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Eden Hazard eyes Olympics with Belgium, but obstacles ahead

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Eden Hazard is about to leave Chelsea for Real Madrid, but he also eyes another new squad: the Belgium Olympic team.

The star forward told a Belgian coach that he wants to play at the Tokyo Olympics, but significant obstacles are in the way for him to be an overage exception next year.

“Hazard has already asked me if he could come to Tokyo if we qualify,” Belgian Under-21 coach Johan Walem reportedly said last week, according to a Marca translation. “If we qualify, I will stick with the group that played at the [U21 European Championship]. But I already know that picking a squad for an Olympics will be difficult.”

Inherently difficult. Olympic men’s soccer teams are typically under-23 affairs, but each nation is allowed to pick three overage players. These exceptions included Neymar and Ryan Giggs at the last two Olympics.

But adding an overage star typically comes at the expense of a player who helped a nation qualify for the Olympics, such as at the European U21 Championship later this month. The top four at that event will be Europe’s representatives at Tokyo 2020.

Belgium must get out of a tough group at Euro U21s, one that includes Spain and Italy.

But if Belgium’s junior players get out of the group and qualify for the Olympics (for just the second time since 1928), Hazard would have a strong argument to be added for the Olympics. He won the Silver Ball as the second-best player at the 2018 World Cup, where Belgium placed third, its best finish ever.

“Right now, I have more than 30 players and reducing this to 23 for the Euros was a hellish task, and reducing it to 18 [for the Olympics] would be impossible,” Walem said, according to the report.

Hazard’s situation is complicated by the fact he would be a centerpiece of Belgium’s team at the 2020 European Championship, which end 11 days before the start of the Olympic soccer tournament.

In past Olympics, clubs have been under no obligation to release players for the Games. In summer 2016, Neymar did not play Copa America Centenario and in exchange was allowed to play at the Rio Olympics.

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Katie Ledecky swims fastest at U.S. Open from B final

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For what must have been the first time in seven years, Katie Ledecky failed to qualify for an A final in one of her primary events on Friday morning. No matter, she swam the fastest 200m freestyle at the U.S. Open from the B final at night.

Ledecky, owner of 20 combined Olympic and world titles, clocked 1:56.24 to win the B final by nearly three seconds in Atlanta. In the very next race, American record holder Allison Schmitt touched first in the A final in 1:56.47.

Full results are here. The final day of the meet airs live on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Ledecky has rarely lost domestically in freestyles from 200m through 1500m since she made her first Olympic team at age 15 in 2012.

She kept the streak intact, giving her a sweep of the 200m, 400m and 800m frees in the first three days of the U.S. Open, what could be the deepest domestic meet before the Olympic trials in June.

Internationally, Ledecky faced challengers in the 200m free in this Olympic cycle, unlike the last one. Italian veteran and world-record holder Federica Pellegrini won the last two world titles, with Ledecky missing the event this summer due to her mid-meet illness.

Ledecky ranks seventh in the world in the 200m free this year but likely would have been faster if she was able to race at her best at world champs.

Domestically, Simone Manuel has crept up, clocking 1:56.09 to lead off the 4x200m free relay at worlds to rank second among Americans in 2019. Manuel was the third-fastest American on Friday, recording 1:57.21, her fastest time ever outside of a major summer meet.

In other events Friday, Phoebe Bacon upset world-record holder Regan Smith in the 100m backstroke. Bacon, who like Smith is 17 years old, overtook Smith in the last 25 meters and prevailed by .05 in 58.63. Bacon, while shy of Smith’s world record 57.57, took .39 off her personal best to become the fifth-fastest in the world this year.

Olympic and world champion Lilly King dominated the 100m breaststroke, beating a strong field by .62 of a second in 1:05.65.

Chase Kalisz won a potential Olympic trials preview in the 400m individual medley in 4:13.07. Kalisz, the Rio silver medalist, held off 18-year-old Carson Foster by 1.69 seconds. Ryan Lochte, the 2012 Olympic champion in the event, was fifth, 6.65 seconds behind.

Rio Olympian Townley Haas won the men’s 200m free in 1:45.92, his fastest time since August 2018. Haas, the 2017 World silver medalist, improved to the second-fastest American in the event this year behind Andrew Seliskar.

Torri Huske won the 100m butterfly on the eve of her 17th birthday. Huske clocked 57.48, taking .23 off her personal best to move from sixth fastest to third fastest in the U.S. this year.

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Ester Ledecka stuns again, wins World Cup downhill from bib No. 26

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Consider 26 a lucky number for Ester Ledecka.

Ledecka, the snowboard champion who stunningly captured the PyeongChang Olympic super-G from bib No. 26, won her first World Cup ski race on Friday — also from bib No. 26.

Ledecka was fastest in a downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta.

She kept Swiss Corinne Suter from her first World Cup win by .35 of a second. Austrian Stephanie Venier was third. Mikaela Shiffrin was 10th in her weakest discipline. Full results are here.

“I am for sure more shocked than everybody here,” Ledecka said. “I was a little bit, not disappointed about the run, but I was not super satisfied. Then I was really surprised about the time.”

Ledecka, an Olympic and world champion in Alpine snowboarding from the Czech Republic, had a previous best Alpine skiing World Cup finish of seventh. The top-ranked racers all go in the top 20 of the start list.

Last season, Ledecka raced more World Cup skiing events than snowboarding events for the first time. She was forced to choose between world championships in skiing and in snowboarding due to schedules and picked the former with a top finish of 15th.

She’s undecided about her upcoming schedule. She could continue on the Alpine skiing tour with a super-G in Switzerland next weekend, or she could fly to Italy for a snowboarding event.

The women race another downhill and a super-G in Lake Louise the next two days. A full TV and live stream schedule for the weekend races is here.

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