Figure skating team event preview: U.S., Russia among favorites

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SOCHI, Russia – History is made at the Olympics Thursday night in Sochi when figure skating begins its first-ever team event, consisting of ten teams all chasing after three medals. The U.S. factors into the gold-medal conversation, anchored by reigning world champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Here, a comprehensive preview of the inaugural event.

How does it work?
In brief, the team event goes like this: skaters from all four disciplines (men’s, ladies, pairs and ice dance) skate both a short and long program with points being awaded for their placement in said events. Ten teams in total compete in the short program, with just the top five advancing to the free skate portion. Each team is allowed two substitutions between the short program and the free skate, meaning one man can skate in the men’s short, then another in the free skate. Substitutions can be made in ladies, pairs and/or ice dance, as well, as long as no more than two substitutions are made in total. For a comprehensive explanation of the team event and its proceeding, click here.

MORE: Understanding the team event

Who are the favorites?
Teams are ranked by an international system that tracks performances of skaters from throughout the skating season. Canada comes in as the top seed, followed by Russia, the U.S., Japan and Italy. The top four teams – Canada, Russia, the U.S. and Japan – are seen are the favorites for the three podium spots, with Italy having an outside shot at landing inside the top three.

Breaking it down
Canada has the upper hand because of strength in three out of the four disciplines: men’s, ice dance and pairs. The Canadians are led by reigning and three-time world champion Patrick Chan in men’s singles, followed closely by Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the ice dancers who won Olympic gold in Vancouver. Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, Canada’s best pairs team, were third at the World Championships in 2013.

Russia isn’t far behind, particularly thanks to a surging season from 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya, who became the youngest Euopean Championships winner ever in January. She joins Yevgeny Plushenko in singles, the 31-year-old veteran who was selected as the lone man to represent Russian after a controversial process. The reigning pairs world champions, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, bolster that strong line-up, which also includes Yekaterina Bobrova and Dimitry Soloviyev, bronze medalists at the World Championships in 2013.

And what of the U.S.? No doubt its leader is the ice dancing duo of Davis/White, who have won two out of the last three World Championships golds and have not earned anything less than gold in almost two years. The Americans will need to outdo rivals and training partners Virtue/Moir to help the U.S. beat out Canada, however. Jeremy Abbott will skate the short program in the men’s event, while fellow U.S. champs Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir will do so in pairs. The great mystery lies in the ladies portion of the event, where it is believed that two-time U.S. champ Ashley Wagner will skate the short program and 2014 winner Gracie Gold will do the free skate. The wildcard: 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who won silver in Boston and is also seen as a free-skate option.

What the experts say
“It’s really going to between Russia, Canada and the U.S. for the medals,” said Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian and analyst for NBC Sports. “It’ll just be a matter of are the American dancers so much better than the rest of the field.”

“At the Olympics, it’s such a different event from what you’re training for in the span of four years,” says fellow analyst Tara Lipinski, who won Olympic gold in 1998. “Your process of peaking has to change because this is a whole different competition before the individual events.”

What Lipinski is referring to is that figure skaters are now dealing with twice the amount of skating that they normally would at the Olympics, something Weir said he would have “hated” and Lipinski “loved” having to skate two different events at one Games had the team event existed when they competed.

“If Chan skates well, he’s far ahead of the Russian and U.S. men,” Weir adds. “For the ladies, Russia has a slight advantage there with the home ice and when you get to pairs it’s all about the Russians. So it’s a mixed bag. Everyone has their strengths, but it’s going to be whoever goes out and blows us away.”

But who’s skating?
The U.S. – as mentioned above – has named its men’s and pairs participants for the short programs and will wait to announce ladies and dance until Friday. “Whoever they send out for short or free skate I believe the outcome will be positive,” Lipinski said. “Selecting Ashley for the short could be a nice way for her to shake off all the hype from Nationals and settle into the ice. She has a very powerful short program that could set the tone well for her individual event. Gracie is a solid choice for both programs. It would be beneficial for her to use this opportunity to acclimate to Olympic competition especially since she doesn’t like surprises and excels when she can focus in and feel at home.”

The ten countries skating are: Canada, Russia, the U.S., Japan, Italy, France, China, Germany, Ukraine and Great Britain.

