Carlo Jonkerman, KweséESPN 91d

Africans feature prominently in Diamond League showdown

Athletics fans have enjoyed a feast in recent weeks, and that will again be the case - particularly for Africans - when the first of two IAAF Diamond League final events take place on Thursday in Zurich, Switzerland.

Weltklasse Zurich will bring together 16 new world champions as they try to add Diamond Race titles to their colections and claim a share of the $1.6-million prize money on offer.

Of course, there are countless other athletes that have been more consistent throughout the 2017 season, but may not have had the BMT in London... and for them, Thursday provides a second chance.

NEW FINALS SYSTEM

These IAAF Diamond League Finals - in Zurich and then Brussels in Belgium - are being held according to a revised system for the first time this year. While the best athletes of the current season qualified for the finals based on points acquired during the 12 preceding Diamond League meetings, the Diamond Race winners will be determined by the winners in the finals only.

"The new system enhances the status of our meeting even further, and it provides for added suspense and drama, as the points collected at the qualifying meetings have no influence on the outcome of the finals. Everyone starts at zero," said Andreas Hediger, Weltklasse Zürich Co-Meeting Director, on the event's website.

Up until Wayde van Niekerk's withdrawal last week, all 16 of Thursday's final events were set to feature their new world champions from London - and another in Mo Farah, as the the 10 000m isn't run in the Diamond League.

"The IAAF Diamond League thus also proves to be an ideal forum to get to the top of one's game for major championships," Hediger noted.

JUMPING THE GUN

African athletics fans will have to be patient in order to see their stars go for the pot of gold, as Thursday's action gets underway with five field events either side of the opening ceremony and athlete's presentation.

That being said, the women's triple jump (18:25, CAT), men's high jump (18:35, CAT) and men's pole vault at 19:10 (CAT) will be extremely watchable contests.

The plots to look out for are whether world champion Yulimar Rojas (Venezuela) can put her underwhelming triple jump performance in Birmingham behind her to overcome Colombia's Catherine Ibarguen again; how high Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim jumps as he seals the first perfect season since 2004; and whether American Sam Kendricks can continue his dominance over France's Renaud Lavillenie to effectively seal a handing over of the pole vault baton, so to speak.

Once the pomp and ceremony is completed at the Letzigrund Stadium, the women's javelin throw (19:25, CAT) and shot put (19:35, CAT) will also be intriguing affairs.

The big surprise of the women's javelin at the World Championships was the absence of Olympic champion and 2017 world leader Sara Kolak from the podium. However, neither of the Chinese silver and bronze medallists qualified for the finals here, so the 22-year-old Croatian is a shoe-in for a top three spot. But out-throwing world champion Barbora Spotakova (Czech Republic) will be the only compensation thinkable for her after her London disappointment.

All three medallists in the shot put, Gong Lijiao (China), Anita Marton (Hungary), and Michelle Carter (USA), will be present in Zurich, but American Daniella Bunch - who's thrown further than Marton and Carter in 2017 - is a rival hungry to cause an upset.

AFRICANS TO THE FORE

Once the on-track events get going with the men's 1500m at 20:13 (CAT), African interest, and also the potential for upsets, will be piqued.

On paper, the 1500m will be a head-to-head between world champion Elijah Manangoi and Timothy Cheruiyot, as it's been throughout the year for the Kenyans. Cheruiyot (21) has only got the better of his slightly older compatriot once in 2017, but even then it was when Ronald Kwemoi (who will run later in the 5000m) beat them both in the Kenyan trials.

There will be a whopping nine Kenyans in total in the field of 14, including three-time world champion and defending Diamond Race winner Asbel Kiprop. Norway's Filip Ingebrigtsen will again lead the non-African charge, with Jakub Holusa (Czech Republic), Marcin Lewandowski (Poland), and Morocco-born Bahraini Sadik Mikhou in tow.

Then, at 20:24 (CAT), Jamaica's Elaine Thompson will again look to show that she's the current queen of sprinting by ousting London medallists Dafne Schippers (Netherlands), Marie-Josee Ta Lou (Ivory Coast), and Shaunae Miller-Uibo of Bahamas.

Thompson skipped the 200m at the world championships, despite her 100m disappointment, but beat all three at that distance in Birmingham this past Sunday. Schippers tends to find her stride better over the half-lapper and will want to establish her world champion credibility and defend her Diamond Race crown, while Ta Lou will be desperate for a major win after her two silvers in London.

If any event in Zurich will be about 'redemption', then the women's 3000m steeplechase at 20:31 (CAT) will be it. The USA's Emma Coburn might have shocked the four Kenyans in London but on Thursday she doesn't have her friend Courtney Frerichs (who didn't qualify) as a sidekick, and faces seven Kenyans -- eight if you include Ruth Jebet, the 20-year-old who runs for Bahrain.

