12 May, 2018

Press Conference take-aways

Omar McLeod is in the mood to make a piece of Shanghai Diamond League history on the track tomorrow (Saturday 12 May) by securing a third successive 110m hurdles victory at China’s premier international athletics meeting.

The world and Olympic sprint hurdles champion produced the fastest time in the world to win the Shanghai meeting’s headline event in 2016, clocking 12.98 seconds to grab the title ahead of two world champions and the world record holder.

He went on to claim the Rio Olympic gold in front of Spain’s Orlando Ortega, and he beat the former Cuban again in a neck-and-neck tussle to retain his Shanghai crown last May.

McLeod added world outdoor gold to his collection in London last summer and now he has a unique Shanghai hat-trick in his sights, a feat that eluded even Chinese favourite and former world record holder Liu Xiang during his glittering career.

Lui was an inspirational figure to McLeod when he first took up track and field as a talented youngster in Jamaica and surpassing the 2004 Olympic champion’s Shanghai record with a unique “three-peat” would be a dream come true, the 24-year-old revealed on Friday.

“Lui Xiang was a huge inspiration to me growing up in Jamaica,” said the former Kingston College student. “It’s thanks to him that we’re so respected here as hurdlers. Watching him hurdle was the reason I put cans in the road to jump over when I was growing up, running around in the street in Jamaica.

“So it would be really good to come here and do the three-peat and accomplish something he couldn’t. It would be awesome; it would be history.

“And it would mean a lot because this is my favourite meet. The appreciation and respect they have for hurdlers here is really special to me. So I want to go out there and do my very best just for the fans, to show my appreciation for the appreciation they show for me.

It will be a significant test for McLeod who hasn’t raced over the hurdles yet during the 2018 outdoor season and has endured a “frustrating” year after his plans to run at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham were derailed by visa problems leaving it too late to make a “sideways” move to contest the Commonwealth Games in Australia.

A tight adductor muscle then forced him out of the Doha Diamond League meeting last week where he’d intended to compete in the 200m.

“I wanted to run but I knew I had to play it safe and be smart about it,” said McLeod. “But I’ve been training over the hurdles this week and I felt really fine so I’m ready to go out and do my thing tomorrow.

“I’m in great shape, I just don’t know what competitive shape I’m in because I haven’t competed over hurdles this season yet.”

He may well have to be at his best for the list of McLeod’s opponents reads like a roll-call of recent global champions and record breakers with Ortega again in the line-up and looking for his first Shanghai victory after finishing runner-up in 2015 and 2017.

Others aiming to wrest the crown from McLeod’s grasp include 2015 world champion Sergey Shubenkov, who was second behind the Jamaican at the London World Championships, and the 2012 Olympic champion and world record holder, Aries Merritt, who is looking for his first Shanghai victory on his seventh appearance at the meeting.

Sam Kendricks also has a Shanghai treble in his sights after winning the men’s pole vault here in 2016 and 2017, although unlike McLeod he shrugged off the marker, saying “a hat-trick means nothing in this day and age; what people remember is the next Olympic or world champion, that’s what counts”.

Kendricks cleared 5.88m on both occasions to win here. He went on to land his first six-metre vault at the US championships last June and took his first global title in London ahead of Poland’s Piotr Lisek and the flying Frenchman, world record holder Renaud Lavillenie.

Yet his Shanghai challenge may be even tougher than McLeod’s for he faces a field containing four six-metre jumpers. The line-up includes not only Lisek and Lavillenie, but three former world champions – Shawnacy Barber, Raphael Holzdeppe and Pawel Wojciechowski – and Kurtis Marschall who thrilled Australian fans by winning the Commonwealth Games title on the Gold Coast last month.

Then there’s a three-pronged Chinese threat, led by Xue Changrui who was fourth at the World Championships in London last summer.

For Kendricks, whose first senior global championships was the Beijing 2016 Worlds, it’s this high-quality line-up that makes the Shanghai meeting special.

“China has been very kind to me over the years,” he said. “My first World Championships was in Beijing and despite great competitors I’ve been able to win twice here.

“World champions, Olympic champions, world record holders, they all come to compete at this meeting. So it’s going to be a dog fight tomorrow, but if you want to see some great pole vaulting, this is the place to be.”

In particular, it could be another great contest between Kendricks and Lavillenie with the Frenchman searching for his first win here since 2014 after placing second in 2016 and 2017.

The 31-year-old got revenge on his US rival in Birmingham earlier this year when he added a third world indoor title to his 2012 Olympic crown and already leads the 2018 world outdoor lists with 5.95m.

“He is the king,” said Kendricks of the world record-holder and seven-time Diamond League winner. “I joke sometimes that he could put a bed on top of all his Diamond League trophies, he’s got so many. I’ve only got one.

