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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Preview: Men's Hurdles

Three other previews I have written for The Final Sprint cover the men's throws, women's jumps, and women's throws.

Athletes' rankings refer to my World Points Standings, and medal picks come to us from Track & Field News and Sports Illustrated, respectively.

110 Meter Hurdles
The Schedule: heats, Monday Aug 18; quarterfinals, Tuesday Aug 19; semifinals, Wed Aug 20; finals, Thursday Aug 21
The Americans: #1 David Oliver, #3 Terrence Trammell, #9 David Payne
The Contenders: #2 Dayron Robles (CUB), #13 Xiang Liu (CHN)
The Stats: Records, 2008 List, 2007 Worlds, 2004 Olympics
The Medal Picks: T&FN - Robles, Xiang, Oliver; SI - Robles, Xiang, Trammell
The Story: This event is stacked. In 2008 Dayron Robles set the World Record, ran three of the seven fastest times ever, lost just once (by .01 seconds), and is only a sidelight in a feature-length Sports Illustrated article on his rival. That rival, Liu Xiang, has the weight of 1.3 million Chinese squarely on his wide shoulders. And American American Oliver has been running so well that he's challenging for the overall World Points Standings lead when all events are combined. Forget the 100, 1500, decathlon or marathon: this is the race of the 2008 Olympics, and if Xiang wins the country will erupt (and scare its totalitarian government to death).

Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Tim Warsinskey says "The first rule of hurdles is never stop because you never know", and Robles learned that lesson the hard way at this year's World Indoors. In one of the bonehead moves of all time, he pulled up in a qualifying heat when he thought someone false-started. No recall was made and he was out of the Worlds after posting the second-greatest indoor season of all time.

So far as I know, Xiang has run only three finals this year, two in the far East and the World Indoors. Normally, such a short season would spell certain disaster for a competitor in a rhythm-oriented event, but not for him. Former Olympic gold medalist Allen Johnson says "Most of us need to get race-ready, so to speak. Liu Xiang seems to be the one guy who can roll right out of the box and just compete". If you need proof to back this up, witness those indoor Worlds: months of nothing and then a championship.

Does anyone else have a chance of winning besides these three? In a nutshell, no. If any two of them failed to live up to expectations it would be shocking, and we have a better chance of the earth opening up and swallowing them whole than all three running poorly. No one else can improve enough, either; Trammell's PR would put him third on the yearly list and was set while getting whupped by Xiang.

Expect sixth, seventh and eighth to be almost a separate race. Robles, Xiang and the USA own all of the season's top 38 times.

400 Meter Hurdles
The Schedule: heats, Friday Aug 15; semifinals, Saturday Aug 16; finals, Monday Aug 18
The Americans: #1 Kerron Clement, #2 Bershawn Jackson, #6 Angelo Taylor
The Contenders: #3 Danny McFarlane (JAM), #4 L.J. van Zyl (RSA), #5 Marek Plawgo (POL)
The Stats: Records, 2008 List, 2007 Worlds, 2004 Olympics
The Medal Picks: T&FN - Clement, Jackson, van Zyl; SI - Clement, Jackson, Taylor
The Story: This is an American race for gold, and a medal sweep by the USA is a distinct possibility. Jackson failed badly (for him) at the Golden League meet in Paris; other than that, he and Clement have lost to no one but each other. Clement is a tremendous talent who has a history of inconsistency (which is lessening with time), while Jackson's best times are less stunning but he rarely has a bad race. If Clement is at or near his best, he will win, but otherwise it will be Jackson.

Bronze is a bit more complicated. Taylor was the Sydney Olympic champ, but that was a loong time ago. His season has been much shorter than everyone else's, his flat 400 speed is better than any save Clement's, and he is older and wiser than the rest. But maybe that just means he's over the hill. L.J. van Zyl has run a few fast times, but has lost to both Taylor and McFarlane in their only meetings this year. I say go with the Jamaican for third.

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