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Pre Classic: Smorgasbord of track and field delight

Sprint, distance races provide plenty for Hayward throng to devour
by: JONATHAN FERREY Carmelita Jeter speeds to the 100-meter title in the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field on Saturday.

EUGENE - Ashton Eaton was only a bit player on the international stage Saturday at Hayward Field, but the ex-Oregon decathlete had a marquee quote when he said, 'I wish every meet were a Pre.'

Well, yeah.

The atmosphere and the fans and the facilities and the organization of the Prefontaine Classic rival that of any track and field invitational on the planet.

Meet director Tom Jordan has only been doing this for 28 years. You'd figure he might have enough experience to get it right.

Even the weather cooperated Saturday, with hazy skies and temperatures in the 70s.

By the time the dust settled and the sellout crowd of 12,500 began to pour out of Hayward following the Bowerman mile, 13 world bests for 2011 and six meet records had gone by the wayside.

With Diamond League affiliation - one of only two meets in the U.S. of such status - Nike sponsorship and its stable of world-class athletes and a $2 million-in-kind budget, the Pre Classic is expected now to be a happening every year.

It was Saturday. A veritable 'Who's who' of the global track-and-field community was on hand to make it so. With the U.S. championships set for Hayward Field from June 23-26, many of the top Americans were on hand to get in a final tuneup.

The 38th renewal didn't have Usain Bolt or Tyson Gay, but it had so many heavyweights in nearly every event, the world's two greatest sprint names weren't missed.

Jamaica's Steve Mullings, in fact, took advantage of their absence to post a personal- and world-best 9.80 in leading a very fast field through the 100 meters, one of the meet marks bettered with NBC's cameras scanning the action.

On the women's side, American Carmelita Jeter blew away her 100 competition in a world-best and meet-record 10.70, matching the seventh-fastest time in history. With that, the Gardena, Calif., resident earned athlete of the meet honors.

Distance races are always on center stage at Hayward, and the Bowerman mile provided its usual drama, with Kenya's Haron Keitany leading 12 runners to the tape in under 3:54. Keitany finished in a world-best 3:49.09 but slowed down and blew kisses as he neared the finish line, perhaps costing him a chance at bettering the meet record of 3:48.28 set by Daniel Komen in 2007.

Then there was Abubaker Kaki Khamis of Sudan, running from the front and breezing to victory in the 800 in 1:43.68, a meet and Hayward Field record and fastest time in the world this year. Khamis, who turns 22 on June 21, owns a personal-record of 1:42.23. State-of-Oregon Olympians Andrew Wheating and Nick Symmonds were never in it, finishing fifth and eighth, respectively.

It was a fitting example how this has gone way beyond a pseudo-provincial meet. Jordan can't really sneak in local talent anymore, not when but he has the entire globe from which to choose.

With 22 events occurring at times simultaneously, the Pre Classic is truly a three-ring circus. It's three hours of extremely well-orchestrated chaos.

I've never read the handbook on how to view such a meet. I'm not sure if you're supposed to handle it like a buffet or to gourge on just a few items.

It creates a dilemma. Watch Olha Saladuhka's winning women's triple jump of 49-1 3/4 - longest in the world this year - and you might miss Germany's Robert Harting, the world leader in 2011, win the discus at 224-5.

Watch Ezekiel Keboi of Kenya breeze to victory in the steeplechase in a blast-fast 8:08.34 and you might not see Poland's Anna Rogowska clear the bar at 15-4 1/4 to win the women's pole vault.

I'm damning perhaps the state's best annual sporting spectacle with very loud praise here.

I choose to bounce back and forth between events, catching what I can and often lamenting what I miss.

There was no better race than David Oliver's duel with Chinese great Liu Xiang, Oliver beating his rival 12.94 to 13.00. A year ago, Oliver had equalled the American record of 12.90 at Pre. He said Saturday he wasn't concerned about defeating Xiang, a former Olympic and World champion.

'I just have to execute what I have to execute,' Oliver said. 'The biggest event for me is the U.S. Championships. I know he won't be there.

