With Ennis, athletics gets off to fast start
Fri, 03 Aug 2012 6:15a.m.
By Raf Casert
When Jessica Ennis crouches into the blocks and a hush descends on the stadium, the host nation's Olympic attention will suddenly switch to athletics.
The track and field program starts Friday at the London Games and Ennis, one of Britain's best chances of a gold medal in the Olympics, gets her heptathlon underway within a half hour in the 100-meter hurdles.
While the duel between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake in the 100 will dominate the weekend competition, the first session will be all about Ennis for the British fans. She'll run in the hurdles and compete in the high jump, the first two of the seven disciplines in her event.
Ennis knows she'll need to have a lightning start, considering the sprint hurdles is one of her best events and she needs to build an immediate lead over her biggest rivals, world champion Tatyana Chernova of Russia and defending champion Natallia Dobrynska of Ukraine.
Add the crowds, and the nation's expectations, and it could all become a bit much for Ennis.
"I'm trying not to think about it too much, because that again adds more pressure," Ennis said.
Last year in Daegu, Chernova ended the world championship reign of Ennis with a strong second day, and for the Russian it will be a question of limiting the damage on Friday.
Dobrynska's form is unclear. After setting a world record to win the indoor pentathlon world championship in March, her husband and coach Dmytro Polyakov died and in the last major heptathlon test in Goetzis, Austria, she finished well behind winner Ennis and runner-up Chernova.
The opening day will also have the finals of the men's shot put and the women's 10,000. On top of that, the U.S.-Jamaica sprint rivalry will kick off with the heats in the women's 100. As in Beijing four years ago, it is expected to be the defining story of the games.
It was a wipeout four years ago, with Jamaicans Bolt and Veronica Cambell-Brown in starring roles. Now, the Americans are bent to restore their historical dominance.
"The Americans and Jamaicans have been going back and forth for several years, especially in the sprints. We do enjoy racing against each other because we are very competitive," Campbell-Brown said.
Campbell-Brown will be going for her third 200 Olympic title in a row next week, but lines up with defending champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce to face Americans Carmelita Jeter and Allyson Felix in the 100 heats Friday evening.
That should be a real U.S-Jamaica battle come Saturday's final, while everyone expects Sunday's men's final to be a showdown between Jamaican training partners Bolt and Blake.
Tyson Gay and 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin hope they will be in it for more than just a scramble for bronze.
"It's important for the Americans to get back on top in the sprints," said Gay.
By Friday night, the U.S. team could already have its first gold in hand, considering its strength in depth in the shot put with Christian Cantwell, Reese Hoffa and Ryan Whiting. Since Randy Barnes' gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games though, the title has escaped the Americans. And this time, the main threat comes from German David Storl. At 22, he already is world and European champion and has always peaked when it really matters.
The Jamaica vs. United States rivalry in the sprints translates to Kenya vs. Ethiopia in the long distance races and that one starts with the women's 10,000 in Friday's last event.
It will pit Ethiopia's Tirunesh Dibaba, seeking to become the first repeat champion in the race, against world champion Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya.
Both have a long-distance double on their mind. Dibaba already did it in Beijing four years ago and Cheruiyot clinched both 5,000 and 10,000 at last year's world championships in Daegu.
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