Diamond_LeagueThe Diamond League returns on Friday with its annual Qatar curtain-raiser but with the real focus this year on the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, taking place in just three months’ time.

A strong field of some 80 current and former Olympic medallists will be competing in Doha, all with an eye on securing a good start before Brazil and, in some cases, imminent qualifiers ahead of Rio.

In total, eight Olympics gold medallists will compete, as well as more than 40 athletes with World Championship medals.

Much of the focus in Doha could fall on Kenyan stars, especially the middle-distance events.

Almost 30 Kenyan athletes are expected in Doha, and as many as eight could run in the men’s 1500m.

Among these are Asbel Kiprop — though he may drop down to the 800m on Friday — Elijah Manangoi and Silas Kiplagat.

Kiprop is the 2008 1500m Olympic champion and also three times a World Champion over the same distance.

He has already stated that Olympic gold is his aim for the year.

Manangoi is a former world silver medallist over 1500m and is competing in just three races before the Olympic trials.

Kiplagat, meanwhile, is the second fastest man in the field, behind Kiprop.

In the 3000m steeplechase, Kenyans Ezekiel Kemboi and Conseslus Kipruto — rivals and training partners — head a strong field.

The women’s 100m includes the Netherlands’ Dafne Schippers, who recently took silver at the World Indoors 60m, and Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown, the 200m Olympic gold medallist in Beijing.

Among the other big names competing on the track is LaShawn Merritt of the United States in the 400m, who will compete against compatriots Tony McQuay and David Verburg.

Off the track, the focus will fall on American triple-jumper Christian Taylor.

The current Olympic champion will face France’s Teddy Tamgho.

Last year, the Parisian endured an awful time in Doha, rupturing his Achilles tendon on his return from an IAAF-imposed ban after he did not make himself available for drug testing.

Olga Rypakova, Kazakhstan’s triple jump gold medal winner in London, will compete in the women’s event.

Among the local stars are Qatar’s great gold medal hope for Rio, high-jumper Mutaz Barshim and rapidly-improving Abdelalelah Haroun, who won silver at the 400m in the recent world indoors.

The Diamond League returns at a grim time for athletics, a sport which has been ravaged by the latest round of doping allegations.

IAAF president Sebastian Coe is expected in Doha and next month his organisation will decide whether to ban one of the sports biggest powers, Russia, from competing in Rio amid allegations of a “state-sponsored” doping programme for athletes.

But there should be at least one good news story coming out of Friday’s event.

Aries Merritt, the gold medallist at the 110m hurdles in London, returns to international action following a kidney transplant last year.

Merritt ran in Iowa at the beginning of this month and is trying to qualify for the American team in Rio, a comeback which would rank as one of sports‘ finest. – Agence France-Presse

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