There was a laid back feel to the first press conference of the week at the Shanghai Stadium in China as all four athletes presented to the media were keen to shrug off any talk of pressure ahead of the second IAAF Diamond League meeting of the season on Saturday, 18 May.
The mood was set by Keshorn Walcott, the Trindidad and Tobago athlete who produced one of the shocks of the London 2012 Olympic Games when he emerged from the junior ranks to win javelin gold at the age of 19.
After an incredible season in which he also claimed the world junior title, one might expect Walcott to be feeling the weight of expectations as he moves into the big league of world athletics to compete weekly against the likes of Norway’s former Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen.
Walcott was having none of it, however. “It hasn’t been distracting to me at all to have the Olympic title at that age,” he said. “Thorkildsen is a great athlete and competitor but there are other athletes too, including others from the Olympics.
“It will be a keen and tough competition but that’s OK, I am looking forward to it.”
Walcott finished sixth in his first ever Diamond League meeting in Doha last Friday (10 May), an event won by the Czech thrower Vitezslav Vesely, with Thorkildsen third. Walcott was a little short of his best with 79.79 metres.
But one defeat won’t do much to lesson the attention he’s now getting back in the Caribbean and, it seems, around the globe too. Indeed, Walcott accepts he’s something of a novelty for being a top class javelin thrower from a region rather better known for its sprinters.
“Everyone knows Trinidad and Tobago for its sprinters,” said Walcott, who broke his national and area junior record to become the Olympic champion last August.
“I just wanted to be different so I went into the field events. I put my mind to it, put in a lot of hard work, and together with my coach managed to improve. I’ve even come out as a champion.”
Expectations will be high for Justin Gatlin too after he triumphed in the first big sprint battle of the Diamond League season in Doha where he took the men’s 100m in 9.97 seconds. The US athlete hopes to keep the winning habit here when he races over 200m against Jamaica’s Olympic bronze medallist Warren Weir, the European champion Churandy Martina and China’s new sprint hope, Zhang Peimeng.
“The aim is really to make sure I’m fit to run a strong 100,” said Gatlin, who won 100m bronze behind Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake at London 2012.
“The 200m this year is really just to make my 100m even stronger, so I won’t feel any pressure here on Saturday. It’s a strong field with the Olympic bronze medallist and a lot of other athletes.
“My aim is just to do my best and come across the finish line victorious.”
Gatlin first competed in Shanghai eight years ago shortly after winning both sprint titles at the 2005 IAAF World Championships. He was Olympic 100m champion at the time, and won over 100m at that year’s Shanghai Golden League meeting, but later served a four-year drugs suspension before returning to action in 2010.
A regular visitor to China, Gatlin drew parallels between the growth of the city’s premier athletics meeting and his own transformation.
“The city has changed over the years, and I’ve changed a lot too,” he said. “I’ve matured as an athlete and as a person.
“The meeting has grown too. The city has been able to host some great track and field meets, so I’m just happy to be able to be here again.”
Shanghai will be a new experience for high jumper Robbie Grabarz, and it’s one he’s relishing as he arrives fresh from finishing fourth in Doha. The Briton picked up an Olympic bronze medal in London last year and after all the pressure of a home Games is now keen to enjoy his time on the circuit.
“The weather should be better here than in London,” he said when asked to compare the two experiences. “It will definitely be warmer anyway, but the main difference this year is that there’s not so much pressure as there was in London.
“It’s now about enjoying competing rather than having to cope with the pressure of a big competition. It will be fun.”
One of Grabarz’s rivals on Saturday is China’s rising high jump star, Zhang Guowei who broke the national indoor record in Nanjing in March when he cleared 2.32.
Inevitably, Zhang is being talked of as the new Zhu Jianhua, and being tipped to eclipse the former world record breaker’s national and Asian outdoor record of 2.39 which dates from 1984. A world and Olympic bronze medallist in the 1980s, Zhu is something a legend in Chinese athletics, but Zhang is happy to accept the comparisons.
“Of course every high jumper in China wants to break Zhu’s record, but thinking about it is not enough,” said Zhang. “What I will do is try very hard to follow in his footsteps. Of course, I hope to break the record.”