Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The top track and field athletes heading into the Tokyo Olympics

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While a few would-be gold-medal threats are not headed to Japan, numerous reigning Olympic and world champions are set to represent their countries. A few world records will be in jeopardy. Factoring in accomplishments and 2021 form, here is a look at the top track and field athletes bound for the Tokyo Games. 


30. Gabby Thomas, USA

Gabby Thomas, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the U.S. trials, the Harvard alum’s best 200-meter time was 22.17 seconds — good for 323rd all time. After three personal-best races to qualify for her first Olympics, Thomas’ new career-best time — 21.61 — makes her the second-fastest woman ever at this distance. While the current epidemiology grad student is a full-on gold-medal threat, she joined three other women with previously unspectacular PRs in blazing to sub-22-second times in Eugene, Ore., at the trials. It is difficult to reconcile Thomas’ place, but her rapid rise adds spice to the oft-overlooked sprint event come Tokyo.


29. Athing Mu, USA

Athing Mu, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s women’s 800 meters will look considerably different. An IAAF rule prohibiting two-time gold medalist Caster Semenya and elite contemporaries Margaret Wambui (Kenya) and Francine Niyonsaba (Berundi) from competing without curbing their testosterone levels changes the 800 field. One of the great mid-distance prospects in U.S. history will benefit. Mu, 19, set NCAA 400- and 800-meter records in her freshman slate at Texas A&M, and the New Jersey native blew away a veteran field at the U.S. trials. Mu’s trials-record 1:56.07 time leads the world this year. She is gunning to be the first American woman to win Olympic 800 gold since 1968.


28. Trayvon Bromell, USA

Trayvon Bromell, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Track will feel the Usain Bolt void at these Olympics, and these Games also will not include the current world’s fastest man. With Bolt retired, world champion Christian Coleman banned and Justin Gatlin now 39, a comeback story takes center stage in the men’s sprint world. A former world championship bronze medalist, Bromell battled a heel injury at the 2016 Olympics and then spent years off the radar. The 25-year-old St. Petersburg, Fla., native re-emerged in 2021 and leads the world with a 9.77-second 100-meter time. The U.S. trials champion is the gold-medal favorite in the marquee track event.


27. Pawel Fajdek, Poland

Pawel Fajdek, Poland

Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

Fajdek is positioned to check off the one noticeable hole on his resume. The 32-year-old has won the past four world titles in the hammer throw but has yet to collect an Olympic medal. Winner in his event in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019, Fajdek finished 11th as a young thrower at the 2012 London Games and failed to make the hammer final in Rio four years later. He is the first four-time hammer throw world champion, and his 2021 best (272 feet, 2 inches) doubles as the world lead going to Tokyo. He sits in prime position to exorcise some big-stage demons.


26. Noah Lyles, USA

Noah Lyles, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The world’s top 200-meter runner over the past three-plus years, Lyles won the 2019 world title going away after dropping a 19.50-second clocking at age 20 a year earlier. But coming off the COVID-altered 2020 season, Lyles did not look himself for most of 2021. He struggled in the 100 final at the trials and has shown vulnerability in his signature event. But Lyles, 23, did win the 200 at the trials — in a world-leading 19.74 — and has a few weeks to craft a new peak in Japan. Lyles does not wow out of the blocks, but the fast-finishing Floridian is the fourth-fastest ever at 200 and enters these Games favored in the event. 


25. Hellen Obiri, Kenya

Hellen Obiri, Kenya

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

These will be Obiri’s third Olympics and perhaps her final chance at a gold medal on the sport’s grand stage. Obiri, 31, has won her signature event — the 5,000 meters — in each of the past two world championships, setting a championship record in 2019. She finished second to fellow Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyut at the 2016 Olympics. Obiri faces a much younger top challenger this year — Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay, who has the top 5,000 time in the world. The 24-year-old’s best (14:13.32 seconds) betters Obiri’s championship-record time by 5 seconds, raising the degree of difficulty for the proven veteran.


24. Elaine Thompson-Herah, Jamaica

Elaine Thompson-Herah, Jamaica

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the shadow of ageless countrywoman Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Thompson-Herah is the reigning Olympic 100- and 200-meter champion. A years-long battle with an Achilles injury, however, has played a part in the 29-year-old collecting no additional global gold medals since Rio. That said, only Fraser-Pryce has run sub-10.8 seconds more often than her eight such showings. Thompson, who also has a 21.6-second 200 on her resume (from 2015, but still), finished behind Fraser-Pryce and 400 convert Shericka Jackson at the Jamaican trials but beat the sprint legend in Hungary this month. Can she pull the upset in Tokyo?


