TOKYO, July 22 (Xinhua) — Athletics has been a showpiece of the Olympics ever since the birth of the modern Games in 1896.
This year’s edition in Tokyo will be no exception as athletes vie for 48 gold medals (24 for men, 23 for women and one mixed). Xinhua identifies some of the athletes, competitions and curiosities to watch out for.
THE KEY FACTS
The athletics, or track and field, program will take place at the Olympic Stadium in the heart of Tokyo.
The marathons and walking events will be staged in Sapporo, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, to avoid Tokyo’s potentially brutal summer heat. There will be one more gold medal for men because of the absence of a 50km women’s walk.
For the first time at the Olympics, the athletics event lineup will feature a mixed 4x400m relay.
The first athletics gold medal will be decided on July 30 – the event’s opening day – when the men’s 10,000m race is held. The last will be contested on August 8 when the track and field schedule ends with the men’s marathon.
The United States has the biggest athletics gold medal haul in the history of the Olympics with 334, ahead of the Soviet Union (64) and Great Britain (55).
Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi and U.S. sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis are the most successful track and field athletes of all time with nine gold medals each.
POCKET ROCKET EYES TREBLE
Five years after the world marveled at Usain Bolt’s historic three-peat – three successive Olympic 100m gold medals – another Jamaican sprinter is looking to create her own piece of history in Tokyo.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce narrowly fell short of her bid for three consecutive 100m gold medals in Rio, but she could still shatter records in Tokyo. The 34-year-old, nicknamed “the pocket rocket” because of her petite stature, is seeking to become the oldest person to win an individual Olympic sprint and the first woman to secure three 100m gold medals at the Games.
After giving birth to her son Zyon in 2017, Fraser-Pryce came back to win the world championship in 2019 and she will be one of the favorites in Tokyo. Her chances received a boost earlier this month when American rival Sha’Carri Richardson was banned for failing a drug test.
FELIX’S FAREWELL MISSION
Another female sprinter set to say goodbye to the sport is American Allyson Felix. The winner of nine Olympic medals, including six golds, will be taking part in her fifth Games after qualifying for the 400m and the 4x400m relay. She could also be on the U.S. mixed gender 4x400m relay team.
Two medals would see her surpass Carl Lewis as the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete of all time.
Her second place in the 400m at the Olympic trials in June – when she clocked 50.02 seconds and appeared to have left something in reserve – suggests the 35-year-old could write one more glorious chapter in her Olympic fairytale.
KENYA’S MARATHON MASTER
He has won gold medals at the Olympics and world championships, and is the only man to run the marathon distance inside two hours. Despite winning just about everything he can in his chosen sport, Eliud Kipchoge is not lacking any motivation as he prepares to defend his Olympic marathon title in Tokyo.
“I am still hungry for running at the Olympic Games and winning a gold medal,” the 36-year-old told Kenyan state broadcaster KBC earlier this month. “Actually, if I win a gold medal this will be my highest [achievement],” he added.
Kipchoge’s main challengers in the event are likely to come from within the Kenyan team, namely Vincent Kipchumba, Amos Kipruto and Lawrence Cherono.
ZHENG’S OLYMPIC DREAM
Irrespective of her results in Tokyo, naturalized Chinese citizen Zheng Ninali will already be a winner in the eyes of her grandmother when she represents her country in Tokyo.
The Canadian-born 22-year-old qualified for the heptathlon by meeting the entry standard following a series of impressive performances in European competitions.
Zheng decided to represent China to allow her grandmother, former high-jump world record holder Zheng Fengrong, to live her Olympic dream vicariously through her.
Zheng Fengrong was unable to compete at the Olympics during her prime in 1956 because of China’s decision to boycott that year’s Games in Melbourne.
“When Nina was around 20, she told us she wanted to represent China at the Tokyo Olympics. I hugged her and burst into tears,” Zheng Fengrong told Xinhua.
ON THE RISE
While there will be a strong focus on a slew of veterans bidding farewell to the Olympic stage, there is no shortage of talented newcomers.
Among those with high hopes is sprinter Dina Asher-Smith. The Briton announced herself to the world aged 20 with a bronze medal in the 4x100m relay in Rio and has since made a habit of featuring on the podium at major events. She is the current 200m world champion and holds the national record in the 100m. A top three finish in the 100m would make Asher-Smith the first British woman in more than 60 years to claim a medal in the event.
Another rising star in the 100m is American Christian Coleman. The 25-year-old became the sixth fastest man in history last year when he clinched the world title in 9.76 seconds. Some observers have called Coleman the successor to Usain Bolt.
Arguably the brightest talent is hurdler and sprinter Sydney McLaughlin. In Rio, the then 16-year-old became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to qualify for the Olympics since 1980. While she did not progress beyond the heats there, McLaughlin has since been on a rapid ascent. The 21-year-old set a new world record of 51.9 seconds in the 400m hurdles at the U.S. trials and looks set for a fascinating battle with compatriot and reigning Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad in Tokyo.