Intriguing matchups await in track and field at London Olympics

The Olympic cauldron, that bouquet of flames that illuminated the opening ceremonies last week, has been moved aside to make way for track and field, the original sport of the Games.

Shot-putters and heptathletes took over the Olympic Stadium infield as the sport that yields the most medals at the Olympics got going Friday with two finals and a hint of what’s to come in the 100 meters.

While Michael Phelps bids adieu and gymnasts prepare for event finals, the focus shifts to the glamour sprints, Oscar Pistorius’ historic run in the 400 meters and Jessica Ennis’ attempt to be the golden girl before the home crowd.

Carmelita Jeter qualified first with a blazing 10.83 in the women’s 100 heats. Allyson Felix, who is running the 100-200 double, qualified with a 11.01 and Tianna Madison advanced in 10.97. Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown was third-fastest after Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare and Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce clocked 11.00. Rounding out the top eight was Kelly-Ann Baptiste of Trindad and Tobago and Murielle Ahoure of Ivory Coast and the University of Miami.

An intriguing final awaits Saturday. Jeter, 32, owns the second-fastest time in history, second only to Florence Griffith-Joyner, but an aura of doping suspicion surrounds her despite her clean record. Felix has been denied gold in the 200 by Campbell-Brown in the last two Olympics.

“We do enjoy racing each other,” Campbell-Brown said of the U.S.-Jamaica rivalry.

The men will test the track with two qualifying rounds Saturday. If the final eight shapes up as expected Sunday, it will be the most dazzling Olympic field in history. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, the World’s Fastest Man and holder of three world records in the 100, 200 and 400 relay, says he wants to be “a legend,” and a triple gold repeat remains his goal.

Bolt will have to run harder than he did in Beijing, when he spent the last 10 meters celebrating and still won easily. He lowered his times at the 2009 world championships but hasn’t had a great season since. He false-started in the 100 at the 2011 worlds, and Yohan Blake became the youngest to win the event. At Jamaica’s Olympic trials in June, Bolt lost twice to Blake, his training partner in Kingston.

Bolt has been working on his start, the weakest part of his race given his 6-5 height, and the one-and-done false start rule might cause him further hesitation.

He has been bothered by tender hamstrings and a stiff lower back, recurring problems because he has scoliosis.

Blake, who wore a T-shirt that said “Eat My Dust” at a press conference, has emerged as co-favorite. But Tyson Gay, who trains in Florida, has the second fastest time ever and has recovered fully from hip surgery. Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic champion, is back after a four-year doping ban with a lot to prove. Jamaica’s Asafa Powell is former world record-holder. Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago can’t be underestimated. Watch out for Kirani James of Grenada, out to win the island’s first Olympic medal.

U.S. athletes should win medals in every event that is 400 meters long or less, but in Beijing, they were upstaged by the Jamaicans, who won the men’s and women’s 100 and 200 (they swept the women’s 100) and the men’s 400 relay. Look for U.S. success in the 400 (LaShawn Merritt, Sanya Richards-Ross), men’s 400 hurdles (Angelo Taylor, Kerron Clement) and sprint hurdles (Jason Richardson, Lolo Jones).

Pistorius, the “Blade Runner” from South Africa, will become the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics when he takes the line in the 400 rounds Saturday. Pistorius, who was born without fibulas, won a ground-breaking case against track and field’s federation when arbitrators overturned the decision that his prosthetic legs provide an advantage. The Paralympic champion is also slated to run for South Africa’s 1,600relay team.

Richards-Ross advanced out of her first round, conserving energy with a time of 51.78. The St. Thomas Aquinas High graduate said she is feeling better than ever and that the springy track should produce fast times. Her top challenger is expected to be Botswana’s Amantle Montsho, who ran 50.40.

Ennis, popular with British fans and corporate sponsors, led after Day One’s four events, and broke Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s 1988 record in the heptathlon 100 hurdles.

Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba set the tone for her teammates by winning the women’s 10,000 meters in 30:20.75 with an incredible 62-second final lap. She’s won three Olympic golds, more than any other female distance runner. Kenyans took silver and bronze. Runners from those two East African countries won eight of nine golds in 2008 in the men’s 5,000, 10,000 and marathon, but Mo Farah, a native of Somalia who grew up in London, is the world record-holder in the 5K.

Poland’s Tomasz Majewski won the shot put and American Reese Hoffa took bronze.

Athletes such as Christian Taylor, Jesse Williams and Brittney Reese U.S. are leading a revival for American jumpers, and long jumpers Marquise Goodwin and Will Claye (former Florida Gator) advanced to Saturday’s final. Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva will make her last Olympic appearance in the pole vault.

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