ATHLETICS Preview: First of two Diamond League Finals in Zurich Thursday

The IAAF Diamond League “preliminaries” are over and the final two meets of the 2018 season come Thursday and Friday at the Weltklasse in Zurich (SUI) and the Van Damme Memorial in Brussels (BEL).

The IAAF finally got the format right and used the first 12 meets to qualify athletes to these finals, where it’s winner-take-all for the seasonal title and two important prizes:

∙ Money: The Diamond League Finals are the best-paying meets outside of a major championship, with $100,000 per event, paid $50,000-20,000-10,000-6,000-5,000-4,000-3,000-2,000 paid to the top eight place winners. A total of 16 events will be held in each meet.

∙ World Championships Wild Card: Perhaps just as important – especially to American athletes – is that the Diamond League champion receives a “wild card” entry into the 2019 World Championships in Doha (QAT). That means no need to qualify in the USATF Championships next July in Des Moines!

Because of this, the Diamond League title has been a season-long goal for several U.S. athletes, especially Keni Harrison and Brianna Rollins-McNeal in the 100 m Hurdles.

A look ahead to the action at the Letzigrund Stadium on Thursday:

∙ Men’s 200 m: What will Noah Lyles do? Dancing, prancing or sobbing?

He could finish off one of the top 200 m seasons ever: in four Diamond League meets, he’s undefeated with wins in 19.83, 19.69, 19.69 and 19.65! That last mark, at the Monaco meet, is the world leader for 2018.

However, he’s not alone under 20 seconds this season; four others in the race are in the 19s, led by World Champion Ramil Guliyev (TUR: 19.76), Alex Quinonez (ECU: 19.93), Aaron Brown (CAN: 19.98) and Jereem Richards (TTO: 19.99). But it’s all about Lyles.

∙ Men’s 400 m: This race should be all about Steven Gardiner of The Bahamas, who has run 43.87 this season, no. 2 on the world list. But it is also a chance for Americans Fred Kerley (44.33 this season), Nathan Strother (44.34) and Paul Dedewo (44.43) to show that they are medal contenders of the future. All have run fast, but none have established themselves among the medal threats for Doha or Tokyo.

No one is quite sure what to expect frm Botswana’s Baboloki Thebe (44.54 this season) or new European champ Matthew Hudson-Smith, whose seasonal best of 44.63 ranks only seventh in this field.

∙ Men’s 1,500 m: No doubt that Kenya’s Timothy Cheruiyot (3:28.41) has been the best in the world in 2018, defeating countryman Elijah Manangoi – the reigning World Champion – in the race of the year in Monaco. Manangoi ran 3:29.64, followed by Norway’s Filip (3:30.01) and Jakob (3:31.18) Ingebrigtsen, Ayanleh Souleiman (DJI: 3:31.19) and Brahim Kaazouzi (MAR: 3:31.62) and that top six are all in the race. What about Ethiopia’s Sam Tefera, still just 18, who has run 3:31.63 this season? He started out winning the World Indoor Championships, but has been downhill during the outdoor season.

∙ Men’s 3,000 m Steeple: The race has 14 entries, eight of whom are from Kenya. But the focus will be on Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali, who ran a world-leading 7:58.15 to win the Herculis meet in Monaco, ahead of American Evan Jager (8:01.02). The Kenyans will counter with Olympic and World Champion Conseslus Kipruto (8:08.40 in 2018) and Benjamin Kigen (8:06.19) and the Diamond League points leader. An underestimated challenger is Ethiopia’s Chala Beyo, 22, who stands no. 4 in the world for 2018 at 8:07.27.

∙ Men’s 400 m Hurdles: Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba is busy at the Asian Games, so it’s World and European Champion Karsten Warholm polishing his Viking helmet in anticipation of a win. He’s run 47.64 this season, but Kyron McMaster (IVB) screamed to a 47.54 behind Samba at the Meeting de Paris and won the Central American and Caribbean Games at 47.60. Add in Yasmani Copell0 (TUR: 47.81) and you have the favorite for the 2019 World Championships bronze medal!

U.S. runner-up T.J. Holmes has run 48.30; is there more there? And this could be/might be/will be the Diamond League finale for retiring Bershawn Jackson of the U.S., who has run 49.07 this season, but stands no. 12 all-time at 47.30 from 2005.

∙ Men’s Long Jump: Olympic gold medalist Jeff Henderson of the U.S. and World Champion Luvo Manyonga (RSA) are in the field, with Manyonga the clear favorite having jumped 8.58 m (28-1 3/4), no. 2 on the world list. Henderson has jumped 8.44 m (27-8 1/4) and South Africa’s Raswahl Samaai has reached 8.42 m (27-7 1/2).

∙ Men’s Shot Put: New Zealand’s Tomas Walsh went crazy early in the season, reaching 22.67 (74-4 1/2) in March and winning the Commonwealth Games. But since June, he’s won four meets and been 2-5-2 in the other three. American Ryan Crouser, the 2016 Olympic winner, won four straight meets to start the season and was out to 22.53 m (73-11) in May, but injuries slow him in June. He’s thrown once since the U.S. Nationals, a 22.05 m (72-4 1/4) win at the Herculis meet in Monaco in mid-July.

If neither is right, look for Poland’s Michal Haratyk, the European champ and the only other putter to reach 22 m this season at 22.08 m (72-5 1/4). Could U.S. champ Darrell Hill pull another one of his surprises, like when he won the Diamond League Final in Brussels last year? He done 21.72 m (71-3 1/4) this season.

