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London Olympics Preview: The 4x400m Relay

The 4x400m relay has been the traditional finale of track & field meets. It is a long drawn struggle, showcasing both the raw speed of the athletes and their ability to dig deep at such a grueling event. Unlike in the shorter relay, where aggregate flat speed disadvantages are somehow nullified by faulty baton passing, the winning formula in the 4x400m is a lot simpler.

Photo from Nigel Chadwick

The Americans are the most dominant country in this event. The U.S. ladies have won five out the ten times the 4x400m relay has been held in the Olympics. Their last defeat came at the hands of the Unified Team in Barcelona. American women have won three World Championship titles since 2007. The disparity becomes even more glaring in the men’s competition, where the U.S. have lost only five times since the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. In World Championship competition, Americans have bagged a total of nine gold medals.

Read: “American 4x400m Relay Dominance”

However, doping violations have cast a dark shadow over some of these victories, resulting into several high profile disqualifications in both Olympic and World Championship competition.

Women’s 4x400m Relay

Russian women occupy five spots in the 400m dash top ten this year, with the U.S. having three. Antonina Krivoshapka Антонина Кривошапка (49.16 SB) is the world leader. Beijing 2008 silver medalist Sanya Richards-Ross and veteran Russian Yulia Gushchina Ю́лия Гу́щина are tied in second place, each having a season’s best of 49.28s.  Botswana’s Amantle Montsho (49.54 SB), the 2011 World Champion, is in fourth. The fastest Jamaican this year is Novlene Williams-Mills (49.78 SB).

Read: “London Olympics Preview – The 400m Dash”

The versatile Allyson Felix, the 400m dash silver medallist from Daegu, will most likely reinforce Richards-Ross, Francena McCorrory, and Deedee Trotter. In fact, the same American quartet ran the fastest time in the world this year, 3:21.18, as the United States “Red” Team at the Penn Relays. Richards-Ross, McCorrory and Felix were also part of the U.S. team that won gold (3:18.09) over Jamaica (3:18.71) and Russia (3:19.36) at the Daegu World Championships last year.

The Russian women look good on paper, with the sub-50 trio of Krivoshapka, Gushchina, and Tatyana Firova Татьяна Фирова (49.72s) at the best form of their athletics careers. Similar to the core of the American pool, the Russians have been competing as a team for around half a decade.

Ukraine (Yuliya Olishevska, Olha Zemlyak, Nataliya Pyhyda, Alina Lohvynenko), France (Phara Anacharsis, Luina Guion Firmin, Marie Gayot, Floria Guei), the Czech Republic (Zuzana Hejnová, Zuzana Bergrová, Jitka Bartoničková, Denisa Rosolova) and Belarus (Hanna Tashpulatava,Yulyana Yushchanka Юльяна Юшчанка, Ilona Usovich Ілона Усовіч, Sviatlana Usovich Святлана Усовіч) are the most likely finalists in London. The Ukrainians (3:25.07) won over the French (3:25.49) and Czechs (3:26.02) at the European Championships in Helsinki last June.

In terms of the Olympic seedings, the Americans (average 3:19.63) and the Russians (average 3:20.15) are at the top. The Jamaicans are at third, with an average time of 3:20.36.

Screenshot from the IAAF

The British (Shana Cox, Nicola Sanders, Lee McConnell, Eilidh Child), however, finished outside the medals. This could change in London, in light of the increasingly strong showing of Olympic Champion Christine Ohuruogu. The sheer emotion of running in front of a home crowd might just enable athletes like McConnell and Marilyn Okoro to run the race of their lives and Nicola Sanders to rediscover the spring in her legs.

The battle for gold will be close between the Americans and the Russians, with the Jamaicans (Rosemarie Whyte, Davita Prendergast, Novlene Williams-Mills, Shericka Williams) also in contention. The U.S. ladies are the favorites, in light of their 20-year reign as Olympic Champions. The Russians, however, might just pull off a repeat of the Unified Team’s performance in the Barcelona Olympics. The trump card would have to be individual experience of Richards-Ross and Felix, both multiple World Championship titlists and Olympic medalists. This puts the U.S. on a psychological and physical pedestal against the Russian and Jamaican women.

