Shericka Jackson, Gabby Thomas and Dina Asher-Smith (© Getty Images)
Many of the world’s best athletes – including eight reigning individual Olympic champions – will look to make a statement when rivalries renew at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Birmingham on Saturday (21).
British record-holder Dina Asher-Smith stars in a stacked women’s 100m field, while top-class clashes abound in the field and elsewhere on the track during a busy afternoon of action at Birmingham’s newly renovated Alexander Stadium, venue for Commonwealth Games athletics competition later this year.
After an injury-affected 2021, world 200m champion Asher-Smith is back on track and has the opportunity this year to target a defence of her global crown at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 in July as well as her European 100m, 200m and 4x100m titles in Munich and Commonwealth 4x100m gold in Birmingham in August.
Despite the setbacks, the 26-year-old still managed to form part of Britain's bronze medal-winning 4x100m team at the Olympics in Tokyo and secured top three finishes in both the 100m and 200m at the Diamond League final in Zurich.
She finished third in the 200m at the opening Diamond League meeting of the season in Doha and in Birmingham will race her first 100m since September’s Diamond League final.
"Last year was full of emotional ups and downs, but I think I’m a stronger athlete now because of it,” said the 2019 Diamond League 100m champion.
“I was in great shape early in the season and I was heartbroken not to be able to compete to my full potential in Tokyo, but I was also incredibly proud to come home with a relay medal and to finish my year so strongly. That’s behind me now, and my focus is on the busy summer ahead. I’m looking forward to returning to Birmingham for the first time since 2019 and to kickstart my season the best possible way – happy and with great home support."
It's set to be a thrilling return, too, as she takes on a top line-up on home soil. Leading the challenge are Olympic 200m bronze medallist Gabby Thomas, Olympic 100m bronze medallist Shericka Jackson, European indoor 60m champion Ajla Del Ponte, double NCAA champion Cambrea Sturgis and Olympic relay bronze medallist Daryll Neita.
It was Thomas who triumphed at the Diamond League season opener in Doha, running 21.98 to win ahead of Jamaica’s Jackson and Asher-Smith. The US champion’s 100m races so far this season have mostly all been hit by strong winds, from an 11.49 run into a -5.2m/s headwind in Bermuda to a wind-assisted 10.80 (3.2m/s) in Texas.
"I am looking to break 11 seconds," said Thomas, who ran her PB of exactly 11 seconds at last year's US Olympic Trials and has equalled that mark this season. "I would like to get a wind-legal 10-second 100m in at some point so hopefully, if the weather allows it, I think this is a perfect place to do it.
"There’s really great competition here, the stadium looks beautiful, I know the energy is going to be amazing and I am feeling very fit and sharp. Coming off of my race in Doha, I think I am in a good headspace and position to do it."
Asked at the pre-event press conference if she feels in the best shape of her life, she replied: "Actually, yes. I am building off of Tokyo really well and right before Tokyo I had moved to a new coach and a new training group. That was the most fit I have ever been in my life and I am just building off of that, so I still feel really fit and my season is showing it.
"I am running times that I have never run at this point in the season before, so I am really excited."
Her compatriot Sturgis, meanwhile, is also in great form and has already run a PB this season, clocking 10.87 last month in North Carolina for a time that puts her third on this year’s top list, while the versatile Jackson has run 11.00 into a -1.8m/s headwind this year.
Jamaica's Elaine Thompson-Herah had been due to join them in Birmingham but on Thursday the five-time Olympic gold medallist was announced as a withdrawal after she experienced some discomfort in training.
The world athlete of the year had a remarkable 2021, winning an Olympic 100m, 200m and 4x100m treble in Tokyo and becoming the second-fastest woman of all time in the two individual events by running 10.54 for 100m and 21.53 for 200m. Her compatriot Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the three-time Olympic and nine-time world gold medallist, also ran 10.60 for 100m last year, while Thomas clocked 21.61 for 200m.