∙ Men’s Javelin: Two of the three German stars are in, with Olympic and European Champion Thomas Rohler (91.78 m/301-1 in 2018) and European silver winner Andreas Hofmann (92.06 m/302-0) the leaders. Estonia’s Magnus Kirt (89.75 m/294-5) and Jakub Vadlejch (CZE: 89.02/292-0) ready to challenge … for third.

∙ Women’s 100 m: It did not appear that there would be much suspense in this race, as Marie-Josee Ta Lou (CIV) has been the best in the world all season, winning all eight of her finals and racing to the world lead at 10.85. Then comes Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith with a stunning 10.85 to win the European Championships; those two will be the focus.

There are other contenders, like Michelle Ahoure (CIV: 10.90 in 2018), Blessing Okagbare (NGR: 10.90) and others, but Ta Lou is going to be right there at the finish. Will anyone else be there to challenge her?

∙ Women’s 800 m: OK, Caster Semenya (RSA) is going to win, but no one knows how fast she will run. Her 1:54.25 win at the Meeting de Paris moved to no. 4 all time. Behind her, the situation is getting more crowded. The silver-medal favorite is clearly Francine Niyonsaba (BDI), who ran 1:55.86 behind Semenya in Paris, but Jamaica’s emerging star Natoya Goule (ex-LSU; 1:56.15 in 2018) and American Ajee’ Wilson (1:56.45) are certainly in the fight, along with Ethiopia’s Habitam Alemu (1:56.71).

The U.S. also has Raevyn Rogers (1:57.69) and Charlene Lipsey (1:5805) in the race and this would be a perfect setting for a breakthrough from either!

∙ Women’s 5,000 m: This should be great … unless it descends into a tactical slumberfest. The top six on the 2018 world list are all in: Hellen Obiri (KEN: 14:21.75), European champ Sifan Hassan (NED: 14:22.34), Ethiopians Letesenbet Gidey (14:23.14) and Senbere Teferi (14:23.33), Kenya’s Agnes Tirop (14:24.24) and then what about Genzebe Dibaba (ETH: 14:26.89)? Wow!

The top five performers in 2018 all came out of the Rabat Diamond League race, won by Obiri. American Shelby Houlihan, whose finishing speed makes her a threat anywhere and any time, did not quality for the Diamond League Final.

∙ Women’s 400 m Hurdles: The four entrants who have run in the 53s this season are American champion Shamier Little (53.32), Olympic champ Dalilah Muhammad (53.65) and Georganne Moline (53.90), plus Jamaica’s Commonwealth Games Janieve Russell (53.46). Who’s still hot? The most impressive race of the last month was Little’s 53.32 win at the NACAC in Toronto on 12 August.

∙ Women’s High Jump: Russia’s Mariya Lasitskene won 45 meets in a row until she finished third at Rabat, losing to Bulgaria’s Mirela Demireva and Yuliya Levchenko (UKR). Lasitskene is still the world leader at 2.04 m (6-8 1/4), but Demireva has done 2.00 m (6-6 3/4) and Levchenko has cleared 1.97 m (6-5 1/2). Out of nowhere came Elena Vallortigara to clear 2.02 m (6-7 1/2) at the Muller Grand Prix in London; can she challenge? Vashti Cunningham of the U.S. did not qualify for the Final.

∙ Women’s Pole Vault: World Indoor Champion Sandi Morris of the U.S. or Greece’s Olympic and European Champion Ekaterina Stefanidi? These two have dominated this event for the last three years, and Morris is the world leader at 4.95 m (16-2 3/4) from a street meet in Greenville, South Carolina in late July. Stefanidi found her form after a series of injuries and won the European title at 4,85 m (15-11), while Russia’s Anzhelika Sidorova has cleared the same height earlier in the season. Don’t count out American Katie Nageotte, who just cleared a lifetime best 4.80 m (1-9) in a small meet in Beckum (GER) last Sunday.

∙ Women’s Triple Jump: This event has gone quiet since the mid-season duel for the world lead between 2016 Olympic champ Caterine Ibarguen (COL) and American Tori Franklin. Ibarguen seems to have settled the issue with a 14.96 m (49-1) win at the Rabat Diamond League meet in mid-July. But Franklin is still second with her American Record of 14.94 m (48-8 1/4) from May. Commonwealth Games champ Kimberly Williams (JAM: 14.64 m/48-0 1/2) will be in the hunt as well.

∙ Women’s Javelin: The top two throwers on the world list didn’t qualify, so the event appears to be between Asian Record holder Huihui Lu (CHN: 67.69 m/222-1), teammate Shiying Liu (CHN: 67.12 m/220-2) and Tatsiana Khaladovich (BLR), who threw a national record 67.47 m (221-4) to win the Bislett Games in June.

Pretty good meet, huh?

On Wednesday, there is an exhibition men’s pole vault at the Zurich Hauptbahnhof – the enormous main train station – which features 2012 Olympic champ Renaud Lavillenie (FRA), reigning World Champion Sam Kendricks (USA), 2015 World Champion Shawn Barber (CAN), 2016 Olympic winner Thiago Braz da Silva (BRA) and Russia’s Timur Morgunov, who jumped 6.00 m (19-8 1/4) at the European Championships and lost!

NBCSN has coverage of the Zurich competition beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, with the NBC Olympic Channel showing the Brussels meet on Friday, also at 2 p.m. Eastern time.