23. Gong Lijiao, China

Gong Lijiao, China

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most decorated Tokyo-bound athletes, Lijiao has won eight global medals dating back to the Beijing Games in 2008. The 32-year-old shot putter is the two-time reigning women’s world champion in the event and has collected two Olympic medals — bronze in Beijing, at age 19, and silver in London in 2012. Lijiao beat reigning the reigning Olympic champ — American Michelle Carter, who did not vie for these Games due to injury — at the 2017 world championships. Lijiao’s 66-foot, 9-inch throw last month leads the world in the event, giving her a prime opportunity to capture an elusive Olympic gold.


Brittney Reese, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Reese should be a bigger name stateside. The all-time long jump great is one of a few women gunning for Olympic immortality in Tokyo. No woman has won the same Olympic track and field event (non-relays) three times. Reese won gold in London and Rio, in addition to four world titles in the event dating back to 2009, and has now qualified for four Olympics. The 34-year-old Inglewood, Calif., native’s personal-best mark came in 2016, but her 23-foot, 4-inch jump to win the U.S. trials ranks third in the world this year. Reese did not medal in 2019 but is back on the map just in time for a historic pursuit.


21. Anita Wlodarczyk, Poland

Anita Wlodarczyk, Poland

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Nineteen of the 21 best results in women’s hammer throw history belong to Wlodarczyk, who set the world record 2016 Olympics. Her Rio mark (272 feet, 2 inches) is nearly 10 feet better than any other woman’s best. While the two-time Olympic champion and four-time world champ is the best women’s hammer thrower ever, she is 35 and has not been in peak form since 2018. A 2019 knee surgery sidelined the Polish star for those world championships, but her 2021 top throw ranks third this year. She joins Reese, sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and discus thrower Sandra Perkovic (Croatia) bidding to be the first women to win three Olympic golds in an individual event.


20. DeAnna Price, USA

DeAnna Price, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Price will be up against the greatest women’s hammer thrower ever (Wlodarczyk), but the gregarious Troy, Mo., product is the reigning world champion and has shown better form than the Polish kingpin this year. Price, 28, broke the U.S. record twice at the trials last month. That distance (263 feet, 4 inches) betters everyone else by at least 7 feet this year. Price sits behind only Wlodarczyk in this event’s history, setting up a showdown. No American woman has won an Olympic medal in this event, though it only debuted at the Games in 2000.


19. Wayde Van Niekerk, South Africa

Wayde Van Niekerk, South Africa

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Van Niekerk has not shown much in the past four years, with an ACL tear in a celebrity rugby match sidetracking the South African’s career. But he is qualified for Tokyo and his past dominance cannot be dismissed. Van Niekerk dropped the performance of the Rio Games by breaking Michael Johnson’s 400-meter record, lowering it to 43.03 seconds despite running in lane 8. His ascent also included two 400 world titles. Van Niekerk’s return gives the 400 some momentum, with reigning world champion Steven Gardiner (Bahamas) and U.S. budding star Michael Norman also sporting sub-43.5-second career bests.


18. Rai Benjamin, USA

Rai Benjamin, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Although the women’s 200-meter dash boasts tantalizing possibilities, the men’s 400-meter hurdles may be these Olympics’ top track event. Benjamin represents a key reason why. The reigning world silver medalist nearly broke a 29-year-old world record at the U.S. trials, demolishing the field with a 46.84-second clocking. But top rival Karsten Warholm did break Kevin Young’s mark a week later. It took only 47.7 to win gold in this event in Rio; that might not place sixth in Tokyo. Though Warholm has a slight edge, Benjamin will be a live underdog in a race that could see the world record lowered again.


17. Yulimar Rojas, Venezuela

Yulimar Rojas, Venezuela

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While the triple jump does not register as one of track and field’s glamour events, a world record may fall in here in Tokyo. The silver medalist in 2016, Rojas unseated longtime triple jump boss Caterine Ibarguen (Colombia) by winning the past two world championships. Rojas’ best jump this year — a 50-foot, 6-inch result in May — leads the world by a sizable margin and ranks second all time. Her top three jumps rank second, third and fifth in history. The 25-year-old talent is less than 3 inches from Inessa Kravets’ 26-year-old world record. 


16. Keni Harrison, USA

Keni Harrison, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Few athletes will head to Tokyo under more pressure, but Harrison has checked off one key box by merely qualifying for the Games. The premier 100-meter hurdler would have been a gold-medal threat in 2016 but failed to make the U.S. team at those trials. Harrison broke a 28-year-old world record later that summer but had to watch as Team USA swept the event in Rio. No one has come close to Harrison’s record (12.20 seconds), but a gold medal eludes her. Harrison, 28, may well be the favorite. But that has been the case in past big spots. And fellow Kentucky alum Jasmine Camacho-Quinn (Puerto Rico) has dropped this year’s top two times.


