, this race is it.

Enter Usain Bolt

The situation has changed for Powell, however, because unlike last year in Osaka, Powell goes into the Olympics WITHOUT the world record to his name. That title belongs to his younger countryman, Usain Bolt, who shocked the world earlier this year when he ran 9.72 seconds in New York.

Bolt was originally a 200m runner, and last year in Osaka, while Gay was winning three golds, Bolt somewhat quietly claimed silver in the 200m event. This year, however, he has exploded onto the scence, and so having anticipated a clash between two champions in Beijing, we now have the prospect of three men, all who have run sub 9.80 seconds. It is a mouth-watering prospect.

Gay, for his part, is the unknown quantity, a title that many would have thought unlikely given his dominance last year. That title comes thanks to a muscle strain at the US trials, in the 200m event, which forced him out for a few weeks. A few days earlier, he'd scorched a 9.68 second time to win the US 100m title. It was the fastest time ever recorded, but was aided by a following wind over the legal limit. Still, it was a warning shot to the Jamaicans, and the expectation grew for Beijing.

And then came the 200m and a muscle injury. He has not raced since, and so there are big question marks about his form. He says he is ready, and he may feel it, but from an injury-recovery point of view, sprinters often struggle after even slight hamstring niggles. And it's not a case of having a weakened muscle as of having "trained" the brain to control and use those muscles. Gay will have his work cut out, simply because he hasn't been placed under race pressure for many weeks. Last year, when we won the three golds, his greatest strength was his composure and temperament under pressure. That will be tested in Beijing, perhaps even more than his recovered hamstring. My opinion is that given his absence from racing, he'll struggle to find his best race in the final. I also fear that under the race pressure, that hamstring will fail and he'll end up lying on the side of the track while Jamaica celebrate their gold medal. But time will tell...

As for the Jamaicans, Bolt looked spectacular in qualifying, coasting to a 9.92 second win. Last year in Osaka, Powell looked just as good in qualifying, and then in the final, he tightened up and actually ran slower than he did in qualifying. Such is the pressure of the 100m final - you can run faster coasting than when you try your hardest! Whether this will happen again is anyone's guess. Powell will need to be on top of his game, mentally in particular, in order to challenge Bolt. He has beaten him already this year, and so fancies his chances.

Our prediction - Bolt to win, but its anyone's guess

So let's put the head on the block and call a result.

1. Usain Bolt - 9.70 s (WR)
2. Asafa Powell - 9.74 s
3. Tyson Gay - 9.78 s

Then again...that's a complete guess. This is perhaps one of the most open, unpredictable races we've ever seen. There's just as much chance that Gay runs 9.70 and Bolt freezes under pressure. And then there's the chance that one of the three pulls up at 50m with a torn hamstring, most likely Gay! Who knows? Whatever happens, let's hope that they remain dope-free, unlike the last Olympic Champion, Justin Gatlin, and that the sport can recover some credibility as a result of this race. We'll bring you the post-race later today.

The women's Marathon

Speaking of unpredictable, the women's Marathon, which takes place on Sunday morning in Beijing, will throw up an equally impossible-to-call race. It has created a great deal of media attention thanks to the presence of Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder who has struggled with a stress fracture in her training build-up.

According to reports, Radcliffe's participation is a miracle, let alone the chance that she might win the race! Doctors reportedly told her to forget about Beijing, since she couldn't possibly fit the required training in. We did a post a week or so ago about Radcliffe's training and also her chances, and so we won't go into massive detail here again.

Instead, we'll jump straight into a race prediction. The big news of the week was that defending champion Mizuki Noguchi has pulled out of the race, citing various injuries as the reason. Japan's reserve is also not running, but Japan has Reiko Tosa, who was third last year in Osaka, a good sign given the similarity between the conditions.

Based on those conditions, the race favourite must be Catherine Ndereba, who won in Osaka last year. She is also the silver medallist from Athens, and has shown remarkable consistency in championship races. Based on these two factors - her proven ability in the heat and her historical ability to get it right on the day, she is a medal "certainty" (as far as that goes in Olympic Marathons, which is not very far at all!).

Her biggest challenge is likely to come from the Chinese, who will run in their home marathon with a great deal of motivation. They include Zhou Chunxiu, who won London in 2007 and was second in last year's Osaka World Champs. She's done nothing this year - a 2:38 season's best, but we know that this means little in the Chinese...

For a dark-horse, consider Gete Wami of Ethiopia, who has flown under the radar a little, finishing 3rd in London, and 2nd in New York last year (behind Radcliffe) about a week after winning Berlin. Wami is a racer, so she's either going to win a medal or be completely absent and probably not finish. But keep her in mind as a dangerous "floater".

Others to watch out for are Birhane Adere of Ethiopia (but she's likely too big to feature in the heat), and Deena Kastor of the USA, who won a medal in Athens by running her own race and benefitting from the damage ahead of her. The same is possible in Beijing.

As for Radcliffe, we previously speculated that she's a real outside shot, and I'm not going to change that now. The marathon is not forgiving enough to allow anything but the best preparation to succeed, regardless of her mental strength. She'll feature early, for sure, and hopefully she'll be there in the final 2km. But I suspect she'll find the race just too long, and will fade for a position between 5th and 10th.

So here's the podium:

1. Zhou Chunxiu (CHI) - 2:28:00 - the time is impossible to call, but it will be relatively slow thanks to conditions
2. Catherine Ndereba (KEN) - about 30 seconds behind
3. Gete Wami (ETH) - a further 1 minute back.

We'll bring you the post-race analysis tomorrow!


P.S. Predictions of times are a bit of fun - the women's race is impossible to call, so even if it's right, it's luck! For the men's race, I'll have more confidence in predicting race tactics and winning times!


Anonymous said...

I agree that the mara is impossible to call - but was not Chicago last year "hot", and did Adere not win it? (FWIW, Yelling - Radcliffe's bridesmaid - came fourth in the same race, so I'll be interested to see how she does too).
I did laugh when Radcliffe said, "Well, I'm not in 2:12 form" - was she trying to psyche out the others? Bless ! :)
Middle aged mid packer