Athletics
Carlo Jonkerman, KweséESPN 121d

Monaco turns into 'World Champs lite'

Considering the stellar line-up for Friday's Herculis EBS meeting in Monaco, athletics fans are in for a World Championships 'lite'... especially as some Africans need big performances to secure Diamond League Final slots.

All of Usain Bolt, Caster Semenya, Kendra Harrison, Conseslus Kipruto and Wayde van Niekerk (who ironically is one of those currently short of a Diamond League Final ticket) will be in action during the 30th anniversary of this meeting at Stade Louis II.

It is the final IAAF Diamond League meeting before the World Championships in London so if anything the track and field stars in action will be nearing peak form, ready to light up Friday in the principality.

As it happens, the 12-event programme starts at 19:30 (CAT) with the strongest men's pole vault field so far this season but it will only be in the next event that African interest begins.

The men's javelin competition starts at 19:55 (CAT) and will feature an African Olympic Champion in Julius Yego. That said, in 2017 the Kenyan has yet to discover the form that took him to the top step at Rio 2016. So much so that he's currently outside the top eight who qualify for the Diamond League Final in Zurich (in late August) and his best this season is a 87.97m throw at the Kenyan nationals back in June which has been bettered by six other athletes this year.

Three of them, Germans Thomas Rohler and Johannes Vetter as well as Czech Republic's Jakub Vadljech, will also take part on Friday night and Yego needs a top-4 placing to secure a Diamond League Final place (and send some pre-London 2017 signals), so it's now or never time for him.

An early interlude in the Diamond League events will see an intriguing women's 400m hurdles run at 20:03 (CAT). Though Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad won't be running, South Africa's Wenda Nel will be able to chart her progress against the next-best hurdlers in Shamier Little, Kori Carter and Ashley Spencer (all USA).

Thereafter, at 20:15 (CAT), there will be stacked field in the men's 1500m and this time Africans are the undoubted favourites. Kenya's Timothy Cheruiyot and Ronald Kwemoi are the two fastest this year and both will be running. As will their compatriots Elijah Manangoi, Charles Cheboi Simotwo and Asbel Kiprop -- the meeting record holder who also needs a strong performance to secure his Diamond League Final place before switching his focus to defending his world title in London.
Considering those names it's almost strange to think that no Kenyan won a medal at Rio 2016... even more so because the gold medallist, USA's Matthew Centrowitz, will be an outsider for the two and a half laps around Stade Louis II!

If that race somehow doesn't whet the appetites of African athletics fans then the men's 400m at 20:25 (CAT) surely will. Botswana's Isaac Makwala -- he of record-breaking feats in Madrid a week ago -- will run. So will his compatriot, and reigning African champion Baboloki Thebe. However, they are mere aperitifs as athletics' number 1 current performer Wayde van Niekerk will be in action too. The South African has been in such imperious form that a record tumbles almost every time he runs. That said, his continental rivals will bank on him treating this race strictly as a final pre-World Championships tune-up and perhaps leave the door open for them to claim a scalp... either way, a fascinating race awaits.

There'll be no let up ten minutes either, when all four African 800m stars take to the track. Caster Semenya suffered the ignominy of finishing second-last last Sunday in Rabat, but that was in a star-studded 400m race and it was to get speed in her legs to hopefully run a fast time in Monaco. If that's not motivation enough, then having Francine Niyonsaba (Burundi), Margaret Wambui and Eunice Sum (Kenya) looking to capitalise on any frailties should push the 26-year-old South African. An interesting sub-plot to the race will be how Sifan Hassan, the Ethiopia-born Dutch 1500m star, goes.

One thing that's clear, is that at 20:45 (CAT) Marie-Josee Ta Lou will go fast in the women's 200m. While the 28-year-old Ivorian is not quite in the top bracket of sprinters she is arguably in the form of her career having set her 200m PB -- 22.16 -- a few weeks ago in Lausanne and a victory over American starlet Kendra Jefferson will be just the fillip for her as she targets a World Championships medal in London.

Form will be an odd one in the third-last event of the programme, the women's 3000m at 21:15 (CAT). Only two of the 15 entries have raced the distance so far in 2017, one of them Ethiopia's Gelete Burka who has run the fastest 10000m this season. On the other hand, the world's leading 5000m runner, Hellen Obiri (Kenya), is also in the field as are her compatriots-come-rivals Agnes Tirop and Lilian Rengeruk so this race may well be the most topsy-turvy of the night. Going by PBs for the 3000m distance, USA's Shannon Rowbury could well be a contender too.

Of course, anything that may have happened in the stadium will count for nought during 10 or so seconds at 21:35 (CAT) because that's when the athletics' main man Usain Bolt will be 'in the house'. The 30-year-old Jamaican has promised a show for his final race before London 2017 but there are question marks as to whether he is in the right shape yet to deliver it... He may well have to break 10 seconds for the first time in 2017 for if he doesn't then South Africa's Akani Simbine may be in line deliver the shock of all shocks. There is also Nigerian-Briton Chijindu Ujah and American Christopher Belcher ready to pounce.

Either way, the atmosphere for the men's 3000m steeplechase -- the final IAAF Diamond League event before the 2017 IAAF World Championships -- should be electric. As it is, Olympic champion Conseslus Kipruto may well need something to spark his season to life again as the Kenyan missed the last month with a niggling injury which also forced him off the track during the Rabat meeting last weekend. Should the 22-year-old continue to be off his game, any one of his countrymen Jairus Kipchoge Birech, Amos Kirui, Abraham Kibiwott and Benjamin Kigen will be all too happy to take the plaudits and the initiative into London 2017.

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