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Usain Bolt set for test in last race before world championships

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Usain Bolt‘s four-year winning streak, and his unbeatable aura, are definitely on the line Friday in his last race before the world championships.

Bolt headlines what should be the final Diamond League meet of his career in Monaco, live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold at 2 p.m. ET.

Bolt goes in the 100m at 3:35 p.m. It’s his third race of the season, but the first against decent competition.

Bolt clocked 10.03 and 10.06 to win two June races, marking his slowest ever start to a summer, then said he would visit a doctor about his usual back tightness.

In Monaco, Bolt will very likely need to break 10 seconds to extend a win streak of more than 20 100m and 200m races since June 6, 2013. If he loses, Bolt will likely go into his farewell world championships in three weeks as an underdog.

The Monaco field he faces includes two of the five fastest men in the world this year — South African Akani Simbine and American Chris Belcher — and four men overall who have broken 10 seconds in 2017.

It does not include the medal favorites for worlds next month — Jamaican Yohan Blake, Canadian Andre De Grasse and Americans Christian Coleman and Justin Gatlin.

Bolt’s slow times this season are reminiscent of 2015, when he struggled to win a June 200m race and then pulled out of two early July meets with a leg injury. But Bolt returned four weeks before worlds to show medal-worthy form for the first time in nearly two years. He then edged Gatlin by .01 at worlds.

Few are pressing panic on Bolt this season like they were two years ago. For one, Bolt has shown he can overcome injury and slow times to win each of the last two years. Second (maybe more important), every other 100m star has doubts right now (different than 2015, when Gatlin was lighting the world on fire).

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

1:30 p.m. — Men’s Pole Vault
1:55 p.m. — Men’s Javelin
2:03 p.m. — Women’s 400m Hurdles
2:15 p.m. — Men’s 1500m
2:20 p.m. — Women’s High Jump
2:25 p.m. — Men’s 400m
2:35 p.m. — Women’s 800m
2:45 p.m. — Women’s 200m
2:45 p.m. — Women’s Triple Jump
2:55 p.m. — Men’s 800m
3:05 p.m. — Women’s 100m Hurdles
3:15 p.m. — Women’s 3000m
3:35 p.m. — Men’s 100m
3:45 p.m. — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch:

Men’s 1500m — 2:15 p.m.
Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz and world champion Asbel Kiprop go head to head for the first time since August in what should be a world championships preview. All four Kenyans on the world team are in this race, including the two fastest men in the world this year — Timothy Cheruiyot and Ronald Kwemoi.

Centrowitz, the first U.S. Olympic 1500m champion in 108 years, finished seventh in two international races since taking runner-up at the USATF Outdoor Championships. He may still be rounding into form after a series of ailments had him considering pulling the rip cord on his season a month ago.

Women’s High Jump — 2:20 p.m.
U.S. champion Vashti Cunningham takes her third crack at world champion Maria Lasitskene of Russia this season. Lasitskene is the only woman to clear two meters this year, which she has done 11 times, with six failed attempts at a world record to boot, according to Tilastopaja.org.

Cunningham, the 19-year-old daughter of NFL All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham, has blossomed into the world No. 2 jumper this year. A personal-best clearance in Monaco would make her the eighth American woman to clear two meters.

Women’s 800m — 2:35 p.m.
The deepest field of the meet features the eight fastest women in the world this year. Olympic champion Caster Semenya hasn’t lost an 800m since September 2015. Olympic silver and bronze medalists Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui haven’t lost to anybody outdoors other than each other and Semenya in the same span.

U.S. champion Ajee’ Wilson may be in form to disrupt all that. She ran her fastest time since 2014 to win the national title. Now, she faces the world’s best for the first time since bowing out in the Rio semifinals.

Women’s 100m Hurdles — 3:05 p.m.
The six fastest in the world this year go here, including world-record holder Keni Harrison and 2012 Olympic champion Sally Pearson. With Rio Olympic champion Brianna Rollins suspended for missing drug tests, this is close to a world championships preview field.

Harrison hasn’t lost since shockingly missing the Olympic team. She is the only woman to break 12.40 seconds this year with a top time of 12.28. That’s not surprising. Pearson, meanwhile, was a revelation in their last meet, clocking 12.48 seconds in London on July 9, her fastest time in five years.

Men’s 100m — 3:35 p.m.
In two 100m races this year, Bolt spotted unaccomplished sprinters marginal leads out of the blocks, caught them, but could not break 10 seconds despite giving pretty close to full effort.

Bolt will likely lose if he repeats either of those races Friday.

Akani Simbine of South Africa has broken 10 seconds a total of eight times in 11 tries this year, though his best time without the benefit of altitude is 9.99.

American Chris Belcher has a best of 9.93 this year, but that came on the notoriously fast track in Eugene, Ore. Belcher hasn’t broken 10 seconds elsewhere. This is his first career Diamond League race and only his second meet outside the U.S.

Brit C.J. Ujah has won three Diamond League races this year, including running 9.98 into a slight headwind in Rabat, Morocco, on Sunday.

There is also Omar McLeod, who makes this race the first time reigning Olympic 100m and 110m hurdles champions face off since 1998, according to Tilastopaja. McLeod has rarely raced the 100m, but does have a personal best of 9.99 with the maximum allowable tailwind from April 2016.

