Ato Boldon
NBC

Ato Boldon reflects on track and field season breakouts, looks to 2019

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Track and field was supposed to suffer in 2018. Usain Bolt‘s first year in retirement. No Olympics or world outdoor championships. Even the other established stars — Allyson FelixJustin GatlinWayde van Niekerk — scarcely competed or missed the season altogether due to injury. 

In their absence, new blood rejuvenated the sport in the middle of the Olympic cycle. Christian ColemanNoah Lyles and Michael Norman kept U.S. men’s sprinting to the top. The 400m and 400m hurdles will offer some of the most anticipated head-to-heads in 2019, with at least one world-record watch.

NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon recapped the season in the sprints and looked ahead to 2019 in a Q&A [editor’s additions in brackets] …

OlympicTalk: Overall thoughts on the year, the first post-Bolt and without a major championship?

Boldon: I never bought the whole argument that Bolt’s going to leave this huge void athletically. I thought he would leave a void personality-wise, and I think maybe that has been nullified a little bit with the likes of [Qatar’s] Abderrahman Samba [second-fastest 400m hurdler of all time in just his second season in the event] and Noah Lyles and Sydney McLaughlin. It turned out to be a pretty good year.

The 400m went through a huge change with the addition of Michael Norman to the mix. In the women’s 400m, I finally got the sub-49 I’ve been waiting for since Sanya Richards-Ross [in 2009]. I’m really excited to see the next worlds, Olympics, worlds cycle [2019, 2020, 2021] because there’s just so much young talent. There are a bunch of world records coming.

OlympicTalk: Who is the man in the sprints right now?

Boldon: I don’t know if that’s for sure yet. It could be Christian Coleman. We saw that last year when he ran 9.82. That last race he ran to win the Diamond League [a 9.79, factoring in conditions arguably the best 100m ever outside the Bolt era], to end the season with that sort of statement, to say I’ve gone to a place none of you guys have ever been, makes him the man unless I see differently.

OlympicTalk: Who is more likely to be challenged in 2019 – Coleman in the 100m or Lyles in the 200m?

Boldon: Coleman, though Lyles is going to have better competition next year [than in 2018]. Michael Norman is going to go back to practice and say, “Nobody understands how good I can be at the 200m. That’s probably my better event.” [though Norman ran the world’s fastest 400m of 2018 and broke the indoor 400m world record]

Norman has a natural rivalry with Lyles [they were 2016 Olympic Trials breakouts, finishing fourth and fifth in the 200m as 18-year-olds]. He did not take that loss to Lyles [in the 200m in Lausanne] as well as some people may think.

OlympicTalk: We barely saw Allyson Felix compete this year. What do you see from her?

Boldon: I think she felt like she had some unfinished business after the Olympics [edged for 400m gold]. The problem is that when you’re Allyson Felix, nothing less than gold is going to be the goal. And now her path to gold is harder than it has ever been in her career in any event.

At age 33 next year, it looks like she will have to run a time that she’s never run to beat Shaunae Miller-Uibo, who just ran 48.9 [at age 24], and Salwa Eid Naser, who just ran 49 flat [at age 20]. I don’t see any way Allyson Felix [personal best 49.26] wins another 400m world title or Olympic title.

OlympicTalk: Would her chances be better if she focused on the 200m?

Boldon: The 200m is not an option for her anymore. As you get older, the speed goes [away] first. She doesn’t have 21.6 speed anymore. And guess what, Shaunae Miller-Uibo is still going to be in that event. You have the Olympic champion, Elaine Thompson, if she can overcome the Achilles injury. Allyson’s chance might be slightly better in the 200m, but I think it’s like zero [in the 400m] versus a one.

OlympicTalk: Wayde van Niekerk will go more than a year between races, possibly as much as 18 months, after meniscus and ACL tears last fall. How concerned are you about him getting back to his best?

Boldon: Any time you’re the world-record holder, the best in the history of the event, there’s concern. But it’s a knee, and people recover from knees a lot better than other things. On a one-to-10 scale of being concerned, I’m probably about a four. It’s on the lower side. He’s going to be back. He’s young enough [26]. I expect him to be back if not at his best, then very close.

OlympicTalk: Single best performance of 2018?

