Omar McLeod takes a narrow win in Shanghai (© Errol Anderson/Jiro Mochizuki)
The tenth anniversary season of the IAAF Diamond League continues with the Diamond League Shanghai meeting on Saturday (18) whose programme includes a slew of tantalising head-to-heads that just may define much of the 2019 season in the run up to the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.
The most anticipated race on the slate is one the world's been waiting on for nearly a year: the first 400m hurdles head-to-head between Abderrahman Samba of Qatar and Rai Benjamin of the US, two of the four fastest men of all time in the event.
Samba lowered the Asian record to 46.98 last year to become the second fastest man in history; Benjamin clocked 47.02 to tie all-time legend Edwin Moses in the No3 spot.
Samba's already gotten off to a sensational start, winning the Asian title in 47.51 just over three weeks ago. Benjamin has shown good form as well, clocking 44.31 in his 400m season opener on 20 April.
Another is the is the 100m match-up between two of last year's three fastest men, Diamond League 100m champion Christian Coleman and Noah Lyles, the series' 200m winner.
Coleman battled back from mid-season injuries to cap his 2018 season with a 9.79 lifetime best in Brussels and will be in action for the first time since. In Coleman's absence, Lyles captured the US title last June, clocking a 9.88 career best to illustrate his ambitions of successfully venturing beyond his favoured 200m distance.
But behind them, the field is loaded. Local hopes rest on the shoulders of Su Bingtian, the co-Asian record holder at 9.91, and Xie Zhenye, who improved to 9.97 last year. In all, five of the top six ranked 100m athletes are in the field, and seven of the top 10 including African champion Akani Simbine of South Africa and Briton Reece Prescod, the winner here last year.
Diamond points chase resumes
Samba and Lyles were two of the dominant figures in Diamond League action in 2018, the second season in which the 14-meeting series utilised its successful championship-style model, a format that continues in 2019.
How does it work?
Athletes earn points in the first 12 stops to earn qualification for the two final winner-takes-all meetings to be held in Zurich (29 Aug) and Brussels (6 Sep). As part of the overall US$8 million in prize money available across the series, the finals offer a prize purse of US$3.2 million, with $100,000 at stake in each of the 32 Diamond disciplines. Each discipline winner collects $50,000, a stunning Diamond Trophy, the title of IAAF Diamond League Champion, and this year, a wild card entry to the World Championships that begins three weeks after the final in Brussels.
The attention in the women's 100m will focus on double Olympic champion Elaine Thompson who's back in action in her specialty after a sub par 2018 campaign. The Jamaican knows the Shanghai Stadium track well, winning here in 2017 after flying to an impressive 10.78 performance. Keep an eye on Aleia Hobbs, the 2018 NCAA champion, who has already notched seven sub-11 performances (she clocked her 10.85 personal best in 2017). She'll be making her Diamond League debut on the mend from a broken wrist sustained about a month ago.
Naser vs McLaughlin in the 400m flat
The programme also includes a pair of hot 400m races.
The favourite in the women's is Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain who returns to action after a four medal haul at the Asian Championships, three of them gold. The 2018 Diamond League and Continental Cup champion improved to 49.08 last season, losing just once in 11 races over the distance.
She'll take on teenaged 400m hurdles phenom Sydney McLaughlin who will also be making her eagerly anticipated Diamond League debut. A year ago the rising US star clocked 50.07 in the flat 400m. Meanwhile, Justyna Swiety-Ersetic arrives after a sensational anchor leg for the victorious Polish squad at last weekend's IAAF World Relays Yokohama 2019.
The men's features 2018 Diamond League winner Fred Kerley of the US and Bahamian Steven Gardiner, who improved to 43.87 last year.
Kejelcha vs Barega vs Chelimo vs Cheptegei in men’s 5000 showdown
In the middle distances, the men's 5000m field is especially loaded, headed by Ethiopia’s reigning world indoor Yomif Kejelcha and Selemon Barega who clocked a sensational 12:43.02 in Brussels last year to move up to No4 all-time - at age 18. Olympic medallist Paul Chelimo of the US is also expected in the mix along with Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei, the recently crowned world cross country champion.
No runners on the contemporary scene can match the astounding range that Sifan Hassan has illustrated in recent years. On 21 July 2017 she clocked 1:56.81 for 800m; 14 months later she broke the European record for the half marathon clocking 1:05:15.
