By Gene Cherry
EUGENE, Oregon (Reuters) – The United States will field a powerhouse athletics team for next month’s Rio Olympics even though several big names crashed out in the just-completed American trials.
Five reigning Olympic champions — and a total of 10 athletes with the best performances in the world in their specialties — were named on Monday to a 127-member U.S. team for the Aug 5-21 Games.
“It’s one of the strongest ever,” respected international athletics expert Mel Watman told Reuters via email.
“They could well exceed the nine gold medals obtained at the London Olympics of 2012.”
Decathlon world record holder Ashton Eaton, triple jumper Christian Taylor, pole vaulter Jenn Suhr and long jumper Brittney Reese all will be back for a shot at a second gold with Allyson Felix, the London 200 meters champion, going for gold in the 400.
All five except Suhr have the best marks in the world this year in their events, along with sprinters Justin Gatlin (100m) and LaShawn Merritt (200 and 400 meters), long jumper Jarrion Lawson, shot putter Joe Kovacs, high jumper Chaunte Lowe and 400 meters hurdler Dalilah Muhammad.
“I am very impressed with the world leading marks for 2016 set at this stage of the season,” said Watman.
“The results from the trials in so many events will cause much anxiety among non-U.S. athletes.”
Reigning champions Eaton, Reese, Suhr and Taylor all have excellent opportunities for gold as do Merritt and Felix in the 400, Lawson and Jeff Henderson in the long jump, Lowe in the high jump and Muhammad and Brianna Rollins in the hurdles, Watman said.
World silver medalist Gatlin again will have to face six-time Jamaican Olympic champion Usain Bolt in the sprints.
A solid mixture of experienced athletes and newcomers will be going to Rio with members ranging in age from 41-year-old 5,000 meters winner Bernard Lagat making his fifth Olympic team to 16-year-old Sydney McLaughlin, who became the fastest teenager ever in the 400 meters hurdles.
An amazing 66 per cent — 84 athletes — are first time Olympians.
“The U.S. team under-performed at the world champs last year, but this time they should fare very well,” Watman said.
Forty-six athletes already own individual or relay global medals.
The Americans, with their cut-throat selection system, will be missing several key performers, though, including reigning Olympic Felix in the 200 meters.
The athletics governing body changed the Rio schedule to give the 30-year-old a better opportunity to become only the third woman to complete a 200-400 meters double at the same Olympics.
But Felix, who two months ago could not walk following a severe ankle sprain, missed qualifying in the 200 by one-hundredth of a second, finishing fourth.
Only the top three finishers advance to the Games under the American system.
She will run the 400 and is in the 4×400 meters relay pool.
World 110 meters record hurdler and Olympic champion Aries Merritt also missed out, just months after a kidney transplant.
Both he and Felix would have been medals contenders with a few more weeks to prepare.
The hurdles events were especially hard hit with Merritt and former world champions David Oliver and Jason Richardson going out in the men’s 110 meters hurdles and Johnny Dutch, who had the year’s best time in the 400 meters hurdles, also failing to make the team.
On the women’s side, Keni Harrison, who had been the Olympic 100 meters hurdles favorite after narrowly missing the world record in May, provided the fireworks by finishing a non-qualifying sixth.
(Editing by Andrew Both)