Boldon: Samba in the 400m hurdles, that he ran 46.98 [second only to Kevin Young’s world record at the 1992 Olympics] with nobody around him. When him and Rai Benjamin [who won NCAAs in 47.02] hook up next year, I want to be there. Samba has run less than 20 races in that event in his career. The guy has basically rewritten what a great season is in that event with very little experience.

OlympicTalk: After all the breakouts in the last year, name somebody who will in the next year.

Boldon: There’s a young lady from the University of Georgia in the 400m. Her name is Lynna Irby. She ran 49.8 to win the NCAAs as a freshman, taking down Kendall Ellis. She also ran a really fast 200m [22.25, third fastest American this year]. I think she’s the next American star in the 200m and 400m. I love everything about her, how she competes, her form.

OlympicTalk: Justin Gatlin didn’t race much this year but has a bye into the world championships as defending 100m gold medalist. Can he contend with Coleman and Lyles?

Boldon: He did the right thing this year. When you’re an old gunslinger [Gatlin is 36], you only have so many shots left. You don’t shoot them in a year where you don’t have a world championships. I don’t know that Gatlin’s going to beat Coleman if Coleman stays healthy, but he can still be a factor, no question about it.

OlympicTalk: Does Coleman break the American record in the 100m next year [9.69]?

Boldon: Yes.

OlympicTalk: How fast does Lyles go in the 200m next year?

Boldon: 19.5 [after running in the 19.6s four times this year].

OlympicTalk: Do Coleman and Lyles each double up in the 100m and 200m in 2019?

Boldon: You’re going to see Coleman and Lyles running the 100m and the 200m next year at the world championships trials.

Lyles can be Olympic champion and world champion in the next three years if they fix his start [in the 100m]. He’s way better in the last 50 than Coleman. It could be that if Lyles showed up next year with a proper drive phase and better start mechanics, that Lyles can be a 100m-200m threat just like everybody else.

Everybody forgot that Coleman is a 19.8 performer [in the 200m from 2017]. I think he’s actually faster than that. His mechanics issues come late in the race.

OlympicTalk: What races are you looking forward to most next year?

Boldon: The matchup between Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Salwa Eid Naser in the women’s 400m and the 400m hurdles between Rai Benjamin and Abderrahman Samba.

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Kuwaiti sheikh steps aside from IOC after indictment

AP
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GENEVA (AP) — Facing a criminal trial in Switzerland, Olympic powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al Fahad al Sabah temporarily stepped aside from his IOC work on Monday.

The Kuwaiti sheikh denies wrongdoing but said in a statement he did not want “these politically motivated allegations to distract attention” from the Olympic movement’s work.

“Sheikh Ahmad has every confidence and trust in the Swiss courts and IOC Ethics Commission’s impartial due processes,” the statement from his personal office in Kuwait said. “He fully intends to continue serving the IOC again at the earliest opportunity.”

The sheikh has been indicted for forgery in Geneva and faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years, city daily Le Temps reported. The investigation arose from a dispute with another royal family member, who is a former prime minister of Kuwait.

Sheikh Ahmad has been an International Olympic Committee member for 26 years, a close ally of president Thomas Bach, and leads the global and Asian groups of national Olympic bodies. He also chairs an IOC panel which will give $500 million to Olympic bodies and athletes before the 2020 Tokyo Games.

He is due to be re-elected unopposed in Tokyo next week as president of the global Olympic group known as ANOC.

The IOC said in a statement its ethics panel can intervene for misconduct “even if it is not related to sport.”

The Olympic ethics panel had confirmed last year it was studying separate allegations against Sheikh Ahmad relating to bribery in international soccer elections.

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Who qualifies for figure skating’s Grand Prix Final?

Yevgenia Medvedeva
NBC Sports Gold
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A look at the qualifying scenarios for December’s Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international figure skating event, with the sixth and last qualifier happening this week at Internationaux de France, headlined by Nathan Chen and streaming live on NBC Sports Gold … 

Men
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 30 points (qualified)
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 30 points (qualified)
3. Michal Brezina (CZE) — 26 points (qualified)
4. Sergey Voronov (RUS) — 24 points (qualified)
5. Cha Jun-Hwan (KOR) — 22 points (bubble)
6. Keegan Messing (CAN) — 20 points (bubble)

Competing this week: Nathan Chen (USA) — 15 points, Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 9 points, Jin Boyang (CHN) and Dmitry Aliyev (RUS) — 7 points, Jason Brown (USA) — 5 points.

