Updated: July 14, 2016


South Africa’s leading Olympic medal contenders will sharpen up for next month’s Rio Games at the ninth leg of the Diamond League series in Monaco on Friday night.
Caster Semenya will look to solidify her place at the top of the global rankings in the women’s 800m event, four weeks before the track and field programme gets underway at the prestigious multi-sport spectacle.
Already holding the two fastest times in the world this year, after twice clocking 1:56.64 to win the Diamond League races in Rabat and Rome, Semenya will line up as the overwhelming favourite at the ninth leg of the top-flight track and field campaign.
The likes of world indoor champion Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and
20-year-old Kenyan prospect Margaret Wambui, the only other women in the field who have gone under 1:59.00 this year, will be eager to knock the former world champion off her perch, but the versatile middle-distance star will want to prove she can carry her spectacular form through the season.
Wayde van Niekerk should have things all his own way in the men’s 400m event, after displaying fine form over every sprint distance this season.
The world one-lap champion could be pushed by the likes of former African record holder Isaac Makwala of Botswana, 20-year-old Trinidadian prodigy Machel Cedenio, world indoor champion Pavel Maslak of the Czech Republic and former World Championships silver medallist Tony McQuay of the United States, but even with a handful of accomplished speedsters in the line-up, he will go into the blocks as the firm favourite.
Van Niekerk may even look to use the opportunity to fire a warning at American LaShawn Merritt, the gold medallist at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and London 2012 champion Kirani James of Grenada, the only two men in the world to have run faster than the South African (44.11) this season.
In the men’s long jump, African champion Ruswahl Samaai turns out against a quality field which includes four men who have leaped over 8.30m this year, though none have gone further than the South African, who set a personal best of 8.38m to secure victory at the Rabat Diamond League in May.
Samaai will nonetheless have a battle on his hands against Australian Fabrice Lapierre, the silver medallist at last year’s global championships, and American Michael Hartfield, who have both gone beyond 8.30m this season.
Sunette Viljoen, eager to back her two World Championships bronze medals with a podium spot in Rio after missing out with a fourth-place finish in London four years ago, will also be looking for a confidence-boosting effort this weekend.
Having slipped to sixth in the world rankings with her winning heave at the Diamond League opener in Doha (65.14m) Viljoen will be eager to approach her 69.35m national record ahead of the Rio showpiece.
Four women in the Monaco line-up – world record holder Barbora Spotakova of the Czech Republic, European champion Tatsiana Khaladovich of Belarus, Madara Palameika of Latvia and Olympic bronze medallist Linda Stahl of Germany – have thrown further than the South African star this season, and she will have plenty of motivation to deliver a big heave in what could be a dress rehearsal for the Olympic final.
World Championships finalist Wenda Nel will turn out in the women’s 400m hurdles race.
Nel, one of six women in the field who have dipped under 55 seconds this season, faces a line-up spearheaded by in-form American Shamier Little, the silver medallist at last year’s global championships,.
Distance runner Dominique Scott completes the SA contingent in Monaco, as she prepares to make her Diamond League debut in the women’s 3 000m contest.
Having recently closed out her collegiate career with NCAA first division titles over 5 000m and 10 000m, she faces a baptism of fire as she embarks on her professional career.
While Scott is the only woman in the race who has not run under nine minutes outdoors, the US-based athlete clocked 8:55.19 on an indoor track in Fayetteville last season, and she will be confident of shattering her personal best under open skies.
The former Arkansas Razorback star will be chasing a world-class field, with the battle up front expected to be contested between Commonwealth 5 000m champion Mercy Cherono of Kenya and World Championships 10 000m silver medallist Gelete Burka of Ethiopia.

Programme of SA athletes competing at the Diamond League meeting in Monaco on Friday (15 July, 2016):

17:24 – Ruswahl Samaai, men’s long jump
20:05 – Wenda Nel, women’s 400m hurdles
20:25 – Wayde van Niekerk, men’s 400m
20:55 – Dominique Scott, women’s 3 000m
21:00 – Sunette Viljoen, women’s javelin throw
21:20 – Caster Semenya, women’s 800m

* The meeting will be broadcast live from 8pm on SuperSport 5