With or without Bolt or Russians, athletes will shine in Rio


By John Pye

AP Sports Writer

With so much focus on Usain Bolt’s injured hamstring and the Russian team’s ban amid charges of systematic doping, it’s easy to lose track of who could be making the headlines at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Always among the marquee Olympic attractions, the track and field competition runs Aug. 12-21. From the 100-meter sprints to the marathons, there are 47 gold medals up for grabs. Some athletes and events to watch:

BOLT, OR UNBOLTED: Even if he was fully fit, Bolt, the world record-holder and two-time defending champion in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, will have plenty of competition. World championship silver medalist Justin Gatlin recorded the two fastest times of the season to July 3 with a 9.80 and 9.83 at the U.S. trials, holding off Trayvon Bromell in 9.84.

Gatlin won the 100-200 double at the trials, a feat 2011 world champion Yohan Blake was matched at the Jamaican championships after Bolt withdrew.

After edging Nickel Ashmeade to win the 100 in 9.95, Blake —the silver medalist in the 100 and 200 in London — said he felt his confidence coming back.

WORLD’S FASTEST WOMEN: Dafne Schippers wants to break the Jamaica-U.S. dominance in the women’s Olympic sprints by improving one place on her performance at the world championships, where she won the 200 and took silver in the 100.

After winning the European 100-meter title, the Dutch former heptathlete she said “I’m shaping up well for Rio.”

Her personal best of 10.81 is well off the world-leading 10.70 set by Elaine Thompson at the Jamaican trials.

Thompson’s time equaled the Jamaican record Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce set in 2012, and relegated the defending Olympic champion to second place.

That’s not a position that sits well with Fraser-Pryce, a championship specialist who has won three world and two Olympic golds in the 100.

There’s extra incentive for the 29-year-old Fraser-Pryce, too — the chance to be the first woman to win the same individual event at three successive Olympics.

English Gardner leads the U.S. contingent after a personal best of 10.74 at the trials, where she edged Tianna Bartoletta and world championship bronze medalist Tori Bowie, who both ran 10.78.

ALMOST A PERFECT 10: Ashton Eaton is a hot favorite to win another prize for most versatile athlete at the Olympics. Even with a tender right hamstring, Eaton won the U.S. trials with 8,750 points in the decathlon, well below the world record 9,045 he set in winning the world championships last year but also well clear of all his peers.

Eaton warmed up for London in 2012 with a world record in the U.S. trials (9,039) and won the Olympic gold with 8,869. His aim now is to surpass 9,000 points at every major event. Roman Sebrle is the only other decathlete to break the 9,000 barrier, with 9,026 back in 2001.

SEMENYA READY: Caster Semenya has been just about unbeatable this season over 800 meters and is the favorite for gold at Rio, entering with a world-leading time of 1:56.64 for the first half of the year.

Semenya has had a tumultuous career since winning the world 800 title at age 18 in 2009. The issue of gender verification and hyperandrogenism — the presence of high levels of testosterone in female athletes — gained global attention after that win and Semenya was ordered to undergo testing.

She eventually was cleared to compete and won silver in the 800 at the 2012 Olympics to get her career on back on track. But she missed the 2013 world titles because of injury and didn’t make the final at the 2015 worlds.

After setting Olympic qualifying times in the 400 and 800 within hours at the South African championships in April, Semenya said she felt like she was starting to enjoy the sport again.

Sprinter Dutee Chand , who was suspended by the IAAF and missed two big meets in 2014 because of hyperandrogenism, took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and had the IAAF rules suspended last year, clearing the way for her to compete for India in Rio.

SUPER SATURDAY: Rule Britannia echoed around the Olympic stadium in 2012 when Mo Farah won the 10,000, Jessica Ennis-Hill won the heptathlon and Greg Rutherford won the long jump to give Britain three gold medals on one Saturday night.

The way the schedule works out for Rio, they have the chance to do it again on Saturday, Aug. 13.

All three won their events at the world championships last year — Ennis-Hill successfully returning to competition after having a baby, and Farah completing the 5,000-10,000 double again.

SETTING THE BAR HIGH: If Russia’s ban is upheld, the absence of world record-holder and two-time Olympic champion Yelena Isinbayeva will leave a hole in the women’s pole vault competition — particularly for American Jenn Suhr.

“I always said I wanted to compete against the best,” said Suhr, who won Olympic gold in 2012 on a countback from Yarisley Silva and took silver behind Isinbayeva in 2008 at Beijing. “If everything is on the up and up — and the people who know more than I do say, ‘Yeah, she’s in,’ she’s in. Right now, I have no control over it. I’m happy that I’m in.”

Suhr missed a medal at last year’s worlds, but her best mark of 4.91 places her second on the all-time list behind Isinbayeva.

Facing heavy expectations is Brazil’s Fabiana Murer, who won the 2011 world title, the silver in 2015 and set a South American record 4.87 to qualify for her home Olympics.

“There is a lot of pressure, before a home Olympics,” Murer said, “but I have the experience to deal with it.”

By John Pye

AP Sports Writer

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