Mountain View, California, July 31: Assuming that the whole affair—because of this year’s brutal Japanese heat wave—isn’t picked up and moved until later in the year, the next Olympic track action will begin 2 years from today, on July 31, 2020.
Even though 2 years is an eternity in the world of track & field predictions, we have put our collective heads together—or is it on the chopping block?—and purely for your entertainment purposes, here are our best guesses at can’t-miss individual podium toppers, in preferential order:
1. Mondo Duplantis (Sweden)—Pole Vault
Why he’ll win gold. The Louisiana high school product hasn’t even had his first day as a collegian yet, and his amazing improvement curve certainly has to reach a plateau somewhere. We just don’t think that at age 18 he is anywhere near his peak. Yet he’s already regularly holding his own against the world’s best and has become a consistent 19-footer. He’s got great familial support and coaching and has been exposed to international competition for years. When the bar reaches higher heights and vaulting becomes a chess match he already plays the passing game like a grand master.
Why he won’t win. In 4 words: “Renaud Lavillenie” and “Sam Kendricks.” It’ll be tough enough to beat the WR holder or the top American on any given day; to beat them both on the same day will be a nasty chore for a mere 20-year-old.
2. Sandra Perković (Croatia)—Discus
Why she’ll win gold. She just doesn’t lose much. Since ’12, when she won the first of her 2 Olympic golds (so far) she has won 73 meets and lost only 6 (and in only 1 of those was she not 2nd). As of this writing, she’s undefeated this year at 9-0. She also has 11 career 70m (229-8) meets. All her contemporaries combined have 1. The best of them, a 234-3 (71.41) from ’17, is the world’s farthest since ’92. At 30, the 2-time gold medalist will still be in her prime in Tokyo.
Why she won’t win. If there’s a weakness, it’s perhaps—and perhaps we’re just reaching here—dancing on the edge of disaster in the foul department. In the Rio qualifying she fouled twice and only made it to the final with a comethrough third throw. And in the final? Would you believe two more fouls before pulling it out on her third throw. Fortunately, that stood up for the win, because she fouled her final 3 attempts as well.
3. Anita Włodarczyk (Poland)—Hammer
Why she’ll win gold. There’s dominance of all-time lists and then there’s Włodarczyk, who has produced the 15 longest meets in history as part of setting 4 World Records, topped by her 272-3 (82.98). She’s not only the only one in history over the 80-meter barrier, but also 81 and 82. With Nos. 2 and 3 on the all-time list now retired she has the top 27 meets among active throwers. Her margin over the farthest active thrower is 16-0 (4.86).
Why she won’t win. Throwers can continue to throw well for many years, but Włodarczyk will celebrate her 35th birthday in Tokyo and this year is feeling new pressure from the top active throwers, DeAnna Price and Gwen Berry, who have been trading the American Record this year.
4. Mariya Lasitskene (Russia)—High Jump
Why she’ll win gold. In mid-July the 2-time reigning world champ had her win streak stopped at 45, an amazing achievement in an event as fickle as the high jump. Boycotted out of Rio, her fabulous ’17 campaign featured no fewer than 24 wins, 15 of them with winning heights over the 2m (6-6¾) barrier. The rest of the planet’s jumpers combined had just 4 such. This year she already has 14 meets at 2.00 or over; the rest of the world has 3.
Why she won’t win. Since she’ll be just 27 in Tokyo, age won’t be a problem. Having spent several years of her prime bobbing like a cork in the tempestuous seas of the problems created by the Russian bureaucracy might be.
5. Sydney McLaughlin (USA)—400 Hurdles
Why she’ll win gold. Why not the moon for a wunderkind who made the Rio semis a week after her 17th birthday? She’ll celebrate No. 20 while in Tokyo, where she and Duplantis can fight it out for youngest winner (she’s 95 days younger than he). Only 18 now, she’s the yearly world leader by a healthy amount, her 52.75 also slipping her into the all-time top 10. Sprint times of 22.39 and 50.07 also indicate native speed that none of her rivals are likely to bring to the table.
Why she won’t win. With kid wonders there’s always the problem of too much too soon, and she’s also facing the potential hitch of being too marketable and being torn too many ways. If rumors of recent days of her splitting with the former Kentucky hurdle camp are true, that could also be problematic.
