US sprinter Allyson Felix (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Zurich, Switzerland

Global champions ready to get back on track for Inspiration Games

When Allyson Felix and Shaunae Miller-Uibo started plotting out their 2020 season at the end of last year, they probably anticipated lining up against one another at roughly this time of year.

That’s not to say that their season has gone according to plan, though. Far from it. The coronavirus pandemic has, of course, changed everything. But thanks to the innovation of the Weltklasse organisers and the Wanda Diamond League, Felix and Miller-Uibo will be able to virtually race each other at the Inspiration Games on Thursday (9).

Connected by a live video and timing link across three different locations, Felix, Miller-Uibo and Switzerland’s world 200m bronze medallist Mujinga Kambundji will race over 150m. Felix will be racing at Mt SAC’s track in Walnut, California, Miller-Uibo will be competing in Bradenton, Florida, and Kambundji will be running on home soil in Zurich.

[How and where to watch live]

For Felix and Miller-Uibo, it may not be the Olympic match-up that they were originally planning on having at this time of year; that will have to wait until 2021. And, unlike their previous clashes, this one won’t be over the pair’s specialist distances of 200m or 400m. But after months of lockdown and almost a year away from international competition, the two women are relishing getting back on track on Thursday.

“I think the idea is so cool,” said multiple world and Olympic gold medallist Felix, who returned to action last year after giving birth to her daughter in late 2018. “I’ve just been training and training and training, so anything to break it up is great.

“I’m not sure what to expect, it’s the first time I’ve done anything like this,” added Felix. “I’m approaching it as a way of having fun and giving people something to watch and be entertained by. It reinforces the importance of sport and what it can do to bring people together.”

Miller-Uibo, the Olympic 400m champion, also can’t wait to get back on track.

“I’m just very excited to be a part of this meet and to put on a show for everyone,” said the 26-year-old Bahamian, who opened her 2020 campaign last weekend with a 50.52 clocking and a 22.61 run over 200m. “It’s been a weird and tough year, but I think we’re all going to have some fun with this and put down some great performances.”

Outside of their major championship clashes – in which their record is stands at 2-2 – this will be just the second time that Felix and Miller-Uibo have raced one another. It’s also the first time they have contested 150m on a regular track; they have previously raced the distance on a straight track in city meets with Felix clocking 16.36 and Miller-Uibo running 16.23. The shorter distance may even play to Kambundji’s strengths, but they’re trying not to over-analyse the race ahead of time.

“The 200m is my favourite event, so this is closer to that,” said Felix. “But it doesn’t matter who the favourite is; I’m just excited by the opportunity to get out there and run. It’s more about the thrill of racing.”

“It’s an odd distance, but I think it’s going to be really interesting,” added Miller-Uibo. “The 100m/200m runner is going head-to-head with two 200m/400m runners. I’m really excited to see how it turns out.”

Team work makes the dream work

There’s an added team element to the Inspiration Games too. In all eight disciplines, athletes will be representing one of three teams: Europe, North America, and the rest of the world. And, like the women’s 150m, the other sprinting events feature some of the best in the world.

World champion Noah Lyles will contest the 200m, racing against Olympic bronze medallist Christophe Lemaitre and 2016 European 100m champion Churandy Martina. In the 100 yards, triple Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse will take on European record-holder Jimmy Vicaut and Olympic 110m hurdles champion Omar McLeod.

European champion Lea Sprunger hopes to give the Swiss fans a ‘home’ victory in the 300m hurdles, although after her 13-stride experiment at Oslo’s Impossible Games last month, she may choose to adopt her usual racing pattern. She’ll face two-time world champion Zuzana Hejnova and 2012 Olympic finalist Georganne Moline.

There will also be a 3x100m relay, with Felix, Kambundji and two-time world 200m champion Dafne Schippers all set to compete for their respective teams.

Field of dreams

In recent months field events have generally proven easier than track events to stage while adhering to government guidelines. The three-way link-up for the men’s triple jump and men’s and women’s pole vault contests on Thursday will add an extra challenge for the organisers, but for the athletes involved it has given their training some much-needed purpose.

“We’re athletes, we want to compete,” said Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi. “I train because I want to compete. We do it so much better under the pressure and adrenalin of competition. We feed off competition.

“Just talking about the competition makes me feel nervous and excited,” added the Greek record-holder, who will be competing on the Mt SAC track. “I feel like I need to be nervous to compete well. I’m jumping really well at the moment and I want to show the world.”

World indoor champion Sandi Morris says the delay to the season may have been a blessing in disguise.

“We’ve had to embrace the unknown that we may or may not have a season and focusing on things we may not normally focus on,” she said. “I had a little knee problem during the indoor season, so a delay has worked okay for me.

“There’s something about knowing you’re in a competition – nothing can replace that. I’m excited because it kind of historic. When I’m 80 years old, I can look back on this pandemic and tell people I competed at this really special meet.”

Sweden’s Angelica Bengtsson will be the third athlete in the women’s pole vault, while the men’s contest will be a clash between two-time world champion Sam Kendricks of the USA, Poland’s world bronze medallist Piotr Lisek and Valentin Lavillenie of France.

In the triple jump, multiple world and Olympic champion Christian Taylor will renew his rivalry with fellow 18-metre jumper Pedro Pablo Pichardo and Pan-American champion Omar Craddock.

Taylor opened his season last weekend at the same competition Miller-Uibo was at, jumping 16.75m in the triple jump and clocking 10.76 in the 100m. He said his feet hurt afterwards, simply because they weren’t used to being on the track, but he is looking forward to shaking off more rust on Thursday in Florida.

More than anything, though, he is grateful to simply have the opportunity to compete again after such an uncertain start to 2020.

“For anyone who is trying to make something happen during this time, you have to have gratitude,” he says. “It is a team effort and our team now is global. This is very unique, and I’d like to extend my heart and my hand and show my gratitude for the efforts involved in making this happen.”

Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics