As the 2015 IAAF World Championships begin Saturday at Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, there’s no better time or place for USA Track & Field to live up to its hashtag #ShowUsYourWings.
Five defending world champions and world leaders in 10 individual events are among the 132 U.S. athletes comprising the largest team at worlds. About 1,900 athletes from a record 207 countries are expected at the last major stop before the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Team USA won six gold, 15 silver and five bronze medals — a championships-high 25 medals tying its second-highest output — at the 2013 worlds in Moscow, when 203 countries participated.
With competition running through Aug. 30 at the Bird’s Nest — and in honor of China’s affinity for lucky No. 8 — here are eight burning questions:
1. Can a U.S. sprinter regain the title of “World’s Fastest Man”?
|Justin Gatlin (L) competes during 2014 IAAF World Challenge Beijing
at National Stadium on May 21, 2014 in Beijing.
U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin hasn’t lost a race this year. He also didn’t lose last year when he was ranked No. 1 in the world in both the 100- and 200-meter.
Yet that doesn’t mean Gatlin has vanquished Usain Bolt of Jamaica during that time span. They haven’t faced off since 2013. Bolt is the defending world champion in the 100 and 200, defeating Gatlin 9.77 to 9.85 in the shorter race in Moscow two years ago, and the world record holder and Olympic champ in both events.
Yet this has been Gatlin’s year — so far. He has the four fastest times in the 100 this season, led by his 9.74-second jaunt at Doha, Qatar, on May 15 in a Diamond League meet.
Gatlin, 33, also has three other times in the elusive 9.7s. Asafa Powell of Jamaica, who is about nine months younger than Gatlin, is next at 9.81 seconds. Trayvon Bromell of the U.S., who just turned 20 last month, is next at 9.84.
Bolt, 28, who holds the world record of 9.58 seconds, started the season slowly, but posted times of 9.87 twice on July 24 in London at the Olympic Stadium in back-to-back rounds.
Gatlin also has the two fastest times in the 200, including the 19.57 he ran to win the U.S. championships, with Bolt only the third-fastest Jamaican this year behind Rasheed Dwyer and Julian Forte. Bolt’s best is 20.13 seconds.
Before Bolt dominated the sprints, there was Gatlin. He won the 2004 Olympic title in the 100 before he was sidelined by a doping suspension. Returning in 2010, he won the bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
“I’m just glad to be a part of the team,” he said of making the Beijing squad. “I’m glad to be able to wave the flag and represent America. It’s an honor to me.”
Tyson Gay of the U.S. is the last U.S. sprinter to win a world title in the 100 or 200, winning both races at Osaka, Japan, in 2007. Following his own doping suspension, he ran 9.88 to win the U.S. championships in late June in Eugene. (Gatlin did not run the 100 at nationals).
2. What about “World’s Fastest Woman”?
|English Gardner runs in the women's 100-meter semifinal at the
USATF Outdoor Championships at Hornet Stadium on June 27, 2014
in Sacramento, Calif.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, the defending world and two-time Olympic champion, has the top time this year of 10.74 seconds.
She is tied for second-best performance with English Gardner of the U.S. at 10.79. Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria has clocked 10.80 while Murielle Ahoure of Ivory Coast is tied with Tori Bowie, the U.S. champion, at 10.81.
While Fraser-Pryce, nicknamed the “Pocket Rocket” because of her 5-foot-stature, could be tough to overtake in the 100, she may have taken herself out of the running to defend her world 200 title. Fraser-Pryce said at the Stockholm Diamond League meet in late July, “I’m not running the 200. I’m telling my coach he has to change his mind. The 200 is too far so I’m set for the 100!”
3. So does that open the door in the 200 for Allyson Felix?
Nope. Felix, the Olympic 200 meter champion, ran 21.98 in Doha on May 15 and is the only performer under 22 seconds. However, she has also taken herself out of the 200 – because in her case, it’s too short.
Felix has opted to run the 400, the event she won at U.S. nationals, skipping the 200 for the first time at the world championships since 2001. That’s right – 2001. She won the event in 2005, 2007 and 2009. In 2013, she was injured and had to be carried off the track in the final.
|Allyson Felix (L) competes in the women's 400-meter at the 2015
USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field on June
26, 2015 in Eugene, Ore.
At the 2011 worlds, Felix doubled in the 200 and 400, winning bronze in the 200 and silver in the 400. This year, the schedule does not allow a double.
In her absence, the U.S. still has a great shot at the 200 since teammate Candyce McGrone is next on the world list at 22.09.
In a twist of fate, Felix is only the third-fastest American this year in the 400, but the only one of the three who qualified for the individual event. Francena McCorory, who has the top three times in the world, fell across the finish line in fourth place at nationals while reigning Olympic champion Sanya Richards-Ross did not make the final. Both are in the relay pool, however, for the 4x400.
Including relays, Felix has won more gold medals than any other women at worlds – eight – and is tied with Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson overall.
Via social media, Felix announced her decision: “Getting some 400 work in to get ready for worlds – excited to step it up and challenge myself next month.”
Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas is the only worlds entrant with a faster time than Felix this year, 49.92 to 50.05.
Felix said in an interview on the IAAF website that she learned a lot from her 400 in 2011. “It was my first time really taking on something like that,” she said. “I can honestly say I didn’t know the race very well. It’s still a work in progress.”
But she added, “I feel more confident and more experienced and definitely I can draw on that experience.”
4. How much will the U.S. dominate the hurdles events?
|David Oliver (C) wins the men's 110-meter hurdles at the Adidas
Grand Prix at Icahn Stadium on Randall's Island on June 13, 2015
in New York City.