Top Three Predictions

Gold: United States

Silver: Russia

Bronze: Jamaica/Great Britain

Men’s 4x400m Relay

When the North American powers do not get disqualified due to technicalities (1972 Munich), disgraced due to doping violations (1997 Athens, 2000 Sydney, 2003 Paris), or absent due to boycott (1980 Moscow), it is tremendously difficult to triumph over a team donning the Stars and Stripes in the 4x400m relay, particularly amongst the men. The prolific British quartet of Roger Black, Derek Redmond, John Regis and Kriss Akabusi were the last to pull it off at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. In the Olympics, the Jamaican victory over the U.S. in Helskini back in 1952 was the most recent.

The Americans had winning margins of 4 seconds and 3 seconds in Athens and Beijing, respectively. The rest of the field contended for the lesser medals, with the gold safely in the bag of the dominant U.S. quartets. The 4x400m relay final in Daegu was the most exciting in recent years. With all due respect to the quarter-mile abilities of hurdlers Angelo Taylor and Bershawn Jackson, putting two non-400m specialists in the relay team could have been instrumental in leveling the playing field. Coming into the home straight, LaShawn Merritt was boxed in by the tactical running of South Africa’s L.J. Van Zyl and Jamaica’s Leford Green. Merritt had to do the Virginia Shuffle to storm into tape!

However, the 400m landscape in 2012 is vastly different from 2008. Four years ago, the sixteen fastest races that season were run either by Merritt or Jeremy Wariner. Taylor was the third fastest in 2008. The 2012 top list has a more international flavor, with the likes of Luguelin Santos, the Kevin and Jonathan Borlee, Kirani James, and Demetrius Pinder not far behind Merritt, the world leader at 44.12s.

Read: “London Olympics Preview – The 400m Dash”

Belgium, with the Borlee brothers in the top 10, looks good on paper. So does the Bahamas, thanks to Pinder, Ramon Miller and the experienced Chris Brown. I would love to see the South Africans reprise their sterling form in Daegu, but their season’s best of 3:04.01 pales in comparison to their bronze medal winning time of 2:59.21. The relay teams of Cuba (Noel Ruíz, Raidel Acea, Orestes Rodríguez, William Collazo), Trinidad and Tobago (Renny Quow, Lalonde Gordon, Jarrin Solomon, Deon Lendore), and Japan (Kei Takase, Yuzo Kanemaru 金丸 祐三, Yusuke Ishitsuka, Hiroyuki Nakano) have also posted competitive times this year.

In terms of the Olympic seedings, the U.S. (average 2:58.97), South Africa (average 2:59.54), Jamaica (average 2:59.61), Cuba (average 2:59.93), and Russia (average 3:00.51) comprise the top five.

Screenshot from the IAAF

Despite the smaller gap in terms of flat out 400m times, the U.S. squad is still favored to win because of its depth of talent. Tony McQuay and Bryshon Nellum are ranked 3rd and 9th in the world, respectively. The experienced Wariner, despite his recent drop in form, is still a formidable relay runner. And the U.S. could always tap its intermediate hurdlers to run in the heats to save the legs of its main guns for the final.

The rest of the contenders do not have the luxury of a deep talent pool. Barring any unforseen hitches, the U.S is still the overwhelming favorite for Olympic gold.

My sentimental favorites are South Africa and the Dominican Republic, because of Oscar Pistorius and Felix Sanchez.

Top Three Predictions

Gold: United States

Silver: Belgium

Bronze: Bahamas

Sources:

IAAF

Wikipedia

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London Olympics Preview: The 400m Dash

The one-lap sprint is one of the most nail-biting athletics events. It tests the threshold of human speed endurance. The race is a thrilling display of tactics, proper-timing, speed and heart.

Photo from Nigel Chadwick

Women’s 400m Dash

The fight for the quarter-mile gold medal would we between 2009 World Champion Sanya Richards-Ross (48.70s PB) and the 2011 World Champion Amantle Montsho (49.56s PB). The versatile Allyson Felix (49.59s PB) could make the battle three-pronged, but then again, the 100m/200m combo seems the more practical route for Felix, instead of the more grueling – and rarer – 200m/400m double.

 

Richards-Ross (L), Montsho (R). (Photos from Erik van Leeuwen and Yann Caradec)

I don’t expect the defending Olympic Champion Christine Ohuruogu (49.61s PB) to contend for gold, in light of the recent drop in her form. However, the hometown crowd could push Ohuruogu all the way to a podium spot, or a good showing in the finals at the very least.