Outlook: Chen qualifies with a fifth or better this week. If he wins as expected, it would mean the favorites swept the six men’s Grand Prix Final qualifiers (Hanyu, Uno and Chen with two wins each). That trio last faced off at the Olympics, where Hanyu repeated as champion, Uno took silver and Chen rebounded from a 17th-place short program with the top free skate to place fifth overall. Hanyu, though, is uncertain for the Final after injuring his right ankle in practice before his free skate at Rostelecom Cup on Saturday. Samarin is the only man in this week’s field who would get into the Final by placing second to Chen.

Women
1. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 30 points (qualified)
2. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 28 points (qualified)
3. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) — 26 points (qualified)
4. Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) — 24 points (bubble)
5. Sofia Samodurova (RUS) — 24 points (bubble)
6. Mako Yamashita (JPN) — 17 points (bubble)

Competing this week: Rika Kihira (JPN) — 15 points, Stanislava Konstantinova (RUS) — 13 points, Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 11 points, Mai Mihara (JPN), Bradie Tennell (USA) and Alexia Paganini (SUI) — 9 points, Laurine Lecavelier (FRA) — 7 points.

Outlook: It’s a near-lock that the Grand Prix Final will be an all-Russian and Japanese affair. The biggest question across all disciplines this week is whether the Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion Medvedeva can earn one of the three available spots. She is definitely in with a win. If she’s second, it likely comes down to a tiebreak among at least Medvedeva, Sakamoto and Samodurova, looking at who had the most total points between their two Grand Prix starts. If she’s third, she’s almost definitely out of the Final. The U.S. champion Tennell is one of six women who qualify automatically with a win this week.

Pairs
1. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 30 points (qualified)
2. Natalya Zabiyako/Alexander Enbert (RUS) — 30 points (qualified)
3. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 26 points (qualified)
4. Nicole Della Monica/Matteo Guarise (ITA) — 26 points (qualified)
5. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 22 points (bubble)
6. Alisa Efimova/Alexander Korovin (RUS) — 20 points (bubble)

Competing this week: Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 15 points, Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 9 points, Ryom Tae-Ok/Kim Ju-Sik (PRK), Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea (USA) and Minerva Fabienne Hase/Nolan Seegert (GER) — 7 points.

Outlook: With none of the Olympic medalists competing this fall, the fourth- and fifth-place finishers from PyeongChang have been the most impressive thus far — Tarasova and Morozov and James and Cipres. The French make it to the Final by finishing fifth this week. For either the North Koreans or the Americans to make the Final, they almost definitely have to win. That’s a very tall order against the French in Grenoble.

Ice Dance
1. Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue (USA) — 30 points (qualified)
2. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 30 points (qualified)
3. Charlene Guignard/Marco Fabbri (ITA) — 26 points (qualified)
4. Tiffany Zahorski/Jonathan Guerreiro (RUS) — 24 points (bubble)
5. Sara Hurtado/Kirill Khaliavin (ESP) — 22 points (bubble)
6. Lorraine McNamara/Quinn Carpenter (USA) — 20 points (bubble)

Competing this week: Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker (USA) — 15 points, Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS) — 13 points, Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN) and Rachel Parsons/Michael Parsons (USA) — 11 points, Marie-Jade Lauriault/Romain Le Gac (FRA) — 9 points, Olivia Smart/Adrián Díaz (ESP) — 7 points, Allison Reed/Saulius Ambrulevičius (LTU) — 5 points.

Outlook: This week’s favorites have no chance at the Final. That’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who missed their first Grand Prix due to Cizeron’s back injury. The anticipated showdown between the three-time world champions and Olympic silver medalists from France and world silver medalists Hubbell and Donohue must wait until the world championships in March. Their absence could open the door for multiple U.S. dance couples to qualify for the Final for a fifth straight year, despite the absence this fall of Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani (indefinite break) and Madison Chock and Evan Bates (injury). Hawayek and Baker are into the Final with a fourth or better this week.

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