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Feature15 Jun 2022

Road to Oregon22 – seven hot topics with one month to go


Athletes who have excelled so far this season (© AFP / Getty Images)

One month from today, the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 – the first to be held in the United States – will get under way at the all-new Hayward Field in Eugene.

One week from tomorrow, that same venue will stage the fearsome, first-three-home drama of the USATF Championships, where home athletes will seek to earn the right to return to the re-built arena once the global event starts on 15 July.

The perennial jeopardy of that event means that some of the most likely home medallists cannot yet be inked in for the World Championships. But wild card entries for defending champions mean that US athletes such as 200m gold medallist Noah Lyles, who has demonstrated convincing form in recent weeks and days, will count on toeing the line.

Prospective challengers for medals in Eugene, notably from Europe and Africa, have been laying down their markers in earnest over the last fortnight, however, as the meetings have come thick and fast. The level of excitement and anticipation is rising rapidly on the Road to Oregon. Cast your eyes over seven of the most notable hot spots…


Javelin rivalry rising to the heights

Is any final at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 likely to be more competitive than the men’s javelin? The answer right now would appear to be no.

A stupendous season of thrust and counter-thrust started at the opening Wanda Diamond League meeting of the season in Doha last month, when, taking advantage of a big following wind, Grenada’s world champion Anderson Peters and Olympic silver medallist Jakub Vadlejch made best of the conditions to spear – sorry, spur – each other to new levels of performances.

Peters took a first-round lead with a national record of 88.96m but was pushed into second place in the fourth round when Vadlejch also threw a personal best of 89.87m.

The fifth round saw Peters re-take the lead with 90.19m, only for the Czech thrower to respond with 90.88m.

There was one more step up to be taken, however, and it was Peters who won with a final effort of 93.07m, moving himself to fifth on the world all-time list as he did so.

Skip forward to the Fanny Blankers-Koen Games in Hengelo last Monday week – Peters maintained his winning run with an effort of 90.75m, with Germany’s Julian Weber second on 89.54m and 2012 Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago third on 89.07m.

Anyone else to join the mix? Ah yes. The Olympic champion. India’s Neeraj Chopra made his 2022 debut in Turku last night and improved his national record to 89.30m. Ominous. But it was still not enough for victory on the night in a country that idolises the javelin event.

Home thrower Oliver Helander – coached by Finland’s 2007 world champion Tero Pitkamaki – produced what he described as a “perfect throw” to win with a massive personal best of 89.83m.

So there are currently six men this season who have thrown farther than 89 metres. And Germans Andreas Hoffman, the 2018 European silver medallist, and Johannes Vetter, who won world gold in 2017 and world bronze in 2019, and who stands second on the all-time list with his 2020 effort of 97.76m, have yet to hit proper form. Yikes!

Jackson shocks Thompson-Herah over 200m

That said – the women’s 200m in Oregon could also turn out to be the most competitive of the championships.

Jamaica’s double Olympic 100m and 200m champion Elaine Thompson-Herah has made a strong start to the season, clocking 10.79 at the Eugene Diamond League meeting on 28 May to move to second in this season’s world list, and producing a time of 22.25 in her first big 200m at last week’s Rome Diamond League meeting.

But Thompson-Herah was surprisingly beaten to the line in the Olympic Stadium by her fellow Jamaican Shericka Jackson, the Olympic 100m bronze medallist and former 400m specialist, who won in 21.91.

That is only enough to put Jackson third in this season’s list, however, with Namibia’s Olympic silver medallist Christine Mboma second on 21.87 and Abby Steiner of the United States top thanks to the 21.80 she clocked in winning the NCAA outdoor title in Eugene last Saturday.

And when you consider that Olympic bronze medallist Gabby Thomas of the United States has run 21.98, and Britain’s world champion Dina Asher-Smith, back from the hamstring injury that undermined her Olympic ambitions, has clocked 22.27, well, you get the picture.  

Just for good measure, double Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of The Bahamas recently cast doubt on whether she would contest the single lap event in Oregon. If that means she is concentrating on her second main event, at which she holds the Commonwealth title, then watch out.

Although she was only fourth in Rome in 22.48, she has a 2019 personal best of 21.74.

Meanwhile Allyson Felix, the multiple world and Olympic medallist at 200m and 400m who is in her farewell season at the age of 36, is hoping to make an emotional farewell at her home World Championships.

Last but definitively not least, Felix’s compatriot Sha’Carri Richardson will also be a serious contender if she can safely negotiate the trials, having won at last Saturday’s New York Grand Prix in 22.38.

"I want to continue to thrive – I am the sun, I am the sunshine,” said the social media sensation.

Lyles – “It’s fast! Official! It’s fast!”

The men’s 200m also has chances of being the most competitive event in Oregon, given the form of the three main home protagonists.

Erriyon Knighton, aged 18, sent convulsions through the event on 30 April as he won in Baton Rouge in 19.49 – putting him fourth on the world all-time list behind fellow US sprinter Michael Johnson, who clocked a then world record of 19.32 at the 1996 Atlanta Games; Yohan Blake of Jamaica, who ran 19.26 at the 2011 Brussels meeting; and his compatriot Usain Bolt, who set the world record of 19.19 at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin.

Less than a year after missing an Olympic 200m medal by one place in Tokyo, where he was the youngest man to represent the United States at the Games in athletics since Jim Ryun in 1964, this prodigiously talented youngster has set a dizzying pace.

Can anyone match him? Can Knighton even match himself?

Regarding the former question, the 24-year-old world champion from Florida, Noah Lyles, who was bitterly disappointed to earn only individual bronze in Tokyo, has maintained the late season flourish he produced last year in his 2022 races.

Lyles recovered his fortunes in 2021 by winning in Eugene shortly after the Games in 19.52, just shy of his personal best of 19.50. On that occasion he left in his wake the fellow US sprinter who had taken silver ahead of him in Tokyo, Kenny Bednarek.

Lyles made clear his direction of travel at last Saturday’s New York Grand Prix, where he greeted victory in 19.61 with an excited exclamation to the cameras: “It’s fast! Official! It’s fast!”

While Bednarek has not been into the territory occupied by his US rivals so far this season, he has made a very sound start, winning on his debut at the Rabat Diamond League and then improving his time to 20.01 in earning a second victory at last week’s Diamond League in Rome.

Also in the mix are two more hugely talented US athletes: Olympic 100m silver medallist Fred Kerley, who has run 19.80 this season, and Michael Norman, who finished just behind him in 19.83.

Meanwhile, Joseph Fahnbulleh of Liberia was massively impressive in bulldozering through the field after being metres behind to win the NCAA title in Eugene last Friday in 19.83. He is, in fact, the only non-US sprinter in this season’s top 12.

And the Canadians – Aaron Brown, Jerome Blake and Olympic champion Andre De Grasse – are plotting their campaigns…

Will Devon Allen quit athletics for NFL as a world champion?

Earlier this year Devon Allen announced that, at 27, he would be quitting athletics at the end of this season to take up a professional contract with National Football League side Philadelphia Eagles as a wide receiver.

Allen reached the 110m hurdles finals at the Rio and Tokyo Olympics, finishing fifth in Brazil and missing a medal by one place in Japan. But his chances of leaving the sport with a global title rocketed at last Saturday’s New York Grand Prix as he earned a stunning victory over the man who has broadly dominated the event over the past three years, fellow US star Grant Holloway.

The latter followed up his world title in 2019 by taking silver at the Tokyo Olympics and this year won world indoor gold in Belgrade with imperious ease after equalling his world record of 7.29 in the heats.

But the leggy and affable Holloway was a distant second in 13.06 as Allen romped clear on the Icahn Stadium track to win in 12.84, moving himself up to third on the world all-time list behind the 12.81 run by Holloway in Eugene last year, and the 2012 world record of 12.80 run by another US talent, Aries Merritt.

Meanwhile, Jamaica’s Hansle Parchment has shown himself to be in top form having won at the Birmingham Diamond League meeting in 13.09. All extremely fascinating…

Mu sees Hodgkinson and raises her

Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson has her sights firmly set on world 800m gold in Oregon. As does her fellow 20-year-old Athing Mu of the US, who beat her to Olympic gold in Tokyo last year. Something has to give.

Hodgkinson eschewed an almost certain 800m medal at the World Indoor Championships in March as a precaution after feeling a muscle twinge in warm-up for the final – it had to be gold or nothing for her, and she didn’t want to risk what promises to be a richly busy outdoor season.

After an impressive victory in Birmingham she travelled to the Eugene Diamond League keyed up for a pre-World Championships battle with her rival, only to find that Mu was a no-show following the after-effects of having Covid-19.

The Briton did all she could to lay down a big marker on the track where the world golds will be disputed, piling in to win in 1:57.72, the fastest time of the year.

The glove was down. And less than a fortnight later at the Rome Diamond League meeting it was firmly grasped by Mu as she answered the challenge by romping home to win in 1:57.01.

This could be one of the great races not only of Oregon, but in World Championship history – immoveable object versus irresistible force.

Big drama in the 400m hurdles

The men’s 400m hurdles event is currently adjusting to the shock of Karsten Warholm, Olympic champion and world record-holder, stuttering to a halt after clearing the first hurdle in his season’s debut at the Rabat Diamond League on 5 June and exiting with a problematic right hamstring.

In the aftermath, a sombre Warholm spoke of a “cramp”, but also of a “tear.” He and his lifelong coach Leif Olav Alnes, who have worked so hard this winter to prepare for the Norwegian’s second world title defence, now have an unexpected challenge on their hands.

Meanwhile Brazil’s 21-year-old Alison dos Santos, who followed home Warholm and Rai Benjamin of the United States in that coruscating Tokyo Olympic final, has made the best start to the season.

He beat Benjamin at the opening Diamond League meeting in Doha with a meeting record of 47.24, with the US athlete clocking 47.49 – those times being, unsurprisingly, the best of the early season. Two weeks later Dos Santos turned up on Benjamin’s home ground, winning in his absence in 47.23.

Whether the Oregon final can match the soaring quality of the Tokyo Olympic final remains to be seen – but it could equal it for drama.

While the men’s 400m hurdles has been tipped on its head so far this year, the women’s version has been a little more predictable, although equally competitive.

The Dutch Olympic bronze medallist, 22-year-old Femke Bol, produced a startling opening flourish at the World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meeting in Ostrava on May 31 as she smashed the world best for 300m hurdle, reducing it from 38.16 to 36.86.

Excitement surrounded her 400m hurdles seasonal debut at the Fanny Blankers-Koen Games in Hengelo on 6 June, and she finished two metres clear in a meeting record of 53.94.

But the day before – as it happened – USA’s Olympic champion and world record-holder Sydney McLaughlin had run 51.61, just shy of her world record of 51.46, at the Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville.

Bol returned to the fray at the Rome Diamond League, finishing way ahead in 53.02.

Meanwhile McLaughlin’s compatriot Dalilah Muhammad, the Olympic silver medallist who has a wild card to defend her world title in Oregon, has posted an early time of 53.88.

Another big race is in prospect.

Out of Africa, another medal contender

The African Championships that concluded in Mauritius on Sunday offered clear evidence of the challenge that continent will provide in Oregon.

Olympic and world bronze medallist Hugues Fabrice Zango of Burkina Faso, a champion in 2018, won gold again with a best effort of 17.34m.

World indoor bronze medallist Abel Kipsang, fourth at the Tokyo Olympics, underlined his huge potential by winning the men’s 1500m title.

Kenya's Ferdinand Omanyala, who heads this season’s world list in the men’s 100m after his 9.85 clocking in the thin air of Nairobi, added continental gold in 9.93, beating South Africa’s Commonwealth champion Akani Simbine on a photo-finish.

Gina Bass of The Gambia won the women’s 100m title in 11.06 from Aminatou Seyni of Niger, who went on to win the women’s 200m in 23.04.

Meanwhile, other potential African winners in Eugene have been making convincing cases for themselves.

Emmanuel Wanyonyi, the phenomenal 17-year-old who won the world U20 men’s 800m title on his home track of Nairobi last year, has maintained impressive momentum this season, winning in 1:44.15 in Ostrava and coolly outrunning Botswana’s 2012 Olympic silver medallist Nijel Amos at the Rabat Diamond League meeting to win in 1:45.47.

At that same meeting in the Moroccan capital, local hero Soufiane El Bakkali, whose Tokyo victory in the men’s 3000m steeplechase provided his country with its only medal from the Games, once again defeated his great Ethiopian rival Lamecha Girma in a race that nearly blew the roof off the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium.

Hayward Field is due more excitement very soon…

Mike Rowbottom for World Athletics