Schedule
The team event kicks off Thursday night in Sochi at 7:30 pm local time (10:30 am ET) and will be streamed in its entirety on NBCOlympics.com. The men’s short program kicks off the competition, with Plushenko skating fourth, Abbott fifth and Chan ninth. Pairs is set to get underway thereafter, around 9:10 local time. Ladies and ice dance will skate their short programs – along with pairs free skate – Saturday night.

For a full schedule of the team event, click here.

Justin Gatlin wins, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce loses at Pre Classic; American records fall

Justin Gatlin
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Justin Gatlin is still the world’s fastest man — when Usain Bolt is not in the field.

Gatlin won the Prefontaine Classic 100m in a wind-aided 9.88 seconds in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday (video here), while American records fell in two women’s races.

Gatlin beat a field that included two of the other five fastest men of all time — Asafa Powell (9.94) and Tyson Gay (9.98). Canadian Andre De Grasse, the co-World bronze medalist, was last in 10.05.

Powell and fourth-place Mike Rodgers both said they didn’t hear the starter’s gun.

“Justin got such a big jump, it was too far for me to catch him,” Powell said.

Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100m champion who served a doping ban from 2006 to 2010, moved to 32-2 in individual sprints since the start of 2014, according to Tilastopaja.org.

The only two losses were in the only two races that also included Usain Bolt — the 100m and 200m at the 2015 World Championships. Gatlin and Bolt are not expected to race each other again until the Rio Olympics, should they both qualify at their trials.

The Pre Classic marked the biggest track meet before the U.S. Olympic Trials from July 1-10, also in Eugene.

Full Pre Classic results are here.

In other events, Keni Harrison broke the American record in the 100m hurdles by winning in 12.24 seconds (video here). Harrison matched the second-fastest time ever and was .03 off the world record set by Bulgaria’s Yordanka Donkova in 1988.

Harrison was a revelation in 2015, winning the NCAA title and finishing second at the U.S. Championships. She false started out of the World Championships semifinals Aug. 28.

She elevated to another level this year, clocking the four fastest times in the world so far.

“My coach, he puts it in mind, 12.1 [seconds], 12.1, 12.1, so that’s what I go for in practice,” Harrison said. “I didn’t feel that fast at all.”

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who could become the first three-time Olympic 100m champ in Rio, finished last in eighth place in her first 100m since Sept. 6 (video here).

She clocked 11.18 seconds, competing for the first time in any meet since April 30, recovering from a toe injury. It’s the second instance in three years Fraser-Pryce finished last in her Pre Classic race. Fraser-Pryce was actually faster Saturday than in her first 100m of 2013 and 2015, years she went on to capture World titles.

American English Gardner won in 10.81 seconds, .01 off the fastest in the world this year. Gardner was the second-fastest woman in the world last year but eliminated in the World Championships semifinals while recovering from a reported partially torn right hamstring.

“Nationals last year, I tapered and ran 10.79,” Gardner said. “Loaded, weight room, no taper, 10.81, I can’t be mad at that. I’m not even ready to really run. I haven’t even done really any speed work.”

Meanwhile, perhaps Fraser-Pryce’s biggest sprint rival ran the fastest 200m in the world this year. That’s American Tori Bowie, who was a long jumper until March 2014.

On Saturday, Bowie beat World champion Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands with a personal-best 21.99 seconds (video here).

“My coach said he is sick and tired of seeing me run 22 seconds,” Bowie, crouching on the track in exhaustion, told Lewis Johnson on NBC.

Bowie, who earned World 100m bronze in August and didn’t contest the 200m, now owns the fastest 100m and 200m times in the world this year.

Schippers, who won the 2015 World title in 21.63, was second in 22.11. The field did not include injured Olympic champion Allyson Felix.

In the 400m, Kirani James outdueled American rival LaShawn Merritt for the 12th time in 19 meetings between the last two Olympic champions. James edged Merritt, 44.22 to 44.39 (video here). South African Wayde van Niekerk, who won the 2015 World title in 43.48, was not in the field Saturday.