Here the 27-year-old Dutch star will contest the 1500m, an event in which she boasts a 3:56.05 personal best. African champion Winny Chebet of Kenya and Ethiopians Dawit Seyaum and Gudaf Tsegay, medallists at recent World Indoor Championships, are also in the field.
In the women's steeplechase, all eyes will be on Beatrice Chepkoech whose sensational 8:44.32 world record run last season seemingly blasted that mark out of everyone's reach - except perhaps her own. The 27-year-old Kenyan has exhibited good form, clocking a near-PB 8:29.83 over 3000m at the Diamond League opener in Doha.
On paper, Ugandan Peruth Chemutai and Winfred Mutile Yavi, with career bests of 9:07.94 and 9:10.74, respectively, are closest. Yavi, still only 19, took a steeplechase/5000m double win at the Asian Championships last month and was also third in a tactical 1500m final.
The men's 110m hurdles features the first meeting of the year between Omar McLeod, the world and Olympic champion, and Sergey Shubenkov, the Diamond League and Continental Cup champion last year. McLeod has clocked 13.29 this season while Shubenkov will be making his season's debut, as will Spain's Orlando Ortega, the 2016 Olympic bronze medallist, and Milan Trajkovic of Cyprus, the European indoor champion. The fastest man in the field thus far this season is China's Xie Wenjun, who clocked 13.21 to take the Asian title last month.
Stefanidi vs Morris rivalry resumes
Most of the world's best women's pole vaulters have assembled here in the world's second largest city in a field led by world and Olympic champion Katerina Stefanidi and Sandi Morris, the world indoor champion, who resume their rivalry. Lifetime, Stefanidi has a 21-14 advantage including four of their last five face-offs. Morris opened her season with a 4.76m effort at the Drake Relays while Stefanidi will be making her outdoor debut.
Home heroines Gong and Lyu in the spotlight
In the women's shot put, world and Diamond League champion Gong Lijao will put her 17-meeting unbeaten streak on the line. The 30-year-old Chinese star has reached 19.18m this season but that's not the best in the field this season. Topping the world lists at the moment is emerging US star Chase Ealey who threw 19.67m in Albuquerque early last month and is unbeaten in eight competitions this year. Watch out for Danniel Thomas-Dodd, the world indoor bronze medallist last year who extended her own Jamaican record to 19.48m this season, the second best put in the world this season.
China's Lyu Huihui is the current class of the women's javelin throw. The two-time World Championships medallist extended her own Asian record to 67.72m already this season, the farthest throw in the world this year. She's defending her Shanghai title against the likes of Germany’s European champion Christin Hussong, 2016 Olympic silver medallist Sunette Viljoen of South Africa and Czech Nikola Ogrodnikova, the European silver medallist.
The men's field features the season's debuts of most of the event's leading names, headed by Germany Olympic champion Thomas Rohler. His compatriot Andreas Hofmann, who threw 92.06m last year, Asian record holder Cheng Chao-Tsun (91.36m) of Chinese Taipei and 2015 world champion Julius Yego of Kenya also figure prominently.
Ghazal riding solid momentum
In the men's high jump, Majd Eddin Ghazal of Syria tops the form chart at the moment, courtesy of his 2.31m clearance at the Asian Championships last month. He ended that competition with a pair of strong attempts at 2.35m and a near-miss at a would-be 2.37m lifetime best.
But most in the field will be making their season's debuts including Diamond League champion Brandon Starc of Australia. Notable too is that the competition features the return of Ukraine's Bohdan Bondarenko, the 2014 world champions and 2016 Olympic bronze medallist who was sidelined with injury all of 2018.
In the long jump, South Africans figure prominently. Luvo Manyonga has competed well here, reaching 8.61m in 2017 to break the Diamond League record. He's jumped 8.35m this season which compatriot Ruswahl Samaai, the African champion, has reached 8.21m. Jamaican Tajay Gayle, who improved to 8.30m two weeks ago, is another man to watch.
The programme also includes a non-scoring men's 200 which features Canadians Andre de Grasse and Aaron Brown and Alonso Edward of Panama. World champion Ramil Guliyev of Turkey was originally on the slate but arrived in Shanghai with a worsening chest cold and said today he'll most likely withdraw.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF