lunes, 14 de noviembre de 2011

With eight months to go, 4x400 qualified Teams for London nearly Decided

LaShawn Merritt anchors the 4x400 US team to gold in Daegu
Photo: AP/ Anja Niedringhaus

         After the brilliant performances achieved by Cuban, Dominican and Venezuelan teams, all of them under 3:01.00 at the recent Pan American Games, the 16 squads which are going to compete next year at the 4x400 relay event for London Olympic Games are almost decided, with still 8 months and a half to go.   
         The 2010 season was a quite remarkable one. Firstly, it was one of the best in history from the statistical point of view, with no less than 15 nations dipping under 3:02.00. (1) Secondly, the United States, overwhelming dominator of the event for decades, struggled to defend their title. Jamaica and South Africa were keeping the lead until the final homestretch, where the reappeared LaShawn Merritt, in a class of his own, could fix the weak performance of some of his teammates, overcoming Leford Green and L.J. Van Zyl. (1) As an indication, The US 4x400 relay has not been beaten on the track in a World Championship (not counting disqualifications, because of Antonio Pettigrew’s drug use confession, years afterwards) since Tokyo’s 1991 edition, were they lost narrowly to Great Britain.  At the Olympics, the streak dates back to 1972 in Munich, where Kenya accomplished a sensational victory.  Equally outstanding is their stranglehold at the single event, with two straight clean sweeps of the medals at the last two Olympics Games. The last man who could defeat the United States quarter milers was Cuban prodigy Alberto Juantorena, as far as Montreal 1976. 
         Notwithstanding, this year we have assisted to the rising to stardom of Grenadian Kirani James, new world champion at 19, and we have also witnessed how the United States have failed to produce a convincing squad for Daegu.  Jeremy Wariner has not been the same since Merritt had the better of him at Beijing Olympics and lost his number one status. Then the revelation of the year Tony McQuay, who had sensationally won the national trials, was far from his best fitness, after a long NCAA season. Finally, Greg Nixon and Jamaal Torrance were also unable to advance to the finals. Only, the defending champion, LaShawn Merritt, who had been back to competition only one month before the worlds after his doping hiatus, could save the honour of his country.
After seeing their weak performance at the single 400 metres, the head coach dropped McQuay and Torrance for the relay final, having to ask the help of experienced intermediate hurdlers Bershawn Jackson and Angelo Taylor, who besides had not done better than 6th and 7th at their specialist event. Also was dropped Mike Berry, who had run 44.0 in his semi-final leg; a decision which was proved wrong.  Still, the USA struck narrowly the gold medal, but they did it scoring the worst clocking for a winning team since the USSR won the inaugural edition of the championships in 1983. Their 2:59.31 would had earned them just a 5th place at last Olympic Games and was just 12 hundredths of a second better than the mark Cuba (absent in Daegu) achieved at the Pan Ams.  
Specially one team was supposed to have the talent to enjoy this opportunity to produce a major upset: the Bahamas. Yet, the 2001 world champions and current Olympic silver medallists, failed for the second time in a row in reaching a major final. They had been disqualified in Berlin and, this time around in Daegu, the team who had won gold in Mayagüez at the Central American Championships, was good enough just for 4th in their heat. Bahamas’ best two 400 meter specialists of the moment, Chris Brown and Demetrius Pinder, had been reserved, taking for granted they would qualify for the final. Yet the competition had a deepest field than expected and, otherwise, veteran Avard Moncur, Andrae and Latoy Williams had not run under 46 seconds in the whole season. Hopefully, they will not repeat the same wrong in London, where they should be a strong contender for the medals.
Two other squads which disappointed in Daegu were the United Kingdom and Australia, the respective silver and bronze medallists at the precedent edition. The latter team did not even reach the final and the former just finished in a poor 7th place. Yet their members were far from their Berlin fitness.  For the Aussies, 18-year-old Steven Solomon were the big news, winning the national championships in a remarkable 45.58, but Tristan Thomas was just back from injury and Sean Wroe and Ben Offereins had a week season. For the British, as strange as it could sound in a country with so many accomplished 400 runners (Rooney, Bingham, Steel, Buck, Tobin, Strachan, Lennon-Ford, Levine, Clarke…) nobody was able of achieving the A standard for Daegu. Martyn Rooney recognised he had wrongly focused too much his training in speed; the European silver medallist Michael Bingham had a year to forget and so on.  