The top of the world list in the 100-meter hurdles is almost all Stars & Stripes, starting with Sharika Nelvis with the top time of 12.34 seconds. She is joined by Beijing Olympic champion Dawn Harper-Nelson, Kendra Harrison and Brianna Rollins, the reigning world champion.
The event is so stacked in the U.S. that Jasmin Stowers, who has four of the top seven times, did not make the team.
On the IAAF Top List, there are American flags in a staggering 39 of the top 41 positions. The only exceptions are Tiffany Porter of Great Britain (12.56) at No. 19 and Sally Pearson, the 2012 Olympic champion from Australia, at No. 26. Pearson is injured this year and will not compete.
Shamier Little of the U.S. has the top mark (53.74) in the women’s 400-meter hurdles.
On the men’s side, Orlando Ortega of Cuba (12.94) and Omar McLeod of Jamaica (12.97) are the only hurdlers ahead of defending world champion David Oliver of the U.S., who has run 12.98 and 13.04.
In the men’s 400 hurdles, training partners Bershawn Jackson (48.09) and Johnny Dutch (48.13) have combined for the top six times in the world this year. Jackson won the world title in 2005. They are joined by Olympic silver medalist Michael Tinsley and 2009 world champion Kerron Clement, who are also among the top six performers in the world.
|Jenny Simpson (L) competes in the women's 1,500-meter final at the
USATF Outdoor Championships at Hornet Stadium on June 29, 2014
in Sacramento, Calif.
5. Can Jenny Simpson do it again?
Simpson was the surprise gold medalist in the 1,500 at the 2011 World Championships, becoming the first U.S. woman to win the event since Mary Decker at the inaugural worlds in 1983. After failing to make the final at the London 2012 Olympic Games, she was back on the medal podium in Moscow a year later, adding the silver at the 2013 worlds.
This season, Simpson won the U.S. championships, but was later eclipsed by Shannon Rowbury, who broke the American record, finally erasing Mary Decker Slaney’s 32-year old mark from the books.
Rowbury ran 3:56.29, followed by Simpson at 3:57.30 in a Diamond League race in Monaco. However, both trailed Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia, who set the world record of 3:50.07, and Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands (3:56.05).
Although Dibaba is the strong favorite, the other three should battle for the two remaining medals.
6. Who will win the duel between Joe Kovacs and David Storl in the shot put?
| Joe Kovacs competes in shot put at the IAAF Diamond League
Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field on May 29, 2015 in Eugene, Ore.
Kovacs, the newest U.S. phenom in the event, has six of the top 11 throws in the world, including the No. 1 toss and four of the top five. Storl of Germany, the two-time defending world champion, has the other five. Kovacs uncorked a throw of 74 feet, ¼ inch in Monaco to post a personal best, while Storl’s best this year is 72-10.
The U.S. won three straight golds in the world championships in the shot put – with Adam Nelson winning in 2005, Reese Hoffa in 2007 and Christian Cantwell in 2009. Cantwell and Hoffa will also compete in Beijing, along with Jordan Clarke.
7. Can the University of Florida sweep the triple jump and the U.S. win both long jump golds?
Gators have taken a big chomp out of the triple jump. Omar Craddock calls the school “The University of Flight,” while Marquis Dendy says it is “Jumps U.” Craddock led a triple jump sweep at the U.S. championships with a leap of 57-6 ¼, followed by Will Claye, a two-time worlds bronze medalist (57-4 ¼) and Dendy (56-6 ½), who also won the long jump at nationals. Watching from the sidelines was Christian Taylor, the reigning Olympic triple jump champion, who competed in the long jump at nationals.
| Will Claye competes in the men's triple jump at the London 2012
Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on Aug. 9, 2012 in London.
Although they seem a hop, step and a jump away from the podium, Pedro Pablo Pichardo of Cuba, the 2013 silver medalist, could be a spoiler. He’s actually the world leader, with the U.S. corps the second through fifth performers. However, Pichardo has jumped only an inch farther than Taylor, at 59-4 to Taylor’s 59-3.
In the long jump, Tianna Bartoletta is the only woman over 7 meters (23-4 ½) and Jeff Henderson has the top three leaps for the men, led by his 27-11 ½ at the Pan American Games.
Bartoletta won the long jump at the 2005 World Championships (under her maiden name Madison) and the 2006 World Indoor Championships.
She is also renowned as a sprinter, winning two world indoor championships bronze medals in the 60-meter (2012 and 2014) and placing fourth in the 100-meter at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Of course, never overlook Brittney Reese of the U.S., who has won the last three world championships titles in the long jump and the 2012 Olympic gold medal.
|Ashton Eaton competes in the men's decathlon at the 14th IAAF
World Athletics Championships at Luzhniki Stadium on Aug. 10, 2013
8. Is there a better way to spend two days than watching Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee going head-to-head in the decathlon?
Eaton is the world record holder (9,039 points) as well as the reigning Olympic and world champion. Hardee won the previous two world titles, was the Olympic silver medalist and is the world leader this year. (Eaton has competed only in individual events so far this season, but had a bye into worlds.)
Eaton has two new personal bests: 45.55 in the 400 and 17-10 ½ in the pole vault, while Hardee also posted a PR in the pole vault of 17-6 ½ en route to winning nationals. Hardee tallied 3,712 points on the second day in Eugene to win comfortably with 8,725 points.
By the way, Eaton’s wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton of Canada, is far and away the top heptathlete with a world-leading 6,808 points.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.