In Rio, the U.S. failed to win a single gold medal in the 100m, 200m and 400m for the first time in 40 years.
If the early track season is any indication, the climb back to the top of the podium at the world championships in August will be a major challenge.
American sprinters size up against international competition at the Prefontaine Classic on Saturday (NBC and NBC Sports Gold, 4-6 p.m. ET). Coverage from the Diamond League meet in Eugene, Ore., starts with distance races Friday night (NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold, 11-midnight ET).
The deepest race is the women’s 200m, which features the top two U.S. sprinters in Tori Bowie and Allyson Felix. The field includes every 2016 Olympic 200m medalist — Elaine Thompson, Dafne Schippers and Bowie — plus Rio 400m gold and silver medalists Shaunae Miller and Felix.
The Jamaican Thompson and Bahamian Miller already look ready to win their first world titles in August.
Thompson crushed Bowie in a 100m two weeks ago, 10.78 seconds to 11.04. Miller ran 49.77 to win a 400m at the same meet, the fastest time of 2017 by a significant .27 of a second.
Bowie has the fastest 200m time in the world this year at 22.09, but Miller has run a wind-aided 21.90 and Thompson clocked 22.19 into a strong headwind.
Then there’s Felix, whose scant race experience in 2017 consists of a 4x400m leg in April and a 100m last Saturday. She has plenty to prove at Pre, at 31 years old and coming off an injury-plagued 2016.
Justin Gatlin and LaShawn Merritt carried U.S. men’s sprinting the last Olympic cycle, but they are 35 and 30 years old, respectively.
The Rio 100m silver medalist Gatlin in particular is showing his age this season, reportedly while coming back from minor April injuries.
He has raced twice, clocking 10.14 and 10.28 seconds over 100m, the slowest he has been since the early stages of his comeback from a four-year doping ban in 2010.
In Eugene, Gatlin faces 22-year-old Canadian Andre De Grasse, billed by many as the top challenger to Usain Bolt in the 100m and Wayde van Niekerk in the 200m at worlds in August.
Merritt, who owns seven 400m medals from the Olympics and worlds, is the top seed in Saturday’s 400m, but he ranks No. 6 in the world this year with a best of 44.78 seconds. Merritt has a history of faster times at Pre (44.39, 44.51, 43.97 and 44.32 the last four years).
Eugene start lists are available here. Here’s the schedule (all times Eastern):
10:34 p.m. — Women’s javelin
10:37 — Women’s long jump
11:06 — Women’s 800m
11:14 — Women’s 1500m
11:25 — Women’s 3000m steeplechase
11:41 — Women’s 5000m
3:40 p.m. — Men’s pole vault
3:44 — Men’s triple jump
4:03 — Women’s 400m hurdles
4:08 — Women’s high jump
4:13 — Men’s 5000m
4:33 — Women’s 100m hurdles
4:41 — Men’s 110m hurdles
4:50 — Women’s 100m
4:56 — Women’s shot put
5 — Men’s international mile
5:09 — Men’s 400m
5:16 — Women’s 800m
5:24 — Men’s 100m
5:32 — Women’s 1500m
5:45 — Women’s 200m
5:52 — Men’s Bowerman Mile
Here are five Saturday events to watch:
Men’s pole vault — 3:40 p.m. ET
The phenom of the early season is 17-year-old Swede Armand Duplantis, a Louisiana high school junior whose mother is from Sweden. Duplantis, owner of the highest outdoor clearance in the world this year, makes his Diamond League debut in Eugene.
He does it against every medalist from the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics, led by Rio gold medalist Thiago Braz and world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie. Saturday’s winner likely becomes the world championships favorite.
Men’s 5000m — 4:13 p.m. ET
Mo Farah hasn’t lost a 5000m since the 2013 Pre Classic. His 10-meet winning streak is on the line against Rio silver and bronze medalists Paul Chelimo (USA) and Hagos Gebrhiwet (Ethiopia). A Who’s Who of challengers Farah has previously vanquished get one more shot at him before Farah’s final world championships on the track in London in August.
Men’s 110m hurdles — 4:41 p.m. ET
This field features the last two Olympic champions — Jamaican Omar McLeod and American Aries Merritt — and the last two world champions — Russian Sergey Shubenkov and American David Oliver.
But the most intriguing name is Devon Allen, the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials winner and former University of Oregon wide receiver. Allen, who has given up football for now, came back from a September torn ACL earlier this month and ranks No. 5 in the world for 2017.
Men’s 100m — 5:24 p.m. ET
Justin Gatlin and Andre De Grasse will hope this showdown doesn’t yield the dud of their meeting in Doha on May 5. Back then, the Gatlin-De Grasse winner was poised to become the biggest threat to Usain Bolt at worlds in August. But Gatlin was fourth an De Grasse fifth in Qatar, throwing doubt on both sprinters.
Nobody else in the Pre field looks like a world championships medal contender. Bolt debuts in his last season June 10, while the absent South African Akani Simbine has broken 10 seconds six times in seven races this year, including beating Gatlin and De Grasse in Doha.
Women’s 200m — 5:45 p.m. ET
The reigning Olympic 100m, 200m and 400m champions are in the same field for the second time in recent history (2012 Olympic 200m final). Thompson has to be the favorite. She hasn’t lost a 100m or 200m since last June and dusted the Olympic silver medalist Schippers by .26 in Doha three weeks ago.
Watch for Felix, as her result may go into determining if she attempts a double at worlds in August. Felix has a bye into the worlds 400m as the defending champion, meaning she will race the 100m and/or 200m at the U.S. Championships. Should she finish top three at nationals in either sprint, she will then determine which race(s) she enters at worlds.
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