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Figure skating Grand Prix Series will be held as ‘domestic’ competitions

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go ahead as scheduled this fall, with modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Skating Union decided Monday.

Each of the series’ six tops around the globe will be “a domestic run event,” limited to skaters of the event’s host country, who regularly train in the host country and from a respective geographical area. The number of disciplines and skaters at each event are to be worked out.

The Grand Prix Series, held annually since 1995, is a six-event fall season, qualifying the top six skaters and teams per discipline to December’s Grand Prix Final. The annual stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan, leading up to the Final, which is held at a different site each year.

The Final is the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships, which are typically in late March. The Final is still scheduled for Beijing, though whether or when it can be held will be discussed.

The series begins in late October with Skate America, which debuted in 1979 and has been held every year since 1988 as the biggest annual international competition in the U.S. Skate America’s site is Las Vegas, just as it was in 2019.

Skaters typically compete twice on the Grand Prix Series (three times if they qualify for the Final). ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start in the six-event series before the Final, according to a Russian media quote confirmed by Phil Hersh.

The ISU has not confirmed or denied Lakernik’s assertion.

Most, if not all, top-level U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada. That makes the first two Grand Prix stops — Skate America and Skate Canada — likely destinations. Grand Prix assignments have not been published.

“I appreciate the ISU is open to adapting competitive formats and is working to give athletes opportunities to compete,” Evan Bates, a U.S. ice dance champion with Madison Chock who trains in Montreal, wrote in a text message to Hersh. “This announcement gives reassurance that the ISU is doing their best to ensure a season will still take place. Of course, it’s hard to predict what will happen, and we’re not sure about what country we would compete in. It would probably depend on what the quarantine rules are at that time.”

The January 2021 U.S. Championships are scheduled for San Jose, Calif. The March 2021 World Championships are set for Stockholm.

In July, the ISU canceled the Junior Grand Prix Series for skaters mostly ages 13 to 18, including two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who cannot enter the senior Grand Prix until 2021.

Other early season senior international competitions scheduled for September were also canceled or postponed.

U.S. Figure Skating said in a statement that it will have more details on the Grand Prix Series in the coming weeks after collaborating with an ISU-appointed group.

“This is a great example of the figure skating community coming together to ensure that the world’s premier figure skating series will continue during these challenging times,” the statement read. “Figure skaters want to compete and figure skating fans from all around the world want to see their favorite athletes skate, and this format will ensure just that.”

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Respectfully, Donavan Brazier believes he has a chance at legendary record

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On the night of the biggest race of his life, Donavan Brazier met the man whom he is trying to succeed and, perhaps, supplant.

David Rudisha, the two-time Olympic 800m champion and world-record holder, told Brazier before the Oct. 1 world championships 800m final that he believed in the 22-year-old American more than any other man in that night’s event.

Later that evening in Doha, Brazier proved the sidelined Kenyan prophetic, winning in a national record 1:42.34 and becoming the first American to win a world title in the event.

Brazier, in his first global championship final, also ran the fastest time by somebody that young since Rudisha’s 2012 Olympic title and world-record epic pulled that field to personal bests.

Rudisha’s mark of 1:40.91 — from a race Brazier has watched dozens of times — is still significantly faster. That hasn’t stopped followers from wondering if Rudisha’s days as world-record holder may be numbered.

Sounds like Brazier may be wondering, too.

“I think I definitely have the opportunity,” Brazier told NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey in a watchback of his 2019 Diamond League and world titles. “If we’re looking at guys that are currently racing right now, I think I might have the best opportunity to do it.”

Brazier exercised caution. He was by no means predicting such a feat.

“David Rudisha, when he first broke it, he was a once-in-a-century athlete,” Brazier said. “For someone to break it so quick and just to say it so nonchalantly, I think it’s not really giving David Rudisha the respect that he deserves. A 1:40.91 is a really dangerous record to break.”

Brazier, who took up running in middle school in Michigan rather than football because he was “terribly skinny,” quickly became a dangerous prospect. In 2016, he went into the Olympic Trials ranked third in the world as a Texas A&M freshman.

Then came the obstacles. Brazier was eliminated in the first round of trials, three weeks after winning the NCAA title on the same Oregon track. In 2017, he won the U.S. title but failed to make the world final. He didn’t race at all outdoors in 2018 due to a foot injury.

Brazier looked at 2019 as a redemption year. He hit a series of successes: an American indoor 800m record, the world’s fastest indoor 600m in history, his first Diamond League win, a repeat national title and the Diamond League Final title.

Brazier said that last victory in Zurich took him from “not a well known guy, maybe a medal contender, maybe not,” to the world championships favorite. Rudisha hasn’t raced since 2017 due to injuries.

Brazier, after meeting Rudisha and former world-record holder Seb Coe, capped the season with his biggest title yet in Doha. The feeling was more relief than happiness. Brazier, after getting knocked down repeatedly in his first two seasons as a pro, noted that Muhammad Ali also won his first world title at age 22.

Brazier mouthed “thank you” after crossing the finish line, a salute to everybody who helped him reach that point.

“I’m thanking myself, too, because I’m the one who put in all the hard work to do it,” Brazier said. “I’m not saying that this is the end of my career, but it was definitely the peak of my career and the pinnacle of it. I never accomplished anything on a stage like that.”

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