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In an Olympic first, teamwork is the thing for Mongolia

In an Olympic first, teamwork is the thing for Mongolia

TOKYO — For decades, Mongolia sent mostly boxers, judokas and wrestlers to the Olympics — athletes doing solo work that, in many ways, reflected the spirit of a nation known for wide-open spaces and a sense of nomadic individualism.This year, though, teamwork is the buzzword. A group of Mongolian women’s basketball players has taken center stage in Tokyo for the nation of 3 million, reimagining what’s possible both in their country and on the Olympic stage as a whole.Led by 21-year-old Khulan Onolbaatar, who last Friday became the first female flag bearer in the country’s six-decade history at the Games, Mongolia is one of the eight women’s teams playing in the Olympic debut of 3-on-3 basketball.“A dream come true for us, especially having our first Olympic Games as a team sport,” Onolbaatar said. “And representing our country on the biggest stage possible with team sports. And just being part of that team.”That Mongolia will not win a medal, and might not even win a game over the course of the five-day tournament that concludes Wednesday, is almost secondary to the big picture this story represents.When leaders of international basketball federation FIBA introduced this hybrid game to the world more than a decade ago, they did so with a mission of widening the audience for hoops beyond traditional countries, and beyond the urban playgrounds where 3-on-3 built its reputation.Their success is reflected not only in this discipline’s rise into the Olympic stratosphere but also by who is here — and who isn’t. The men from the United States — the country where the game was invented and perfected — did not qualify. Mongolia’s women did.“We’ve already had Olympic champions in boxing and wrestling,” said Tulga Sukhbaatar, the Mongolian coach who must watch the games from the stands, as dictated by the 3-on-3 rules. “But now every Mongolian says ‘Now I might want to play basketball, too.’”Onolbaatar only started about four years ago. She grew up loving the NBA, which has been as aggressive as any U.S. sports league in spreading its tentacles through Asia and the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Onolbaatar’s older brother had already caught the bug and was part of the national team, “and you always look up to your older siblings and want to do what they do,” she said.The notion she might someday play in an Olympics?“That was a faraway dream. It was unreachable. It wasn’t something I thought about. I’d never even watched the Olympics,” Onolbaatar said.Now, she’s in them, and but for a few bounces here or there, the men’s team might be, too. They were the top-ranked team in Asia and the top-seeded team heading into an Olympic qualifying event earlier this year, but fell short, much the way the U.S. men did in a different Olympic qualifier.By then, Mongolia’s women had long secured their spot in the field, due to high world ranking that’s part of a labyrinthian system that was tilted to benefit nations that don’t have long resumes in international hoops.“We’ve been pleased to see the quality of play from countries that are not traditional powers,” FIBA secretary general Andreas Zagklis said during a news conference over the weekend.The Mongolian women have gotten a good dose of how the competition picks up once Olympic gold medals are on the line. Through the first three days of the event, they have played six games and lost all six. The U.S. women, meanwhile, came in seeded last but started 5-0.To further magnify what the Olympics can mean for a sport, First Lady Jill Biden was in the stands on the first night to watch Team USA in action. Mongolian Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai was there the second evening.“He told us, ‘You girls are making history and you are doing great,’” Onolbaatar said. “We feel great as a team, making history on the biggest stage possible. But I didn’t know he was watching. If we did, we would have been even more nervous.”The coach, Sukhbaatar, envisions a day when the stage might not feel so big for Onolbaatar and those who come after her. Hoops is thriving in their hometown, the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where about half the country’s population lives and where blacktop and concrete abounds.Add a hoop, a ball and a dream, and some more kids from Mongolia could end up in this spot, too.“A lot of basketball experts say it’s almost impossible to get a player to improve the way we have in three or four years, but we’re doing it,” Sukhbaatar said. “There’s a younger generation learning now. I think we’ll come back to the Olympic Games much stronger — in ‘24, and ’28, and ’32.”———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sport

