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As the 15th IAAF World Championships In Athletics rapidly approaches, many questions abound. Answers which will be plentiful at the end of this month remain scarce now. While we can't address all of them now, here is a short list of ten questions upon which we can reflect - questions that ultimately will lead to answers as this much-awaited global competition unfolds.

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Usain Bolt, photo by PhotoRun.net

1. Is Usain Bolt Vulnerable? On the eve of the World Championships, nobody is really quite certain about Usain Bolt. Oh sure, there are those who have advanced unwavering views - both upbeat and guarded - about Bolt's prospects in Beijing. There have even been whispers that Bolt may only run a single sprint - or perhaps not compete at all. But don't be fooled. Nobody really knows. After taking what amounted to a sabbatical in 2014 - a year devoid of global championships - the reigning and multiple-time Olympic and World sprint king has been far from dominating in his carefully-selected race appearances this outdoor season. On the other hand, American Justin Gatlin has raced often and with good success. Undefeated in 2014 and world-ranked #1 in both sprints last year, the 33-year old Gatlin has the year's world leading performances in both the 100m [9.74] and the 200m [19.57]. And he has yet to lose this outdoor season. True, Bolt - who few dispute is the greatest sprinter of all time - is a big-time big stage performer. His Daegu false start in the 100m final - a self-inflicted wound - is the only blemish on his otherwise-perfect OG/WC sprint performance record. But, let's put it this way: His season-best 100m of 9.87 in his ragged London win is probably not keeping Gatlin awake at night. If we get our wish and Bolt and Gatlin finally square off in Beijing, the men's 100m final - and 200m final - should be truly special moments in the Bird's Nest.


Genzebe Dibaba, photo by PhotoRun.net

2. Can Anybody Challenge Genzebe Dibaba For The Gold? Speaking of domination, how about Tirunesh's little sister? Genzebe Dibaba's stunning 1500m world record performance in Monaco - the early leader-in-the-clubhouse for Female Performance of the Year - was very impressive. From the starting gun - of all the world-class middle distance racers in the field - only Sifan Hassan dared get on board for Dibaba's rabbit-led assault on Yunxia Qu's nearly 22-year old 1500m record of 3:50.46. And when the essentially-unchallenged Dibaba hit the line to stop the clock at 3:50.07 - a conversion equivalent to sub-4:07 mile - the new WR mark dared many to speculate on how many years away might we be from the first sub-4:00 mile by a woman. Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson - who placed 3rd and 4th respectively in the Monaco race, Rowbury in an American record time - are racing fabulously, but just don't appear capable of challenging Dibaba this season. True, the tactical elements of championship racing are quite different from carefully-plotted record assaults. But if the young Ethiopian can close her final 800 in roughly 2:04 off a world-record pace, what can she uncork in a likely slowed-down championship final?


Shawn Barber, photo by PhotoRun.net

3. Is Collegiate Phenom Shawn Barber Ready For The Big Stage? Canadian collegiate pole vault star Shawn Barber has been on a 2015 tear since shortly after the beginning of the year. Undefeated indoors, Barber re-set the NCAA indoor record on 4 separate occasions, broke Renaud Lavillenie's facilities record at the Armory when he became the first vaulter in the 104 year history of the building to break the 19-foot barrier there, successfully defended his NCAA indoor vault title, and was the world's #2 indoor performer. Barber was hardly less impressive outdoors. The Sullivan Award finalist beat Lavillenie at the Drake Relays, and then continued to string together victories that led to his first outdoor NCAA vault crown in Eugene. A successful defense of his Canadian national outdoor title was followed by his gold medal performance at the Pan American Games. While he was turned back by the Lavillenie in a London showdown in late July, his second place clearance of 5.93m / 19'5½" was yet another personal record that places him as the #2 outdoor performer in the world this year. Can he shine in Beijing in front of a packed stadium where the stakes are high? In the Moscow World Championships, this year's finalist for the Bowerman Award - then 18 years old - did not make it out of the qualifying round. Since then, Barber has continued to gain invaluable experience and has emerged as a poised performer: He survived an unsettling pole shattering warm-up vault and a pressure-packed third attempt clearance of his opening height on his to winning his first NCAA outdoor title; and in the Pan Am Games, he rebounded to grab the gold following a greasy pole vault grip-slippage incident after applying some sunblock. If Barber can maintain his unflappable approach to the tense chess game that is the pole vault, later this month he may well capture that Championship medal he has been pursuing.