In the women’s 400m, Olympic champion Sanya Richards-Ross was seventh in 52.16, well off the time she needs at trials on July 3 to make her fourth Olympic team. Shaunae Miller, who took silver behind Felix at 2015 Worlds, won Saturday in 50.15.

“Definitely behind on training, so hoping a month will be enough time to get it together for trials,” said Richards-Ross, adding that she does not have any health or injury problems.

Vashti Cunningham, the 18-year-old daughter of retired NFL Pro Bowl quarterback Randall Cunningham, was fifth in the high jump. Cunningham, the U.S. and World Indoor champ, could become the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor since 1976 if she finishes in the top three at trials July 3.

Jamaican Omar McLeod remained undefeated in four 110m hurdles races this year, clocking 13.06 seconds in a rout by .32 (video here). McLeod, 22, won the 2015 NCAA title for Arkansas, then went pro and finished sixth at the World Championships on Aug. 28. He’s now the clear Olympic favorite with the four fastest times in the world this year.

David Oliver, the 2013 World champion, was second behind McLeod in 13.38. Olympic champion and world-record holder Aries Merritt was fourth in 13.51, nearly nine months removed from a kidney transplant.

“It was a crappy race top to bottom, aside from Omar,” Oliver said.

Bernard Lagat, who at 41 will try to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time at trials, dropped out during the 5000m due to a cold. It was the 15th and final Pre Classic appearance for Lagat, who plans to retire later this year.

“After that first mile, I could feel like my chest was burning,” Lagat said. “I can get healthy and come back for the trials.”

World champion Christian Taylor captured the triple jump with his final leap (video here). Taylor’s 17.76-meter mark overtook countryman Will Claye‘s 17.56 meters. Taylor and Claye also went one-two at the London Olympics.

Emma Coburn broke the American record finishing third in the 3000m steeplechase (video here). Her time of 9:10.76 bettered Jenny Simpson‘s mark of 9:12:50 from 2009. Coburn also beat Simpson’s time in July 2014, but she wasn’t drug tested after that race, so it wasn’t ratified as an American record.

On Saturday, Coburn cried multiple times after her record and then made sure to get drug tested.

Boris Berian earned his first Diamond League victory in the 800m, clocking 1:44.20 against a field that didn’t include Olympic and World champion and world-record holder David Rudisha. (video here)

Berian, who was flipping burgers at a McDonald’s inside a Walmart two years ago, raced one week after being served a lawsuit by Nike for breach of a sponsorship contract after he switched from Nike to New Balance this year. Nike sponsors the Pre Classic.

French Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie cleared 5.81 meters to win the pole vault, wearing a University of Oregon jersey. Canadian World champion Shawn Barber was second, also clearing 5.81 meters but with more misses than Lavillenie. American Sam Kendricks, who beat Lavillenie and Barber in Shanghai on May 14, was third at 5.71 meters.

U.S. Olympic medalists swept the 400m hurdles, won by London silver medalist Michael Tinsley in 48.74 (video here). He passed 2008 Olympic silver medalist Kerron Clement (48.87) after the final hurdle. Beijing Olympic bronze medalist Bershawn Jackson (49.04) took third.

Another American, Johnny Dutch, is fastest in the world this year (48.36). Dutch was not in the Pre Classic field.

The Diamond League continues in Rome on Thursday.

MORE: Rio Olympic, Paralympic medals reveal date set

Novak Djokovic plans on Olympics ‘for the moment’; Serena mulls ‘super protection’

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PARIS — Top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic says canceling the Olympics “is unthinkable” and, “for the moment,” he is still planning to compete at the Rio de Janiero Games, despite worries about the Zika virus.

Speaking at the French Open on Saturday, Djokovic added that people should not only be concerned about those who are going to Rio for the Olympics, but also the Brazilians themselves — “not talking about them too much.”

Earlier Saturday, the World Health Organization rejected a call from 150 health experts to consider postponing or moving the Aug. 5-21 Olympics.

Says Djokovic: “Honestly, I don’t know what to think anymore.”

The No. 1 women’s tennis player, Serena Williams, says Zika has “been on my mind” and she will have to head to Rio “super-protected, maybe.”

MORE: U.S. Olympic tennis player refuses to answer meldonium questions