15. Grant Holloway, USA

Grant Holloway, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Months after breaking a decades-old NCAA 110-meter hurdles record, the former Florida Gator sensation won the 2019 world title in Qatar. Holloway has taken another step forward this year and resides on his own tier going into Tokyo. The Chesapeake, Va., native dominated a world-class field at the U.S. trials and blazed to a 12.81-second clocking in the semifinals. That time is .01 of a second off Aries Merritt‘s world record. With reigning Olympic champion Omar McLeod failing to make Jamaica’s team, Holloway is a runaway favorite for gold. The 23-year-old looks poised to be one of this era’s top track athletes. 


14. Johannes Vetter, Germany

Johannes Vetter, Germany

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While Vetter’s pursuit of Jan Zeleny’s 25-year-old world record will likely be confined to “Let’s get an update on the field events” on NBC, the German has established himself as one of the best javelin throwers in history. Vetter, 28, owns seven of the top 13 marks in the event’s history. His 315-foot, 9-inch throw in May topped all 2021 performances by over 22 feet. A gold medalist at the 2017 World Championships and bronze medalist in 2019, Vetter finished just off the podium in at the 2016 Olympics. He will be the gold-medal favorite in Tokyo.


13. Joe Kovacs, USA

Joe Kovacs, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While not housing the favorites in the other men’s throwing events, the U.S. remains the world’s shot-putting headquarters. The Kovacs-Ryan Crouser rivalry extends to a second Olympics, and while Crouser may be slightly ahead, his stout competitor is a very live dog in Tokyo. He of a squat max around 900 pounds, Kovacs is coached by his wife and has two world championships and an Olympic silver on his resume. This includes a historic competition in 2019, when his winning throw eclipsed Crouser’s by 1 centimeter. The Penn State alum ranks top 10 all time in the event. This may be the 31-year-old’s final chance at Olympic gold.


12. Letesenbet Gidey, Ethiopia

Letesenbet Gidey, Ethiopia

Jose Jordan/AFP via Getty Images

The 23-year-old distance runner has accomplished plenty before her first Olympics. Gidey, 23, will enter these Games as the world record holder in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs. One of the numerous dynamos to come out of the African long-distance powerhouse, Gidey broke countrywoman Trunish Dibaba’s 12-year-old 5,000 record last year and eclipsed the 10K record this year — two days after Sifan Hassan broke it. Gidey will only run the 10K in Tokyo. While that lengthy race requires a substantial viewing commitment, it is, as of now, slated to include two women — Gidey and Hassan — who set a world record in 2021.


11. Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Bahamas

Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Bahamas

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Miller-Uibo represents the top wild card among sprinters at these Games. The 6-foot-1 standout is the reigning 400-meter Olympic champ and has elite 200 chops as well. These Olympics’ schedule bizarrely prevents a 200-400 double and will force Miller-Uibo to choose. While the 400 field has considerably thinned — due to 400 world champion Salwa Eid Naser‘s ban and other developments — the Georgia alum would be perhaps the 200 favorite if she entered that crowded competition. Miller-Uibo, 27, has this era’s best chance to break Marita Koch’s decades-old, PED-aided 400 world record at some point, raising the stakes for the Caribbean star.


10. Joshua Cheptegei, Uganda

Joshua Cheptegei, Uganda

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The men’s long-distance races will go off without British icon Mo Farah, the two-time reigning Olympic champ in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs. Cheptegei is the heir apparent. The 24-year-old Ugandan did not medal at the Rio Games, but he was a teenager at the time. Since, Cheptegei has broken world records at both distances. The 2019 10,000 world champion broke Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele‘s near-20-year-old records in both races during the COVID-marred 2020 season and will aim to succeed Farah as track’s long-distance kingpin in Tokyo.


9. Dalilah Muhammad, USA

Dalilah Muhammad, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Women’s sprint and hurdle records have not moved much in the 21st century; Muhammad is responsible for two such moments. The Queens, N.Y., native broke a 16-year-old 400-meter hurdles record in 2019, on a rainy Des Moines day, and lowered it at the world championships two months later. In both races, Muhammad edged burgeoning superstar Sydney McLaughlin. The pandemic delaying the Games may have hurt Muhammad, now 31 and coming off a COVID-19 bout and a 2021 injury. But she shook off rust and challenged the new world-record holder last month. She figures to be in better form in Tokyo. The last three Muhammad-McLaughlin duels have produced world records.


8. Karsten Warholm, Norway

Karsten Warholm, Norway

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After mounting a feverish pursuit of Kevin Young’s 400-meter hurdle world record in 2020, when the pandemic induced many standouts to condense or bypass their schedules, Warholm did not run his primary event until July of this year. In that race, the energetic Norwegian broke Young’s record in his native Oslo. Warholm’s 46.70-second time gave him a leg up on Rai Benjamin ahead of what will be a hotly anticipated showdown — in a final that should also feature some sleeper threats. Warholm, 25, has won the past two world titles and has his elusive world record. Olympic gold is all his resume lacks.