Yarislay Silva, photo by PhotoRun.net

4. Can Silva Ascend To The Podium's Top Step? In Beijing, all eyes will be on the pole vault competitions in this the "Year Of The Pole Vault." Global contests in the vertical jumps are always intense and hard fought - and will be especially so in world championship women's vault without the entry of the defending world champion and the greatest female pole vaulter of all time, Elena Isinbaeva. With Isi out, the wrestle for the gold medal should be wide open. Looking at the field, the most compelling case might be made for the Cuban vaulter, Yarisley Silva. The 28-year old is battle-tested in global gatherings, having won the silver medal in the London Games finishing behind American gold medalist Jenn Suhr. In the Moscow world championships two years ago, the Cuban finished behind Isinbaeva and Suhr to capture the bronze. But Silva's career continues the rise. In 2014, she struck pole vault gold at the world indoor championships in Sopot. And just last month, Silva successfully defended her Pan American pole vault crown. With the year's two leading world marks topped by her PR clearance of 4.91m [16'1¼"], she has to be viewed at the favorite in Beijing. Suhr - always at her best in global championships - is this year's #3 world performer [4.82m / 15'9¾] and is sure to be tough competitor in the Bird's Nest. Brazil's Fabiana Murer [seasonal best of 4.80m / 15'9"] and Grecian athlete Nikoleta Kyriakopoulou [#2 on the 2015 world list at 4.83m / 15'10"] should also be in the medal hunt. Don't overlook USA's two youthful vaulters - Sandi Morris and Bowerman finalist Demi Payne. Both have cleared 4.71m [15'5½"] and could surprise. But the form chart and Silva's hot vaulting this summer suggest that this competition is Silva's to win or lose. Can Yarisley Silva - who has racked up some impressive marks this outdoor season - achieve perhaps the toughest clearance of all: that last riser which would take her to the top level of the medal stand?


Bershawn Jackson, photo by PhotoRun.net

5. Will Bershawn Jackson Earn His Second World Title 10 Years After His First One? At the Helsinki World Championships in 2005, a brash, undersized 22-year old 400 meter hurdler named Bershawn Jackson captured the gold medal in his specialty. Ten years later, the still-brash and still-undersized Jackson - now a grizzled veteran at age 32 - is poised to complete the unthinkable: win two world championship gold medals in the 400H 10 years apart. With the world-leading time of 48.09 and 4 of the top six 400H times this outdoor season, he looks fully rejuvenated and nothing like the broken athlete that was carted off the track in Luzhniki Stadium at the 2013 world championships in Moscow - a scene later repeated in Hornet Stadium in the 2014 USA outdoor nationals in Sacramento. The Batman's patented racing strategy - getting out quickly, abruptly coasting on the backstretch, and roaring to the finish from the 7th hurdle in - initially had everyone either biting their nails or shaking their heads. Most skeptics are now believers as they see the inherent racing benefits that accrue to the diminutive Jackson who is almost always full of race on the homestretch and still has one of the most spirited run-ins in the business. Perhaps his stiffest challenge may come from his friend and training partner Johnny "Double" Dutch. The 2014 USA outdoor champion has the remaining two marks of the top 6 clockings on this year's world list not posted by Jackson. Dutch [47.20] actually nipped the Batman by .02 seconds to cop the Pre 400H crown and hand Jackson his only outdoor defeat this season. WC defending champion Jehue Gordon [seasonal best of only 49.27] has showed little this summer. More likely to compete for the medals in the intermediate hurdles in Beijing are '13 WC runner-up Michael Tinsley [#4 on the WL board with a 48.34] and Javier Culson [48.48 this season and world ranked #1 in the 400H in 2014]. A dark horse may well be Kenya's Nicholas Bett who is the #3 world performer this year on the strength of the 48.29 he posted earlier this month. Bershawn Jackson - who credits the elimination of certain unhelpful "social distractions" for his return to top form - appears quite ready to take them all on.

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Alysia Montano, Brenda Martinez, Molly Ludlow, Ajee' Wilson, photo by PhotoRun.net

6. Will A US Woman Earn A World Championship 800m Medal Once Again? In the women's 800m final in the 2013 Moscow World Championships, the field contained three Americans: Alyssia Montano, Brenda Martinez, and Ajee Wilson. All ran honorable, competitive races: the spunky Wilson finished 6th in 1:58.21 to reclaim the American Junior Record; the courageous front-running Montano finished 4th in 1:57.95 to miss the podium by an eyelash; and the resourceful Martinez ran a gutty and well-timed final homestretch to grab the bronze medal in 1:57.91. Having successfully navigated through the 800m rounds at the national meet to make the U.S. world team, all three will compete in the world championship 800m in Beijing. With Wilson [#3WL], Martinez [#8WL], and Montano [#11WL] it seems likely - perhaps even probable - that a U.S. woman will once again win a world championship medal in the 800m. What is much more difficult is determining who that woman might be, what color the medal might be, and whether or not more than one American woman might be on that medal stand.