'I ran sub-13 in May last year. It's not something I'm unaccustomed to, but I'm happy for the good performance. All those guys out there help you run fast times.'

I maintained watch on what I felt were three compelling characters Saturday:

• South African Caster Semenya, who had to pass the IAAF's gender test a year ago to be able to compete as a woman. Semenya, 20 and the 2009 World Champion at 800, was making her first appearance in the U.S.

Jamaica's Kenia Sinclair upset Semenya Saturday, winning in 1:58.29 to Semenya's 1:58.88.

'I'm very happy,' said Semenya, who has a PR of 1:55.45 and her sights set on the world record of 1:53.28 by Czechoslovakia's Jarmila Kratochvillova in 1983. 'It doesn't matter what position (she finished), what matters is the time. That's good for this point in my training. The plan was to run 1:58. I did what I wanted. Now I'm going to go out and train hard and see if I can run a fast time this summer.'

It was Sinclair's first matchup with Semenya, but she echoed the same sentiments as Oliver had in facing Xiung.

'I'm not focused on one person,' Sinclair said. 'It's never about one person; it's the entire field.'

What Semenya went through in retaining her eligibility as a woman, Sinclair said, 'has probably been a difficult thing for her. I'm happy they let her back in the sport. I can't focus too much on her, but it's good for competition to have her out here. Every time she steps on the track, it will be a fast race.'

• South African Oscar Pistorius, 'The Blade Runner.' Born without fibulas, his lower legs were amputated when he was 11 months old. After competing in Paralympic world events in 2005 and '06, he qualified for the 2007 World Championships. But then he was ruled ineligible to run against open athletes because his blades provided an advantage.

Courts reversed that decision. Pistorius regained his eligibility and was running his first open race in the U.S. Saturday. He was hoping to better either the 'A' (45.25) or 'B' standard (45.70) in the 400 to qualify for the World Championships. But drawing the inside lane, Pistorius finished eighth in 46.23.

'My warmups were slow today,' he said. 'The race wasn't very comfortable. I've done a lot of traveling the last 10 days or so. I picked up (a virus) the last three or four days. I hate to make excuses. I hoped to be able to push through it. Just one of those things.'

Pistorius, with a PR of 45.61, had hoped to give the Hayward throng something to cheer for.

'As far as support goes, it doesn't get much better than this in the world of athletics,' he said. 'It's not really about the number of people who come out, but the number of people who are informed about athletics. That's a massive number of people here. They should see the athletics they deserve. I wish I could have given them a bit more today.'

Pistorius said he has received nothing but support from his able-bodied competitors.

'I've never been a cocky or a brash person,' he said. 'I have a lot of respect for the other athletes and how hard they work on the track. They know how hard I work, too. That's what it boils down to. In the track world, we're all enemies in a sense. But we all get along, too.'

The 400 winner, American Angelo Taylor, said he is fine with Pistorius being allowed to compete.

'He has gone past what he can do in (disabled) competitions, and it's spurring a lot more interest in the sport,' Taylor said. 'He's a great competitor, a nice guy. I applaud his courage through all of this.'

Could Pistorious gain an advantage through the technology that gave him artificial limbs to run on?

'It's hard to tell,' Taylor said. 'That's left up to the scientists. I think he has some advantages and he has some disadvantages. I'm not going to fret over it.'

• Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100 gold medalist, is returning from a four-year ban for use of banned substances. Gatlin, 29, finished sixth Saturday in 9.97, his best time since beginning his comeback last August.

Gatlin, who has been training through a sore quad muscle, said his goal is to finish in the top three at the U.S. Championships to make the U.S. team for the World Championships.

'f I'm 100 percent healthy, I can give a lot of these guys a run for their money,' he said. 'I have a big heart and a big appetite for competition.

'I came out of here injury-free. We haven't done any speed training yet. Once we get through that, I'll be a different runner. In three weeks, I'll be ready for the nationals.'

The U.S. Championships are four days of great competition, and an awful lot of events. The Pre Classic is a condensed version. On Saturday, it was three hours of jolly good show. Can't wait until next year - a preamble to the London Olympic Games.