Seven years ago, the track at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing brought out some of the most iconic moments in sport of the 21st century’s first decade. The world’s premier athletes in track and field return for the IAAF World Championships, which begin Saturday in the Chinese capital and continue until Aug. 30.
“The preparation was almost perfect, the athletes were meticulous in their training,” said head U.S. men’s coach Edrick Floreal at the team press conference Friday.
In addition to the men’s 4-by-400-meter relay gold medal team, the Americans return five defending champions from the previous IAAF World Championships at Moscow in 2013: David Oliver in the 110 hurdles, 2008 Olympic gold medalist LaShawn Merritt in the 400, world record holder Ashton Eaton in the decathlon, Brianna Rollins in the women’s 100 hurdles, and Brittney Reese in the long jump, where she is the three-time reigning champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist.
“It’s good to be back in China,” said the 33-year-old Oliver, who won the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. “The Chinese public loves the hurdles, so I hope to give them a good show. For me, the competition is always the 10 barriers in front of me. In the hurdles, you have to focus on yourself, otherwise you start falling all over the place. I feel my chances are great.”
Oliver must fend off defending Olympic gold medalist and world record holder (12.80 seconds) Aries Merritt, who trains in the Phoenix area and is returning from a life-threatening kidney disease.
London Olympic champion Christian Taylor is looking to return to the top of the podium in the triple jump, where he was in Daegu in 2011, before slipping to fourth in Moscow. Taylor said he switched from jumping off the left foot to the right foot, since he had prior injuries, and that now 18 meters is going to be the standard.
“I wanted to try some new things,” Taylor said. “It was about having some fun mentally, and the performances show for themselves. I switched legs in jumping. I have competitors like (Pedro Pablo) Pichardo (of Cuba) who push me every time I get to the track. At the time I was having a lot of injuries, so I decided to take the challenge. I’m here to get back on top of that podium.”
Taylor will be pushed by three other former Florida Gators in the event. Will Claye, who graduated from Phoenix’s Mountain Pointe High School, took bronze in the past two World Championships and silver in London, Omar Craddock won the U.S. indoor and outdoor titles this year, and Marquis Dendy won the NCAA title in June.
As usual, most eyes will be on Usain Bolt, as the Jamaican sprinter seeks to continue his juggernaut run of major 100 and 200 titles, of which he’s won all since 2008, save his 100 false start in 2011. Bolt, who turned 29 on Friday and set world records of 9.58 and 19.19 at the 2009 Berlin World Championships, is presently tied with Carl Lewis for the most medals in IAAF history (10), and that duo is tied with Michael Johnson with eight gold medals. Bolt, however, will be tested by 33-year-old American Justin Gatlin, who won both the 100 and 200 at Helsinki in 2005. Gatlin owns the four fastest 100 times in the world this season (high of 9.74), and Jamaican Asafa Powell (9.81) posted two times quicker than Bolt, whose 9.87 is the same as American Tyson Gay’s. The preliminaries and first round of the men’s 100 are Saturday. The men’s marathon will initiate the competition early Saturday morning, where Ugandan Stephen Kiprotich aims to defend his title.