Wayde van Niekerk rides record into Lausanne Diamond League; preview

AP
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Wayde van Niekerk set personal bests in the 100m, 200m and 300m in the last month. On Thursday, the South African races his first international 400m since breaking Michael Johnson‘s world record at the Rio Olympics.

Van Niekerk headlines a Diamond League stop in Lausanne, Switzerland, live on Thursday at 1:15 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold and 2 p.m. on NBCSN.

Van Niekerk is preparing for the world championships in London in August, when he is expected to race both the 200m and 400m. The only man to sweep both races at a worlds? Johnson in 1995.

Last Wednesday, Van Niekerk ran the fastest 300m of all time — breaking Johnson’s record — with a 30.81 in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

On June 20, Van Niekerk lowered his 100m personal best to 9.94 seconds. He’s the only man to run sub-10 for the 100m, sub-20 for the 200m and sub-44 for the 400m. On June 10, Van Niekerk dropped his 200m personal best to 19.84 seconds, a national record.

The last month has certainly boosted hopes that Van Niekerk may be able to lower his 400m world record this year. That makes Lausanne a must-watch meet.

Lausanne start lists are available here. Here’s the schedule (all times Eastern):

1:20 p.m. — Men’s shot put
1:25 p.m. — Women’s javelin
1:30 p.m. — Women’s long jump
2:03 p.m. — Women’s 400m hurdles
2:13 p.m. — Men’s 1500m
2:23 p.m. — Women’s 100m hurdles
2:25 p.m. — Men’s pole vault
2:33 p.m. — Women’s mile
2:44 p.m. — Women’s 200m
2:45 p.m. — Women’s high jump
2:54 p.m. — Men’s 400m hurdles
2:55 p.m. — Men’s triple jump
3:04 p.m. — Men’s 5000m
3:20 p.m. — Men’s 100m
3:30 p.m. — Women’s 800m
3:40 p.m. — Men’s 400m

Here are five events to watch:

Women’s 400m hurdles — 2:03 p.m.
Every Rio Olympic medalist is in this field — Americans Dalilah Muhammad and Ashley Spencer and Dane Sara Petersen. Plus 2015 World gold and silver medalists Zuzana Hejnova and Shamier Little.

Watch Muhammad. She is coming off winning the U.S. title in the fastest 400m hurdles race of all time — three women under 53 seconds and six under 54, both unprecedented. Her time — a personal-best 52.64 — is .17 off Lashinda Demus‘ American record.

Women’s 200m — 2:44 p.m.
It looks like Elaine Thompson and Tori Bowie are skipping the 200m at worlds after taking gold and bronze in Rio. Bowie, in fact, was signed up for the 200m in Lausanne but recently withdrew.

In their absence, the Olympic second- and fourth-place finishers headline Thursday’s field — Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers and Ivorian Marie Josee Ta Lou. They’re joined by Kimberlyn Duncan, who was runner-up at the USATF Outdoor Championships. They’re among those in world medal contention behind favorite Shaunae Miller-Uibo, the Olympic 400m champion who is not in Lausanne.

Men’s Triple Jump — 2:55 p.m.
Double Olympic champion Christian Taylor headlines the strongest triple jump field since Rio. It includes all three Olympic medalists, the top three jumpers in the world this year and the top three all time among active athletes.

It will be a test for Taylor, who hasn’t lost internationally since May 2015 and is seeking his first undefeated season overall (USATF Outdoors no-mark aside). In their last three meetings, Taylor edged countryman Will Claye by six, 11 and 10 centimeters, respectively.

Men’s 100m — 3:20 p.m.
Justin Gatlin needs a win here to be considered a world championships medal favorite. The other London contenders — Usain BoltAndre De GrasseYohan Blake and Christian Coleman — are not in this field. But Gatlin does face South African Akani Simbine and Ivorian Ben Youssef Meite, who finished fifth and sixth in Rio, and surprise U.S. bronze medalist Chris Belcher.

Gatlin ran 9.75 at this meet two years ago at the peak of his post-doping ban career. But he has been slow this season, impacted to some degree by a leg injury. Gatlin has one sub-10 to his name in five wind-legal races this season, but at least it came in his most recent outing, when he won the national title. The 35-year-old could be ramping up for worlds.

Men’s 400m — 3:40 p.m.
Van Niekerk should have no problem here. His top rivals — LaShawn Merritt and Kirani James — and the fastest men this year — Fred KerleyGil RobertsSteven Gardiner — are not in Lausanne. What’s left are the USATF Outdoors fifth- and sixth-place finishers (Tony McQuay and Michael Cherry) and Olympic fourth-place finisher Machel Cedenio of Trinidad and Tobago.

Van Niekerk memorably ran 43.03 in Rio. His best time in four 400m races this year (all in South Africa in March and April) was 46.28 seconds, which ranks him near No. 200 in the world in 2017, according to Tilastopaja.org. Given Van Niekerk’s more recent form in shorter sprints, he should challenge the world’s top time this year, Kerley’s 43.70.

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VIDEO: Olympic hurdles champ lying on track after Paris race

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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