By Cathal Dennehy
Four years of waiting, and then it’s gone in an instant – the champions left with the ability to brag until the next edition, the vanquished left with nothing but regret and a long, laboured wait to return and make amends. No, it’s not the Olympics, but the IAAF Continental Cup, which kicks off in Morocco tomorrow at the Grand Stade de Marrakech.
The athletes have been lured here to Morocco’s fourth-largest city by the chance to represent their continent against contemporaries from all around the world, although – let’s face it – the $2.9m prize money laid on by the IAAF has certainly sweetened the deal.
It’s a relatively simple set-up: the top two from each of four continental regions – Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia-Pacific – competing against each other in each track and field discipline. It happens once every four years, always during the ‘down year’ in the absence of any genuine global championships.
Listen, it’s no replacement for a Worlds or Olympics. It couldn’t be, shouldn’t be, and nor does it even claim to be. After all, many leading athletes have turned down the chance to compete here – some succumbing to injury, others to a simple unwillingness to prolong their seasons until mid-September to compete in an event which still struggles to break out of the athletics bubble and garner attention among the wider sporting public.
That’s not to say, though, that you shouldn’t be watching this weekend’s action in Marrakech. You really should, and here’s four good reasons why.
Barshim, Bondarenko, and the battle for supremacy; Men’s High Jump (Saturday, 3:15PM EST, 8:15pm local/GMT)
Let there be no doubt: the event that brought the 2014 track and field season to life – that often kept it alive – was the men’s high jump. Five men have soared over 2.40m or higher this season, with the war waged between Ukraine’s Bohdan Bondarenko and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim for dominance of the event being an utterly captivating one.
Bondarenko laid down the gauntlet to his younger rival when clearing 2.42m earlier this summer, but Barshim usurped him at the head of the rankings list with a 2.43 clearance in Brussels a fortnight ago. The pair have met six times this year, with the current head-to-head score standing at 3-3. In their attempt to gain the upper-hand over the other in their last meeting this season, it will come as no major surprise if Javier Sotomayor’s 21-year-old world record of 2.45m is finally eclipsed this weekend.
Also in the field, almost embarrassingly overlooked due to the strength of the leading duo, are Ivan Ukhov and Derek Drouin, both with a 2.40m clearance to their name this season. Field events don’t often get to hog the spotlight, but for this event, they will – and deservedly so.
Amos, Aman and a race to savour; Men’s 800m (Sunday 3:30pm EST, 8:30pm local/GMT)
In almost any other era, Botswana’s Nijel Amos and Ethiopia’s Mohammed Aman would be A-list stars of the sport. The pair, however, have the misfortune to compete at a time when the blazing star that is David Rudisha usually leaves his competitors’ achievements lingering in the shadows.
With the Kenyan missing the 2013 season, though, and still performing below his best this year, Aman and Amos have made us sit up and recognise their brilliance. Amos, still only 20, is the man to beat in Marrakech. The 2012 Olympic silver medallist heads the world rankings with his 1:42.45 clocking in Monaco and at the Commonwealth Games in July, he showed Rudisha in no uncertain terms that he is the man who now needs to be usurped from the throne of world 800m running.
Aman, reigning world champion, has been beaten by Amos in their last four encounters, but goes to the Continental Cup in great form – ensuring another thrilling home-stretch battle between the pair is in store. If one man can upset the form book, it’s Poland’s Adam Kszczot, the tactically astute European champion who recorded a great win over Aman recently in Brussels when setting a national record of 2:15.72 for 1,000m. Don’t miss it.
The female throws – an era of greats; Discus (Saturday 2:50pm EST, 7:50PM local/GMT), Javelin (Saturday, 4:10pm EST, 9:10pm local/GMT), Shot Put (Sunday, 1:40pm EST, 6:40pm local/GMT), Hammer (Sunday, 2:30pm EST, 7:30pm local/GMT)
They’re not the flashiest athletes in the sport, certainly not the most lauded, and their achievements, being honest, often exist in a vacuum of relative anonymity. However, right now there are four athletes dominating the women’s throws events who can all stake a claim to be counted among the all-time greats of their event. We need to start noticing them, appreciating them, while they’re still around.
None more so than New Zealand’s Valerie Adams, who will make it an astonishing 57 wins in a row if she takes the women’s shot put title on Sunday. She hasn’t even been close to her best this year, yet such is her supremacy that she’s never needed to be.
Then there’s the women’s javelin, featuring world record holder Barbora Spotakova. The Czech thrower returned after giving birth as dominant as ever and currently heads the world rankings with 67.99m. Another world record holder in action is Poland’s Anita Wlodarzcyk, who launched the hammer throw out to a monstrous all-time best of 79.58m in Berlin recently.
In the women’s discus, Sandra Perkovic should also continue her dominance; the reigning world and Olympic champion is rarely challenged in this sphere, and if she can produce anything even close to her world lead of 71.08m this year, then victory will be hers.
They’re not heralded all that often, but don’t let their individual superiority dilute what should be glowing appreciation for their accomplishments. When it comes to the women’s throws, we’re lucky enough to be watching some all-time greats.
Bad Boy Mekhissi-Benabbad takes on Kiprop and Souleiman; Men’s 1500m (Saturday, 4pm EST/ 9pm local/GMT)
Unable to compete in the steeplechase here due to his equally hilarious and daft celebration and subsequent disqualification at the European Championships, France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad now finds himself pitched in against the world’s best in his secondary event: the 1500m.
Don’t be surprised, though, if Mekhissi-Benabbad gives his more accomplished competitors a scare in the metric mile. The manner in which the Frenchman dismissed the 1500m field on the last lap to win that European title in Zurich suggests he’ll certainly make a race of it against the favoured African challengers.
They are headed by world champion Asbel Kiprop, who has been equally as brilliant as he has been at times brutal this season. Nonetheless, the Kenyan 25-year-old is virtually untouchable at his best, and anticipating which version of him shows up in Marrakech this weekend should be entertaining in itself. The favourite’s mantle, though, probably rests on the shoulders of world indoor champion Ayanleh Souleiman from Djibouti, who was beaten by Kiprop in Birmingham but got the better of him in their one championship encounter this year at the African Championships last month.
Whoever comes out on top, it should be a riveting race to watch unfold. One thing is for sure, though, the always-entertaining, love-him-or-hate-him Mekhissi-Benabbad won’t enjoy the luxury of topless early celebrations this time around.