With a new year comes a new set of storylines, athletes and races to watch in the world of track and field. Now that the non-championship year is thankfully behind us, there is a clear target with the IAAF World Championships in Doha. Aside from the big one, there are, of course, the major marathons, NCAA Championships and the regularly scheduled Diamond League
Here are 19 things we are excited to see in 2019. The first 10 are below, while the rest of the list comes tomorrow.
1) Rai Benjamin vs. Abderrahman Samba
Entering the 2018 season, neither man was on any sort of world-record watch in the 400m hurdles. Twelve months later, it’s fair to say that these two make up the most anticipated one-on-one matchup on the track. Their best times are remarkably close to each other (46.98 for Samba, 47.02 for Benjamin), and within striking distance of the magical mark of 46.78.
Neither man was seriously challenged in 2018 and with each other’s company could certainly provide the boost needed to find those extra tenths of a second.
2) Sydney McLaughlin's Diamond League debut
For all of McLaughlin’s accomplishments, it’s strange to think she’s never run in a Diamond League race. She’s faced plenty of tough competition (U.S. Champs, Olympic Trials, Olympics), but last year all of her races were confined to the NCAA season.
Of course, that meant virtually no competition for her in the 400m hurdles. Part of what makes McLaughlin fascinating to watch is not just what she’s done at such a young age, but how she’s done it -- always in command and (at least in 2018) never under duress.
How much faster will she go when she’s able to race the best in the world whenever she wants? This goes for the 400m as well -- she ran her personal best of 50.07 at an uncontested race in March.
3) The return of Wayde Van Niekerk
The latest reports have Van Niekerk coming back in the summer. With the 2019 calendar that should give the world record holder a couple months to get race ready before he tries to defend his title at the World Championships on October.
Just what type of form he is in is anyone’s guess. Before his ACL injury, Van Niekerk was fresh off the 2017 World Championships where he won the 400m and took second in the 200m, narrowly missing the rare double. If he’s capable of low 43s once again, he should be clear for his fourth global gold medal. But if he’s even slightly diminished, there’s a group of others (led by Michael Norman) who can challenge him.
4) Does David Rudisha have anything left?
Speaking of injuries to world record holders, we haven’t seen Rudisha since July of 2017. Rudisha wasn’t as in command of his event as Van Niekerk when he stepped away, dropping three of his four races of 2017, but he is the world record holder and even if he doesn’t have a 1:40.91 in his arsenal anymore, he is only two years removed from an Olympic gold medal. As a whole, the 800m has a few openings. Emmanuel Korir looks to be the man to beat, but has yet to win a global medal and truly asserted control of the event.
5) Can anyone stop Caster Semenya's win streak?
The best candidate to get in Semenya’s way is the sport’s governing body which Semenya is taking to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in early spring. If Semenya wins the case and is allowed to compete, expect another season of fast times and wire-to-wire wins.
Her last loss in the 800m came on Sept. 6, 2015. Throughout her win streak, Semenya hasn’t been truly challenged, but she has pulled others to faster and faster times. While nobody likes losing, I’m sure they at least have some appreciation for the consistent pacemaking she provides. Expect Francine Niyonsaba, Ajee Wilson and Natoya Goule to be there if Semenya ever has a slip-up.
6) Crazy Doha World Champs schedule
When you hold the World Championships on the closest thing the earth has to the surface of the sun, there are going to be some tweaks to the schedule. The most noticeable is the late start date of the meet, which begins on Sept. 27 and runs through Oct. 6. There have been other big meets in the fall (the Seoul Olympics were also in late September), but this one stretches all the way into October.
The pros should be able to handle it (the U.S. Championships meet has shifted to accommodate). It will certainly be more challenging for NCAA athletes who have their outdoor championships at the beginning of June.
To avoid the heat, there have also been some interesting shifts to the typical schedule:
-The marathon takes place at midnight for both men and women;
-The heptathlon 800m is at 12:05 a.m., the decathlon 1500m will take place at 12:15 a.m.;
-The men’s 10,000m is on the last day of the meet (probably not weather related, but I’m used to being in the beginning of the meet).
7) Sifan Hassan's 10,000m debut
The women’s distance runner with the most ridiculous range (1:56 800m, 1:05 half-marathon) seems preternaturally built for a 10,000m. But she’s never raced one on the track. She’s also never won a global outdoor gold medal -- an unbelievable omission for someone with her personal bests and ability to be at the front of every race she’s entered. The 10,000m could be where Hassan finally gets gold. The enigmatic Almaz Ayana casts a long shadow over the event, but she hasn’t raced since 2017. Even if she is at full strength, Hassan has the speed and endurance to run with her for 25 laps.
8) Another chapter of Salwa Eid Naser vs. Shaunae Miller-Uibo in the 400
These don’t happen often so you have to savor them when they do arrive. The two 400m stars have only raced three times in their careers, one coming last year in Monaco. That race was a classic with Miller-Uibo going under 49 seconds for the first time in her career and Naser pushing her the entire race. Even if we only see these two once in 2019 it will be worth it.
9) Can Juan Miguel Echevarria break the long jump world record?
Mike Powell’s 8.95m leap from 1991 has been gathering dust for years. With no solid candidates over much of the past decade to take a legitimate shot, it looked like it Powell’s mark could last another 25 years.
But in 2018, a 19-year-old from Cuba with an 8.28-meter personal gave off strong hints that he might be the one to push the event out of a rut. Echevarria jumped 8.66m and 8.68m in June, the best jumps since 2009. His most famous leap, however, was a barely wind-illegal 8.83m where he almost cleared the pit. Injuries shortened his season and 8.95 still marks a significant improvement, but Echevarria has all the markings of someone who could make history.
‼️8.83‼️ (+2.1) Longest jump in 23 years and almost jumps OUT OF THE PITpic.twitter.com/4Tk2USoi9u— FloTrack (@FloTrack) June 10, 2018
10) Does the U.S. women's marathon pecking order get sorted out headed into the Olympic Trials?
If most of the American women rest during the fall season in preparation for the Trials, then there is really only one marathon to sort out what is a spectacularly muddy women’s marathon field.
Des Linden is committed to Boston. As is Jordan Hasay, who missed her last two races with injuries. Conspicuously absent was Shalane Flanagan. She is taking a break from running and hasn’t made any other statements about her future. If Flanagan does decide to retire, that will certainly open up one spot on the team. But it will still be an absolutely brutal team to make. Molly Huddle was a strong fourth in New York, Amy Cragg ran 2:21.42 in 2018 and Emily Sisson is expected to make her debut at the distance this year.