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Five men’s events to watch at USATF Outdoor Championships

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The face of U.S. men’s track and field is changing.

Double Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton retired.

The sprint leaders in the last decade — Justin GatlinLaShawn MerrittTyson GayWalter Dix — are all entered in the USATF Outdoor Championships (Summer Champions Series) in Sacramento this week. But they are all also into their 30s, twilight years for speedsters.

Nationals, which begin Thursday on NBC Sports (broadcast schedule here), will determine the team for the world championships in London in August. The top three finishers per event make the roster, should they reach the qualifying times or marks.

In addition to the top three, reigning world champions from 2015 and Diamond League champions from 2016 receive automatic byes into worlds, should they toe the start line in Sacramento.

In the year after the Olympics, many familiar stars could be on the way out. New faces could emerge.

Here are five men’s events to watch this week:

100m
Thursday (first round)
Friday (semifinals, final)
2016 Olympics: Justin Gatlin (silver), Trayvon Bromell (8th), Marvin Bracy (15th)
2017 World Rankings: Christian Coleman (first, 9.82), Cameron Burrell (4th, 9.93), Chris Belcher (4th, 9.93), Ronnie Baker (9th, 9.98)

Outlook: The three-man team for worlds may well have zero Olympic 100m experience. That’s because Gatlin hasn’t broken 10 seconds this year, though he has only raced three times and twice into a headwind. Bromell hasn’t raced period since the Rio Olympics (Achilles surgery). And Bracy won’t race this week following surgery.

Enter Coleman, who finished sixth in the Olympic Trials 100m but on June 7 at the NCAA Championships ran the fastest-ever 100m for his age. Enter Baker, who beat the Olympic silver and bronze medalists (Gatlin and Andre De Grasse) to win the Prefontaine Classic on May 27. Baker was bounced in the semifinals of the Olympic Trials. All of the six U.S. men who have run 10.0 or faster this year are age 23 and younger.

MORE: Five women’s events to watch

1500m
Thursday (first round)
Saturday (final)
2016 Olympics: Matthew Centrowitz (gold), Ben Blankenship (8th), Robby Andrews (semifinals)
2017 World Rankings: Centrowitz (10th, 3:33.41), Clayton Murphy (40th, 3:36.34), John Gregorek (47th, 3:36.61), Cristian Soratos (48th, 3:36.73)

Outlook: Excitement injected this event when Olympic 800m bronze medalist Murphy announced last week he would attempt the 800m-1500m double in Sacramento. No U.S. man has competed in both the 800m and 1500m at a single worlds. While Centrowitz, the first U.S. 1500m gold medalist in 108 years, is a clear favorite, the other two world team spots are there for the taking. Murphy is a proven 1500m runner, winning the 2016 NCAA title for Akron and then turning pro before his senior season.

110m Hurdles
Saturday (first round)
Sunday (semifinals, final)
2016 Olympics: Devon Allen (6th), Ronnie Ash (8th), Jeff Porter (semifinals)
2017 World Rankings: Allen (3rd, 13.11), Aries Merritt (5th, 13.13), Aleec Harris (7th, 13.18), David Oliver (28th, 13.40)

Outlook: The U.S. failed to put a man on the Olympic 110m hurdles podium in Rio for the first time at a non-boycotted Games. Jamaica is now home to the world’s best hurdlers, but the U.S. field is deep with two world champions (Jason RichardsonDavid Oliver), plus an Olympic champion and world-record holder in Merritt. But the favorite may be Allen. The former University of Oregon wide receiver came back from a second torn ACL suffered in September to top the U.S. rankings going into Sacramento.