McLaughlin breaks 400 hurdles mark on historic day at trials

McLaughlin breaks 400 hurdles mark on historic day at trials

EUGENE, Ore. — Sydney McLaughlin looked to her left and saw the numbers “51.90.” Her first thought: “Oh my gosh!”Now, at long last, the 400-meter hurdles world record belongs to her.On Sunday night at U.S. Olympic track trials, McLaughlin finally outraced Dalilah Muhammad to earn the victory, and the record, that Muhammad kept grabbing whenever they met. McLaughlin’s 51.90 was good enough to beat Muhammad by 0.52 seconds. It shattered Muhammad’s old world record by 0.26.“It’s one of those moments you think about and dream about and play in your head that you’ll put it together,” said McLaughlin, who not long ago aligned with coach Bobby Kersee.Her record was the highlight of a day that included other kinds of history.Noah Lyles won the 200 meters to punch his Olympic ticket, then celebrated by kneeling on the track and clasping his hands together: “I just stopped stressing and let my body do what it does,” he said after posting a world-leading time of 19.74 that came on the heels of some lackluster runs through the 100 and 200 rounds.He shared the spotlight with 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton, whose third-place finish makes him the youngest male member of the U.S. Olympic track team since Jim Ryun in 1964.JuVaughn Harrison, a 22-year-old from LSU, won not one, but two titles on the same day to become the first American to make the Olympics in both the high jump and the long jump since Jim Thorpe in 1912.“That’s a lot of years for somebody not to do it,” Harrison said. “It’s really good for me to have my name in history like that.”It’s an amazing enough feat on a normal day. On this day — unbelievable.Temperatures at Hayward Field reached 108 degrees and the surface of the track exceeded 150.It forced USA Track and Field to put a halt to the action at about 3 p.m., shortly after heptathlete Taliyah Brooks was being carted off the track in a wheelchair. Brooks was in fourth place when she went down during javelin warmups. She did not make it back, and when the competition resumed some five hours later, Annie Kunz got the win.Much earlier in the day, Paul Chelimo won by .19 seconds in a sprint to the finish in the men’s 5,000, which had been moved to the morning to beat the heat. Much later on the track, Athing Mu won the women’s 800 and Cole Hocker edged reigning Olympic champion Matt Centrowitz in the 1,500.McLaughlin’s race was delayed by about four hours. She said the wait “was a little bit of a throw in our plan.”“But we were prepared for that,” she said. “Bobby always talks about Muhammad Ali, and always having to be ready for that left hook.”In this case, it was another Muhammad — Dalilah Muhammad — who has, in her own way, been preparing McLaughlin for this day.This marked the third straight major race in which the two squared off and a world record was set. The last two times, it was Muhammad who came out on top. It happened first two years ago on a rainy day in Des Moines, Iowa, at national championships. Then again, a few months after that at worlds in Qatar. McLaughlin ran a 52.23 at worlds, but lost by .07 seconds. That mark would have been the world record had she run it before Muhammad started rewriting the book that season.“Dalilah is a great competitor, and I was growing into my own person,” McLaughlin explained when asked if she was deflated after running such good times, only to come in second.She also credited a renewed sense of faith and, of course, Kersee, for this breakthrough.Kersee is the legend who has, over the years, squeezed the most out of some of the greatest in the sport, including Allyson Felix, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith Joyner.He put McLaughlin on a new plan — getting her focused on improving her form by running shorter hurdles courses.“It was trusting the process, and a lot of things you can’t really see coming,” McLaughlin said. “But just having the childlike faith in trusting everything is going to work out. Bobby’s really good at that.”Muhammad said getting to the starting line in this, a year that started with injuries and a COVID-19 scare, was never a sure thing. She said she couldn’t break 55 seconds to start the season.“Almost for a month straight, I kept asking (my coach) every day at practice, ‘Are you sure. Are you sure?’” Muhammad said. “I’m extremely grateful to be here today, and so thankful those setbacks are behind me.”Up next is the Olympics. The finals in the 400 hurdles are set for Aug. 4. The world record in this event is always in jeopardy.“She definitely pushes me,” Muhammad said during her interview on the track. Then, she turned to McLaughlin and said: “Congratulations, you world-record holder. It’s going to be a battle in Tokyo for sure.”