Wayde van Niekerk breezes to another historic 400m time (video)

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In his first major 400m since Rio, Wayde Van Niekerk showed promise that he could challenge his world record at the world championships next month.

The South African won in 43.62 seconds in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Thursday, easing up in the final few strides in the fastest time in the world since his 43.03 world record at the Olympics.

“I do have a love-hate relationship with the 400m,” Van Niekerk said, according to the IAAF. “Finishing a 400m is always painful but, this time around, I am actually pleasantly surprised about how I digest the lactic acid.”

Full Lausanne results are here.

It’s Van Niekerk’s third-fastest time ever — trailing only Rio and his 2015 World title. Nobody else has run that fast since 2007. Only Michael Johnson‘s 43.44 from the 1996 Olympic Trials was faster this early in a year.

Van Niekerk is the clear favorite for worlds in London, where the men’s 400m final is Aug. 8 and he plans to race the 200m later in the meet. Upstart American Fred Kerley is the only other man to break 44 seconds this year, clocking 43.70 at an NCAA meet on May 26.

Van Niekerk has already set personal bests in the 100m, 200m and 300m this year.

Also Thursday, Justin Gatlin won the 100m in 9.96 seconds, his third straight race between 9.95 and 9.98 seconds. However, the 35-year-old Gatlin has slowed this year, coming off a leg injury. He ran 9.80 and 9.75 in Lausanne in 2014 and 2015.

“I’m not at my A-game at the moment,” Gatlin said, according to the IAAF. “That shows I am human. … And I’ve shown that even with setbacks in my preparation, I am still a competitor. I have been consistent under 10 [seconds], and that is important.”

Gatlin, the Rio silver medalist, beat a field Thursday that did not include Usain Bolt (who has not broken 10 in two races this year), Jamaican champion Yohan Blake or Olympic bronze medalist Andre De Grasse.

In the women’s 400m hurdles, Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad walked off after the first hurdle. Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer won in 53.90, though Spencer failed to qualify for worlds by placing fourth at the USATF Outdoor Championships two weeks ago.

Rio gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz finished seventh in the 1500m in his first Diamond League meet of the year. Centrowitz, the first U.S. Olympic 1500m champion in 108 years, was second at the USATF Outdoor Championships after a series of setbacks, including an emergency room visit.

Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers took the women’s 200m in 22.10 seconds, well off the fastest time in the world this year held by Tori Bowie (21.77). However, Bowie and Olympic 200m gold medalist Elaine Thompson may both skip the 200m at worlds, opening the door for the defending world champ Schippers and Olympic 400m winner Shaunae Miller-Uibo.

Christian Taylor lost an international triple jump for the first time since May 2015. Cuban rival Pedro Pablo Pichardo outdistanced the double Olympic champion, 17.60 meters to 17.49.

Olympic champion Ryan Crouser won the shot put with a 22.39-meter heave. Crouser and 2015 World champion Joe Kovacs have combined for the 18 best throws in the world this year, with Crouser holding 14 of them. But Kovacs wasn’t in the Lausanne field.

Maria Lasitskene, competing as a neutral high jumper during Russia’s ban, missed on three attempts at a world-record height of 2.10 meters. Still, the 2015 World champion cleared 2.06, best in the world since 2011.

The Diamond League moves to London on Sunday, with NBC Sports Gold coverage at 7:20 a.m. ET and Universal HD coverage at 9 ET.

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New generation of male figure skaters owns spotlight at worlds; preview

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Nobody in the men’s field at figure skating worlds owns an Olympic or world title for the first time since 1985. This could lead to the best U.S. men’s results in years.

Yuzuru HanyuJavier Fernandez and Patrick Chan combined to win every gold medal since 2011, but all of them ended their seasons at the Olympics.

This week in Milan, the four leading men, who just competed in their first Olympics, are all 20 years or younger. And that includes two Americans.

Nathan Chen can become the first world singles champion from the U.S. since Evan Lysacek in 2009. Chen and Vincent Zhou could be the first U.S. men to finish in the top five together since Lysacek and Johnny Weir in 2005. Chen, Zhou and Max Aaron could make up the best U.S. trio at a worlds in more than 20 years.

Start with Chen. The 18-year-old said he planned to compete this week regardless of what happened at the Olympics, but after his struggles in the team event and individual short programs, the quad master nailed his free skate, came home to California and said he took maybe one day off of training before this event.

Chen is one of three men in the gold-medal hunt, along with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China. While Chen largely struggled at the 2017 Worlds and in PyeongChang, Uno and Jin each made the podium at both events. And each can come close to or equal Chen in quad numbers.

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Zhou, 17, has a chance to become the youngest man to earn a world medal since Hanyu in 2012. Or the first man to win the world junior title one season and make the world senior podium the next since Yevgeny Plushenko in 1997-98.

Zhou is riding momentum. He struggled in the fall and entered nationals in January ranked fifth among Americans for the season. He placed third to make the Olympic team and then landed three clean quads in his Olympic free skate to jump from 12th to sixth.

“I did better there than a lot of people thought I would,” Zhou told NBC Sports research last week. “I knew I was capable of that all season.

“I want to reach my ultimate goal of being Olympic champion, and my best chance is in 2022 … because by 2026 I will probably be old and creaky with four prosthetic limbs.”

Aaron made it to Milan after Olympian Adam Rippon gave up his spot, and the top two alternates (Jason Brown and Ross Miner) both declined. Still, Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, is seeded seventh in the men’s field based on top scores this season.

NBC Sports figure skating researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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Carolina Kostner the sentimental favorite at figure skating worlds

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova is without question the favorite at this week’s world figure skating championships, especially after the sprightly Russian’s training partner and rival Yevgenia Medvedeva withdrew because of injury.

She won’t be the sentimental favorite, though.

That would be Carolina Kostner, the ageless Italian star who could be competing at worlds for the last time on home soil. The 2012 champion and six-time world medalist seemed to indicate that retirement could be looming after she finished fifth at the PyeongChang Games, where she was chosen to carry the Italian flag at the Closing Ceremony.

Kostner will have a huge home crowd behind her when the event begins Wednesday in Milan.

“Decisions like that should never be taken in a hot moment. It will come naturally,” said Kostner, who no longer can compete with the sport’s high-fliers when it comes to technical marks, but whose elegant artistry and presentation often make up the difference.

“She is an example of perseverance, of a long-lasting athlete,” Medvedeva said. “I have trouble imagining how someone can stay in that shape for a very long time. When you see people like Carolina, you understand that if she can do something, then that something is possible. If you love what you do, you put all of yourself into it, like Carolina Kostner.”

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When asked about retirement, Kostner brought up her cousin, Isolde Kostner, who won three Olympic Alpine skiing medals before deciding to step away from competition.

“She stopped skiing shortly before the (2006) Olympics in Italy,” Caroline Kostner said. “Many did not understand why she wouldn’t pull through because it was her home country, and she said, ‘You will feel strongly when it is time to stop.’ And I haven’t felt it yet.”

The biggest story at the world championships in an Olympic year tends to be who is missing rather than who shows up. The grind of competing for an entire season builds toward the quadrennial event, and athletes who medal or intend to retire rarely press on to worlds. Then there are the injuries, which accumulate during the year.

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