By Gene Cherry
(Reuters) - In a sports-loving Oregon city thousands of miles from London's Olympic Stadium, the three fastest hurdlers of all time are set to line up Saturday for what is widely expected to be a preview of the Games' final.
Just weeks before the U.S. Olympic trials at the same site, Cuban Olympic champion Dayron Robles races the man he succeeded as the world record holder, China's Liu Xiang, and top American David Oliver in the Prefontaine Classic at Eugene, Oregon.
The competition will be Robles's first in the United States and it has major implications.
"You can look at Prefontaine and take out the fourth American and then add one other person and you can pretty much say this is the potential Olympic final," Oliver told Reuters via telephone from his Florida training base.
In addition to the three fastest 110 meters hurdlers ever, the Diamond League meeting features U.S. world champion Jason Richardson, U.S. world indoor gold medalist Aries Merritt and British world bronze medalist Andy Turner.
Richardson grabbed the world gold after Robles, the race winner, was disqualified for interfering with Liu.
The two have not met outdoors since the clash, and their 2012 seasons have gotten off to contrasting starts.
The often-injured Robles has lost two consecutive races in the Caribbean after an early-season win but coach Santiago Antunez said the world record holder was in better form than expected at this stage of the year.
"There is not even a hint of injury," Antunez told Reuters after a full-speed workout in Havana.
Liu, despite rainy and cold conditions, roared to the year's fastest time when he clocked 12.97 seconds to defeat Oliver in the Shanghai Diamond League meeting.
The time was his quickest in five years and cast the 2004 Olympic champion as the early London favorite.
He heartbreakingly pulled up lame in the 2008 Beijing Games with a foot injury that required surgery and a long rehabilitation.
Oregon's fickle early June weather could play a role in how fast Saturday's race goes down, but Oliver expects it will be one to remember.
"I definitely would not be surprised to see a sub 13 (seconds) performance," the U.S. record holder said. "It is incredibly hard not to run that fast if everybody runs and doesn't make mistakes."
While only two hundredths of a second separate the lifetime bests of Robles (12.87), Liu (12.88) and Oliver (12.89), "the only thing we have in common is we take seven steps to the first hurdle," the American said.
"They are lot more smooth looking (hurdling)."
By contrast, the bulky Oliver appears he should be tackling hurdles rather than jumping them.
"You look at my lane and I have at least four hurdles knocked down," he said. "But as long as I am not hitting them so that is going to knock me off balance, it is not a big deal."
When it does, Oliver cannot wait for a rematch.
"Me and Liu were kind of right there through eight (hurdles)," he said of his Shanghai loss.
"Then at nine I stepped on the hurdle, and it caused me to rock back and I just lost it from that point and ended up with 13.13," he said. "It was a nightmare."
(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by Frank Pingue)