This year (2017) is earmarked to be a defining one in athletics. It must certainly erase some of the bad memories which dominated last season and restore faith with pleasant ones.
This season is jam-packed throughout with several high quality meets as well as two outdoor global championships to keep fans busy and distracted on the best parts of track and field. The imminent retirements of the sports poster boys – Usain Bolt & Sir Mo Farah – will hog the spotlight until their final waves and signature poses in London. Another incomparable ambassador, Ashton Eaton, preceded both into “life after athletics” announcing his retirement during the first week of the New Year.
Thankfully, each season new personalities and rivalries are always coming through in the sport to energise and pull crowds to stadiums like ants to a picnic. Without doubt one of the events that is a must see in 2017 and certainly beyond is the women’s 400m hurdles.
Stacked with youth, experience and unpredictability, the event is expected to provide spine tingling moments equalling or surpassing the high level quality in the men’s equivalent. The new format to the IAAF Diamond League ensures a few mouth-watering showdowns from the usual suspects and a few rising stars.
Dalilah Muhammad, the Olympic champion, was in the form of her life last season producing five sub-54 times (including the only sub-53 run) climaxing with gold in Rio. She will be aiming to extend her fantastic run of form this season and add the world title to her collection in August. The talented American, who became the first woman to win an Olympic title for her country in that discipline, could come up against stiffer barriers from a number of fearless and seasoned challengers.
Among them is reigning European champion and Rio silver medallist, Sara Slott Petersen of Denmark, who no doubt has been boosted by those performances and will be hungry for more success. Fourth at the Beijing World Championships followed by the runner-up spot in Rio, Petersen, who has a big passion for coffee, will be aiming to taste more success and become the world’s top one-lap hurdler once she gets a sniff.
Zuzana Hejnova, the two-time world champion, will be going for the three-peat at the 2017 London World Championships. Hejnova, although turning 30 last December, if she remains injury free, will get the opportunity to show that she is far from being a spent force and can still compete fiercely against the best. Having drawn a bye to London, the experienced Hejnova can spend her time fine-tuning for the big moment.
One athlete who should be on everyone’s watch alert this season is Jamaica’s Janieve Russell. Being on the cusp of a breakout season last year which saw her getting faster meet by meet before an untimely injury curtailed her Olympic dreams; Russell, a determined warrior, has modified her preparations to have stronger legs and an injury free season to achieve the success that eluded her. She is expected to improve leaps and bounds and shave massive chunks off her 53.96 PB.
There were some shocking upsets in the sprint hurdles at US Olympic trials last year and Shamier Little’s failure to reach the final in her pet event was one of the biggest. She posted on Twitter the following day that she doesn’t want her heart to be this broken again. The 2014 World U20 champion and Beijing world silver medallist the following year, only consolation for 2016 might have been that she along with Dalilah Muhammad were the only women who dipped below 54 seconds on at least two occasions.
Little, who turned professional in July 2016 on the eve of the US Olympic Trials, should feature prominently on the international circuit and run some fast times especially in the new format of the IAAF Diamond League series. Let’s hope (for Little’s heart sake) she also clears ‘the hurdle’ called the US Trials avoiding another ‘head in hands’ despair moment and qualifies for London.
Sydney McLaughlin (17) represents the future of women’s 400m hurdles sprinting. Although her path seems methodically mapped out for the next two to four years, she is very much in the present. McLaughlin, the World U20 record-holder (54.15) and a semi-finalist at the Rio Games, is still attending high school and is not expected to feature regularly against seniors until the US Trials for the IAAF World Championships in London. However, when she’s unleashed this summer, her inevitable rise through the ranks may come to fruition earlier than forecasted. Going below 54 seconds should be one of her targets this season.
Kendra Harrison, who set the 100m hurdles world record (12.20) tumbling at the London Anniversary Games, is toying with the idea of moving up to the one-lap event. The multi-talented Harrison, who late last year showed glimpses of her gymnastic prowess, should have no problems switching and balancing both events. She has indicated that 2018 could be the year to do so. Now we wait.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the likes of Eilidh Doyle, Ristananna Tracey, Ashley Spencer, Georganne Moline and IAAF Diamond Trophy winner Cassandra Tate playing a significant role in this heart-stopping event; as they will not be coming to make up numbers. Let’s hope most of the athletes are firing on all cylinders as this event is going to be a scorcher.