There are high hopes of a medal or two from Jemma Reekie and Keely Hodgkinson in the 800m and the British duo showed why as they qualified for the semi-finals with room to spare on the first morning of athletics at the Tokyo Olympics.
Third British entrant Alexandra Bell had an agonising wait after heat five as officials deliberated a photo finish for the third qualifying place. She lost the argument to Morocco’s Rababe Arafi, but in the end it was incidental as she progressed to the semi-finals as one of the next six fastest finishers.
Bell was drafted in late when Laura Muir chose to focus on the 1500m, and the 28-year-old is relishing her first Games, even if she didn’t enjoy squinting at the big screen to find out her fate. “We were just so oblivious, we couldn’t see or hear and I didn’t have my glasses on either to see the screen!” she said. “It felt amazing out there – I kind of got London Stadium vibes. I am delighted, this last month has been crazy, obviously not knowing if I was coming, feeling the lowest of the lows and then on the highest of the highs. I appreciate any race now.”
The 23-year-old Reekie was particularly impressive, winning the last heat in 1:59.97 to post the second fastest time of the session, behind only Jamaica’s Pan-American champion Natoya Goule who won heat two. Reekie positioned herself on the shoulder of the Italian Elano Bello for the first 600m before escaping in the final stretch.
“I’m glad to get that done,” said Reekie. “It was a little bit messy and I was a little bit all over the place but that’s job done now. [Winning] wasn’t so much about laying down a marker, it was just about getting through automatically and not having any issues.”
Hodgkinson led heat four off the first bend before slipping back into the pack. She attacked with 300m to go and led into the home straight before she was passed by the American Raevyn Rogers, to finish second clocking 2:01.59. An explosive nine months has seen the Wigan-born teenager win the British 800m title and European Indoor gold and a glistening career awaits; it could take lift-off in the next few days.
“I was excited to get out there,” Hodgkinson said of her first Olympic race. “I always hate first rounds, but I’m happy to get my place for tomorrow and I’m ready to give it a go. You can never predict how the races go but I definitely learned a few things in there, that’ll be the biggest stage I’ve ever performed on, so I’m just going to take it round by round.”
The 18-year-old Athing Mu is the event favourite after blitzing the American trials in a world lead time of 1:56.07, and she won heat three with a late surge which could be a familiar sight in these Games. Her 400m time of 49.57 shows her sprint speed and the early signs are that the teenager will not be fazed by her first major championships.
There was a notable absentee in Ethiopia’s Werkwuha Getachew, who came from relative anonymity at 26 years old to win the Ethiopian trials this year in an eye-catching 1:56.67. Getachew’s unexplained absence is another reason for the British contingent to be confident here in what is a wide open event: all three of Rio’s medallists including champion Caster Semenya are ineligible due to the controversial testosterone ruling. Sunday’s semi-finals will reveal more before the final on Tuesday, but the road has opened up and on this evidence there is reason to be hopeful.
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