Monaco Diamond League on world record watch; preview

Absel Kiprop
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The eyes of track and field will be on Kenyan Asbel Kiprop in Monaco on Friday.

The Kenyan World champion is expected to take a run at the 1500m world record in a Diamond League meet, a 16-year-old mark held by the greatest middle distance runner of all time, Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj.

El Guerrouj set the mark of 3 minutes, 26 seconds on July 14, 1998. Kiprop ran 3:27.72 in Monaco last year to become the fourth fastest man of all time and spark talk of challenging 3:26.

The last Olympic track event to see a world record fall was the 110m hurdles, with Olympic champion Aries Merritt breaking it on Sept. 7, 2012.

The men’s 1500m will be the marquee event at the 10th of 14 Diamond League meets this season, but other stars are in action (broadcast coverage starts at 2 p.m. ET on Universal Sports).

Here are five events to watch (all times Eastern):

Women’s pole vault — 1:45 p.m.

Olympic champion Jenn Suhr‘s switch to a carbon pole yielded defeats in her first two Diamond League meets. Both were won by Brazilian Fabiana Murer, who may be positioning herself as the 2016 Olympic host nation’s best hope for a track and field gold medal.

Monaco will see Suhr take on not only Murer but also Olympic and World medalist Yarisley Silva of Cuba and seven of the top eight pole vaulters this year overall.

Men’s high jump — 2:05

The other world record watch comes in an event where the mark has been under pressure all season. All the usual contenders convene in Monaco — World champion Bohdan Bondarenko, Olympic champion Ivan Ukhov, World silver medalist Mutaz Barshim, Olympic silver medalist Erik Kynard and Olympic bronze medalist Derek Drouin.

The world record, set by Cuban Javier Sotomayor in 1993, is 2.45m. Bondarenko and Barshim have cleared 2.42m this year (and attempted and failed at world record heights). Ukhov has cleared 2.41m, Drouin 2.4m and Kynard 2.37m.

Men’s 1500m — 2:35

Kiprop’s competition makes it no certainty he will win the race, let alone challenge El Guerrouj’s world record.

It includes the reigning Olympic and World silver medalists — Americans Leo Manzano and Matthew Centrowitz — as well as 2011 World silver medalist Kenyan Silas Kiplagat and 800m World bronze medalist Ayanleh Souleiman of Djibouti.

Women’s 100m — 2:45

This event is more wide open than at any time since the London Olympics. Olympic and World champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce hasn’t broken 11.1 this year, hampered by injury.

Instead, the world’s fastest women have been Trinidad and Tobago’s Michelle-Lee Ahye and Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown, who are separated by 10 years in age.

Ahye is not in the Monaco field, but Fraser-Pryce and Campbell-Brown are. As are Olympic 200m champion Allyson Felix and the fastest American this year, Tori Bowie, who has been sidelined by injury since running a personal best 10.91 at the U.S. Championships on June 27.

Men’s 200m — 3:35

Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay meet for the second time since the end of Gay’s doping suspension, but this time it’s over 200m, which Gatlin rarely races.

Gatlin and Gay won’t have to worry about the Jamaicans who swept the Olympic medals — Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Warren Weir — but the field does include World bronze medalist Curtis Mitchell and Jamaican Nickel Ashmeade, the only man in the field who has run sub-20 this year.

Photos: Lindsey Vonn, Roger Federer play tennis in the Alps

John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

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The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

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Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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