Usain Bolt returns to London Olympic Stadium; Diamond League preview

Mo Farah, Usain Bolt
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They’re calling it the London Anniversary Games. This week’s Diamond League meet bears extra significance, the first world-class track and field competition held at London’s Olympic Stadium since the flame was extinguished last summer.

Several track and field stars are either injured or pretty much done for the season after failing to qualify for the world championships (Aug. 10-18, Moscow). Most of those still standing will compete in London on Friday or Saturday, including Usain Bolt, Allyson FelixMo Farah and Jessica Ennis.

Here’s a chronological rundown of key events to watch (coverage begins on Universal Sports on Friday, 3 p.m. ET):

Women’s 1,500 meters (Friday, 3:36 p.m. ET)

Mary Cain is the headliner here. Cain, 17, the sensation of the indoor season, makes her senior European debut in the event in which she qualified for worlds.

Cain made the U.S. team by finishing second in a tactical final at nationals in Des Moines, Iowa, in June to training partner Treniere Moser, who is running the 3,000 on Friday.

She has a great chance of winning this race given the highest-ranked woman (according to IAAF) in the field this year is No. 16 Mary Kuria of Kenya (4:03.56). Cain is No. 24 at 4:04.62.

Also in the field is American Morgan Uceny, who was the world No. 1 in 2011 but finished eighth at nationals.

Men’s 100 meters (Friday, 4:48 p.m. ET)

A lot has changed since Bolt last ran a 100, winning the Jamaican nationals on June 21 to qualify for worlds.

Now out of the picture are Olympic silver medalist Yohan Blake (injury), American record holder Tyson Gay (drug test) and former world record holder Asafa Powell (drug test).

The consensus is only one man is left to challenge Bolt in Moscow, if anybody, and that’s 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin, who is not in this field in London.

However, there are two men in Friday’s 100 who have run faster than Bolt this year — countryman Nesta Carter and British upstart James Dasaolu.

Carter, a longtime partner on Jamaica’s 4×100 relay squad, is suddenly the active 2013 world leader with a 9.87, but he didn’t make the Jamaican team for the 100 at worlds. Dasaolu became the second fastest Brit ever (behind 1992 Olympic champion Linford Christie) when he ran a 9.91 at British nationals earlier this month.

Still, it would be surprising to see Bolt lose here, two weeks before the world championships. He may even have his eyes on Gay’s fastest time this year of 9.75, a time we may see expunged pending his drug-testing case.

Women’s 100-meter hurdles (Saturday, 9:11 a.m. ET)

American fans must get up bright and early to catch a glimpse of the biggest female track and field star of the 2012 Olympics — heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis.

Ennis has been battling an Achilles injury since the spring, putting major doubt into her status for not only this meet but also the world championships.

She appears ready to go after setting a personal best in the javelin at a low-key meet earlier this week. Ennis is also in the long jump field Saturday.

Another Olympic champion on the way back from injury is the London gold medalist in this event, Australian Sally Pearson. Pearson, like Ennis, has been set back since the spring. Her ailment has been a hamstring.

Dominant in 2011 and 2012, Pearson has been slow in a handful of meets over the last two months. Her season’s best — 12.67 — is well off her personal best (12.28) set at 2011 worlds and even farther behind the world leader for 2013, U.S. champion Brianna Rollins (12.26). Rollins pulled out of Monaco last week because she her managers didn’t want her to face Pearson before worlds, according to Australian reports.

Rollins is not in the field Saturday, but the third- and fourth-place finishers from U.S. nationals are — Nia Ali and Kellie Wells. They, along with Brit Tiffany Porter, will give Pearson more than enough competition.

Men’s 110-meter hurdles (Saturday, 11:07 a.m. ET)

This event has been one of the most exciting and star-studded of all of track and field for the last few years. We’ve seen the balance of power shift from China to Cuba to three different American men.

Saturday’s showdown will be overwhelmingly red, white and blue. In the field are 2013 U.S. champion Ryan Wilson, former American record holder David Oliver, 2011 world champion Jason Richardson and 2012 Olympic champion Aries Merritt

All four men are going to worlds, so this should be a nice Moscow preview. 2008 Olympic champion Dayron Robles was originally in this event, but as of Thursday afternoon was no longer on the entry list.

The top non-American here is another Cuban, Orlando Ortega, who ran a 13.08 in Eugene, Ore., in June. Only Oliver has run faster this year.

Women’s 100 meters (Saturday, 11:20 a.m. ET)

This sprint isn’t getting the pre-meet talk because it doesn’t include Bolt or a British star, but it just may be the best field of the competition. All the major players going into worlds are here.

From the U.S., there’s national and NCAA champion English Gardner and 2011 world champion Carmelita Jeter. They could both use impressive times here, given Gardner ran an 11.32 in her European pro debut earlier this month (after winning nationals in 10.85). Jeter hasn’t gone sub-11 since her quadriceps injury in Shanghai in May, which caused her to skip nationals in June.

The favorites lead with two-time reigning Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, who won in Paris on July 6 in 10.92 (into a slight headwind). There’s also world leader Kelly-Ann Baptiste of Trinidad and Tobago. Baptiste has run a 10.83 this year but no other times sub-11. If Fraser-Pryce beats Baptiste here, there’s no doubt who the favorite is going into Moscow.

Notables: Felix takes on a field including Americans Shalonda Solomon, LaShauntea Moore and DeeDee Trotter in the women’s 200 (Saturday, 10:27 a.m. ET). … Farah, fresh off breaking the British 1,500 record last week, could very well break the nation’s 31-year-old record in the 3,000 meters (Saturday, 11:32 a.m. ET).

Usain Bolt: ‘I know I’m clean’

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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