Wayde van Niekerk, Usain Bolt
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Five men’s races to watch at world track and field championships

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The intrigue in men’s events at the world championships is focused on the track, where Usain Bolt and Mo Farah say farewells and Wayde van Niekerk eyes a sprint double.

The 10-day meet begins Friday and runs through Aug. 13 at London’s Olympic Stadium.

Bolt plans to retire after worlds, where he will race the 100m on Friday and Saturday and the 4x100m the following Saturday. The 30-year-old has slowed every year since his 2009 world records, but his competition may be at its weakest ever this year.

Plus, Bolt has narrowed his focus. He will not be in the 200m field at an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2003.

Farah, too, looks to extend a lengthy winning streak in his major track farewell at home before turning to road racing. Unlike Bolt, he is not paring his workload. The Somalian-born Brit goes for a third straight 5000m-10,000m double at worlds. Nobody else has done it more than once.

Finally, van Niekerk looks to become the second man to win the 200m and 400m at one worlds. The first was Michael Johnson, whose 400m world record Van Niekerk snatched at the Rio Olympics.

WORLDS: TV Schedule | 5 Men’s Races to Watch | 5 Women’s Races

Five men’s races to watch at worlds:

100 Meters
Saturday, 4:45 p.m. ET on NBC

No matter what Bolt says, he is largely seen as the favorite in a very slow year for men’s sprinters. Only one man has broken 9.90 seconds this year — American Christian Coleman‘s 9.82 in June — but Coleman hasn’t broken 9.93 outside of that, including in his last four races. And he has never raced individually outside of the U.S. and Canada.

Olympic silver medalist Justin Gatlin has also been unimpressive this year. Gatlin’s best time this season is 9.95 after a spring slowed by injuries. At this same time last year, he had run 9.80. In 2015, he had run 9.74. In 2014, he had run 9.80. Age may have finally caught up to the 35-year-old, the 2004 Olympic champion who is seven years removed from a four-year doping ban.

Olympic bronze medalist Andre De Grasse is out of worlds with a strained hamstring.

Then there’s Bolt, who didn’t break 10 seconds in two June races, then made his usual visit to his German doctor to work on his back. Bolt then ran 9.95 to win a race in Monaco on July 21, the fastest time this year run outside one’s home country.

400 Meters
Wednesday, 4:52 p.m. ET on NBCSN

In contrast, the 400m has never been faster. Three men broke 43.75 seconds before August. Never before has more than one man broken 43.75 before August.

Van Niekerk heads the field. The South African memorably lowered Michael Johnson‘s world record at the Rio Olympics, winning in 43.03 seconds from lane 8. Van Niekerk, 25, followed that up with the third- and fourth-fastest times of his life in July. He eased up in 43.62 seconds in Lausanne, then had to fight for a win in 43.75 in Monaco.

In most years, those times would make Van Niekerk an overwhelming favorite at worlds. However, two men are nipping at his heels this season.

Fred Kerley, who didn’t make it out of the U.S. Olympic Trials first round, ran 43.70 on May 26, the fastest time ever that early in a year. Kerley, 22, backed it up. He has five of the 11 fastest times in the world this year.

The latest challenger is Botswana’s Isaac Makwala, the man who nearly handed Van Niekerk defeat in Monaco. The 30-year-old didn’t make it out of the Rio Olympic semifinals but ran 43.72 in 2015 and, like Van Niekerk, has broken 44 seconds twice this year.

200 Meters
Aug. 10, 4:52 p.m. ET on NBCSN

The last time Bolt didn’t contest the 200m at a global championship was 2003, when American John Capel took the crown two years after being drafted by the Chicago Bears following a college career at the University of Florida under Steve Spurrier.

But Van Niekerk and Makwala are both entered, which will keep plenty of excitement around sans Bolt. Chances are one of the two will be racing to equal Johnson’s feat from 1995 of sweeping the 400m and 200m titles. Makwala has the fastest time in the world this year, a 19.77. Van Niekerk has run 19.84 and 19.90. Nobody else in the world 200m field has broken 19.95 in 2017.

De Grasse would have been a medal contender here, too.

The Americans owned this event pre-Bolt. From 2003 through 2007, a different U.S. man won this race at every worlds and the 2004 Olympics (where the U.S. swept the medals). But this year, it would be a surprise to see a U.S. medal.

The three fastest Americans this year are not entered in this event — Coleman, Noah Lyles and Christopher Belcher. Instead, the top hope to keep the U.S. from its first shutout since 1997 is Ameer Webb, who ranks ninth this year among men entered in London.

5000 Meters
Aug. 12, 3:20 p.m. ET on NBC

Every Olympic and world 5000m final since 2011 has gone almost like this: Farah stays with the pack, then accelerates near the front with a lap or two to go and puts the hammer down in the final 100 meters like nobody else to win.

This is the last chance for somebody to disrupt Farah’s strategy that has been unbeatable for nearly six years at the 5000m and 10,000m. It’s not that Farah is the fastest distance runner of all time — he ranks Nos. 31 and 16, respectively, on the all-time lists of 5000m and 10,000m personal bests — but he is the fastest finisher if the pace is reasonable.

At presumably his last worlds, the 34-year-old Farah will race the 10,000m on the opening night Friday, and then have five days off before the 5000m heats and his farewell 5000m final three days after that.

The men who will be chasing Farah include Ethiopian rival Hagos Gebrhiwet, a 23-year-old whose personal best is five seconds faster than Farah’s. But Gebrhiwet is 0-4 against Farah in global finals. Ethiopia also boasts the two fastest men this year — Muktar Edris and Selemon Barega — and the fastest man of 2015 — Yomif Kejelcha. Edris and Kejelcha have been routinely beaten by Farah, but the 17-year-old Barega has never faced the British legend.

Then there’s Paul Chelimo, the surprise Rio silver medalist who barely made the U.S. team at Olympic Trials by .06. Though Chelimo won this year’s U.S. title by a landslide seven seconds, he was nine seconds slower than Farah at the Pre Classic on May 27.

4x100m Relay
Aug. 12, 4:50 p.m. ET on NBC

Should be the last race of Bolt’s career. It is by no means a guaranteed victory lap, even though Jamaica crossed the 4x100m finish line first at every Olympics and worlds since 2008.

Bolt and the rest of the Jamaicans are slowing down. Their likely relay quartet’s top 100m times this year add up to 39.86 seconds. The U.S.’ projected relay team adds up to 39.70. But the Americans have botched the relay consistently, missing the podium due to bad exchanges or disqualifications at five of the last six global championships.

Consider this: Gatlin usually runs second or third leg for the U.S. 4x100m. If he’s again not anchoring, the U.S. will likely close with a sprinter who is green on the world stage. How would you like to be that man with a hard-charging Bolt next to you in the final sprint of Bolt’s career?

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MORE: Usain Bolt is down to his last, blazing curtain call

Mondo Duplantis, Sandi Morris miss attempts at pole vault records

Mondo Duplantis
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Sweden’s Mondo Duplantis and U.S. athlete Sandi Morris took turns attempting world records in the pole vault Wednesday at the Meeting d’Athlétsime Hauts-de-France Pas-de-Calais meet at Arena Stade Regional in Liévin, France, but both were unable to clear the bar.

Duplantis, aiming to set the world record for third time in February, had no misses leading up to his record attempts. U.S. vaulter Sam Kendricks, who has won the last two world championships, cleared 5.90m but dropped out after one attempt at 5.95m. Duplantis passed on that height, then cleared 6.07m to warm up for his shot at 6.19m, just shy of 20 feet, 3 3/4 inches.

Morris’ attempt to tie Jennifer Suhr‘s world indoor record of 5.03m from 2016 was more of a surprise. Morris holds the U.S. outdoor record at 5.00m but had never done better than 4.95m indoors. She won Wednesday’s competition with a clearance of 4.83m and asked to go immediately to 5.03m, or 16 feet, 6 inches.

Yelena Isinbayeva still holds the outdoor record of 5.06m, set in 2009. Morris is second on the all-time list and is the only athlete other than Isinbayeva or Suhr to clear 5 meters either indoors or outdoors.

In the men’s pole vault, Duplantis’ clearance of 6.18m Feb. 15 in Glasgow is the best vault indoors or outdoors.  Sergey Bubka still has the highest clearance outdoors at 6.14m. Bubka also held the indoor record of 6.15m for more than 20 years, finally losing it to Renaud Lavillenie in 2014. Duplantis cleared 6.17m Feb. 9 in Poland, then added another centimeter last week in Glasgow.

READ: Duplantis raises record in Glasgow

Duplantis, Lavillenie and Bubka are the only vaulters to clear 20 feet. Kendricks cleared 6.06m, or 19-10 1/2, last summer, the highest outdoor clearance by anyone other than Bubka.