200m
Saturday (first round)
Sunday (semifinals, final)
2016 Olympics: LaShawn Merritt (6th), Justin Gatlin (semifinals), Ameer Webb (semifinals)
2017 World Rankings: Christian Coleman (2nd, 19.85), Noah Lyles (3rd, 19.90), Chris Belcher (6th, 20.01), Brandon Carnes (20th, 20.25)

Outlook: Like with the 100m, this could be a changing-of-the-guard weekend. Coleman, Lyles and Belcher have never raced individually at an Olympics or worlds, but they are the only American men to rub sub-20.18 this year. And they’ve each done it multiple times.

The veterans Gatlin and Merritt will make the U.S. team if they repeat their 19.75 and 19.79 times from the Olympic Trials, but that appears unlikely. Gatlin is entered in the 200m but maybe only as a safety net if he doesn’t make top three in the 100m. He hasn’t raced a 200m since Rio. Merritt’s focus may also be on another event — the 400m. He already has a world team bye in the one-lap race but must enter one nationals event to be eligible for worlds.

Long Jump
Sunday
2016 Olympics: Jeff Henderson (gold), Jarrion Lawson (4th), Mike Hartfield (25th)
2017 World Rankings: Henderson (19th, 8.15m), Charles Brown (22nd, 8.14m), Jarvis Gotch (24th, 8.13m), Marquis Dendy (24th, 8.13m)

Outlook: Henderson may be the Olympic champion, but his leaps in five meets in 2017 might not be enough if repeated Sunday. Really, no American man has distinguished himself this year. The top six are within three centimeters of each other in the world rankings. Keep an eye on Gotch, who was 11th at Olympic Trials but leaped 8.37 meters (with an illegal tailwind of 2.8 meters/second) on May 27. And Lawson, who appeared to cost himself a medal in Rio by dragging his left hand in the sand behind his landing on his final jump.

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USOC supports athletes expressing themselves after anthem protests

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PARK CITY, Utah — The U.S. Olympic Committee supports American athletes expressing themselves at winter sports events leading up to the PyeongChang Olympics.

Some MLB, NFL and WNBA players kneeled and remained in locker rooms during the national anthem at games over the weekend.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun was asked Monday if the USOC would support American athletes peacefully protesting during the national anthem this fall and winter at pre-Games competition.

“I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t,” Blackmun said at a pre-Winter Games media summit. “We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.”

Blackmun was correct to reference the Olympic Charter, which states that “no kind of demonstration … is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Blackmun mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos‘ raised-fist salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which got them kicked out of the Games by the IOC.

The USOC has honored Smith and Carlos. They visited the White House last year with the Rio Olympic team.

“That was a seminal moment not only for the Olympic Movement, but for the U.S. Olympic team,” Blackmun said of the 1968 podium gesture. “Our stance on this has been fairly clear. We certainly recognize the rights of the athletes to express themselves.”

Olympic hopefuls were peppered with questions about possible protests at the media summit.

“One of the proudest parts of being an American is the ability to have freedom of speech,” four-time Olympian Julia Mancuso said. “I really look up to athletes who take a stand for what they believe in. I really believe as athletes that compete for Team USA, when it comes to the Olympics, I like to think it’s a special event. Not like the NFL or pro sports teams that compete every weekend. For us, it’s every four years. I’m proud for athletes that stand up for what they believe in if they really want to have a message to get out. But I like to think of us all as patriotic.”

Elana Meyers Taylor, a two-time Olympic bobsled medalist, is the daughter of a U.S. Marine who served in Kuwait and spent summers in the 1980s playing at Atlanta Falcons training camps.

She said any decisions on demonstrations or whether she attends a post-Olympics Team USA White House visit come secondary to her pursuit of making the Olympic team this winter.

“I can’t afford to focus on what I would do in that situation or how I would react,” Meyers Taylor said, adding that anything would be a “game-time decision.” “Maybe the social climate changes a little bit [before the Olympics]. … There’s a lot to consider.”

Aja Evans, a 2014 Olympic bobsled bronze medalist, the sister of former NFL defensive tackle Fred Evans, did not say that she would follow the football players’ lead.

“I honor and commend anyone that does that,” Evans said. “My way of showing my stance is to continue to try to be a positive influence for my city, for my country. I’m representing Team USA the best way I can.”

NCAA hockey players Troy Terry and Jordan Greenway, both prospective Olympians with the NHL not participating, said they didn’t envision taking a knee during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I’ve always stood for the national anthem,” Greenway said. “I always will.”

Olympic freestyle skiing medalists Maddie Bowman and Gus Kenworthy have said they plan to skip the traditional Team USA post-Olympic White House visit due to the current presidential administration.

Kenworthy repeated that stance on Monday. He said he was shocked that President Donald Trump believed that athletes kneeling during the national anthem disrespected the flag.

“Those people [servicemen and women] are fighting for the freedom to express their beliefs,” Kenworthy said. “I feel proud to be from a country where we have the right to be able to kind of say what we feel, speak up for what we believe in. I feel that people kneeling before a game is actually quite admirable.”

Kenworthy didn’t rule out a personal demonstration at the Olympics, should he qualify again, but knows he could be stripped of a medal for doing so.

“I’m not saying that I would want to be dictated by fear, and if I was to get a medal and be too scared that it would be taken away from me,” he said. “I think that there’s a way to do things in a way that’s not going to sabotage yourself. You can stand up for something and not throw yourself under the bus.”

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U.S. Olympic men’s hockey player from 2006 has shot at PyeongChang

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PARK CITY, Utah — Though no active NHL players will be in PyeongChang, veteran NHL forward and free agent Brian Gionta could very well play for his second U.S. Olympic team in February.

A USA Hockey official confirmed Monday that the 2006 Olympian Gionta “has a very decent opportunity” to be part of the 2018 Olympic team.

That came in response to a Buffalo radio report that Gionta said it’s looking good for him to play for Team USA.

Gionta, 38, played 15 NHL seasons through last year but is currently unsigned as the NHL preseason continues. The U.S. Olympic team of 25 players named around Jan. 1 is likely to include very few, if any, players with Gionta’s experience.

Gionta was seen at the Rochester (N.Y.) AHL club’s practice Monday (but not taking part), according to media in that area. Gionta could play for an AHL club and be eligible for PyeongChang. USA Hockey wants prospective Olympians to be active in the AHL, NCAA or a European league.

Gionta’s agent has not responded to a request for comment on his Olympic prospects on Monday. Earlier in the summer, Gionta’s agent said that the skater was considering the Olympics.

Gionta led the 2006 U.S. Olympic team with four goals. The Americans lost in the quarterfinals to Finland, their worst Olympic result over the last four Winter Games.

That came during Gionta’s most productive NHL season — 48 goals (sixth in the league) and 41 assists for the New Jersey Devils.

Another Olympian — Ryan Malone from 2010 — embarked on a comeback this preseason and could pursue the Olympics. He has been in camp with the Minnesota Wild. If he doesn’t make the Wild, Malone could play on an AHL contract and be eligible for the Olympics.

USA Hockey confirmed that other players in the potential Olympic pool — at some 100 players at the moment — include Nathan Gerbe. Gerbe, a 30-year-old forward, played 394 NHL games between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes from 2008-16 before joining the Swiss League.

Another is goalie Ryan Zapolski, who ranks third in the KHL in goals-against average this season.

John-Michael Liles, a 2006 Olympic defenseman and unsigned NHL veteran, is not interested in continuing his career in a non-NHL league to be considered for the Olympics, USA Hockey said.

U.S. general manager Jim Johannson said this summer that he was interested in some players who “have a rich history in the NHL and with USA Hockey that we think could potentially really help this roster.” Johannson wouldn’t name names then.

Johansson said a “long list” of potential players for the final 25-man roster must be submitted in September.

A U.S. team of primarily European-based players will take part in a tournament in November in Germany. That roster is expected to be named in October.

The U.S. staff will also look at NCAA and AHL players ahead of naming the PyeongChang team.

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