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Russian pole vaulter favored to win indoor world title


BRUSSELS (AP) -- With one vault last month, Yelena Isinbayeva gave the indoor season all the spice it needed.

This weekend in Istanbul, the Russian pole vaulter will be looking to add the world title to her latest world record and establish herself as one of the most bankable stars of the London Olympics.

Besides Isinbayeva, the three-day championships starting Friday also will have in-form hurdlers Sally Pearson and Liu Xiang, and plenty of outdoor champions to prove that a competition without Usain Bolt is still worth following.

Isinbayeva saw her string of three indoor gold medals snapped two years ago, highlighting a fall from grace from which she is only emerging from this winter.

After showing hesitant signs of recovery, she set a world record of 16 feet, 5 1/4 inches almost out of the blue in her last preparatory meeting in Stockholm two weeks ago. At the 7,450-capacity Atakoy Arena, she will be facing her two closest challengers this year, Jenny Suhr of the United States and Holly Bleasdale of Britain.

It will be tough to bet against Isinbayeva now that she's found her groove again.

Perhaps the closest to match Isinbayeva's form is Pearson, the reigning outdoor 100-meter hurdles champion and the IAAF's female athlete of the year.

The Australian won her national Olympic trials in 12.49 seconds on a wet and miserable weekend in Melbourne, the fastest time ever for a 100 hurdles on Australian soil. No woman has ever run a faster hurdles race this early in the year.

Little wonder she has set her eyes on coming within a few hundredths of a second of the 4-year-old 60 hurdles world record of 7.68, held by Susanna Kallur of Sweden. But instead of facing defending champion Lolo Jones, her toughest challenger should be another American, Kristi Castlin, the season's top performer.

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On the men's side, there long was hope for another duel with both Liu and Dayron Robles eager to compete against each other. Late Monday, however, Robles decided to cut short his winter season because of an unspecified leg problem. Instead of competing in Istanbul, Robles returned to Cuba to prepare for the London Games.

With the exit of the defending champion, Liu looks poised to reclaim the title he first won four years ago in Valencia, Spain, and set himself up for another Olympic gold, after his victory at the 2004 Athens Games.

If the sprint is usually the main event at a championships, especially with Bolt in attendance, the 60 at the world indoors is a comparative sideshow.

No Bolt, no world champion Yohan Blake, no Asafa Powell. And still the favorite is a Jamaican.

Lerone Clarke has been burning up the track wherever he runs, winning all the big meets coming in to Istanbul. And until Trell Kimmons ran 6.45 seconds at altitude in Albuquerque, N.M., Clarke's 6.47 was tops. Throw in Justin Gatlin with another 6.47 at high altitude and it sets up another U.S.-Jamaican sprint rivalry.

It will be no different among the women, where Veronica Campbell-Brown is defending her title against American rival Tianna Madison, who has the top three times of the season.

Campbell-Brown is only using the world indoors as a prelude to London, where she will seek a third-straight 200 Olympic gold. No woman in track has ever won three consecutive individual medals at the games. Apart from Campbell-Brown, Isinbayeva is also seeking to become the first to achieve it.

Meseret Defar could write her own bit of women's history in Istanbul, winning five world golds in a row. The Ethiopian is the favorite in the 3,000 but will be facing a tough Kenyan challenge. Maria Mutola of Mozambique won seven 800 titles overall, but her streak was broken by a silver in 1999.

The men's 3,000 could be just as exciting, with Mo Farah of Britain and Bernard Lagat of the United States going head-to-head. Their close finish in the 5,000 at the world championships in South Korea last year gave Farah victory and made him the home favorite for both long-distance titles in London.

Another Briton will be looking for a similar boost. Jessica Ennis lost to Tatyana Chernova of Russia in the heptathlon at the worlds, so Istanbul will set up a rematch over five events before they go back to seven in London.