Here’s today’s sports quiz: who are Amantle Montsho and Kirani James?
Not a Scooby?
If you are a track stats nut, you will have answered in a tick that they are the reigning world champions at 400 metres. If you are an athletics betting follower, you’ll also know that both were huge outsiders, on offer at around 15.00 to win their respective titles before the 2011 world championships got underway in Daegu last August.
James, from Grenada, is still just 19 years old. But he is big and quick, and last year he stunned the track world by overpowering LaShawn Merritt down the home straight in the world final in Korea.
Can he repeat that on the biggest stage of all, in front of 80,000 Londoners at the Olympic Games?
The odds-setters at Unibet don’t seem to think so, as they have made Merritt the 2.25 favourite to retain the Olympic title he won in Beijing four years ago. James is second favourite, at 3.50, while all others are virtually disregarded as potential winners, with Dominican teenager Luguelin Santos, the second fastest man in the world so far this year, offered as the best of the rest for London gold at 6.00.
Merritt’s strength in the market is determined by his two stand-out runs already this season, both more than a quarter of a second quicker than any other man on the planet this year. Merritt, who is 26 on Wednesday this week, clocked his best time for three years, 44.12sec, in winning the US Olympic Trials on Sunday.
That was quicker than the American ran in getting beaten by James in the Daegu final, but it is still a long way off the 43.75 that Merritt clocked in winning Olympic gold in 2008.
Part of the reason for Merritt’s under-performance more recently was his drugs ban. He claimed he was taking a banned substance in order to increase the size of his penis (seriously). There is no information as to whether it worked; what we do know is that he was banned from the track. His suspension expired just in time for him to run at last year’s US trials.
Maybe, just maybe, his curtailed season last year left Merritt short of strength at the end of three races in four days in the sapping tropical heat of Korea. That won’t be an issue in London.
James, a former world youth and world junior champion, has a best of 44.72 so far this season, so has yet to catch the eye. His best, 44.36, was set in Zurich at the end of last season when he was buoyed by his world title success.
James was not marked out as a contender last year until an impressive Grand Prix win in London. He appears to be following a similar preparation programme this time around.
In a one-off, head-to-head battle against Merritt, the young Caribbean ought not to have a chance of adding Olympic gold to his world title. A year after his drugs ban, Merritt is a deserved favourite for the 400m. But it ought to be a great race.
If anything, the women’s 400m winner in Daegu, the Botswanan Montsho, was even more unheralded than James before she beat older, better known one-lap sprinters last year.
Weighing down her chances to match that title in London is an early season defeat in a one-off Grand Prix race in Eugene in early June against Sanya Richards-Ross, the Jamaica-born naturalised American.
Richards-Ross, like her countryman Merritt, tops the 2012 world lists with her performance on Sunday in winning the US Olympic Trials in 49.28sec. Trouble is, she has the well-earned reputation of being a choker in big finals: 2011 was the third time in four championships that she’d lost an international title in a race in which she was the hot favourite.
Two of those defeats – in the 2007 worlds and 2008 Olympics – came at the hands of Christine Ohuruogu, a tough competitor who has never run as fast as her American rival, yet seems suited to the demands of championship racing.
Richards-Ross is a skinny 1.45 to win Olympic gold and always too unreliable to back, with Montsho on offer at 3.50. Novlene Williams, of Jamaica, is third favourite at 7.50.
With the Russian and Jamaican championships to come this week, a watching brief on performances in Kingston and Moscow might be advisable before investing; the Russians could be the biggest threat in this event.
Sports betting is no place for fairy tale endings, so just because 15.00 shot Ohuruogu’s Newham home is in sight of the London Olympic Stadium, there is no reason to believe she can retain the crown she seized in Beijing. But having seen her strong performance in winning the British title in Birmingham on Sunday – after a week of very heavy training backing the Londoner at 2.75 to win a medal might be a shrewd ante-post touch.