Previews16 May 2024

McLaughlin-Levrone, Hassan and Cheptegei among stars in Los Angeles


USA's Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone (© Getty Images)

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone is always expected to be seen on the biggest stages in athletics. Yet outside of global championships, that is not a common occurrence as she and her coach, Bobby Kersee, carefully select when, where and why she competes. That rarity is why the USATF Los Angeles Grand Prix, held on Friday (17) and Saturday (18) at UCLA’s Drake Stadium, is so notable.

McLaughlin-Levrone, the record-shattering Olympic and 2022 world gold medallist in the 400m hurdles, will run on Saturday at the World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meeting. It will mark McLaughlin-Levrone’s second individual competition of the season, as she joins a number of other stars in beginning to ramp up toward qualifying for the Paris Olympics. 

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As a way to test her speed, she will be racing a different distance than is typical – and she is far from guaranteed to leave with a victory. Even amid a meeting where star power includes fellow Olympic gold medallists such as Sifan Hassan and Joshua Cheptegei, the intrigue will centre on McLaughlin-Levrone.

Prior to her season opener in April, the 24-year-old had not competed since last July’s USA Championships because of an injury that led her to withdraw from the World Championships in Budapest. Her success in 2023 switching to the 400m – her 48.74 PB putting her at No.10 all time – has opened the possibilities for her upcoming season, including the Olympics. 

At the Los Angeles Grand Prix, at least, her intent is clear: McLaughlin-Levrone will race the 200m. She joins a decorated field that includes Gabby Thomas, Abby Steiner and Jenna Prandini. The competition comes two weeks after McLaughlin-Levrone clocked a wind-assisted 22.38 (2.9m/s) at the Occidental Invitational, as well as 12.71 in the 100m hurdles. The 200m in Los Angeles will be highly anticipated because of how rarely she overlaps with Thomas, who won bronze in the event at the Tokyo Olympics and silver at last year’s World Championships. 

The race will be Thomas’s second of the hour. Only 20 minutes before the 200m start, she will run the 100m in a field including Marie-Josee Ta Lou-Smith and Twanisha Terry. Letsile Tebogo will run his first 100m of the season to headline the men’s sprint, with Kenny Bednarek – fresh off his world-leading 19.67 in the 200m at Doha – and Ackeem Blake representing his top challengers.

In the women’s 400m, world champion Marileidy Paulino will go up against world 800m gold medallist Mary Moraa. Paulino opened her Diamond League title defence at April’s stops in Xiamen and Suzhou, running 50.08 in Xiamen. Moraa, meanwhile, opened her season in March by running 50.57, and has since captured the Doha title at 800m.

While McLaughlin-Levrone races the 200m, the 400m hurdles in Los Angeles features her predecessor as world record-holder – Dalilah Muhammad – plus Anna Cockrell.

Distance night

The meeting begins on Friday with a distance festival headlined by a deep men’s 5000m that is expected to be paced to go well under the Olympic standard of 13:05, and features several competitors who have regularly dipped into sub-13 territory. Cheptegei, the Ugandan Tokyo Olympics champion, three-time world champion and world record-holder, will make his season debut on the track. His competition will include Selemon Barega, the Tokyo Olympics gold medallist at 10,000m, as well as Jacob Kiplimo, Edwin Kurgat, Cooper Teare, Mo Ahmed, Cole Hocker and Abdihamid Nur. Barega, Nur, Kurgat, Ahmed and Kiplimo have already reached the Olympic standard.

Top US athletes dominate the fields of the pole vault. Two-time world indoor champion Sandi Morris leads the women’s competition on Friday, with KC Lightfoot and Sam Kendricks – the No.4 and No.5 all time vaulters – joining Chris Nilsen in the men’s field on Saturday. 

This meeting was the site of Ryan Crouser’s world record in the men’s shot put last year, when his heave stretched the physical limits of the landing area. Though Crouser is not in the field this year, a showdown could still be expected between two-time world champion Joe Kovacs and 2017 world gold medallist Tom Walsh, as they attempt to eclipse Leonardo Fabbri’s world-leading mark of 22.95m. Kovacs owns the third-farthest throw this season of 22.01m.

Though Hassan, the Tokyo Olympics gold medallist at 5000m and 10,000m, had initially been scheduled to contest the 5000m, she will run her first 1500m of the season in the meeting’s final event in a showdown against Diribe Welteji, the world silver medallist in Budapest last year, with Elise Cranny and Kate Snowden also in the running. The race comes only six days after Hassan ran 14:58 unchallenged, essentially all by herself, in a 5000m at Occidental College in Los Angeles in what was her first race since the Tokyo Marathon. 

The men’s 1500m includes members of distance running’s old guard and emerging talents. Matthew Centrowitz, the Rio Olympic 1500m gold medallist, said in March this will be his last season. In this race he will face 17-year-old Cameron Myers, who ran 3:33 in February, and 19-year-old Reynold Cheruiyot, whose already owns a personal best of 3:30.30 from last year. Also entered is Ollie Hoare, who has run sub-3:30.

The men’s 400 will see Michael Norman return to a familiar discipline after he focused last year on the 100m, only for his season to be shortened by injury. Norman, the 2022 world champion at 400m, will face Kirani James and Vernon Norwood.

Andrew Greif for World Athletics