With the World Championships in Daegu just over one month away, James Sullivan has been taking a look at the men’s 110 metres hurdles, an event that promises an exciting showdown between the three fastest sprint hurdlers of all time. 

For the last few months much of the hype surrounding the upcoming World Athletics Championships in Daegu this August has been centred around the eagerly anticipated 100 metres showdown between Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay, the two fastest sprinters of all time over the blue-ribboned distance. However, Gay recently was forced to pull out of the US trials due to injury, therefore leaving him ineligible for selection for the US team for the World Championships. The somewhat criticised selection process adopted by the Americans in which only the top three in the US trials can be selected for a major championship has robbed track and field of a showdown to rival Ali versus Fraiser or Federer versus Nadal.

David Oliver - 5 times sub 13 seconds in 2010

However, there is still a mouth watering contest to look forward to, in the men’s 100 metres hurdles, not between just two athletes, but three. Now we aren’t talking about any three athletes here, but rather the three fastest sprint hurdlers of all time; Dayron Robles of Cuba (12.87 seconds), Liu Xiang of China (12.88) and David Oliver of the USA (12.89).

David Oliver was the stand out athlete last year, running the five fastest times of 2010, and eight of the top nine marks. The Olympic bronze medallist from Beijing was the only athlete to run sub 13 seconds, a feat he achieved on no less than a staggering five occasions, and his world leading clocking of 12.89 seconds has edged him tantalisingly close to Dayron Robles’ world record of 12.87.

In contrast to the recent fortunes of Oliver, Liu Xiang has had a turbulent few years. The Chinese athlete burst onto the world scene in 2003 when taking the bronze medal at the World Championships, aged just 20. A year later he achieved super-stardom when claiming Olympic gold, tying Colin Jackson’s long standing world record of 12.91 seconds in the process. In 2006 he set a world record of 12.88 seconds (which is still the second fastest clocking ever) and he won his first World Championship gold medal in Osaka in 2007. However, Xiang suffered Olympic heartbreak in 2008. Touted as China’s great hope for a gold medal on the track in Beijing, he was unable to deliver in front of his home crowd, as a recurrence of an Achilles tendon injury resulted in his failure to get through the first round heats. It took him some time to recover from the disappointment, and 2009 and 2010 were very uninspiring seasons by his high standards.

2011, however, has seen a return to form for Xiang. At the Shanghai Diamond League meeting, he recorded his fastest time since 2007 with a speedy 13.07 clocking, comfortably defeating an off form David Oliver (13.18) in the process. At the Diamond League meeting in Eugene, Oregon a few weeks later, the powerful American exacted revenge, running a world leading mark of 12.94 seconds, ominously approaching the fastest times he recorded in 2010. While Xiang finished in second place behind Oliver, he improved upon his performance in Shanghai, with a 13.00 second run, further proving that he is back to his very best, and with a strong championship pedigree he will pose a serious challenge to Oliver in Daegu.

With their early season contests in mind, a head to head between Oliver and Xiang is an exciting enough prospect as it is, but throw in world record holder Dayron Robles and the men’s 110 metres hurdles has the makings of being the race of the championships. With the great early season form of his rivals making all the headlines, the Cuban has been slipping under the radar slightly. Since his stunning 2008 season, when he set a new world record of 12.87 seconds and won the Olympic gold in Beijing, he hasn’t quite been able to reach these high standards, notwithstanding his gold medal over 60 metres hurdles at the 2010 World Indoor Championships. His early season form in 2011 has been solid, if unspectacular. In Hengelo Robles recorded an impressive 13.07 clocking. However at the Lausanne Diamond League meeting he looked laboured, narrowly winning in 13.14 seconds. However, he recently narrowly defeated David Oliver at the Paris Diamond League meeting with a time of 13.09 (Oliver clocked the same time) and with the World Championships not until the end of August, one gets the impression that the world record holder is building slowly towards peaking at the right time.

Can Liu Xiang reclaim the world title?

Should one of the big three run below par there are a few other athletes with the potential of sneaking into the medals in Daegu. Aries Merritt of the USA has been in good form lately, finishing in second place at the US trial, behind Oliver, in a time of 13.12 seconds and could pose a threat come championship time. Similarly fellow American Jason Richardson, and Jamaican Dwight Thomas are athletes to keep an eye on, both of whom pushed Robles very close in Lausanne. And then there is the current world champion Ryan Brathwaite of the Bahamas, who cannot be discounted. However, one would expect that he will need to significantly improve on his lifetime best of 13.14 seconds if he is to defend his title.

Dayron Robles - World Record Holder

Dayron Robles - World Record Holder

The reality is that Oliver, Xiang and Robles are comfortably ahead of the rest of the challengers and it would be a big surprise if they didn’t fill the medal rostrum in Daegu. Who will win the gold on the other hand is much less clear cut. On paper, there is very little between the three athletes, with just 0.02 seconds separating their personal bests and Daegu promises to produce a mouth watering showdown between them. Rivalries are what help bring new fans in to the sport. Track and Field needs more of these. With the Bolt versus Gay encounter a non-runner for Daegu, the 110 metre Hurdles could produce the race of the championships. The IAAF need to promote this and create a bit of hype around the event. This is a perfect opportunity to sell the sport to outsiders through other means than Usain Bolt.

Can David Oliver carry his blistering times into a championship? He has yet to claim a major title in spite of his recent dominance on the circuit. Will he prove to be a big race performer? Can Liu Xiang maintain his early season promise? Can Dayron Robles reproduce his stunning form of 2008? Don’t take your eyes off this one!

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