6. Noah Lyles (USA)—200
Why he’ll win gold. The 21-year-old Virginia native went pro directly from high school and has never looked back. Emerging this year as a fabulous 100 prospect, we nonetheless see him reigning supreme at the half-lap distance. He won both his Diamond League races (including the final) in an injury-shortened ’17, but look at his DL sequence so far this year in winning at Doha, Eugene, Lausanne & Monaco: 19.83 PR, 19.69 PR, 19.69 =PR, 19.65 PR. And his elemental speed is trending as well, going from a lifetime best of 10.14 all the way down to 9.88.
Why he won’t win. The biggest problem may well be the siren song of the 100. It’s not inconceivable he’d eschew a double and run only the high-profile 100. “World’s Fastest Man” has an irresistible allure.
7. Michael Norman (USA)—400
Why he’ll win gold. Hamstring problems led to a late start for the USC frosh in ’17, but healthy this year he quickly stamped himself as the fastest quartermiler on the planet. Undercover, he’s the fastest ever, having won the NCAA Indoor with a 44.52 World Indoor Record. He opened his outdoor campaign with an outdoor PR 44.53 and lowered that to 44.40 before hitting high gear at the NCAA Championships. Despite less-than-optimal conditions he ripped off a 43.61 that moved him to No. 6 on the all-time world list at age 20. Some 90 minutes later he tacked on a 43.62 relay carry, confirming his great stamina. After turning pro early, a brief foray onto the DL Circuit produced a win (in a PR 19.84) and a 2nd (at 19.88).
Why he won’t win. He’s still shy on international exposure of course, but Norman’s top obstacle remains the opposition. WR holder Wayde van Niekerk is sitting this year out injured, but could well come back in 42-threatening form.
8. Shaunae Miller-Uibo (Bahamas)—400
Why she’ll win gold. The defending champion overcame one of the event’s mental barriers in July when she became the only active member of the sub-49 club, running 48.97 in Monaco. She’s still only 24, but as a former World Youth and World Junior gold medalist (and with a year of NCAA competition for Georgia before she went pro early), SMU has been exposed to high-level international competition since way back in ’10. With 21.88 half-lap credentials, she brings speed to the event that none of her rivals are likely to be able to match.
Why she won’t win. Given ’16 and ’17 happenings, one has to wonder about pace judgment/concentration. She won in Rio, but only in a tumble she took at the line. In London last year, the WC podium escaped her completely after she was in the lead coming up the homestretch but again had a stumble late in the going.
9. Kevin Mayer (France)—Decathlon
Why he’ll win gold. Long figured to become a force in the 10-eventer, Mayer exceeded all expectations in Rio, where he cobbled together a rash of PRs and was a threat to Ashton Eaton throughout, finishing only 59 points behind the WR holder. He romped to a WC win last year and while he doesn’t have a 10-event score yet this year, he has notched PRs in the 100, PV, SP & DT, leading his fans to believe that at 26 he’s ready to join the 9000-point club this year.
Why he won’t win. Aside from the ever-present bogeyman of having a bad event that haunts all multi-eventers, Mayer has to worry about Canada’s Damian Warner, whose PR earlier this year leaves him only 39 points behind him on the all-time list.
10. Nafi Thiam (Belgium)—Heptathlon
Why she’ll win gold. She’s still only 23, but Thiam is already the reigning Olympic and WC gold medalist. Her PR score (7013 at Götzis in ’17) leaves her just 19 points off the non-JJK record held by Caroline Klüft. This year’s Götzis (which she won with a list-leading 6806) featured PRs in the HJ, LJ & SP. She’s particularly dangerous in the high jump, where her 6-7 (2.01) in Austria represented an all-time high for the event. She’s good enough in that event that should the schedule be friendly enough, she may well double in Tokyo.
Why she won’t win. Peaking is everything, and while she won in London, she dropped more than 200 points from her PR score of 2 months earlier. That could make her vulnerable if one of the 6700/6800 types has an inspired performance, and inspiration is what the Olympics is all about.
What About Some Other “Obvious” Faves?
The foregoing, even though the result of consensus thinking, is of course still somewhat subjective. You may not even think that some of our leading favorites are favorites at all. And it was tough leaving out the likes of Christian Taylor. And we could have cheated and said “a German men’s javelinist.”
But you may well have other questions. Like why no Christian Coleman in the 100? Too much competition too close in an event where injuries play such a huge role. How about Eliud Kipchoge in the marathon? Too old, with too many miles on the odometer. Mutaz Barshim? Need to see how his recent injury plays out. Caster Semenya’s situation apparently remains up in the air until the testosterone debate finishes its long and tortuous road. Beatrice Chepkoech’s recent WR in the steeple remains a one-off that requires some confirmation. □