Two years to Rio Olympics: Track and field storylines

Usain Bolt
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Usain Bolt is expected to bid farewell to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro by attempting to match the record for most career Olympic track and field gold medals.

Carl Lewis, who is not friendly with Bolt, won nine gold medals from 1984 through 1996. Finnish distance legend Paavo Nurmi won nine from 1920 through 1928.

Bolt would tie Lewis and Nurmi’s gold count if he matches his triple gold performance from 2008 and 2012.

But Bolt, who will be 29 in Rio, is by no means a lock for any gold medals. He has not raced against anybody in an individual event since Sept. 6, delaying his 2014 debut due to a foot injury.

Working in his favor is a lack of up-and-coming competition. His top rivals remain men who are older than him — Americans Justin Gatlin (32) and Tyson Gay (31). Countryman Yohan Blake won silver behind Bolt in both the 100m and 200m in London, but he has suffered serious hamstring injuries the last two years.

Two years out: Rio’s readiness | Storylines: Swimming | Track and Field | Gymnastics | More Sports

Allyson Felix could also sprint for history in Rio. With one title in her fourth Games, the reigning Olympic 200m champion would break the record for most career Olympic golds by a female track and field athlete. If she wins three medals, as she did in London, she will match the record for most career Olympic medals by a female track and field athlete (Merlene Ottey, nine).

Felix’s path to Rio appears tougher than Bolt’s. She suffered a torn hamstring at the 2013 World Championships and has been good but not great in her return this season. She ranks third, fourth and eighth among Americans in the 100m, 200m and 400m.

The globe’s upstart sprinter is American Tori Bowie, who was primarily a long jumper until March. The Mississippi native owns the fastest 100m and 200m times this year. The U.S. used to dominate the 100m, but no American has won the Olympic 100m title since Marion Jones in 2000 Gail Devers in 1996, the nation’s longest drought ever.

The U.S. is also home to the reigning World champions in the sprint hurdles — David Oliver and Brianna Rollins — though the events have been much more competitive than the open sprints.

Olympic 400m champion Sanya Richards-Ross is working her way back from a toe problem that kept her out for most of 2013. LaShawn Merritt, beset by injury at London 2012, is the reigning World 400m champion and, with Olympic champion Kirani James, has treated crowds to several head-to-head duels the last two years.

The most electrifying athletes outside of the sprints remain reigning Olympic champions Kenyan David Rudisha (800m), Brit Mo Farah (5000m, 10,000m), New Zealand shot putter Valerie Adams and men’s high jumpers from Ukraine, Russia and Qatar taking aim at a 21-year-old world record.

The multi events could be just as intriguing as London 2012. Ashton Eaton could try to become the third man to win multiple Olympic decathlon titles (Bob Mathias, Daley Thompson). He’s still the unquestioned world’s greatest athlete.

The heptathlon is more competitive, with London Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill, a new mom, expected to return from more than a year away in 2015. Eaton’s wife, Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton, is the reigning World silver medalist. The favorite could turn out to be another Brit, 21-year-old Katarina Johnson-Thompson.

Major track and field events before Rio 2016:

2015 U.S. Championships — Eugene, Ore.
2015 World Championships — Aug. 22-30, 2015, Beijing
2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials — Feb. 13, 2016, Los Angeles
2016 U.S. Olympic Trials — July 1-10, 2016, Eugene, Ore.

Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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Lara Gut-Behrami wins Killington giant slalom, and the overall title race may be on

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Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami rallied from third place after the first run for her 35th career World Cup victory, taking a giant slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Saturday.

Gut-Behrami, 31, earned her fifth World Cup giant slalom win and first in six years. She prevailed by .07 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino combining times from two windy runs. Sweden’s Sara Hector, the Olympic champion and first-run leader, ended up third.

“Last two years I’ve been getting better in GS again,” said Gut-Behrami, who won the GS at the last world championships in 2021. “Last year I was struggling with my health. I was all the time sick.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Gut-Behrami’s best events are downhill and super-G, so a strong start to the season in GS could put her on a path to winning the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. She previously lifted that crystal globe in 2016.

Reigning World Cup overall champ Mikaela Shiffrin, who previously placed second, third, fourth and fifth in Killington giant slaloms, finished 13th after winning the season’s first two races, slaloms in Finland last week. It marked her lowest World Cup GS finish since December 2019.

“[Finland] was a spectacular weekend,” Shiffrin, who has not had much recent GS training, said after her 10th-place opening run Saturday. “Every race is a different story.”

Shiffrin won all five World Cup slaloms in Killington dating to 2016 and will go for her 50th career World Cup slalom victory across all venues on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

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