Oscar Pistorius passes the baton to Ofentse Mogawane at the 4x400 heats
in Daegu World Championships
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Asia Pac
On the other hand, the most grateful surprise of the championships was South Africa, a team which rarely had went through the heats before. This time they must devoted in preparing consciously their relay for the upcoming challenges, because their sprinters of the 4x100 won at the Universiade and their quarter milers ended the summer with a stunning silver medal in Daegu.  South Africa had traditionally been a country of excellent hurdlers but now they have a bunch of awesome specialists at the dash event too: Louis Van Zyl (44.86 this year), Oscar Pistorius (45.07), Lebogang Moen (45.47), Ofentse Mogawane (45.59), Willie de Beer (45.68)… Nevertheless, there was a huge controversy, when double amputee Oscar Pistorius was left out of the final, despite reaching the semi-finals at the single event and being the man with the second best mark of the team for the season. South Africa’s delegate stated it was due to technical reasons and Van Zyl said, more precisely, he had done the slowest split of the team in the heats, what was proved not true. (3) Pistorius, who had not been named either for the team who achieved the standard for Daegu, seems an embarrassing case for his country.   
Jamaica was back to the medals in a world championship, thanks to the stunning second leg ran by Jermaine Gonzales, a 4th placer some days before at the single event, despite fighting injuries throughout the season. The Caribbean country can count now also with solid runners as Central American hurdler titleholder Leford Green and rising star national champion Riker Hylton. With the addition of the now injured Ricardo Chambers (44.54 PB last year) they will be fighting for a medal again in London.
This year 16 out of 19 quarter milers who have dipped under 45 seconds are American, 10 of them from Caribbean countries, which keep being the powerhouse in the event.  Besides Jamaica and the Bahamas, four other nations in the Area are likely to be represented in London: Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Venezuela. The former country achieved their seasonal best at the Central American Championships, where they finished in runner-up position. Berlin bronze medallist Rennie Quow had a difficult year and so did Jehue Gordon, the other former World junior champion. With both fitted for the Olympics, and two other young runners as Lalonde Gordon and Zwede Hewitt (both 45.51 this season), they have the potential to challenge the best.

Cuba's 4x400 relay leads Venezuela at 2011 Pan American Games

Cuba, Dominican Republic and Venezuela probably booked their London ticket at last Pan American Games, helped by the altitude of Guadalajara. Cuba’s outstanding performance under 3 minutes was built up with the contribution of William Collazo, one of the most consistent 400 runners in the region, Noel Ruiz and hurdler Omar Cisneros, who had dipped under 48 seconds for the first time in his career some days before. London Games will probably be the last ones for living legend Félix Sánchez and he will try to grab a last medal for his outstanding curriculum.  Now they can add for the Dominican squad, to the classic members Arismendy Peguero and Yoel Tapia, youth Olympic champion Luguelín Santos, who has already improved the national senior record (44.71), when he finished a surprising second in Guadalajara, after Nery Brenes. Finally Venezuelan’s is the team with the biggest progression in the Caribbean region.  Their most accomplished athlete is Omar Longart, an Area champion in youth and junior categories.    
     Another country which 4x400 relay team has had a huge progression in recent years is Kenya.  While distance running has grown in the country so much, other specialties where Kenya used to excel in the past, as sprint events, had been neglected. The East African nation had struck a stunning silver medal at the 4x400 event at the Olympic Games held in Mexico in 1968, in a team where Daniel Rudisha, the father of the current 800 metres world champion, was featuring. Then they improved to gold four years afterwards. The squad kept a high level in the 80s and early 90s: Samson Kitur medalled at both Olympic Games (1992) and World championships (1993). In the latter occasion, a second place in the relay was also achieved, besides three finalists at the single event.
Kenya’s officials pointed out they wanted to win medals in something more than distance running at the 2010 African championships held at home, and put the means for it. As consequence a visible improvement in short and long sprints was attained and even lately, the nation has had a javelin throw champion at last African Games in Maputo. The 4x400 squad has dominated easily in both Nairobi and Maputo contests, has achieved a bronze medal at Delhi Commonwealth Games, and ultimately has qualified, many years afterwards, for a World championship final in Daegu, leaving out favourites Bahamas, Poland and Australia.  No big individualities are in the team currently but Anderson Mutegi, Vincent Kosgei, Vincent Mumo and Mark Mutai are all of them quite solid runners, and who knows if the great David Rudisha is going to join them for London.     

