Seven Runners to Watch at the World Championships

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Photo of Usain Bolt by thor_matt83/Flickr

The World Track and Field Championships kicked off Friday evening in Daegu, South Korea. (You can pony up $15 to watch it live on, or not.) The meet is held only in odd years, which means there hasn't been a global championship since 2009. And with the 2012 Olympics looming next summer, runners are under serious pressure to perform well before London. From Caster Semenya to Usain Bolt, here's who you need to watch over the next week. Excited? I sure am.

7. Can the Caster Semenya Story Get Any Weirder?
Semenya, the defending 800-meter champion, got tossed into a worldwide media firestorm after reports surfaced in 2009 questioning her gender. After months of scandalous fumbling by the IAAF and the South African athletics federation, Semenya was given permission to race again on the world circuit. Ealier this month Semenya said she was in world record shape. A week later someone in her training group told the media that she was overweight and out of shape. There is no question that Semenya is a different runner today than she was in 2009, so what changed?

6. Can an American woman win a legitimate medal in the 1,500?
Since 1983, three American women have medaled in the 1,500. Two of them later tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The third, Shannon Rowbury, came by her bronze medal honestly, but only after the race leader in 2009 was tripped with 200 meters to go and the eventual winner was disqualified. Rowbury, who is back, could win, but teammate Morgan Uceny is the best 1500 runner in the world this year. She should win.

5. Can Kenenisa Bekele Make a Comeback?
It's hard to capture how good Kenenisa Bekele was from 2003 through 2009, but when people used the term “greatest ever” to describe Bekele it wasn't all hyperbole. He won 11 world cross country titles, 3 Olympic gold medals, and set still-standing world records at 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Then he injured a calf muscle at a road race in the Netherlands in 2009, which he later ruptured, and he has barely been heard from since. As defending world champion, he got a bye into the 10,000 final, and his agent says he's fit. Will we see Bekele lose the first 10,000-meter race of his life on Sunday, or watch his glorious return to the top?

4. Will Mo Farah Win a World Title?
Two years ago, Great Britain's Mo Farah was a journeyman distance runner who could manage no better than seventh in a world or Olympic final. A year later he broke the British record at 5,000 meters. A year after that and he's making the world's best distance runners look like rejects from your high school's JV cross country team. Farah has raced ten times since January and won ten times, beating previously untouchable runners like Bernard Lagat and Zersenay Tadese. If Farah wins a world title (he's entered in both the 10,000 and 5,000) he'll cap one of the greatest singles seasons of running I've ever seen. He'll also spend the next year worrying about winning a gold medal in front of the home crowd at the Olympics.

3. Is David Rudish Ready for the Bright Lights?
Last summer David Rudisha broke the world 800-meter record twice and won every race he entered. And world records are nice, but Rudisha wants a major medal. He flopped spectacularly at the 2008 Olympics and 2009 world championships. Running three rounds of tactical 800-meter races is different than a one-off, rabbited world-record attempt, as Rudisha well knows. How he performs in South Korea could make or break his career. 

2. Is Usain Bolt Fit? (And does it even matter?)
Remember Usain Bolt, the guy who used to break world records (literally) without trying? It's no secret that Bolt likes to party and drive too fast, and his 2010 season wasn't very good. He hasn't looked great in 2011, either—but then, with his competition in legal trouble, drug trouble, or injured, he could bring his C-game this week and still win comfortably. But any Bolt victory that isn't dominant should make Jamaican fans worried.

1. Can the World Handle a Bionic Sprinter?
Or maybe the better question is 'Should the world handle a bionic sprinter?' Oscar Pistorius's lower legs are made of carbon fiber, which may or may not give him an advantage over able-bodied sprinters. Pistorius used to be a relatively benign human-interest story until he ran 45.07 for 400 meters in July, taking half a second off his 400-meter PR, qualifying for the world championships, and becoming a real threat to win a medal in Daegu. If he runs well, will the IAAF revisit the ban on Pistorius they levied and then withdrew in 2008? And how is the sport going to sort out the line between “disability” and “performance enhancement?”

—Peter Vigneron

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