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Christian Taylor, photo by PhotoRun.net

7. Can The University Of Flight Sweep The Men's Triple Jump? At the USATF outdoor championships earlier this summer, former University of Florida jumpers Omar Craddock [17.53m/57'6¼"], Will Claye [17.48/57'4¼"], and Marquis Dendy [17.23/56'6½"] finished 1-2-3 in the triple jump to join automatic WC qualifier Christian Taylor - the reigning Olympic TJ champion and also a former U of F athlete - as the quartet of USA hop-skip-and jumpers who will compete in Beijing. In the Hayward Field mixed zone after the USATF triple jump medal presentation, a jovial Craddock joshed that the Gainesville university is in the process of changing its name to the "University of Flight" - a remark that evoked chuckles from the media corps.  But a check of the TJ world leader board suggests that Craddock's light-hearted crack might not be that far-fetched. The 4 Gators are ranked #2 through #5 on this season's world list - suggesting a USA / U of F sweep is not a mere pipe dream. The athlete who could spoil a red, white, and blue [with perhaps orange and blue underneath] dress code requirement at the triple jump medal presentation is world leader Pedro Pichardo. The Cuban has the year's top two outdoor performances, including a PR bounce out to 18.08m [59'4"]. But with Taylor [T#2 at 18.06m/59'3"], Craddock [#3 at 17.53m/57'6¼"], Dendy [#4 at 17.50m/57'5"], and Claye [#5 at 7.48m/57'4¼"], a 1-2-3 world championship mTJ finish for the USA could happen if Pichardo would have a bad day at the office.One of the four Americans could even have an horrendous series in the final. If Pichardo would stumble, top performances by the other three Gainesville athletes could still make a US sweep a distinct possibility. And if the bouncing Gators can find a way to put three U of F athletes on podium during the triple jump medal ceremony, the U of F Board of Trustees just might have to take another look at Craddock's suggested name change.


Evan Jager, photo by PhotoRun.net

8. Can Evan Jager Earn USA's First-Ever m3000SC Medal? The United States has never had a steeplechaser on the World Championship medal stand. Never. Not a man. Not a woman. Nobody. Ever. Brian Diemer's 4th place finish in the 2nd World Championships held in Rome way back in 1987 is the closest an American steeplechaser has ever come to mounting the world championship podium . But could this be the year that the 3000sc curse in world championship competition is finally broken? It just might be if Evan Jager has anything to say about it. The 26-year old former Wisconsin athlete has been quietly and consistently honing his craft and elevating his game in an event that no American - with the possible exception of Jager - loves to tackle. Jager is #2 on the world leader board. And he would be #1 but for an awkward clearance over the final barrier in the Paris Diamond League gathering that caused him to stumble then ultimately fall. That spill prevented Jager from completing the sound thrashing he was administering upon Kenyan steeple great Jarious Barich - who was ranked #1 in the world in 2014. An astonished Barich hustled by the fallen Jager some 60 meters from the finish as the startled American scurried to get up. While Barich hit the line in a world-leading 7:58.83, Jager - despite going down - rallied to finish second in 8:00.45. Jager's clocking was yet another American record and a mark that places him #2 on the world leader board and #13 all time. While Barich and his Kenyan teammates - 20 year old upstart Conseslus Kiproto [WL#4 with 8:05.20] and cagy veteran Ezekiel Kemboi [WL#3 in 8:01.71 and the two-time defending 3000sc world champion and 2012 Olympic champion] - most certainly have other plans and tactics, this could well be the year that Evan Jager - who was 6th in the London Olympics and 5th in the Moscow world championships - breaks the curse, climbs the medal stand, and is presented with first-ever world championship steeplechase medal ever awarded to an American.


Mike Rodgers, photo by PhotoRun.net

9. Which Americans Will Earn Unexpected Medals? It is frustratingly difficult to successfully predict upset medalists. But, oh, it is exhilarating when you can be correct. I like to watch the opening rounds carefully, where clues of future performances often can be found. The viewing of earlier performances can make the uneven task of upset medal prognostication a little easier. Opening myself up for ridicule, I offer to you a few dark horses I think just might make the podium: battle-tested Mike Rodgers in the 100m; new professional Sam Kendricks in the pole vault; crafty veteran Wallace Spearmon in the 200m.

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Trey Hardee, photo by PhotoRun.net


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Ashton Eaton, photo by PhotoRun.net

10. Will Trey Hardee And Ashton Eaton Stage An Epic Decathlon Battle? What battle, you say? You're thinking - perhaps rightly so - that Eaton is the decathlon world record holder, the reigning multi-event Olympic champion and World champion, and he just recently rang up two new PR's: a spritely 400 meter in a sparkling 45.55 and a pole vault clearance of 5.45m [17'10½"]. So just give him the gold already, right? Not so fast. Trey Hardee just may have something to say about that. The 2009 and 2011 World champion knows what it takes to win gold. It was a vintage Hardee performance earlier this summer in the U.S. championships. A close second after Day One of the decathlon, Hardee unleashed an impressive second day which featured a PR performance of 5.35m [17'6½] in the pole vault. He had it going and he knew it. And he never took his foot off the gas. He scored 3712 points over the final 5 events to win the competition going away. And here's the scary part: by Hardee's own admission, his technical skills were still rusty, needing refinement; and he was just then rounding into shape in what was his first serious competition in a while. Remember: anything can happen in the decathlon - and usually does. In the two-day war that is the decathlon, multi-event athletes get injured, PR, no height, no mark, foul, and have miraculous breakthroughs - or some combination thereof. If Eaton unpacks his "A" game in the Bird's Nest, the gold is likely his. But if the defending champion is even slightly off and Hardee can rise to the occasion, we may just get to witness one of the sweetest decathlon duels in a very long time.

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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