You don’t have to look far to see just how compelling track and field is. You just have to look in the first place.

Among the stellar names due to compete in the 110m hurdles at Saturday’s (May 14) Shanghai Diamond League meet is Aries Merritt (main image, left). Shanghai will provide a poignant moment for Merritt, whose off-season was considerably more tumultuous than those of the athletes he will run against.

The last time the 30-year-old settled into his blocks for a race on Chinese Mondo he knew it could be his last ever competitive appearance. It was the 110m hurdles final of the 2015 Beijing World Championships and Merritt was booked in for kidney transplant surgery just a few days later.

“I was running each round like it was my last,” he told SPIKES last fall. The Olympic champion and world record holder had competed the season while suffering from a rare genetic kidney disorder that was being compounded by parvovirus B16. 

In Beijing, his kidney function bouncing around the 15% level, he snared an improbable bronze, just 0.06 seconds behind gold medal-winning Russian Sergey Shubenkov. It would have been a commendable achievement for any athlete, but Merritt being “the only one on there with no kidneys” made it an incredible story of success in the face of energy-sapping adversity.

This weekend he will compete on a level playing field. Sport waits for no athlete. Merritt missed most of the 2016 indoor season owing to a “bump in the road” in his recovery, and while he was away there was clear evidence that he and the generation of American hurdlers that he belongs to – 2013 world champ David Oliver (33) and 2011 world champ Jason Richardson (30) – will have their work cut out this outdoor season.

Each of that US trio is due to appear in Shanghai. Also racing is 22-year-old Omar McLeod (main image, right), who in March won gold at the Portland World Indoor Championships with an equal world leading 7.41, and 25-year-old Hansle Parchment, Olympic bronze medallist at London 2012 and second in Beijing. The Jamaican pair currently stand first (McLeod 13.05) and second (Parchment 13.10) in the 110mH world rankings, recorded in a 1-2 at last weekend’s Doha Diamond League that had the American contingent coughing dust.

RE-READ: No kidney no problem for Aries Merritt

Third in Doha was Orlando Ortega. The Cuban convert now competes for Spain, and after a 2015 ravaged by passport wrangling, the 24-year-old will hope for a campaign that leads to an improvement on his sixth place finish at London 2012. The other big threat is France’s Dimitri Bascou, who was the fastest on the indoor circuit (with a 7.41 national record) and bronze medal winner in the Portland world indoors.

Home heroes come in the form of Chinese pair Xie Wenjun (25) and Zhang Honglin (22), both medallists at Asian Games past, and both vying to fill the big shoes left after the retirement of Chinese track and field hero Liu Xiang.

Every athlete has a story. Not just the sprint hurdlers. Included in the women’s steeplechase field is Madeline Hills, the Australian who made it all the way to the world championships after an eight-year break from the sport. And then there’s outspoken American 800m champion Nick Symmonds, who boycotted Beijing to make a stand for athletes’ rights and runs his first outdoor race outside of North America since 2013. Oh, and how about Jamaica’s Novlene Williams-Mills, who in 2013 batted away breast cancer and last year became world champion in the 4x400m.

Every athlete has a story. But it is Merritt, looking much fuller in the face and torso compared to last season, who provides the weekend’s most compelling vignette. In Doha, his first international race since surgery, he came home sixth in 13.37 – a huge improvement on his season-opening 13.61. Shanghai is another opportunity for him to chase form in a high-class international field.

How the contest pans out will give an indication as to whether the emerging millenials are more than just a flash in the pan, or whether Merritt’s ambition “to defend in Rio” is more than just a pipe dream. Should things transpire in favour of the latter, we could be in line for just another remarkable story.

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