After taking bronze, Hyvin Kiyeng Jepkemoi is the outstanding candidate to restore her country's pride, but Celliphine Chepteek Chespol is the only women to run under nine minutes this year, and Beatrice Chepkoech has run consistently fast times in 2017.

Long jump world champion Luvo Manyonga will again be the clear favourite at 20:45 (CAT). Earlier in the season, his South African teammate Ruswahl Samaai pushed him hardest, but in recent times the USA's Jarrion Lawson has got the better of Samaai - claiming silver at Worlds and then winning in Birmingham - to emerge as the more likely to benefit if Manyonga doesn't dial his jumps in well.

While LJ van Zyl will secure African presence for the fifth straight event at Zurich, in the 400m hurdles at 20:49 (CAT), the South African has the slowest season-best time of the eight finalists.

As such, the storyline of this race will focus on whether Karsten Warholm can put the cherry on top of a season in which he has set a new Norwegian national record and then became a popular world champion at just 21 years of age.

Turkey's Yasmani Copello and Kerron Clement of the USA completed the podium in London, but Kyron McMaster (British Virgin Islands) - who has run the only sub-48 time in 2017 - will still be smarting from his disqualification at the world championships, so an intriguing race awaits

ACTION-PACKED CLIMAX

The final hour of the Weltklasse Zurich is enough to whet the 25 000-capacity crowd's appetite as much as at any time this season, and will see six events packed into the schedule.

The men's javelin throw competition will start at 20:55 (CAT), with world champion Johannes Vetter expected to come under pressure from his German colleague Thomas Rohler, who underperformed in failing to win a medal in London.

They're the only two to throw over 90m in 2017, while Czechs Jakub Vadlejch and Petr Frydrych (who hasn't qualified here) needed sub-90 personal bests to win silver and bronze. Finnish veteran Tero Pitkämäki is two years past throwing 89m at best, so will need the others to have a poor evening to roll back the years.

While that competition unfolds, the women's 800m will be first on track at 20:58 (CAT). With Caster Semenya having won her second world title in a time (1:55.16) that makes her the eighth-fastest over that distance ever, the South African is virtually unbeatable - try as hard as Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba might in 2017.

Margaret Wambui (Kenya) and Ethiopia-born Dutch 1500m-specialist Sifan Hassan will also aim for a strong race, but the question is how hard Semenya will go, bearing in mind her season ends here. If she gives it her all, can she become only the second runner (after Kenya's Pamela Jelimo in 2008) since the 1980s to get into the 1:54s?

The stadium will undoubtedly be buzzing after that race as the men's 100m takes place at 20:58 (CAT). Yes, there's no Usain Bolt - or world leader Christian Coleman for that matter - but there is controversial world champion Justin Gatlin.

South Africa's Akani Simbine is the only other world championship finalist in Thursday's line-up and has run the same season's best of 9:92 as Gatlin, but the 23-year-old's times have tailed off somewhat.

If Simbine needs any motivation for one last big effort, though, then the presence of Ben Youssef Meité (Ivory Coast) but more so Chijindu 'CJ' Ujah should do it. Ujah, the 23-year-old Briton of Nigerian descent, is emerging out of Bolt's shadow as clearly as any young sprinter around, and won his fourth 100m race at 2017 Diamond League meetings in Birmingham.

Thereafter it will be another 'Mo Show', as the henceforth known Mohamed Farah will run his final track race in the 5000m at 21:14 (CAT) - before moving on to the roads.

Of course, at London Muktar Edris and his Ethiopian teammates Yomi Kejelcha and Selemon Barega put paid to the Briton enjoying a final worlds 'double' and those same protagonists will all be in action again.

Farah will undoubtedly attempt to force a faster race than the slow tactical one that unfolded then, and in terms of season's best he may want to coax such a scenario out of Bahrain's Albert Rop, USA's Paul Chelimo (both Kenya-born), Canada's Mohammed Ahmed (born in Somalia, like Farah) and maybe even from Ethiopian Yenew Alamirew, who wasn't selected for worlds.

Much like the world championships, Australia's Sally Pearson will find herself up against the Americans in the 100m hurdles at 21:35 (CAT) - five of them in fact. Dawn Harper-Nelson took silver in London behind her, but Pearson's main threat may well come from Jasmin Stowers, who has run the second-fastest time of 2017 but missed out on world championships selection at the tough US trials.

And then comes the final act. In drawing up the schedule for this Diamond League final, organisers would have been cooing at the prospect of the new darling of athletics, Wayde van Niekerk, producing something special. The silver lining to his injury-enforced absence is that Botswana's Isaac Makwala has become somewhat of a talking point too.

While Makwala missed out on the 400m world title due to illness, with the fastest 2017 time of the finalists (43.84) he could well become the IAAF Diamond Race winner - much more so than South Africa's Pieter Conradie, who has the slowest personal best of the eight men.

Makwala prospects all told, London silver medallist Steven Gardiner won't be one for sentimentality, and will be as eager to take the prize back to Bahamas as ever.

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