Men's 110m hurdles
Merritt or Richardson? It’s a tough task trying to pick the likely winner of the men’s high hurdles at the London Olympics. Aries Merritt, the world indoor champion at 60 metres hurdles will go head-to-head with his US team mate, Jason Richardson, the 2011 110 metres hurdles world champion.
Merritt is the fastest in the world this year, having clocked 12.93sec to beat Richardson at the US Olympic trials. Merritt repeated that time at the London Diamond League, and on that form looks the one to back. He's available at 2.15 to take Olympic gold.
There’s mystery and intrigue surrounding the fitness and form of the last two Olympic gold medallists, meanwhile. After looking smooth in the heats at Crystal Palace, the 2004 champion Liu Xiang, now 29, pulled out of the final, citing a back strain. Clearly, this is not the greatest injury to get weeks out of an Olympic Games when you’re expected to hurtle over 10 hurdles at top speed.
Xiang ran 12.87sec early in the season, which equalled the fastest ever seen, but could not count as a world record because of a favourable following wind. So there’s no question that the tall Chinese is back to the sort of form that won him the Olympic title - and China’s first ever male track and field gold - in Athens.
Before his race at the London Diamond League, there’d been not a hint of any problem. "This will be my last race before the Olympics so I will be looking for a very strong performance. The London Diamond League will be the perfect race for me to complete my preparation," Xiang said, via a translator. But now Xiang has quit Britain, saying it is too cold and wet, and has gone to train in Leverkusen in Germany until the Games. He's second favourite at 2.65 for Olympic glory.
Xiang got the silver medal at last year’s world championships in Daegu despite finishing third. Both he and Richardson were promoted following an appeal by the China team that led to the disqualification of Cuba’s world record-holder, Dayron Robles, for “interference” with the Chinese athlete during the race. The athletes almost seemed to hold hands at one point in the race, as their hurdling techniques drew each other together.
That ruling was tough on Robles, who has got to be the fastest flat-footed runner the world has ever seen. The Cuban, who became the successor to Xiang as Olympic champion in 2008, now has further incentive to reclaim his rating as the world’s top sprint hurdler.
Robles is still only 25 – younger than both his American rivals - but his form this season is virtually non-existant: a couple of modest performances just inside 13.20, but nothing since May. Reports from Havana suggest injury problems have curtailed his season, and follow on from problems with his thigh and a groin injury which affected him in 2009 and 2010. Robles had planned to compete in Monaco. His absence from the meet was not a positive sign, and his price of 11.00 reflects that he may be hard pushed to challenge in London.
Women's 100m hurdles
What went wrong with Sally Pearson at the Crystal Palace Diamond League? The shortest of short-odds favourites for Olympic gold suffered her first defeat in 33 completed hurdles races, something which is bound to plant a seed of doubt in the mind of the Melbourne woman and anyone who backed her at odds on.
She blamed the blip on a fall during her warm up, but that tumble itself suggested that things are not right with the Australian’s crucial first few strides out of the blocks. Without another high-profile race between now and the Games, Pearson has her work cut out on the training track just to erase any shadow of doubt from her mind, but is still 1.55 favourite for Olympic gold.
It was another miserable evening in London, but Pearson seemed to lack her familiar zip after the fifth and sixth barriers. She looked below par in the heats, too. The race was one of the better fields at the meeting, a genuine form guide for the Olympics, and so Kellie Wells, the victor in that meet, has marked herself out as the best of the rest.
It was only the third time that the American had turned over Pearson in five years – and one of those earlier occasions saw Pearson tumble when chasing world record dollars in Brussels at the end of last season. Wells is at 3.75 to come out on top in London.
What was particularly stunning about the result was the contrast with Pearson’s 12.40sec performance in winning in Paris the previous weekend. Pearson has five of the eight fastest performances of the year, and she’s more than 0.1sec quicker than her closest rival on paper, Brigitte Foster-Hylton (15.00 for the title at the Olympics).
The veteran Jamaican No1, now 37, was also disappointing on Saturday. She looked a long way shy of the form that saw her clock 12.51sec in May and allowed her to win at the Doha Diamond League. That performance was so early on in the season, it may even be disregarded when we assess her form.
Meanwhile, Tiffany Porter, the so-called 'plastic Brit', might not even make it to the start line for the heats at the Olympics, after pulling up in tears at the Palace. It would take a brave punter to back her, even at 25.00.