Yes, it’s time for my annual spruik for Melbourne’s international track and field meeting, this year known as the IAAF Melbourne World Challenge, to be held this Saturday.
The Commonwealth Games year is the “down” year in the four year Olympic cycle for track and field, with the odd numbered years featuring the IAAF World Championships, an event which sits only just below the Olympics. The main international focus this year will be the rich Diamond League series, 14 events running across much of the globe from May to September, with large cash prizes for those that accumulate the highest total points in each event. The IAAF World Challenge series of events is the next level down, and the Melbourne event features an impressive array of international and domestic talent, although possibly not the depth of competition we have had in some recent years.
We have reigning Olympic and world champions competing, and one athlete who currently holds both crowns, New Zealand powerhouse shot putter Valerie Adams. She is a superstar of the sport, having won 4 world championship crowns, 2 Olympics and 2 Commonwealth Games as well as 3 World Indoor championships. The presence of Aussies Kim Mickle, the silver medallist in the javelin in last year’s world champs, and former discus world champ Dani Samuels, adds up to some serious quality in the women’s throwing events.
Sally Pearson is always one of the star attractions. She was untouchable over the sprint hurdles in 2011 and 2012, but was conquered by a combination of injury and the young American star Brianna Rollins, who was unbeaten in 2013, at the Moscow world champs. Pearson is in good form and her “defeat” in the recent World Indoor Championships, winning a silver medal, was a major surprise. She had been the raging favourite, albeit that an error in a 60 metre hurdle race can easily spell defeat. Unfortunately she doesn’t have any real competition over the 100 metre hurdles in Melbourne after her conqueror in the World Indoors, American Nia Ali, withdrew the day after her participation was announced. Very strange.
While we are on the subject of the sprint hurdles, we have the world champion, American David Oliver competing. He is both a great athlete and an incredible physical specimen, a former College gridiron star who turned a lot of heads when he ventured on to the beach at Bondi before winning in Sydney over the weekend. Hopefully his presence can push young Aussie hopefuls Nick Hough and Sam Baines towards Comm Games A-qualifiers after both were impressive in recording B-qualifiers in Sydney.
Oliver in full stride
Combining the previous topics of very strange and impressive physical specimens, we also welcome the world 400 metre champ American La Shawn Merritt. He was also the 2008 Olympic champion and has the dubious distinction of having been suspended for two years for steroid use and claiming that the failed drug tests resulted from his use of an over-the-counter penis enlargement product, the unimaginatively named ExtenZe. Merritt stated that he had made a “foolish, immature and egotistical mistake…Any penalty I may receive for my action will not overshadow the embarrassment and humiliation I feel”. Indeed.
As always, a strong contingent of Kenyan middle distance runners is here. The pick of them is the women’s 800 metre world champ, Eunice Sum, who will compete against a bunch of Aussie contenders including Kelly Hetherington and World Youth Championships fourth-placegetter Georgia Wassall. In the women’s 1500 metres, Kenyan Mercy Cherono, the world champs silver medallist at 5000 metres, will compete against the most improved athlete in Australia, world championship finalist Zoe Buckman and London Olympian Kaila McKnight, as well as athletes from New Zealand, Ireland and the Netherlands.
In the men’s middle distance events, Kenyan world champs bronze medallist Isiah Koech headlines the 5000 metres where he will run against Australia’s best middle distance athletes Collis Birmingham and Ben St Lawrence. In the 1500 metres, another Kenyan James Kiplagat Magut is the star attraction. In other track highlights we have the new national record holder Melissa Breen doing her thing in the 100 metres, and American Duane Solomon, an Olympic and world champs finalist in the 800 metres, trying to push some Aussie up and comers, especially Melbourne’s Alex Rowe, to A-qualifying times.
The jumping events and the pole vault are spectacular to watch live. As always, the long jump offers depth, if not the cream of the crop, with Henry Frayne, Fabrice Lapierre and Chris Noffke all having exceeded the 8 metre mark. In the women’s pole vault we will once again see Alana Boyd and the Parnov sisters, Vicky and Liz, do battle.
There are a lot worse ways to spend $20 and a few hours of your time. A friend who had never previously been to an international athletics meet before described it to me as being a bit like going to the circus, in that you have to work out where to look as there can be a lot going on at once. So, get along to Lakeside Stadium on Saturday. It’s a 5.00 – 7.30pm timeslot with reasonable weather forecast. See you there. If you can’t make it, a highlights package is being shown on Channel Ten on Sunday at noon, and repeated on Fox Sports 3 at 4 pm.