In the Old Continent, the most accomplished squads right now are Russia and Belgium. The latter has the astonishing Borlée brothers, the only athletes who dare to challenge currently the American supremacy at the 400 metres discipline. At team level Belgium has been in every major final since Beijing Olympics, medalling at last European and World indoor championships. However, since Van Branteghem retired, the team lacks two other members comparable to the two leaders in order to be able of targetting a big victory. Ghislain, Duerinck or Gillet can not hold the game well enough as was evident in Daegu.
On the other hand, Russia do not have any world beater but count with many consistent runners for the relay as Alekseyev, Trenikhin, Krasnov or Dyldin, so they could beat Belgium and Great Britain in Barcelona and carried the last two European team championship gold medals too. Poland and Germany are two other squads who do not have any man under 45 seconds (their best this year are Marciniszyn with 45.27 and Schneider with 45.56 respectively) but know how to handle a relay when it matters most. Both of them will be in London aiming for a place in the final. Finally France was impressive at last European indoors held at Paris, which they won, but without their main star Leslie Djhone, injured for the summer season, their potential has diminished considerably.

Belgian, Kenyan and Russian teams, anchored by Kevin Borlée, Mark Mutai and Denis Alekseyev respectively, qualify for the 4x400 relay final at Daegu World Championships
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Asia Pac
        Japan is the nation which currently holds the 16th and last qualifying spot in the aggregate of its best two times of 2011.  The Asian champion places no less than 11 athletes into the yearly lists top-100 at the 400 hurdles but only two, Yuzo Kanemaru (27th) and Hideyuki Hirose (91st) at the dash event. Their average time in the aggregate for London is 3:03.68, but Australia, not in the 16th best list, owns a 3:01.56 from Daegu and is likely to improve on the Japanese clocking next year. A further progression is also expected from France, so right now the time to beat might be the 3:02.75 of Venezuela. For Beijing Olympics the last qualifying team had been South Africa with an average of 3:04.12 for its aggregate time. So we can see how the event has risen up its standards.
 Not many squads have the potential to aim for this 3:02.75 average time and there are not many occasions to achieve it: mainly Penn Relays, Helsinki European Championships, Benin African Championships and the three Asian Grand Prix meetings.  Saudi Arabia won in 2010 the Asian Games in a 3:02.30 national record but this season they are really far from it.  In Europe, the only other team who has run under 3:04 this year is Turkey. Besides Kenya, two other African nations, Nigeria and Botswana have been traditionally present at major championships, the former even achieving medals. They have not done better than 3:04+ marks in 2011 but are going to try hard next year, as Botswana did in 2008, when they even travelled to the Asian Grand Prix in Hanoi, the last qualifying meeting for Beijing.  In America, Puerto Rico and specially Grenada have some chances of making the trip to London.  There are not big championships in the area next year but Kirani James and Rondell Bartholomew’s country can be invited to the Penn Relays as they were in 2011, but they need two other world class runners to achieve twice this highly challenging 3:02.75.  Anyway, it would be a great show to see the two Grenadian aces competing in London also at the 4x400 meter relay.   

1United States2:58,822:59,315:58,132:59,06
2South Africa2:59,212:59,875:59,082:59,54
6Great Britain3:00,383:01,166:01,543:00,77
11Trinidad and Tobago3:01,653:02,476:04,123:02,06
12Dominican Republic3:00,443:04,106:04,543:02,27

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