World Champs medal will boost Olympic prospects

OSAKA - With the Beijing Games one year away, the World Athletics Championships will offer pre-Olympic bragging rights as much as gold medals from next weekend.

OSAKA - With the Beijing Games one year away, the World Athletics Championships will offer pre-Olympic bragging rights as much as gold medals from next weekend.

The United States will be first in line. After a record 14 gold and 25 medals overall in Helsinki 2005, it will be tough to match that performance in the heat of Osaka's 50000-capacity Nagai stadium.

As so often, doping scandals have taken their toll and double world sprint champion Justin Gatlin will not be back. Instead, he is fighting a long ban after testing positive for testosterone and steroids.

That leaves the way open for Asafa Powell to finally win a global 100m title to add to his world record of 9,77 seconds.

Two years ago, the Jamaican was injured when Gatlin thrived in Helsinki.

Powell twice equaled his world record last year, but this season he has slumped toward Osaka after being affected by a groin injury.

Instead, US star Tyson Gay has the best mark of 9,84 seconds and their duel could be the best of the championships from August 25 to September 2. For Powell, considered a king without a crown, a title would boost his confidence ahead of the Beijing Games.

Gay can set his eyes on a triple. He is the fastest man in the 200m too, after running the second-best time in history, and if the US team gets its act together in the 400 relay, he could become the star of the championships.

Much like Powell, Gay thrived early this season, but there is a question mark over his midsummer form. Still the two have stood out over the 100 this season.

"He is unbeaten, I am unbeaten and one of us will have to lose in Osaka," said Gay.

There are fewer question marks over the 400.

World and Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner is peaking at the right time to defend his title. He is also poised to add a relay gold and further close in on the world record of his mentor, Michael Johnson.

World records have been hard to come by in recent world championships, and the three broken in Helsinki were the most in a decade. As an enticement, the IAAF is offering a combined prize of $160000 for the title and a world record.

Over the past years, Olympic and world champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva could be counted on to do that.

However, since changing coaches and style last year, she has not broken her mark of 5,01m set in Helsinki two years ago. But at least she is closing in on a 21st world mark with a performance of 4,91 this season.

"I am hungry for new records," she said, arguing her change in technique is starting to pay dividends.

She remains the star of the Russian team, which will seek to improve its Helsinki total of seven golds and 20 overall, which left it second in the standings.

But Russia too has been tainted by scandal.

World record-holder Tatyana Lysenko and a fellow hammer thrower tested positive for doping in out-of-competition tests on May 9 and Russia's team coach was suspended for alleged involvement.

It will likely not stop Russia, led by a powerful women's squad, securing a good finish.

The marathons will start at 7am to avoid the heat, yet the temperature is still expected to hover around 23,5C at that time, while humidity could easily reach 90 percent. Ideal conditions for long-distance runners are 12C and 40 percent humidity.

Long distance has meant Ethiopia over the past years and it will be no different in Japan.

Kenenisa Bekele is going for a third 10000m title in a row, which should leave him one short of his predecessor Haile Gebrselassie.

On the women's side Tirunesh Dibaba will seek another 10000 title and will provide one of the highlights of the championships when she faces her compatriot and rival Meseret Defar in the 5000, where Dibaba is seeking a third gold in a row.

Talk is that little love is lost between the multiple world champion and the 5000 Olympic gold medalist, especially when Defar deprived Dibaba part of the Golden League jackpot last year by spoiling her perfect season in the last race.

This season, Defar has been impressive, with a world record in the 5000 in Oslo in June, cutting almost eight seconds off the previous mark.

If long-distance running centers on one nation, few events will be as global and wide open as the 110m hurdles.

Olympic champion and world record-holder Liu Xiang only needs one race in mind, the Beijing final at home next year, but will be eager to win a first world title after a bronze and silver earlier.

China's biggest track star set the season's top time when beating US champion Terrance Trammell. Cuba's Dayron Robles beat Liu indoors this year and a Golden League win proves his credentials. Defending champion Ladji Doucoure has raced little this year yet the French count on him for another medal. - Sapa-AP