Rare Olympic gold medalist duel set for Rabat; Diamond League preview

Caster Semenya, Shaunae Miller-Uibo
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A rare, perhaps unprecedented, matchup of Olympic women’s 400m and 800m champions headlines a Diamond League meet in Rabat, Morocco, on Sunday.

Bahamian Shaunae Miller-Uibo and South African Caster Semenya are both entered in the 400m. Coverage begins on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold at 2 p.m. ET.

It’s the first time in recent history, perhaps ever, the reigning 400m and 800m gold medalists go head-to-head in an individual race. The comprehensive track and field statistics website Tilastopaja.org shows no other instances since the women’s 400m was added to the Games in 1964.

Savor it now, because Miller-Uibo and Semenya will not race each other at worlds next month. Semenya is contesting only the 800m there. Miller-Uibo is going for the 200m and 400m.

A number of sprint stars line up in Rabat, including Elaine Thompson and Andre De Grasse.

Here are the Rabat entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:02 p.m. — Men’s Shot Put
1:10 p.m. — Women’s Triple Jump
1:50 p.m. — Men’s High Jump
1:52 p.m. — Women’s 400m Hurdles B
1:55 p.m. — Men’s Pole Vault
2 p.m. — Women’s Javelin
2:03 p.m. — Women’s 400m Hurdles A
2:13 p.m. — Men’s 100m
2:22 p.m. — Men’s 800m
2:30 p.m. — Men’s Long Jump
2:32 p.m. — Women’s Steeplechase
2:50 p.m. — Men’s 200m
2:58 p.m. — Women’s 1500m
3:12 p.m. — Women’s 100m
3:20 p.m. — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase
3:37 p.m. — Women’s 400m
3:46 p.m. — Men’s 3000m

Here are five events to watch:

Men’s 100m — 2:13 p.m.
Yohan Blake, the joint-second-fastest man in history, was set to win his first Diamond League race in five years on Sunday. But Blake, the class of a field otherwise lacking world championships medal favorites, withdrew Saturday, reportedly due to a groin injury.

That is very concerning with worlds in three weeks.

Last time out, Blake swept the 100m and 200m at the Jamaican Championships, posting his fastest times since 2012 to rank Nos. 2 and 5 in the world this year. In the years since 2012, Blake went from legitimate threat to Usain Bolt to the walking wounded, tearing his right and left hamstrings in 2013 and 2014. He was inching closer to his old form.

In Blake’s absence, the favorites Sunday are Olympic sixth-place finisher Ben Youssef Meite of Cote d’Ivoire and Brit C.J. Ujah, who has won two Diamond League 100m races this season.

Men’s 800m — 2:22 p.m.
Like Blake, Nijel Amos was once the man pushing a legend in this event. At 18 years old, he took silver to David Rudisha in the memorable London Olympic final, shattering the world junior record.

But the Botswana runner missed the 2013 Worlds due to injury and failed to make the final at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics. He came back strong, winning his first Diamond League race in two years and then posting 1:43.18 in London last Sunday, the fastest time in the world this year by four tenths of a second.

Rudisha has lost two of three 800m races this year, so he may be vulnerable next month. The world-record holder isn’t in Sunday’s race, but other world medal threats are — U.S. champion Donavan Brazier and Kenyan teen phenom Kipyegon Bett.

Men’s 200m — 2:50 p.m.
Interesting mix here. There’s Andre De Grasse, the Olympic silver medalist in Rio. There’s Warren Weir, the Olympic bronze medalist in London contesting his first Diamond League race in three years. There’s U.S. champion Ameer Webb. There’s U.S. 400m champion Fred Kerley. And then Brit Zharnel Hughes, the former teen phenom and longtime Usain Bolt training partner.

Nobody in his field has broken 20 seconds this year (six other men have), but look for De Grasse and Webb to chase 19. They’ll need to in order to be considered threats to Wayde van Niekerk at worlds.

Women’s 100m — 3:12 p.m.
Elaine Thompson should extend her 100m winning streak to 17 meets here. The field lacks her top rivals — American Tori Bowie and the Netherlands’ Dafne Schippers.

It does include two of the other top six women in the world this year — Michelle-Lee Ahye and Kelly-Ann Baptiste, two veterans from Trinidad and Tobago. If they can push Thompson, the Jamaican 100m record of 10.70 seconds may be in jeopardy.

Women’s 400m — 3:37 p.m.
Shaunae Miller-Uibo has won the 400m at nine straight meets since her loss to Allyson Felix at the 2015 World Championships. That streak is very much on the line here.

Caster Semenya chopped 2.14 seconds off her 400m personal best last year, while focusing on the 800m. She even won the Diamond League finale in Brussels in a time that would have placed fifth in Rio.

Miller-Uibo was easily faster than Semenya’s personal best in her two 400m races this year, but she is not the fastest woman this year in the Rabat field. She trails Quanera Hayes, who won the 400m at the USATF Outdoor Champs in the second-fastest time in the world this year.

An interested onlooker will be Felix, ranked No. 1 in 2017.

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MORE: Olympic 400m champion to miss worlds

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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