GATESHEAD, United Kingdom: A raft of top-class track and field stars including pole vaulter Armand Duplantis and US sprint sensation Sha'Carri Richardson will be in action at Sunday's opening Diamond League meet in Gateshead, an invaluable warm-up for the Tokyo Olympics.
The northeastern English city stepped in to host the meet after Rabat pulled out because of Covid-19 restrictions in Morocco. There are 12 further Diamond League meets scheduled for the 2021 season, but only six after Gateshead before the Olympics.
And after a 2020 season turned on its head because of the coronavirus pandemic, there is no shortage of athletes in search of competition just 61 days before the July 23-August 8 Games in the Japanese capital.
The men's pole vault sees Duplantis, who set a world record of 6.18m in Glasgow just over a year ago, take on rivals Sam Kendricks and Piotr Lisek, the trio having finished one-two-three at the 2019 world championships in Doha.
"The support is always good at British meetings and it's another important event on the road to Tokyo," Duplantis said.
Three world records have been set in the women's pole vault in Gateshead: Daniela Bartova of the Czech Republic in 1995 and Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia in 2003 and again a year later.
"If we get good conditions then hopefully we can clear some good heights," said Duplantis, although the forecast predicts light rain showers, a moderate breeze and a maximum temperature of only 12 degrees Celsius.
LOADED WOMEN'S 100M
On the track, home favourite Dina Asher-Smith will race in an ultra-competitive women's 100m in which the world 200m champion is only fifth fastest on paper.
American Richardson will be the one to watch, fresh from clocking 10.72sec at the Miramar Invitational last month, making her the sixth fastest female sprinter ever.
The field, which has amassed 41 global championship medals between them, also includes reigning Olympic 100m and 200m champion Elaine Thompson-Herah and world champion and fellow Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, plus Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria.
"Goodness me, has she got a test," ex-world 1500m champion-turned-commentator Steve Cram said of Asher-Smith. "Richardson, three times under 10.8 already this year.
"That is going to be an absolute cracker. It's a real test for Dina, but she knows that if she's going to do well in Tokyo these are the women she's going to have to beat."
Double European gold medallist Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway will be the strong favourite for the men's 1500m, and will be up against an Australian quartet including the ever-improving Stewart McSweyn, Ryan Gregson, Matt Ramsden and Ollie Hoare.
"I had a great time racing in Glasgow at the European Indoor Championships a couple of years ago and I've also run a few times at the Olympic Stadium in London. So I'm hoping for another good experience in Britain at the Diamond League in Gateshead," said the 20-year-old Ingebrigtsen, who is also the European record holder.
"I've been training hard lately, but I enjoy testing myself in competition and this meeting will be a good race to see where I am in the run-up to the Olympics."
Other stand-out events include the women's high jump, where three-time world champion Mariya Lasitskene comes up against the rising force of Yaroslava Mahuchikh of Ukraine.
The stadium record of 20.23sec, set by Bernard Williams 20 years ago, for the men's 200m could be challenged as Andre de Grasse of Canada, who won 200m silver and 100m bronze behind Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics, takes on Britain's Adam Gemili and in-form American Kenny Bednarek.
The final event of the meet sees Scotland's Laura Muir race the 1500m, the field also comprising former world champion Jenny Simpson of the United States and recent European indoor champion Elise Vanderelst of Belgium. -- AFP