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Calm Before the Storm: Preliminary Rounds Offer Few Surprises in Rio

Virtually all the medal contenders remain medal contenders and only one American gets sent home after the first day of heats at the Rio Olympics.

Olympics: Track and Field James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Preliminary rounds of events are not designed to offer much in the way of intrigue. The goal is to eliminate athletes who aren’t quite up to snuff for the finals and, usually, each heat is diluted enough, that all the true favorites have a relatively clear path to the next round.

Even so, every championship meet seems to feature a major upset in the preliminary rounds where a runner who most considered a legitimate medal contender ends up going home. That didn’t happen on Day One of track and field action in Rio as, at least on the track, everyone who you would expect to be around for semifinals will be around for the semifinals.

Men’s 800m

Of today’s events on the track, the 800 was where Jeff and I had the most disagreement on who would win medals. We each had a unique set of three medalists and only Jeff suffered a loss as Nigel Amos, his silver medal pick, is going home after a 7th place finish in the 5th heat.

American and World Indoor Champion Boris Berian took the first heat out hard but faded pretty hard over the final 200m. He managed to hang on for the last automatic qualifying place in the heat after Ayanleh Souleiman and Amel Tuka blew by him to go 1-2.

Adam Kzsczot won the second heat with a strong kick over the last 50 meters. Ferguson Rotich—who was involved in Friday’s urine sample controversy—started off way off the back of the pack, but had a strong second lap that brought him all the way up to second in the heat.

David Rudisha ran like Rudisha—leading from the front and refusing to surrender the lead—to win the third heat, in which American Clayton Murphy finished fourth. but advanced on time.

American Charles Jock went home after the fourth heat in which he finished sixth in 1:47.06. Aside from the finals at the U.S. Trials, Jock hasn’t looked impressive at all in 2016, so no one really had high expectations for him in Rio.

Taoufik Makhloufi, who came under a lot of doping speculation when he came out of nowhere to win gold in the 1500m at the London Olympics, won his heat. Brandon McBride was a bit of a surprise winner of the sixth heat. The Canadian pretty much led wire-to-wire and looked strong doing it.

In the seventh and final heat Pierre-Ambroise Bosse—my gold medal prediction—did his best Rudisha impression by leading the race from the gun at a controlled pace. It was telling that no one had any interest in challenging him even though he only won in 1:48.12. It’s hard to tell from that time how much that says about Bosse’s chances going forward, but he continues what has been a really fun 2016 season for the Frenchman.

Women’s 1500m

The afternoon session began with heats (quarterfinals?) of the women’s 1500. As a refresher, Jeff and I both had Genzebe Dibaba, Faith Kipyegon, and Laura Muir—in that order—coming away from the Olympics with medals. They all got through their heats.

In the first heat, Dibaba mostly held back, but flashed over the last bit of the race that the fitness that made her the talk of the town last year is still there. We haven’t seen much of Dibaba this year due to injury and the Jama Aden bust, but she showed on Day One that she’s still the best in the world until proven otherwise. From an American perspective, Brenda Martinez finished in third in that heat to get an automatic qualifier for the semifinals.

The second heat was notably quicker than the first heat. Sifan Hassan, who was third in the event at last year’s World Championship, gradually moved up throughout the race and held off Faith Kipyegon in the final stretch to win the heat. With a second place finish, Kipeyegon also got through. Jenny Simpson, who was the 2011 world champion in the 1500, had a low-stress fourth-place finish in the heat, sitting in the pack and just cruising to an automatic spot in the semifinal.

The third heat was even faster than the second and Dawit Seyaum took a pretty convincing win. American Record holder Shannon Rowbury looks strong throughout and got the second place finish over Laura Muir—out bronze medal prediction—who finished in third.

The semifinal will take place on Day Three of competition on Sunday at 8:30pm EST.

Men’s 400m

Jeff and I both picked Kirani James, Wayde Van Niekerk, and LaShawn Merritt to win medals in some order and all three looked phenomenal winning their respective heats Friday night in convincing fashion. You could make an argument that any one of them looked the best, but it’s clear that these are the three top athletes in the 400m this year. In addition to Merritt, the other two Americans advanced to the semifinal. Gil Roberts took second in the first heat to get an automatic qualifier and David Verburg got in on time after finishing fourth in the James heat in 45.48.

Women’s 100m

Americans won all three of the heats they were in in the first round of the 100m with English Gardner easily looking the strongest of the three out of the last heat, where she ran 11.09 to beat a pretty weak heat. Other performances of note:

  • Dafne Schippers, who won the second heat and got off to a good start, which has been a bit of a work-in-progress for her, especially in the 100m.
  • Tori Bowie got a poor start but won her heat, holding off a charge from Blessing Okabare, despite the fact that the NBC announcers insisted on pronouncing her name like she’s the daughter of David Bowie. For reference, the proper pronunciation is “Booey”
  • Shelly-Ann “The Double Hyphen” Fraser-Pryce ran the fastest time of the afternoon winning the fourth heat in a time of 10.96.
  • Our two gold medal picks— Elaine Thompson and Tianna Bartoletta—both won their heats, but in the slowest heat-winning times of the afternoon in 11.21 and 11.23, respectively.

In short, we didn’t learn anything today that we didn’t really know before and pretty much all assumptions we brought into this meet were mostly confirmed, or at least not thrown into serious doubt, in the first day of action. That lack of intrigue is probably all for the best after the excitement of the women’s 10,000m that got the action started Friday morning.