- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

The marquee events in track and field typically have been the mile and the 100 meters. But this might be the year of the hurdlers.

Both the 2005 Nike Prefontaine Classic, held yesterday in Eugene, Ore., and the Reebok Grand Prix in New York City next Saturday placed the spotlight directly on America’s hurdling duo of Allen Johnson and Joanna Hayes in their preview press releases.

“I think it’s overdue,” said Johnson, who recently revealed he has been legally blind in his left eye since birth. “I am glad you guys are starting to write about it and pay attention to it. And now it has some international flavor, international competition, with the Olympic gold medalist coming from China.”

That would be world record-holder Liu Xiang, who surprised even the most knowledgeable track fans with his spectacular victory in Athens last August.

Between them, Liu and Johnson posted 10 of the 12 fastest times in the world last year in the 110-meter hurdles, and were headed for a one-on-one battle in Athens before Johnson tripped on a hurdle in the early rounds.

In their three head-to-head meetings in 2004, the 21-year-old Liu defeated the 34-year-old Johnson in Osaka (13.06 to 13.13), and Johnson edged Liu in a photo finish in Rome (both in 13.11) in the World Indoor Championships. At the Olympics, Liu equaled British star Colin Jackson’s world record with his time of 12.91.

In yesterday’s Pre meet, Liu won handily over a bevy of Americans in 13.06 as Johnson was disqualified for a false start.

You might be able to see them on television from 2 to 3p.m. today in the Pre meet and from 4 to 5p.m. Saturday in the Reebok meet, both on NBC.

Hayes, 28, set an Olympic record (12.37) on her way to a surprise victory in the 100-meter hurdles in Athens. She has the fastest time in the world (12.64) so far this year. And Hayes was not at all surprised by her phenomenal 2004 season.

“Not even a little bit,” she said. “I knew what was holding me back. I knew I had it to win the Olympics. I just had to prove it to everybody else. … I knew if I had my one chance I would make it.”

Now she is focused on winning a world championship, something she and Liu have yet to accomplish but something Johnson has done an unprecedented four times in outdoor competition.

The 2005 IAAF World Outdoor Championships will be held in Helsinki, Finland, Aug.5-14. Hayes needs to qualify at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships June23-26 in Carson, Calif., but Johnson has a wild-card entry as a previous winner.

Asked about her priorities for 2005, Hayes replied, “The world championships, most definitely. That’s the ultimate goal for the year. But I have to run well at nationals to make the team. The thing right now is to focus on nationals.”

Hayes said she is looking forward to the Reebok Grand Prix, the first international competition ever held in the new Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island (N.Y.), which marks the return of world-class outdoor track and field to the East Coast.

“It’s pretty neat,” said Hayes, 28, who was born in Williamsport, Pa., but who has lived in Los Angeles since graduating from UCLA in 1999. “It is all brand new to me. It’s exciting to see what you can do at a new meet, on a new track.”

Both Johnson and Hayes believe with the right competition on the right day, records are attainable. Johnson was close to the world record in 1996 with his 12.92 American record. Hayes is motivated by Gail Devers’ 12.33 U.S. record from 2000.

Meanwhile, some of America’s greatest hurdles legends will compete on the same track at the USA Championships in a masters invitational race.

“I am putting together a dandy race,” said Mark Cleary, the organizer of the race. “If I can get Roger Kingdom, it will be a killer, a stellar race.”

Cleary said he already has commitments from Willie Gault, David Ashford and Henry Andrade. Gault, the former Chicago Bears wide receiver, last month crushed the U.S. record in the 40-and-over 100-meter dash in 10.73, at age 44.

Ashford owns the 110-meter hurdles world record in 13.73 for an athlete 40 and over. Andrade was ranked No.3 in the world last year.

Cleary said he is trying to get Kingdom, who shares the American record with Johnson and is ranked No.3 all-time behind Jackson and Liu, to commit, and the 42-year-old Kingdom has expressed great interest. However, he has been kept busy with his new position as coach of California U. of Pennsylvania.

“I’m also trying to get a line on [No. 5 all-time] Renaldo Nehemiah, [No. 11] Greg Foster and [No. 6] Jack Pierce,” Cleary said. “I believe all three are training for an exhibition event in Europe in July so our race would be perfect for them.”

Cleary said he would offer prize money if he can land a sponsor.

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