Could Florence Griffith-Joyner's world records of 10.49 and 21.34 be under threat?
"We shouldn't put limits on ourselves," Asher-Smith replied at the pre-event press conference. "When you stop thinking about limits and you really focus on the processes, who knows what can be achieved? Everything seems impossible until it's done."
Could she break a world record?
"Who knows!" Asher-Smith said. "Crazier things have been done and nothing is impossible. I am just excited to put together some good races."
Like in the women's race in Birmingham, global champions also feature in the men’s 100m field. As well as his 200m win in Tokyo, Canada’s Andre De Grasse claimed 100m bronze and in the shorter event he this time takes on USA’s 2016 world indoor 60m champion Trayvon Bromell, who has run 9.92 this season, plus his US compatriot Marvin Bracy, Jamaica’s Yohan Blake and a British quartet of Adam Gemili, Zharnel Hughes, Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake and Reece Prescod.
Trayvon Bromell wins the 100m at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Gateshead (© Matt Quine)
In the men’s 400m, local favourite Matthew Hudson-Smith, who claimed the European title in 2018, lines up alongside USA’s Vernon Norwood and Bryce Deadmon, plus Botswana’s Isaac Makwala.
Champion clashes in the field
Olympic champions will compete in the women’s long jump and women’s pole vault in Birmingham, but they won’t have it all their own way as they have fellow reigning global gold medallists among their opposition.
Germany’s Malaika Mihambo has won European, world and Olympic long jump titles over the past four years, achieving her 7.30m PB when getting gold in Doha in 2019. After running 17.28 for 150m earlier this month, she makes her season debut in her main event and will go head-to-head with Serbia’s Ivana Vuleta, who jumped 7.06m to retain her world indoor title on home soil in Belgrade in March and also opens her outdoor season in Birmingham. Their current outdoor head-to-head record stands 9-6 in Vuleta’s favour – last year Mihambo got the Olympic title but Vuleta finished on top in the Diamond League final.
Olympic and world long jump champion Malaika Mihambo (© Getty Images)
Ukraine’s world long jump silver medallist Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk, who claimed a triple jump medal of the same colour at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade, also competes, as do Britain’s world indoor bronze medallist Lorraine Ugen and Jazmin Sawyers, Sweden’s Khaddi Sagnia, USA’s world indoor pentathlon bronze medallist Kendell Williams and her fellow combined events athlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Britain’s world heptathlon champion who hopes to defend both her global and Commonwealth titles this season.
The women’s pole vault will pit the last two Olympic champions – USA’s Tokyo winner Katie Nageotte and Rio gold medallist Katerina Stefanidi of Greece – against USA’s two-time world indoor champion Sandi Morris.
Morris currently leads the season top list following her winning 4.72m outdoor debut in Ponce last week, while Nageotte competes for the first time since her runner-up finish at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade. They also take on British record-holder Holly Bradshaw, the Olympic bronze medallist in Tokyo, plus Slovenia's world indoor bronze medallist Tina Sutej.
Another full podium of global medallists clash in the men’s discus. Sweden’s Olympic and world champion Daniel Stahl again takes on his compatriot Simon Pettersson, the silver medallist in Tokyo, and bronze medallist Lukas Weisshaidinger of Austria, as well as British record-holder Lawrence Okoye.
An Olympic champion also highlights the field for the women’s discus and her performance is highly anticipated given the way she has started the season. Throwing 71.46m in San Diego last month, Valarie Allman added 30 centimetres to her own North American record, that mark moving her to 15th on the world all-time list. A week later she threw 69.46m to win in California, with this Diamond League meeting her first contest since then.
Discus winner Valarie Allman at the Wanda Diamond League final in Zurich (© AFP / Getty Images)
Allman’s competition in Birmingham includes Croatia’s discus great Sandra Perkovic, Melina Robert-Michon of France and Britain’s Jade Lally.
