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Deep U.S., controversial favorites highlight women’s track and field in Rio

Allyson Felix and Tori Bowie lead a deep U.S. women‘s track and field squad in Rio, where stiff challenges await from the likes of Genzebe Dibaba and Caster Semenya.

While sport calls for a time to suspend politics or controversy, that will not be easy with the women’s track and field events in Rio de Janeiro at the Olympics. The biggest subject of criticism will be South Africa’s Caster Semenya and her hyperandrogenism, which provides her body with more testosterone than the normal female athlete.

There will also be questions surrounding Genzebe Dibaba and her superhuman speed allowed her to break several world records over the past year while training under a controversial coach.

And no Russian athletes will be participating, due to an international suspension from competition over rampant and state-run doping. Russia won 16 medals at the 2012 Olympics but in the years since London, several have found their proper home as doping offenses have led to medals being stripped.

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Amidst these black eyes, hope comes in the form of American stars like Allyson Felix, Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson, who will be doing their best to beat Semenya and Dibaba or take the next-best medal.

Here’s a look at the women’s track and field landscape in Rio:

Athletes to watch

Caster Semenya, South Africa: 800 meters

Last summer, the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended the “female hyperandrogenism” policy, which was adopted in 2011 by the International Association of Athletics Federations (track and field's governing body). The policy deemed high levels of natural testosterone a competitive advantage. Semenya, the ’09 world champion and ’12 Olympic silver medalist at 800 meters, was subjected to gender testing in 2010 but has returned to incredible form since the reversing of the ruling. She has lowered her personal best in the 800 to 1:55.33, which makes her the 12th-fastest woman of all time. Yet that time came in a race where she slowed down and crossed the finish line full of energy. Thus the world record could be challenged at Rio, and it will not be without controversy.

Tori Bowie, USA: 100 and 200 meters

Bowie has a chance to become the first woman to claim gold in the 100 and 200 meters since Florence Griffith-Joyner at the 1988 Olympics. Bowie’s improvement has been remarkable since 2014, when she finally left behind long jumping to focus on the sprints. After winning a bronze medal in the 100 at last summer’s world championships, it’s safe to say she has made the right decision.

Tori Bowie ready to make her case as the next great U.S. women's sprinter

Genzebe Dibaba, Ethiopia: 1,500 meters

Growing up in the shadow of sister and three-time Olympic gold medalist Tirunesh Dibaba could’ve been hard, but Genzebe has become her own star on the track. She withdrew from the 2012 Olympics due to injury but is one of the most dominant middle distance runners, setting the world record in the 1,500 meters last summer. Her 3:50.07 broke Qu Yunxia of China’s 22-year-old record of 3:50.46 set in September 1993, which many consider to be aided by performance enhancing drugs. Dibaba is not without controversy herself, as her coach was busted with 60 syringes in a Spain hotel raid earlier in the summer. He has denied any wrongdoing and Dibaba has never tested positive for drugs.

Almaz Ayana, Ethiopia: 5,000 and 10,000 meters

Ayana fell just short of the 5,000-meter world record held by Genzebe Dibaba in Rome on June 2 as she ran a 14:12.59. She also holds the fastest time in the world for the 10,000 meters, running a 30:07.00 on June 30 in Hengelo, Netherlands. Only Tirunesh Dibaba has pulled off the 5,000–10,000-meter gold medal double at the Olympics, doing so in 2008.

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Allyson Felix, USA: 400 meters

After missing the women’s 200-meter team at the Olympic trials, Allyson Felix’s hopes of trying to become just the third woman in Olympic history to win the 200 and 400 meters at the same Olympics are over. Now she will have to focus on the 400 at the Games for the first time. The reigning 200-meter gold medalist won the 400 at last summer’s world championships.

Matchups to watch

Dafne Schippers vs. Tori Bowie

Standing in Bowie’s way for 100-meter and 200-meter gold is Schippers of the Netherlands, who looks like she could be a shot putter or javelin thrower because at one point in her career, she was a heptathlete. Schippers was one of the biggest surprises of 2015, as her times improved greatly once her attention was turned on just the sprints. The Dutch star holds the fastest time in the world for the 200 meters heading into Rio with her 21.93 seasonal best, with Bowie just .06 seconds behind. Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson could be favored in the 100 with her 10.70 personal best, which is tied for the Jamaican national record. Due to a foot injury, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce may be an underdog, but she’s seeking her third gold at 100 meters.

Allyson Felix and history

Felix will have three chances at gold with the 200 and potentially the 4x100 and 4x400 relays. She can surpass Jackie Joyner-Kersee as the most decorated U.S. female track and field Olympian of all time, as Felix and Joyner-Kersee are currently tied at six Olympic medals each. Felix can also tie former Jamaican star Merlene Ottey’s overall record of nine Olympic medals.

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Caster Semenya and the critics

The science behind hypoandrogenism is something that may be difficult for the casual viewer to take in before watching a race that will last less than two minutes. Yet the world is going to know Semenya’s name, and while harsh things may be said when her story comes to be widely known, a woman running because she can is nothing to get upset over. The CAS made its ruling, and the results of it will be on display on the world’s biggest sports stage.

USA’s 4x100 vs. the clock

After the U.S. women’s 100-meter team was set at the trials, English Gardner was giddy with excitement as the thought of the 4x100-meter world record crossed her mind. The American team boasts three women that have run under 10.80 in Gardner (10.74), Tianna Bartoletta (10.78) and Bowie (10.78). Felix could be another good option for the team, as she was a member of the U.S. squad that set the world record of 40.82 seconds at the 2012 Olympics.

•​ ​Meet Team USA: Get to know the athletes representing the U.S. in Rio

Gold-medal events

Aug. 12 — 10,000 meters, shot put

Aug. 13 — 100 meters, heptathlon

Aug. 14 — Marathon, triple jump

Aug. 15 — Hammer throw, 3,000-meter steeplechase, 400 meters

Aug. 16 — Discus, 1,500 meters

Aug. 17 — Long jump, 200 meters, 100-meter hurdles

Aug. 18 — Javelin throw, 400-meter hurdles

Aug. 19 — 20K racewalk, pole vault, 5,000 meters, 4x100 meters

Aug. 20 — High jump, 800 meters, 4x400 meters