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Gold medallist Kirani James of Grenada aon the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men’s 400 metres at Hampden Park during day seven of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games on July 30, 2014 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Gold medallist Kirani James of Grenada aon the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men’s 400 metres at Hampden Park during day seven of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games on July 30, 2014 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Back in BEIJING – by HUBERT LAWRENCE

The Bird’s Nest, the Beijing smog and Usain Bolt’s brilliance at the 2008 Olympics are still vivid memories. Led by Bolt, the Caribbean returns to Beijing, for the 2015 World Track and Field Championships. As the days count down to the August 22 start of that event, there is hope of a triumphant return.

Bolt became sport’s main man in Beijing with world record victories at every turn and with his charm winning him friends from all over the globe. The tall Jamaican, his diminutive compatriot Shelly-Ann Frazer Pryce and budding superstar Jehue Gordon are all guaranteed to be there this August. Bolt and Fraser Pryce won their respective 100 and 200 metre events at the 2013 World Championships and earned themselves the oddly named defending champion’s ‘wild card’ which is a direct invitation to Beijing. The same goes for Gordon who upset the field in the 400 metres hurdles in 2013.

This trio of champions is working to peak in August as the wild card means they can bypass their respective national championships. Bolt will face a surging Justin Gatlin who clicked off early season times of 9.74 and 19.68 seconds in the 100 and 200 metres respectively. Those numbers compare well to the times Bolt ran to win at the 2013 Worlds – 9.77 and 19.66 seconds respectively.

The watermark of quality in Gordon’s event, the 400 metre hurdles is 48 seconds and his lifetime best is 47.69 seconds which he produced to win the 2013 world title. By the time June began in 2015, Jehue had barely broken 50. The fastest time in the world at time of writing was 48.09 seconds by America’s 2005 winner Bershawn Jackson.

Fraser Pryce showed a glimpse of her exciting best in May with a close 100 win at the Prefontaine Classic over most of her major rivals. The clock stopped for the World and Olympic 100 champion at 10.81 seconds. A repeat Beijing 100 metre win would make Fraser Pryce the first three-time winner in women’s World Championships history.

Bolt, Gordon and Fraser Pryce had quiet 2014 seasons with injuries restricting the Jamaicans to victorious 4×100 relay duty at the Commonwealth Games. With his UWI studies causing him to tone down his training, Gordon barely hung on for silver in the hurdles. His studies are over now and the Jamaicans are both hail and hearty.

For those who worry that he has lost his edge, Bolt has said, “I’m still here and I’m still the best.” In that same May 2015 conversation with Runners World Magazine, he laid his cards on the table. “The plan in that time is three golds in Beijing; three in Rio to make a triple-triple; and then one in London, as I’ll only be doing the 100 metres,” Bolt outlined.

The IAAF has also issued the so-called ‘wild card’ to 2014 Diamond League winners Novlene Williams-Mills and Kaliese Spencer in the flat 400 and the 400 metre hurdles respectively. Novlene, a cancer survivor, is building up slowly in an event where Americans Sanya Richards-Ross and Francena McCorory are flying. Kaliese is in form but will have to overcome the formidable 2013 champion, Zuzana Hejnova of the Czech Republic.

Kirani James, the 2011 world champion in the men’s 400, doesn’t have the ‘wild card’ but is almost certain to be selected by Grenada. His early season form has been sparkling with big wins and times as fast as 43.95 seconds. “Good things can happen this season”, the Grenadian said in April, “but nothing is guaranteed.”

His big American rival Lashawn Merritt is playing possum but is to be respected. So are the TTO pair of Deon Lendore, the top runner on the US college circuit, and 2014 World Junior champion Machel Cedenio who beat reigning World Champion Merritt in Ponce, Puerto Rico. They have run times of 44.41 and 44.36 seconds respectively.

That kind of form has the Trinis talking about the 4×400, an event where the Bahamians are Olympic champions. Led by evergreen Chris ‘The Fireman’ Brown, the Bahamians narrowly lost to the Merritt-anchored Americans at the IAAF World Relays. “Everybody is sub-45’, said the 19 year-old Cedenio, noting that the top Trinidad and Tobago 400 metre runners all have 44 second personal bests. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t go out there and attack the gold”, he concluded.

Jamaica is a gold medal threat in both 4×100 events but, even with Bolt storming on anchor, the USA galloped to victory in the men’s event at the World Relays. The return of Asafa Powell to full speed gives Jamaicans hope to reverse that result.

On the women’s side, Fraser Pryce, new star Elaine Thompson and super heroine Veronica Campbell-Brown give Jamaica bright home in the 4×100 with Williams-Mills, her Commonwealth Games conqueror and teammate Stephanie McPherson and Spencer at the core of a big 4×400 team. The Americans are the main obstacles.

Once a 400 metre World Junior and World Youth champion for the Bahamas, Shaunae Miller stormed past Bowie and Fraser Pryce to win the 200 at the Jamaica Invitational in May. Her time of 22.14 seconds broke the Bahamian record held by World and Commonwealth champion Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie. The little Jamaican and the super American Allyson Felix may skip the curved sprint in Beijing. That would leave Miller to contend with the legendary VCB who won in 2011, Ahoure, Bowie and double Commonwealth Games sprint winner Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria.

It’s hard to tell from this distance if Olympic javelin throw champion Keyshorn Walcott will hit top form in August. Last year at the Commonwealth Games, the Trinidad and Tobago standout was a little unlucky as rain dampened the final for all except Kenya’s Julius Yego. Walcott had launched the biggest throw of the competition in qualifying and before the rain.

There are no question marks about Pedro Pichardo. Like Walcott, he is a 2012 World Junior Champion and he has over the Cuban triple jump tradition. Before June began, he had jumped into elite 18 metre territory and set aim on the 20 year-old world record of 18.29. Only trouble is that Olympic champion Christian Taylor is right there in distance and early season form. This could be the best field event of the Championships.

Perhaps the return to the Bird’s Nest will bring the Caribbean some luck. The fans there will certainly remember Shelly-Ann jumping for joy after the Jamaican 1-2-2 finish in the 100. Some will recall the equally happy Richard ‘Torpedo’ Thompson exulting after winning silver behind Bolt’s sensational world record of 9.69 seconds in the men’s 100. Those were brilliant moments. There will surely be more, supplied by the Caribbean in Beijing when the World Championships begin on August 22.

HUBERT LAWRENCE was in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. 

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