Wayde van Niekerk makes like Usain Bolt in 400m first round

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LONDON (AP) — It was almost vintage Usain Bolt.

Slow start, work your way up, and at the end look left and right before coasting first across the line in a jog.

This time it was Wayde van Niekerk winning his opening heat in the 400m on Saturday, his first race of possibly six in as many days at the world championships. The Olympic champion crossed in 45.27 seconds, .26 ahead of Nery Brenes of Costa Rica.

Like Bolt, a rival setting off faster no longer phases him. Van Niekerk just made sure he produced some extra power on the final straight to rein in Brenes.

Van Niekerk is seeking to win gold in both the 400m and 200m over the next week. He is tipped by many to become the sport’s next star now that Bolt is retiring after the world championships.

In both races, though, he might find his toughest rival in Isaac Makwala of Botswana. Makwala was just as good in his heat. Following a fast start, it was a jog in the finishing straight as he finished in 44.55 for the top time of the day.

The two are equally tight competitors in the 200, too, yet there is no bitterness in their rivalry.

“Wayde van Niekerk is my brother,” Makwala said. “We want to conquer the world together and make the final for Africa. He is so friendly and a lovely guy.”

The pair dominated the morning session at the Olympic Stadium, but by dusk, all eyes will be on Bolt as he tries to bow out with a last individual gold in the 100m (3 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Other finals on Saturday are the men’s discus and long jump, and the women’s 10,000m.

The two-day heptathlon also started and after two events Olympic champion Nafi Thiam took the lead. She scaled 1.95 meters in the high jump to reach a total of 2,215 points.

In a battle of 22-year-olds, Yorgelis Rodriguez matched Thiam in the high jump with an incredible 8-centimeter improvement of her personal best to keep in touch in the overall standings with 2,207 points. Caroline Schafer of Germany was third with 2,165.

One of Thiam’s toughest rivals, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, only cleared 1.80 in the high jump, well short of her best of 1.98, to dent her gold-medal hopes. She was in fifth position with 2,053 points.

In the women’s 100m, all the favorites advanced to the semifinals despite a downpour that affected many of the runners.

Twenty-year-old Gina Luckenkemper of Germany, who raced before the rain came, had the top time of 10.95 seconds. She was the only woman to break the 11-second mark.

Olympic champion Elaine Thompson of Jamaica easily won her heat in 11.05, while Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands had more of a struggle finishing second to Marie-Josee Ta Lou of Ivory Coast. Ta Lou had the second-best time of 11.00.

Tori Bowie of the United States got the worst of the rain but still looked very strong as she took her heat in 11.05.

The semifinals and final are set for Sunday.

In men’s shot put qualifying, Tomas Walsh had a massive throw of 22.14 meters, which the IAAF said was the second-biggest in the 34-year history of the event. The championship record is 22.23 meters, set by Werner Guenthor in 1987.

Joining Walsh in Sunday’s final with a first automatic qualifying mark were Olympic champion Ryan Crouser and two-time world champion David Storl of Germany.

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Bernard Lagat commits to Olympic marathon trials, eyes age record

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Bernard Lagat, a 44-year-old, five-time Olympian, reportedly said he will race the Olympic marathon trials on Feb. 29 in a bid to break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner.

“I feel like I can still improve,” Lagat said, according to Runner’s World. “I’m going to give it my best.”

Lagat, a two-time Olympic 1500m medalist, moved to the marathon after becoming the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history at the Rio Games, placing fifth in the 5000m.

He clocked 2:17:20 in his 26.2-mile debut at the 2018 New York City Marathon. He lowered it to 2:12:10 at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia on July 7 but did not previously commit to entering the trials.

If Lagat finishes in the top three at the marathon trials, he is in line to become the third-oldest U.S. Olympic track and field athlete in history. The oldest are race walker John Deni (49 years old in 1952) and hammer thrower Matt McGrath (48 years old in 1924), according to the OlyMADMen.

Lagat ranks outside the top 20 among U.S. marathoners in this Olympic cycle. The fastest are Galen Rupp (2:06:07), Leonard Korir (2:07:56, from Sunday’s Amsterdam Marathon) and Scott Fauble (2:09:09).

No American has competed in six Olympics in track and field. Lagat’s first two Olympic appearances were for Kenya.

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Natalie Geisenberger, Olympic luge champion, will not race this season

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For the first time in eight years, there will be a new World Cup women’s luge champion.

Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger — the seven-time defending champion and two-time defending Olympic singles gold medalist — announced that she isn’t sliding this season because she and her husband are expecting their first child in April.

“Our happiness is on the way,” Geisenberger said on her Facebook page.

Geisenberger plans to return next season and still has hopes to compete at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where she could match fellow German great Georg Hackl’s feat of winning three consecutive singles golds.

With Geisenberger not sliding this season, the top returning women from last year’s World Cup standings now are Julia Taubitz of Germany and Summer Britcher of the U.S. — second and third, respectively, in 2018-19.

Geisenberger has a luge record-tying four Olympic golds in all, being part of Germany’s victories in the team relays in Sochi in 2014 and Pyeongchang in 2018 as well.

Her 49 World Cup singles wins are another record, and she’s one of two sliders to win seven consecutive World Cup titles — Austria’s Markus Prock took the men’s championships each year from 1990-91 through 1996-97.

Geisenberger’s break from sliding only adds to how the World Cup standings — and the German roster — will look very different this season. Dajana Eitberger, who was fourth in last season’s World Cup standings, is also pregnant and expecting a baby in February. And Tatjana Huefner, who was sixth overall last season, has retired.

Huefner won five consecutive World Cup titles before Geisenberger took over and began her seven-year streak of championships. Geisenberger earned medals 11 times in 12 singles races last year — six golds, four silvers and one bronze.

“We are so happy for you even though we will miss you this season!” two-time Olympic singles gold medalist Felix Loch of Germany wrote in a message to Geisenberger on Instagram.

Geisenberger has been in the top three of the World Cup standings in 12 consecutive seasons. She was third in 2007-08, finished second in each of the next four seasons, and then began her title streak in 2012-13.

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