“Every time I compete against him I learn something from him. It’s only because of his friendship and rivalry that I’ve been able to come so far in this event. If I didn’t take account of where he is I wouldn’t get better myself.”

As for what it will take to win on Saturday, Kendricks warned against the chances of a 6.00m vault and Shanghai record in the predicted wet conditions.

Calling six metres “the silver bullet” of pole vaulting, he added: “It’s not how high you can jump in these meetings but how often you can jumper higher than everyone else. I hope it pours tomorrow because that’s when true competitors rise to the top.”

There will be plenty of “true competitors” in the women’s 200m too, not least the double world champion, Dafne Schippers, who makes her Shanghai debut against Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo, plus the woman she beat to retain her world title in London last summer, Marie Josée Ta Lou.

Schippers has fond memories of competing at the Beijing Worlds two years ago when she grabbed gold and silver medals in the sprints, setting Dutch records in both, including a European best of 21.63 to take her first world title at the longer event.

“It’s cool to be here because I love competing in China,” said Schippers. “Beijing was very special because I won my first world title and my time was great. I’ve trained very hard to get close to that again and would love to beat it.

“But this race in Shanghai is my first 200 of the year so I will need to take some steps to get there. It takes a few meetings to get to your best but I’m still very excited to race tomorrow.

Three-time Shanghai Diamond League shot put champion, Gong Lijiao, has her eyes set firmly on the future as she prepares to defend her crown in front of home fans on Saturday, 12 May.

Gong has competed at the Shanghai meeting five times since her debut in 2010, winning in 2011, 2015 and last year when home support helped carry her to victory with a best of 19.46m.

Yet when Gong is introduced to the Shanghai crowd this year it will be a new experience. For the first time in her decade long international career, she will be greeted as the “world and Diamond League shot put champion”, an experience, she admits will add “a tiny bit” of pressure to her title defence.

Before 2017, Gong had amassed four world championship and three Olympic medals in her career, but never a gold.

That all changed in London last August when a fifth round throw of 19.94m handed her the world title ahead of Hungary’s Anita Márton. She duly added the Diamond League crown in Zürich a fortnight later and ended the year with only one defeat from 12 meetings.

Yet Gong insists her world-beating achievements of 2017 mean nothing at the start of a new campaign when she has set her sights, not only on defending her Diamond League crown, but progressing towards the ultimate prize of an Olympic gold in Tokyo 2020.

“I believe 2017 was the hardest year for me and I did achieve a lot,” she said on the eve of her Shanghai title defence. “But I tell myself the moment I walked down off the podium everything starts afresh and all my achievements are in the past.

“It is a new start for me here because Shanghai is my first international high-level meeting of the year. I will try my best, of course, to win for a fourth time here and to win the Diamond League trophy again.

“But that is not the end for me; the final goal is to be an Olympic gold medallist.”

Gong will take her first steps on the road to that prize on Saturday evening when she faces Márton again, hoping for revenge after the Hungarian beat her to win the world indoor title in Birmingham this March, as well as USA’s Daniella Hill, who was second here last year.

Jamaica’s newly crowned Commonwealth champion, Danniel Thomas-Dodd, is also in the field, as is the woman she defeated at the Gold Coast Games – Valerie Adams, New Zealand’s double Olympic and four-time world champion who returns to Shanghai for the first time since winning here in 2010.

Yet despite the competitive field, Gong hopes support from fans in a newly created ‘China Power Stand’ in the Shanghai Stadium will give her the edge.

“Tomorrow I will show my best and do not fear my rivals,” she said, adding with a laugh: “My body weight shows I already have China power. Of course, I will try to fight for the glory of China.”

Home glory will be the goal for pole vaulter Xue Changrui and sprinter Xie Zhenye too as they seek victories against some of the world’s best athletes.

Xue was fourth at the World Championships in London last summer and will face a tough battle on Saturday against the three men who placed ahead of him in that contest – US world champion Sam Kendricks, Poland’s Piotr Lisek and world record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France.

But the former Asian champion admitted he’s in “high spirits” ahead of the challenge.

“I have been preparing for this event the whole winter so I’m in good shape,” he said. “I will do my best.”

Xie also has a daunting task ahead of him when he takes on world sprint champions Justin Gatlin and Ramil Guliyev in the men’s 100m, plus the defending Shanghai champion, Chinese compatriot Su Bingtian who claimed a world indoor silver at 60m this year.

“I will show the best of myself,” said Xie. “I focus on myself and never fear my rivals.

“Su is one of the most successful Chinese sprinters in history. In fact, I would prefer to use the world ‘great’. He’s also the reigning champion in Shanghai so that puts some pressure on me.

 

“But I will just try to compete at my best. This is what sport is all about and I have prepared well to compete with the best.”