In 116 years, only one Welshman has ever won an Olympic gold medal in track and field. In London in 2012, the odds look stacked against Dai Greene changing that fact.
Greene was one of the shocks of the Daegu world championships last year, snatching the 400 metres title when he outlasted his rivals down the home straight, ultimately winning by a comfortable one-fifth of a second from Javier Culson. Ante-post, Greene, the European champion, had been on offer with some bookmakers as big as 15.0.
Fast-forward 10 months, and in the past fortnight, Greene has been racing faster than ever before, in Paris and then at Crystal Palace, recording two of his fastest three times of his life. In Paris, Greene went under 48sec for only the second time in his career. And yet in both those recent races, he could not get within a metre of Culson.
The basic fact is that the Puerto Rican is faster than Greene: 45.99sec (this year) for 400 on the flat to the Welshman’s 45.82; or 47.72 to 47.84. But that’s in one-off races. When Greene won in the Daegu final, he did so with 48.26 as Colson trailed home in 48.44.
What won the world title for Greene last year was his inner toughness and strength. The Daegu final, the third race in four days for the eight finalists, was staged in sauna-like heat and humidity, and saw seven weary men battle their way to the line. It was Greene alone who seemed capable of powering over the final barrier to the line.
And it is in the prospect of draining heats and finals in which Greene’s supporters clasp their last Olympic hope. The London timetable for the 400m hurdlers is identical to Daegu, with a day’s rest after the semis before the final on August 5. What will not be the same in London is the climate.
Culson seems set to disappoint the flag-waving British crowd. Home advantage can only achieve so much. The Puerto Rican has beaten Greene in all four of their meetings since the Daegu final.
The two world leaders are some way ahead of their rivals, with 2012 third-ranked Bershawn Jackson not even managing to make it on to the American team. Little wonder he trashed the Mixed Zone at Crystal Palace last Friday after he was disqualified for a false start. Michael Tinsley, the winner of the US Olympic trials, has not beaten Culson since 2009.
In a similar style to the men, the women’s 400 metres hurdles – which has its final on August 8 – had all the appearance of another two-horse race - at least until last weekend.
So confident are the Russians in the ability of Natalya Antyukh to win the Olympic gold medal at age 31, that they packed off their second-string, Irina Davydova, to Helsinki last month to claim the European title, leaving the 2011 world bronze medal-winner to take the Russian title where she set a world-leading 53.40, improving her season’s best going into that meeting by more than 1sec. And then along came Perri Shakes-Drayton to shake things up.
The former European under-23 champion stunned Davydova at Crystal Palace on Friday, clocking a lifetime best 53.77, almost two seconds better than the Briton had managed previously in an injury disrupted season.
This backed her 51.26sec PB for 400m flat run earlier in the season, indicating an athlete on an up-curve. The health warning with Londoner Shakes-Drayton, who will be looking for a medal in front of her home crowd, is the manner in which she under-performed at the world championships last year, off the back of a similarly impressive run in her final warm-up meeting.
For that reason, while form suggests that Shakes-Drayton has the beating of Davydova, it might be too big an ask to see her beating Antyukh.
All that said, on the matter of inconsistency, even Antyukh has not exactly been pulling up trees in her races before this month: a 55.83sec seventh place finish in the Golden Gala in Rome in May was hardly gold medal form. The only other woman to have run under 54sec this season is Lashinda Demus, the winner at the US trials and the 2011 world champion.
With a 6-1 win record over Antyukh, who placed third in the Daegu final last year, Demus is a deserved ante-post favourite. Her consistency in big races – she has world silvers from 2005 and 2009, too, is particularly reassuring for the punter. And in 2012, unlike four years earlier, she has managed to survive the cauldron of the US Olympic Trials and actually made the team.
Two others who may figure in the mix in the London final are the Jamaicans, Kaliese Spencer and the Daegu silver medal-winner, Melaine [COR] Walker.
Walker’s form this season has hardly done anything to deserve your support: she was eighth, behind even Antyukh, in Rome in May; and last Friday, she was long way back fourth behind Shakes-Drayton and Davydova. 54.62sec is not medal-winning form.
Spencer got herself a Diamond League win in Rome, but has been getting slower through the rest of the season, though she did manage to place third in London. But both she and Walker will need to show radical improvement in the heats in London to draw any support.