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Justin Gatlin faces Olympic, world medalists in Shanghai; preview

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The American contingent is deep and scattered at Saturday’s Diamond League meet in Shanghai, capped by Justin Gatlin‘s first top-level race since August.

NBC Sports Gold will air live coverage on Saturday at 6:10 a.m. ET. NBCSN’s live broadcast starts at 7 a.m.

Gatlin headlines the last event of the meet, the 100m, the sprint he won over Usain Bolt at the world championships on Aug. 5.

With Bolt retired, Gatlin was set to face the world’s other most decorated sprinters on Saturday — world silver medalist Christian Coleman and triple Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse. Though Coleman withdrew, De Grasse remains in the field that also includes world 200m champion Ramil Guliyev of Turkey.

Gatlin isn’t the only intriguing American in action.

Christian Taylor, the two-time Olympic triple jump champion, makes his Diamond League 400m debut. World champion pole vaulter Sam Kendricks renews his rivalry with Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie. Olympic and world medalist Paul Chelimo seeks his first international win against a 5000m field with Ethiopian stars. World-record holder Aries Merritt faces perhaps the strongest competition of the day in the 110m hurdles. And Olympic gold medalist Brianna McNeal and world-record holder Kendra Harrison meet for round 2 of a budding 100m hurdles head-to-head.

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

6:14 a.m. — Women’s Triple Jump
6:15 — Women’s High Jump
6:17 — Women’s Shot Put
6:47 — Men’s Pole Vault
7:03 — Women’s 400m Hurdles
7:13 — Men’s 5000m
7:35 — Men’s 400m
7:36 — Men’s Long Jump
7:40 — Women’s Javelin
7:46 — Women’s 100m Hurdles
7:53 — Men’s 1500m
8:04 — Men’s 800m
8:14 — Women’s 200m
8:25 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
8:34 — Women’s 3000m Steeplechase
8:53 — Men’s 100m

Here are five events to watch:

Men’s Pole Vault — 6:47 a.m. ET
The standout field event in Shanghai renews the rivalry between French world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie and world champion Sam Kendricks. Lavillenie holds a 14-12 edge in their head-to-head, but Kendricks finished higher in all seven of their shared meets in 2017, according to Tilastopaja.org. Lavillenie relegated Kendricks to silver at the world indoor championships and goes into Shanghai with the highest clearance in the world this year — 5.95 meters.

Men’s 5000m — 7:13 a.m. ET
One of the best 5000m fields you will find outside of an Olympics or worlds. Every reigning Olympic and world medalist is here save Mo Farah, who is now focused on road racing. American Paul Chelimo took silver at the Olympics and bronze at worlds and is looking for his first international win. He must beat a trio of Ethiopian stars — world champion Muktar Edris, Olympic bronze medalist Hagos Gebrhiwet and Dejen Gebremeskel, who has the fastest PR of any active 5000m runner. Plus Kenyan Consenslus Kipruto, the Olympic and world 3000m steeplechase champ.

Women’s 100m Hurdles — 7:46 a.m. ET
The five fastest Americans over the last 13 years are in the field for a second straight week — world-record holder Kendra Harrison, 2016 Olympic champion Brianna McNealSharika NelvisJasmin Stowers and 2008 Olympic champion Dawn Harper-Nelson. In Doha, it came down to Harrison and McNeal, with Harrison coming back to win by .05 after McNeal hit hurdle eight. Harrison’s only defeats since the start of 2016 were at the Olympic trials and world championships.

Men’s 110m Hurdles — 8:25 a.m. ET
The only event in Shanghai featuring the reigning Olympic and world gold and silver medalists. Jamaican Omar McLeod, the 2016 Olympic and 2017 World champ, competes internationally for the first time since he led off the Jamaican 4x100m team in Usain Bolt‘s last race at worlds. He was entered in the 200m in Doha but withdrew with abductor soreness. In Shanghai, McLeod gets Rio silver medalist Orlando Ortega of Spain, world silver medalist Sergey Shubenkov of Russia and American Aries Merritt, the 2012 Olympic champion and world-record holder.

Men’s 100m — 8:53 a.m. ET
This was to be the first head-to-head between Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman since they went one-two in the 2017 World Championships 100m final, beating Bolt in Bolt’s last individual race. But Coleman withdrew last weekend due to “precautionary reasons,” his coach said, according to Reuters. Gatlin, 36, will still have his hands full in his first top-level international meet since Aug. 24. Olympic 100m bronze medalist Andre De Grasse and surprise world 200m champion Ramil Guliyev of Turkey are also in the field. De Grasse has looked rusty in his return from a hamstring strain that kept him out of worlds in August. Only one man has broken 10 seconds this year — American Ronnie Baker (9.97). Gatlin clocked 9.92 in Shanghai in 2014 and 9.94 in 2016.

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Allyson Felix withdraws from Prefontaine Classic

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Allyson Felix withdrew on the eve of the Prefontaine Classic and will miss Saturday’s anticipated 400m showdown with Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world champion Phyllis Francis.

No reason was given by the meet director at a Friday press conference, according to media in Eugene, Ore.

Felix, a nine-time Olympic medalist and 16-time world outdoor championships medalist, was scheduled to race on the top international level for the first time since Aug. 20. She has raced in smaller meets this season, most recently last Friday.

This is the one year in the four-year cycle without an Olympics or world outdoor championships, making the Diamond League, and the Pre Classic in particular, marquee meets.

“In the 19 years that I’ve been running track, I’ve never taken a break,” the 32-year-old Felix said in an Instagram video Thursday after an intense training session but before her name was taken off Saturday’s start list. “Never had a year where I took it easy. … Now that this is kind of a year without a championship, I’ve had to force myself to have a different approach because my goal is 2020. … To be able to be at my best when it counts, I think that means not having as intense of a year as I usually do. Being a competitor and an athlete, that’s something that I struggle with. … This year, that’s what I’m really trying to force myself to do is have quality races, quality over quantity. … So, if you guys don’t see me at as many of the races as I usually run, don’t worry, I’m fine, I’m just challenging myself to be smarter.”

Felix will miss the Pre Classic for the second time in the last nine years. She was absent in 2016 with an ankle injury.

The USATF Outdoor Championships are in one month.

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Will Japan’s Olympic legend return for Tokyo 2020?

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NEW YORK — The Tokyo Olympics are in 790 days. Will Japan’s most dominant Olympian compete?

“She hasn’t decided yet,” a translator said beside wrestler Kaori Icho, who stood in street clothes, some given to her by an American host family, matside at the annual Beat the Streets meet on the edge of the East River on Manhattan last week.

Icho, who turns 34 on June 13, is the only woman to earn an individual gold medal at four Olympics. She has not wrestled in competition since capturing that fourth title in Rio. She has not announced retirement, either.

Icho once held a 13-year winning streak on the mat and owns 10 world championships.

While in New York, Icho did a high school clinic in Brooklyn (one wonders if the students knew they were learning from the greatest of all time), met Olympic and world champion Kyle Snyder (a particular highlight of this trip) and trained with Helen Maroulis before attending the meet as a spectator. In Rio, Maroulis became the first American woman to win an Olympic wrestling title.

Maroulis is familiar with Icho. In 2012, they trained together and drove to a Drake concert in Colorado. They met again in 2014. But last week was different. The most intense training they’ve shared. Their first full practice, said Maroulis, recently cleared from a January concussion.

“I think she’s coming back,” Maroulis said with confidence. Here’s why: “[Icho] busted out the video camera,” Maroulis went on. “Like, hey, can I record practice?

“She feels good. She’s still got it. She’s smaller than she was, obviously, right at the Olympics. She’s amazing. There’s so much to learn from her.”

Icho said through the translator that if she does come back, she would start in the next year rather than leaving it a few months before the Tokyo Games.

She is already the oldest woman to win Olympic wrestling gold (women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, Icho’s first Games). By 2020, she will be older than any men’s wrestling champion since Bulgarian Valentin Yordanov in 1996.

How much a home Olympics influences Icho’s decision is something that she didn’t share. Icho said she might go for a fifth Olympics even if the 2020 Games were not in Japan.

“It’s hard to say,” said Ken Marantz, who has covered sports in Japan for three decades. “She’s kind of a quiet person.”

United World Wrestling shadowed Icho and the more-famous Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida before the Rio Olympics as both trained to go for their fourth gold medals. The international federation made a 20-minute documentary titled, “The Celebrity and the Samurai.”

Yoshida was the celebrity, her face a constant on TV, Icho the samurai, a zen-like warrior. Yoshida would lose in her Rio Olympic final to Maroulis, one day after Icho won her weight class.

“Kaori, she was always more private and less approachable, not in a bad way,” said William May, who has written about international wrestling for 30 years, including for Kyodo News in Tokyo. “She’s always been kind of a mystery to the Japanese.”

Like when she lived in Canada with her sister for months after the 2008 Olympics, skipping a world championships during her peak years.

“It’s not that I don’t like being on TV, but I don’t like my practice time being taken away or to lose time for myself,” Icho said in the 2016 United World Wrestling film.

Something else to consider is that Japan is the world power in women’s wrestling. It might be more difficult for Icho to earn Japan’s one available Olympic spot in the 58kg division than run through the Olympic bracket of the best from the rest of the world.

Japanese women took gold at the 2017 World Championships in both the 55kg and 60kg divisions. Those two women, both several years younger than Icho, must choose to go for the Olympics in the 53kg, 58kg or 63kg divisions.

Maroulis, who now competes at 58kg, wants to face Icho at the Olympics in what she called “a dream” matchup. The American’s dominance the last three years rivals Icho’s heyday — world titles in 2015 and 2017 without surrendering a point, winning the latter title with a torn thumb ligament, and dethroning Yoshida in Rio in between, all three golds at different weights while compiling a 78-1 record before the concussion.

Icho described her recent practice with Maroulis as “very hard.”

“She doesn’t quit,” Icho said through the translator. “She just keeps coming.”

Icho re-emerged in Japanese headlines in recent months as a tragic figure. A reported history of verbal harassment and threats from a Japanese Wrestling Federation director who resigned.

The biggest Japanese athlete story at the Tokyo Games would be if two-way baseball star Shohei Ohtani suited up, Marantz said. But Ohtani is on a Los Angeles Angels contract until 2024, which would keep him out of the Games unless MLB reverses its stance and releases players for the Olympics.

After that, perhaps Kohei Uchimura, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic all-around champion gymnast expected to compete in fewer events in the last years of his career. (Icho said that if she could pick anybody to light the Olympic cauldron, not including wrestlers, it would be Uchimura.)

Or the Japanese men’s 4x100m relay team that took silver in Rio and bronze at the 2017 Worlds. Or a rising group of table tennis players challenging the rival Chinese.

Swimming, gymnastics and judo are more popular sports in Japan than wrestling, Marantz said. But the nation would be pulling for Icho’s pursuit of individual gold in five Olympics, something no man or woman from any nation in any sport has done.

“Icho does not care one bit for records,” Tim Foley, who followed Icho for the 2016 film and escorted her in New York, said before the Rio Games. 

“Of course [Icho] wants to win, but it’s less important than wrestling a perfect match,” May said. That’s one thing she hasn’t done.

“I think she likes the challenge,” Marantz said. “Any tournaments that I went to that she won, which was all the ones she was in, she never, ever said she wrestled good.”

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