Wayde van Niekerk, Usain Bolt
Getty Images

Five men’s races to watch at world track and field championships

Leave a comment

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?

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff will meet in the third round of a second straight Grand Slam, this time at the Australian Open on Friday.

Osaka, the defending champion and world No. 4, and Gauff, the 15-year-old American phenom, each won second-round matches in Melbourne to reach the final 32.

Osaka swept Chinese Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4 on a windy Wednesday afternoon. Later, Gauff followed her first-round win over Venus Williams by eliminating Romanian veteran Sorana Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.

“I know what to expect,” Gauff said. “I’m excited.”

Osaka beat Gauff 6-3, 6-0 in the U.S. Open third round on Aug. 31. In the most memorable moment of that night, Osaka urged Gauff to share the on-court victor’s interview at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“It’s better than going into the showers and crying,” Osaka told Gauff in front of a packed crowd. “Let these people know how you feel.”

Gauff obliged after at first declining.

“I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone,” she said later. “I didn’t want to take that moment away from [Osaka], as well.”

Gauff, ranked No. 684 at this time last year, is now No. 67. She broke through by beating Williams in the Wimbledon first round, then reaching the round of 16.

Gauff won a lower-level WTA Tour event in October and now ranks fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying. The top four after the French Open qualify for the Tokyo Games, though Gauff has fewer than half the points as No. 4 Alison Riske.

“It’s been really cool to watch her grow because it’s happened so fast,” Osaka said.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

John Isner leaning toward skipping Olympics again

Getty Images
Leave a comment

John Isner, the highest-ranked U.S. male singles tennis player, is considering skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

“I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but as of right now, I think I’m leaning towards not playing,” the 19th-ranked player said at the Australian Open on Tuesday. “It’s about scheduling. I know the Olympics, it’s a fantastic honor. There’s no doubt about that. … Right now, at this stage in my career, it’s not a huge priority for me. So that’s probably the main reason I won’t be going. I certainly love playing in the summer in America, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The Tokyo Games take place the same week as a lower-level ATP Tour event in Atlanta that Isner, a former University of Georgia star, has won five times.

Other notable male players already said they will pass on Tokyo, including Sam Querrey, the top American in Olympic qualifying standings.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open finalist, is prioritizing an ATP event in Kitzbühel the week of the Olympics. The U.S. doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan are not planning to play the Olympics in their final season before retirement, their manager said in November.

“The Olympics is very tough on the schedule … especially with Davis Cup,” Isner said in 2016, according to USA Today. “I think the fact that they have no [ATP ranking] points [at the Olympics], to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well. Obviously the Olympics is not about the money, but no points I think hindered me a bit.”

Isner, who turns 35 on April 26, is likely giving up his last chance to play Olympic singles. In his only Olympic participation, he reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Games, plus lost an opening-round doubles match there with Andy Roddick.

The top four U.S. men qualify for Tokyo, assuming they are among the top 60 overall qualifiers (maximum four per country) after this spring’s French Open.

Taylor FritzReilly Opelka, Steve Johnson and Tommy Paul are the U.S. men currently in Olympic qualifying position if excluding Querrey and Isner.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront