Marie-Josee Ta Lou, Elaine Thompson and Dina Asher-Smith in action at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Birmingham (© AFP / Getty Images)
Four meetings into the 2019 IAAF Diamond League and many of the world’s top athletes have now opened their outdoor campaigns, setting up a series of mouth-watering clashes at the Golden Gala Pietro Mennea in Rome on Thursday (6).
The IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 may still be four months away, but victories on the international circuit at this stage of the season are crucial for athletes seeking a psychological edge ahead of the sport’s global showpiece later in the year.
Just as importantly, athletes will be seeking to accrue as many points as possible in the lead-up to the two IAAF Diamond League finals in Zurich and Brussels later in the season. Given the quality of the fields in Rome, gaining a maximum eight points will be easier said than done.
The women’s 100m is one of several exciting sprint showdowns in the Italian capital. Triple European champion Dina Asher-Smith has achieved two dominant wins from two races over 200m in the IAAF Diamond League so far, but this will be her first 100m race of the year. Double Olympic champion Elaine Thompson finished a distant second to Asher-Smith in Stockholm in the longer sprint but recently improved her 100m season’s best to 11.09.
Marie-Josee Ta Lou, world silver medallist at three distances, opened her outdoor season last week with a hand-timed 10.7 in a low-key mixed race in the Ivory Coast, but Thursday’s race in Rome’s Olympic Stadium will be her first international appearance of the year.
In last year’s IAAF Diamond League, Ta Lou beat Thompson in all four of their encounters and was level with Asher-Smith in terms of head-to-heads. USA’s Aleia Hobbs, winner of the 100m in Shanghai, also cannot be discounted, while two-time US champion English Gardner will also be competitive.
Just four years after finishing 1-2 in the 200m at the 2015 US U20 Championships, Noah Lyles and Michael Norman – both still aged just 21 – have established themselves as two of the most exciting sprint talents in the world.
Lyles, winner of the past two Diamond trophies at 200m, will be making his first appearance of the year over his favoured distance and is coming off the back of a 100m PB of 9.86 in Shanghai. Norman has also started the year in flying form, clocking a 400m PB of 43.45, equalling his 200m best with 19.84 in Osaka and dominating over one lap in Stockholm last week with 44.53 in difficult conditions.
World champion Ramil Guliyev and fellow sub-20-second sprinters Alex Quinonez, Jereem Richards and Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake are also in the field, but many local spectators will have their eye on young Italian Filippo Tortu.
Four winners of major titles will clash in the women’s 400m hurdles with Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad taking on world champion Kori Carter, European champion Lea Sprunger and Commonwealth champion Janieve Russell.
The men’s 110m hurdles is similarly high quality with Olympic silver medallist Orlando Ortega, Diamond League champion Sergey Shubenkov, European champion Pascal Martinot-Lagarde and world indoor champion Andrew Pozzi all taking to the start line.
Having won 13 of her past 14 races at the distance, world silver medallist Salwa Eid Naser will start as favourite for the women’s 400m when she takes on Olympic bronze medallist Shericka Jackson, world indoor champion Courtney Okolo and European champion Justyna Swiety-Ersetic.
The men’s 400m hurdles isn’t a diamond discipline in Rome, but Rai Benjamin will be keen to achieve his first victory of the outdoor season and could possibly even challenge the stadium record of 47.37 set at the 1981 IAAF World Cup by Ed Moses – the man with whom he shares the third spot on the world all-time list.
Olympic champions Spotakova, Stefanidi and Ibarguen highlight field events
Two-time Olympic javelin champion Barbora Spotakova will be making her first IAAF Diamond League appearance since winning the 2017 final. The 37-year-old, who gave birth to her second child last year, recently returned to action by throwing 63.85m.
The Czech thrower will face the top seven women on this year’s world list, including European champion Christin Hussong, Asian champion Lyu Huihui, 2016 European champion Tatsiana Khaladovich, and European silver medallist Nikola Ogrodnikova.
In the pole vault, Olympic champion Katerina Stefanidi will take on the three women who matched her winning height in Shanghai two weeks ago: world indoor champion Sandi Morris, Asian record-holder Li Ling and Nikoleta Kyriakopoulou.
The line-up also includes 2012 Olympic champion Jenn Suhr – who, despite having competed internationally for 14 seasons, will be making her first appearance in Rome – and Anzhelika Sidorova, who is making her 2019 outdoor debut following an undefeated indoor campaign.
Two Olympic gold medallists will also clash in the women’s long jump as Colombia’s Olympic triple jump champion and IAAF Female Athlete of 2018 Caterine Ibarguen faces 2012 Olympic champion Brittney Reese for the first time.
World indoor champion Ivana Spanovic, world leader Chantal Malone, European champion Malaika Mihambo and 2018 world leader Lorraine Ugen add further depth to the star-studded field.
Triple jumper Pedro Pablo Pichardo, who holds Rome’s stadium record of 17.96m, will open his 2019 outdoor campaign against a field that includes world leader Omar Craddock, world U18 and U20 champion Jordan Diaz, European champion Nelson Evora and African champion Fabrice Zango Hugues.
Gianmarco Tamberi carries Italy’s best hopes of a home victory on Thursday. The high jumper is coming off his best indoor season since 2016, the year in which he won the world indoor and European titles before injury ruled him out of the Olympic Games. Asian champion and world leader Majd Eddin Ghazal looks to be the leading contender.
Just 11 centimetres separate Darlan Romani, Chuk Enekwechi and Darrell Hill on this year’s world list, making their shot put clash in Rome almost impossible to call. Enekwechi narrowly beat Romani in Bragança Paulista at the end of April, while Romani finished ahead of Hill in Doha.
Distance duels a plenty
World record-holder Genzebe Dibaba and European champion Laura Muir have rarely raced one another at 1500m outside of a major championship. They will line up in Rome as the marginal favourites, but neither will be guaranteed victory given the quality of the field.
Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay clocked a world-leading 3:59.57 at the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Nanjing two weeks ago and was followed by compatriot Axumawit Embaye. Both women are also in the field alongside Shanghai winner Rababe Arafi, 2011 world champion Jenny Simpson, world U20 champion Alemaz Samuel and Canada’s Gabriela Debues-Stafford, Muir’s training partner.
Following his runner-up finish in Shanghai and a victory over 10,000m at last month’s Ethiopian Championships, Selemon Barega starts as the slight favourite in the men’s 5000m in Rome. But Olympic bronze medallist Hagos Gebrhiwet, who finished just 0.12 shy of his younger compatriot in Shanghai, world cross-country champion Joshua Cheptegei and Asian champion Birhanu Balew will also be in the field. Meanwhile, world U20 cross-country champion Milkesa Mengesha will make his IAAF Diamond League debut.
In Doha last month, Nijel Amos handed Emmanuel Korir his first ever defeat at an IAAF Diamond League meeting, winning the 800m in a world-leading 1:44.29. Korir won’t be in Rome, but Amos will still have to out-race world indoor champion Adam Kszczot, Asian champion Abubaker Haydar Abdalla, Olympic bronze medallist Clayton Murphy and his US compatriot Donavan Brazier.
Benjamin Kigen, winner at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Rabat and Eugene last year, appears to be the top contender in the men’s 3000m steeplechase, a non-scoring discipline. Commonwealth silver medallist Abraham Kibiwot and Ethiopia’s Chala Beyo will be among his main opponents.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF