On Day 8 of the athletics at the Olympics, world-record holder and world champion Liu Hong is not a certainty in the 20km walk, writes Jack Houghton, and neither is the USA in the Men's 4x400m...
"At a whopping [40.0], though, I'll be taking a punt on Botswana. In Thebe, Sibanda and Makwala they have three athletes capable of running low-44s..."
There won't be many tipsters voluntarily previewing the women's 20km walk on Day 8 of the athletics in Rio, so a recommended lay of world champion Liu Hong hopefully gains marks for originality, at least. Liu Hong should be favourite - that's for sure. She is the world record holder, is unbeaten in the last 18 months, and a number of Russian athletes who would normally run (walk) her close are absent from the games. However, there are still a few doubts surrounding Liu Hong that suggest her odds of [1.50] are more lay than play.
First, she served a one-month suspension for testing positive for higenamine in May. As negative drugs tests go, this isn't a particularly bad one - higenamine, a fat-reducing additive popular in Chinee medicine, is not especially performance enhancing, hence carrying such a low sanction - showing us that not all drugs-cheats are created equal. Nonetheless, the ban, served in June and July, is not the best way to prepare for the Olympics, if only psychologically. Second, she has been below her best this year. Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez pushed her close at the World Team Championships earlier this year, and Liu Hong's best of 1.25.56 in March is well within the compass of many of her competitors. Third, Hong's compatriots both have the ability to beat her: Qieyang Shenjie won silver in London 2012 and looked to be back to her best in March; and Lu Xiuzhi, despite being a bit below par, showed at last year's World Championships that she is a match for Hong and can perform when it matters.
Having tipped the Bahamas to cause an upset at the last Olympics in the 4x400m, I feel as if I'm on a bit of a roll in this event. The USA are historically dominant, winning three-quarters of all the golds on offer. But the 400m has changed: the USA no longer provide the majority of the best 400m runners in the way they once did. When competing in my youth, the world lists for the 400m were dominated by Americans: at many points they could have entered three teams and swept the medals between them. Not so now. True, the Americans have a better chance in Rio than they did in London - the absence of LaShawn Meritt and Jeremy Wariner meant that their odds then really were ridiculously short - but the final will likely be a closely-run affair, with a number of countries being in contention during the final leg.
A case can be made for the Bahamas ([30.0]) again, although Trinidad and Tobago ([11.0]) may be the stronger island nation. Belgium and the Borlee brothers might surprise people at [50.0] and both Jamaica ([21.0]) and Great Britain ([26.0]) have a chance. At a whopping [40.0], though, I'll be taking a punt on Botswana. In Thebe, Sibanda and Makwala they have three athletes capable of running low-44s. Their problem is the fourth spot. However, 800m runner Nijel Amos ran a 44.1 for them in Beijing last year, and they have a promising 20-year-old 200m runner in Mothibi who could add depth to the team. They are outsiders, for sure, but [40.0] is a big price for such a talented team.