7. Sydney McLaughlin, USA

Sydney McLaughlin, USA

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

No current American track athlete’s ceiling is higher. The 400 hurdle prodigy became the youngest U.S. track Olympian since 1972, at 17, and the New Jersey native made the semis five years ago in Brazil. Now 21, McLaughlin will head to Tokyo as the gold-medal favorite. McLaughlin pushed Dalilah Muhammad at the 2019 World Championships but ran just one 400 hurdle race between that Oct. 2019 showdown and last month’s U.S. trials. The unorthodox plan worked; the polished hurdler became the first woman to break the 52-second barrier in this event. The one-and-done Kentucky Wildcat is almost certainly not done shaving time off that record.


6. Armand Duplantis, Sweden

Armand Duplantis, Sweden

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Duplantis broke a 26-year-old pole vault record at age 20, and the wunderkind Swede has created a gap between himself and the field. Although the U.S.’s Sam Kendricks has won the past two world titles, Duplantis has established himself as the clear Tokyo favorite. A Louisiana native who represents his mother’s home country, Duplantis was an LSU one-and-done who set the NCAA record barely a year before his world-record performance (20 feet, 2 inches). He is the only active vaulter to have cleared 20 feet and has done so twice. His prowess will make major pole vault competitions for the next several years geometrically enthralling. 


5. Faith Kipyegon, Kenya

Faith Kipyegon, Kenya

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Though only 27, Kipyegon has been on the world stage for a while. The 1,500-meter specialist was an Olympian at age 18, and although she was not a finalist in London, she has made every global final since. Kipyegon has collected four global medals, with 2016’s Olympic title being her top achievement. Kipyegon defeated Ethiopian world-record holder Genzebe Dibaba in the Rio 1,500 final and topped superstar Sifan Hassan for the 2017 gold. Hassan beat Kipyegon in the 2019 final, setting the stage for a monster showdown in Tokyo between mid-distance all-timers in their primes. Kipyegon is up 7-6 in their seven-year series thus far.


4. Ryan Crouser, USA

Ryan Crouser, USA

Andy Nelson via Imagn Content Services, LLC

At a U.S. trials that featured scorching track performances, Crouser breaking Randy Barnes’ 31-year-old shot put mark stood out as the signature achievement. And it came months after Crouser broke Barnes’ 32-year-old indoor shot mark. On a shot put list dotted with PED usage, with Barnes part of the event’s checkered past, Crouser has put several marks at and around the top. The 28-year-old holds 10 of the top 18 throws in shot history, and the Oregon native’s record-breaking result — 76 feet, 7 inches — broke the record by nearly a foot. The 6-foot-7, 320-pound thrower is in strong position to defend his Olympic title in Tokyo.


Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya


Kipchoge’s status is a bit different, given that he has stepped away from pure track events after a decorated career on that front. But the 36-year-old distance runner has become perhaps the greatest marathoner ever. Kipchoge has won 12 of the 13 marathons he has entered — a list that includes the 2016 Rio marathon — and set distance-running Twitter ablaze by breaking the 2-hour barrier in 2019. Though that race did not qualify as a world record, Kipchoge owns that too. A two-time Olympic medalist in the 5,000 meters, Kipchoge certainly has nothing left to prove. But he will attempt to amaze once again.


2. Sifan Hassan, The Netherlands

Sifan Hassan, The Netherlands

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kipyegon set a Kenyan national record in the 1,500 meters at the 2019 World Championships; Hassan won that race by more than 2 seconds. The Ethiopian-born runner has displayed incredible versatility, delivering elite showings from 1,500 up to 10,000-meter races. Hassan won the 1,500 and 10,000 races in 2019 and collected a bronze in the 5,000 in 2017. The 28-year-old Dutch runner is entered in all three races in Tokyo and is set to face elite African competition. While Hassan might end up dropping out of one of these races, these Games represent her prime window to establish a uniquely dominant legacy. 


1. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The greatest women’s sprinter remains underrated. Usain Bolt‘s otherworldly skills overshadowed his countrywoman’s, and Florence Griffith-Joyner’s almost certainly PED-aided records have lowered the achievement ceiling for female sprinters. Fraser-Pryce, however, has accomplished everything else. The 5-foot Jamaican, 34, has two Olympic 100-meter golds and a bronze. She has four 100 world championships and a 200 title. The 2019 crown came after the birth of her son. Sha’Carri Richardson would have posed a new challenge, but Fraser-Pryce’s top 100 time (10.63, set in June) trails only FloJo’s. Tokyo could be a coronation for a Jamaican who has dominated longer than Bolt, though the women’s 100 and 200 fields are deep.

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