In the men’s high jump, Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi – who shared Olympic gold with Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim in Tokyo – will contest his second Diamond League of the season after a seventh-place finish in challenging conditions in Doha last week.
Tamberi also shared a medal at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade, getting bronze alongside New Zealand’s Hamish Kerr, and the two compete again in Birmingham.
Distance duels and hurdles hype
A competitive field takes to the track for the women’s 5000m. After breaking the world 5km record with a 14:19 run on the roads of Barcelona at the end of last year, Ethiopia’s Ejgayehu Taye races that same distance on the track to make her season debut.
The Olympic fifth-place finisher, who ran her 14:14.09 PB in Hengelo last June, claimed 3000m bronze at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade – her most recent race.
She will face her compatriots Girmawit Gebrzihair, who ran a world-leading 14:49.97 to win in Nairobi earlier this month, Dawit Seyaum and Fantu Worku, plus Burundi’s Doha Diamond League winner Francine Niyonsaba. Jess Judd joins them, fresh from securing her spot on the British team for the World Championships 10,000m in Oregon with her 31:22.24 winning run at the national 10,000m championships in Highgate last weekend.
Britain’s Olympic silver medallist Laura Muir is sure to get strong support in the 1500m when she makes her season debut against the likes of Ethiopia’s world leader Diribe Welteji, who clocked 4:01.50 in Nairobi, and two-time world indoor 1500m silver medallist Axumawit Embaye, plus Australia’s Jessica Hull, Kenya’s Winny Chebet and her British compatriot Jemma Reekie.
Similarly, in the women’s 800m the spotlight will be on Olympic silver medallist Keely Hodgkinson, who broke the British record with her 1:55.88 run in Tokyo and races for the first time since being forced to withdraw from the World Indoor Championships through injury. She renews her rivalry with Jamaica’s Natoya Goule, while Renelle Lamote of France competes for the first time since the Tokyo Games.
The men’s 800m again pits Kenya’s Olympic silver medallist Ferguson Rotich against Poland’s bronze medallist Patryk Dobek. The challenge is strengthened by USA’s Bryce Hoppel and Clayton Murphy, Kenya’s Wycliffe Kinyamal, Australia’s Peter Bol and Britain's Jake Wightman and Daniel Rowden.
In the men’s 1500m, Ethiopia’s two-time world indoor champion Samuel Tefera takes on Britain’s Olympic bronze medallist Josh Kerr and Kenya’s world leader with 3:31.01 Abel Kipsang, plus the Australian trio of Ollie Hoare, Stewart McSweyn and Matthew Ramsden.
Britain's Josh Kerr and Jake Wightman in the 1500m final at the Tokyo Olympics (© Getty Images)
The women’s 400m hurdles brings together five of the finalists from Tokyo, led by silver medallist Dalilah Muhammad, USA’s former world record-holder and 2016 Olympic champion.
She will reunite with Jamaica’s Olympic fourth-place finisher Janieve Russell, Ukraine’s Anna Ryzhykova and Viktoriya Tkachuk, and Panama’s Gianna Woodruff. They will also be joined by Britain’s Jessie Knight.
Another rivalry is renewed in the men’s 110m hurdles, which features global gold medallists Hansle Parchment, Omar McLeod and Andrew Pozzi.
Parchment got gold in Tokyo while his Jamaican compatriot McLeod is the 2016 Olympic winner and Britain's Pozzi secured the 2018 world indoor 60m hurdles title, also in Birmingham.
"I am feeling good, I think I am in good form," said Parchment. "I still have a lot of work to do but I’m looking forward to executing a really good race and hoping to get a lovely time on this beautiful track."
Like many athletes in Birmingham, his focus is on the World Championships in Oregon in July.
"After this one, we’re going to shut it down and focus on the trials," he added, looking ahead to the Jamaican Championships where he will hope to book his place on the team for Oregon. "We have some really good guys in the hurdles so I have to make sure I am ready to give my best there."
Jess Whittington for World Athletics