Richards-Ross had run the fastest time this season, with her 49.39s world lead at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. Montsho came second to the American in that same race, submitting a time three-tenths slower (49.69). Jamaican Novlene Williams-Mills (49.63s PB, 49.78s SB) is the only other sprinter to dip below 50-seconds.

Francena McCorory, a 4x400m relay gold medalist from Daegu, is in tip-top shape, having set a new personal best of 50.06s at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York. The Russians, as always, will be well-represented. This season, the top Russian quarter-milers are Yulia Gushchina Ю́лия Гу́щина (50.01s PB, 50.26s SB) and Kseniya Ustalova Ксения Усталова (49.92s PB, 50.48s SB). The experienced Anastasiya Kapachinskaya Анастасия Капачинская (49.35s PB, 51.17s SB), the bronze medallist from Daegu and the 2003 200m World Champion, is several rungs lower than her compatriots.

Richards-Ross has finally recovered from her an injury sustained a couple of years ago. After a disappointing campaign at the Daegu World Championships, the American sent a strong message to her rivals when she dominated Montsho in Eugene. The Botswanan (and Felix, if she decides to compete in the quarter-mile) will be hard-pressed to edge out Richards-Ross for first place.

Top Three Predictions

Gold: Sanya Richards-Ross

Silver: Amantle Montsho/Allyson Felix (if she runs the 400m)

Bronze: Francena McCorory

Men’s 400m Dash

The Americans have been the dominant force in men’s quarter-mile sprinting for the longest time. In the last three editions of the Olympics, the Americans have swept the event twice (2004 and 2008). They took the top two spots at the Sydney Olympics. The Americans are just as dominant in the World Championships, taking the World title in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009.

Jeremy Wariner (43.45s PB, 44.96s SB)has won the 2004 Olympic Gold, an Olympic silver, 2 World titles, and a World Championship silver. LaShawn Merritt (43.75s PB, 44.19s SB), meanwhile, has the 2008 Olympic Gold, one World title, and two World Championships silver medals to his name.

 

James (L) and Merritt (R).(Photos from Erik van Leeuwen, MachoCarioca, and Yann Caradec)

Wariner’s form has dipped in the last two years, as Merritt served a suspension for failing a dope test. Several new challengers – and a new quarter-mile king – have emerged. The young Kirani James (44.36s PB, 44.72s SB) convincingly won the 2011 World Championships over Merritt, a year after claiming the World Junior title in Moncton. Another veteran from the Moncton World Juniors is the 18-year old Luguelín Santos from the Dominican Republic. The fleet-footed Santos had set a new personal best of 44.45s last May, the second-fastest time this season and the eight-quickest ever by a junior athlete.

The Borlées have run competitive times, with Kevin (44.56 PB/SB) having a quicker season’s best than Jonathan (44.71s PB, 44.88s). As a testament to the depth of American 400m talent, six Americans are in the top 10 this season: Merritt, Tony McQuay (44.58s SB/PB), Michael Berry (44.75s SB/PB), Joshua Mance (44.83s SB/PB), Gil Roberts (44.84s SB/PB), and Wariner. McQuay, Berry, Mance and Roberts are all younger than twenty-three!  Martyn Rooney (44.60s PB, 44.92s SB) and two-time Olympic 400m champion Angelo Taylor (44.05s PB, 44.97s SB) have also gone below 45-seconds this season.

Should Wariner be able to find the spring in his legs, the London Olympic final could feature a duel between generations – with Wariner and Merritt on one side, and James and Santos on the other. The other youngster, Santos, might just be too green to crack the top three. As much as I want to see Wariner add another Olympic title to his already impressive curriculum vitae, the signs are not pointing towards the right direction (sadly, Wariner failed to barge into the top 3 at the U.S. Olympic Trials).

But then again, the Olympics bring out the best in people.

I have a strong feeling that James has what it takes to do a Steve Lewis. Merritt is a grizzled veteran. The American (43.75s) also has a superior personal best than the Grenadan (44.35s). My sixth sense tells me that James’ youthful exuberance could spell the difference between silver and gold.

Top Three Predictions

Gold: Kirani James

Silver: LaShawn Merritt

Bronze: Jeremy Wariner/Either one of the Borlee brothers/Tony McQuay

Sources:

2008 Beijing Olympics Results

2011 World Championships Results

2009 World Championships Results

2007 World Championships Results

2012 World Indoor Championships Results

2010 World Indoor Championships Results

2012 Men’s 400m Dash Top List

2012 Women’s 400m Dash Top List

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