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The Top Track & Field Happenings to Watch For in Beijing

The IAAF World Championships, the year’s biggest track and field meet, kicks off this week in Beijing. The nine-day championships also serve as a qualifier for Rio 2016; those who fulfill their event’s minimum requirements receive a place in next summer’s games.

The above facts are common knowledge, the below developments less so. Taking into account the 207 federations competing in 50-plus events across the men and women’s competitions, we’ve compiled the vital items to keep an eye or ear out for as the meet unfolds.

1. Hometown Hero

China has assembled 73 athletes for their team, the nation’s largest-ever squad at a World Championships. Prominently positioned within Team China is Beijing-native Li Jinzhe, the world indoor long jump silver medalist, who is aiming for gold in Beijing. 25-year-old Jinzhe (known for his spiky hair and arm accessories) leapt 8.47 meters last June to capture the Chinese national long jump record. Watch as he endeavors to triumph once again – this time in front of hometown fans.

2. Human Potential

In July, Ethiopian runner Genzebe Dibaba ran the fastest 1,500-meter race of any woman in history. Setting the world record – with a time of 3:50:07 – she sent shockwaves through the track and field community; the record Dibaba broke was nearly 22 years old and many thought it might never fall. Now, some are daring to dream about the once-dismissed possibility of a woman breaking the 3:50 mark for 1,500 meters. Dibaba’s breakout success isn’t limited to the 1,500 meters. In Beijing, she’ll also bring her explosive pace to the 5,000-meter race.

3. Made to be Broken

Nicknamed the Qatari Falcon, high jumper Mutaz Barshim has his eye on more than gold in Beijing: He has made it clear he wants the world record. Barshim was a toddler when Javier Sotomayor broke the world high jump record with a leap of 2.45 meters. Now, more than two decades later, Barshim reintroduced the high jump into international conversation with an extraordinary 2.43-meter leap in 2014. Since then, the question on people’s lips isn’t if Barshim will break that record, but when he’ll do it. The World Championships could be that moment. 

4. New Challenge

Allyson Felix is a gold medalist in the 200-meter dash but she’ll be taking on a different race in Beijing, opting to run the 400 meters. Felix won the 400 meters at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championship in Eugene, Oregon, but is unable to run both distances at the World Championships because the Beijing schedule separates them by just an hour. At the 2011 World Championships, Felix won four medals, tying Carl Lewis for most lifetime U.S. medals at the worlds: 10. She was primed to take the record for herself in 2013, but tore a hamstring in the 200-meter final. She has another chance this week.

5. Double the Fun

At the World Championships two years ago, Mo Farah completed the second part of his distance double: the 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters, when he broke off a remarkable 53.44 last lap in the 10,000 meters. Now, history calls and the Briton could become the first-ever three-time winner of that event. If Farah triumphs in the 10,000 meters, he will have strung together six consecutive global track distance titles (and could make it seven in the 5,000 meters, which comes later). No runner has ever accomplished the feat. Farah is the favorite to win the 10,000 meters, but all will be watching to see if he can also pull off his trademark double with the 5,000 meters.

6. American Strength

Ashton Eaton, a gold medal and world record holder in the decathlon, will be gunning to triumph in the event — the winner of which is traditionally dubbed “the World’s Greatest Athlete.” Eaton is strongest in the sprint events such as the 100 meters, the 400 meters and the long jump, so he should have a big lead after the first day of the decathlon (August 28). For those new to the decathlon, its ten events are divided into two days: the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-meter run on the first day and the 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1,500-meter run on the second. Right behind Eaton is fellow American and silver medalist Trey Hardee, who is expected to challenge Eaton for the top podium spot. 

7. Title Defense

Like all track and field meets, the World Championships is more than a collection of individual events – it’s a team sport in which each country’s results are tallied. The reigning champions are Team USA, who scored 282 points at the World Championships in Moscow in 2013, nearly 100 points more than the runner-up, host Russia. This was the most-ever points scored at the World Championships, continuing the USA’s streak of record-setting point totals. In 2011, the U.S. led the field with 256 points and in 2009 with 231 points. The last time the U.S. was not at the head of the pack was in 2003, when Russia scored 226 to the USA’s 160. Can Russia or another country catch up to the Americans, or can the U.S. set yet another point record? We may not know the answer to either question until the final day of the meet: August 30.

8. The Power of Zoom

Many Nike athletes will be wearing footwear powered by the latest in Zoom innovation. While Zoom running shoes – including the Air Zoom Vomero 10 and the Zoom Pegasus 32 – have proven popular with street and trail runners, the World Championships will be a high-profile chance for the world to see Zoom’s translation to track spikes.

9. Cool Innovation

Take a close look when Ashton Eaton is resting between decathlon events. You may catch a glimpse of his one-of-a-kind cooling hood, made exclusively for him by the Nike Sports Research Lab (NSRL). Beijing is expected to be hot and muggy during the World Championships, and Eaton requested Nike create something to keep his head cool between competitions. Nike delivered an innovative product that, in true Nike fashion, combines athlete insight, physiological research and the design savvy of the NSRL. It remains to be seen if, indeed, a cooler head prevails. 

10. Additional Must-Sees

And be sure not to miss these top contenders...

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlon

Kirani James: 400 meters

English Gardner: 100 and 200 meters

Brianne Theisen-Eaton: Heptathlon

Renaud Lavillenie: Pole Vault

Pascal Martinot-Lagarde: High Hurdles

11. A Sporting Mood

The World Championships takes place in Beijing’s famous Bird’s Nest stadium, which was the centerpiece of the 2008 Games. The atmosphere should be electric during peak events in the 50,000-capacity arena, as the IAAF and the local organizing committee announced recently that the stadium will be full for each evening session. Notably, this audience will include athletes of tomorrow; the Beijing Sports Administration presented local schoolchildren with free tickets. 

12. World Championships by the Numbers

207: Federations sending representatives to Beijing

1,936: Athletes expected to compete (1,403 men and 893 women)

9: Days of competition

32: Years since the first World Championships (in 1983)

85°F: Expected high temperature at the start of the competition

60.1%: Historic average humidity at the start of the competition

43.5: Meters the Bird’s Nest sits above sea level

50,000: Available seats in the Bird’s Nest for the World Championships

2:18/2:44: Minimum time to qualify for the men or women’s marathon

340: Days between Beijing’s final event and the Rio 2016 opening ceremony (on August 5, 2016)