Duplantis grew up in Louisiana and attended LSU for one year, setting the NCAA indoor (5.92m) and outdoor (6.00m) before turning pro, though he was upset in the NCAA final by South Dakota junior Chris Nilsen.

Also at Wednesday’s meet:

Ronnie Baker ran 6.49 seconds in the 60m semifinals and lowered that to 6.44 in the final, second only to Christian Coleman this season. Demek Kemp finished second and tied his personal best of 6.50.

Nia Ali and Christina Clemons finished 1-2 in the women’s 60m hurdles with identical times of 7.92. Ali is the reigning world champion and Olympic silver medalist in the 100m hurdles. She also won world indoor titles in 2014 and 2016.

Two Ethiopian runners set the fastest times of the season Samuel Tefera in the 1,500m (3:35.54) and Getnet Wale in the 3,000m (7:32.80). Wale was fourth in the 3,000m steeplechase in the 2019 world championships.

Pascal Martinot-Lagarde, racing in his home country of France, won the 60m hurdles in 7.47, second this season to Grant Holloway‘s 7.38 last week.

The World Athletics Indoor Tour ends Friday in Madrid. The world indoor championships originally scheduled for March in Nanjing, China, have been postponed a year due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Susan Dunklee extends decade of surprises for U.S. biathletes

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When Susan Dunklee‘s time held up for second place in Friday’s 7.5km sprint, she became the first U.S. biathlete to win two world championship medals in her career and earned the sixth medal for the U.S. in world biathlon championship history.

Four of those medals have come in the past eight years.

First was Tim Burke, who had gained some fame among biathlon fans with his three World Cup podiums in the 2009-10 season and his relationship with German biathlete Andrea Henkel, who would win two Olympic gold medals and eight world championships before retiring and marrying Burke.

In that season, Burke led the World Cup briefly but faded and didn’t do well in the Olympics. But in 2012-13, he finished 10th in the World Cup overall and ended the American drought in the world championships, finishing second in the individual behind dominant French biathlete Martin Fourcade, who won his 11th non-relay world title Wednesday in the individual.

In 2017, Dunklee became the first U.S. woman to win a non-relay medal, taking the lead in the mass start after quickly knocking down all five targets in the last shooting and holding on for second. She didn’t come out of nowhere, having taken a few World Cup medals. That season, she ranked 10th overall in the World Cup.

Then came the stunner. Lowell Bailey, who had just one World Cup podium in a long career coming into the 2016-17 season, had bib 100 in the individual, a spot usually reserved for non-contenders. But he hit all 20 targets, always important in a race that penalizes athletes one minute per miss, and gutted it out through the last lap to keep a 3.3-second advantage and win the first world championship for a U.S. biathlete.

Like Dunklee, Bailey earned his medal in the midst of a strong season. The individual was won of his four top-10 finishes in the world championships, including a fourth-place finish in the sprint. He wound up eighth overall in the World Cup.

Bailey and Burke each stuck it out to compete in their fourth Olympics in 2018, then crossed the finish line together in their final race at the U.S. championships.

This season is their first in management. Bailey, also a bluegrass musician, is now U.S. Biathlon’s director of high performance. Burke is director of athlete development.

Dunklee, on the other hand, isn’t done. Her results slipped a bit after her 2017 breakthrough, but she has had some top 10s. When she shoots clean, as she did Friday, she’s a contender.

The first U.S. medal was in the first women’s world championship in 1984, when Holly Beatie, Julie Newman and Kari Swenson bronze in 3x5km relay. Swenson also finished fifth in the individual that year and returned to compete in the next two world championships after a harrowing experience in which she was abducted and shot, a story that inspired a film starring Tracy Pollan.

The only other U.S. medal in the world championships before Burke, Bailey and Dunklee was Josh Thompson‘s individual silver in 1987. The only athletes other than Burke, Bailey, Dunklee and Thompson to have World Cup podiums (excluding relays) are Jeremy Teela in 2009 and Clare Egan, who was third in a mass start last spring and is competing in the world championships this year.

U.S. Paralympians broke through with two gold medals on the first day of competition in the 2018 Paralympics.

READ: Kendall Gretsch, Dan Cnossen take gold

Wednesday saw another surprise finish for a U.S. biathlete. Leif Nordgren, whose career-best finish outside the relays is 16th, was the only athlete to go 20-for-20 on the shooting range and placed eighth in the individual.

The championships continue through through Sunday with the single mixed relay on Thursday, the men’s and women’s relays on Saturday, and the men’s and women’s mass starts on Sunday.

WATCH: World biathlon championships TV schedule

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