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Track and field adapts for storied 7-venue Inspiration Games on Thursday

In a track and field season almost entirely wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, athletes and organizers are setting new marks in creativity.

On Thursday, the storied Weltklasse meet will broadcast near-live from Zurich in an ambitious mix of social distancing and technological innovation.

Only a few of the 30 athletes that will share the $200,000 US prize fund on an eight-event program will actually be in the city’s Letzigrund Stadium. Others will start and compete simultaneously, three athletes or teams per event, in one of six empty stadiums scattered across Europe and the United States.

At 2:27 p.m. ET, sprinter Andre De Grasse of Markham, Ont., will run the 100-yard dash against training partners Omar McLeod and Jimmy Vicaut at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

De Grasse, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., warmed up for Thursday’s race in Mt. Verde Academy in Otown, Florida with a 10.17-second clocking at the Showtown in Otown (Fla.) on Saturday.

“I’ll see what that’s like,” De Grasse said of running in an empty stadium. “If [the 2021 Olympics] come to that I would just have to get my mind right, be mentally focused, and try not to think of it in a weird way I guess — go about it as if it’s normal.”

The 25-year-old ran a personal-best 9.90 for a bronze medal in the 100 metres last Sept. 28 at the track and field world championships in Doha, Qatar, and is ranked sixth in the world. De Grasse also won silver in the 200 and last month was the recipient of the Phil A. Edwards Memorial Trophy as Athletics Canada track athlete of the year for 2019.

WATCH | Andre De Grasse sets personal-best in world 100 metres:

Christian Coleman of the United States wins 100m with personal best 9.76 seconds, Andre De Grasse finishes 3rd while fellow Canadian Aaron Brown places 8th. 8:37

Oslo, Norway hosted the Impossible Games in June to replace its annual Diamond League meet. Cardboard cutouts of fans filled the seats while Korean pro baseball has been doing the same.

Olympic sprint champion Allyson Felix will race in California on Thursday, while world 200 champion Noah Lyles and Olympic triple jump gold medallist Christian Taylor will be in Florida.

The highest pressure race at the “Inspiration Games” is perhaps for the staff at Switzerland’s public broadcaster and timing officials.

90-minute show

Technicians in Zurich will receive images transmitted on a slight delay from the U.S., France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden that must be synchronized within two minutes for broadcast during the 90-minute show.

“This is something that has never been done before,” Swiss Timing executive Alain Zobrist said.

Zobrist’s team will monitor false starts — from “pressure curves” on the starting blocks relayed to Zurich — and photo finishes.

“I was totally on board with the concept,” said Felix, who will line up in the women’s 150 against Olympic 400 champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo in Florida and Mujinga Kambundji in Zurich. “Thought it was super creative just adapting to what’s going on in the world right now.”

Taylor was equally enthusiastic during a news conference held online from the athletes’ homes and training bases.

“If this is what the new normal is for this period then let’s attack it full on,” the reigning Olympic and four-time world champion said. Taylor will battle fellow American Omar Craddock and Portuguese rival Pedro Pablo Pichardo.

Simply running on an actual track surface — Felix in California, Taylor in Florida — will be different with training facilities closed during the pandemic.

Stacked pole vault events

“In California, pretty much everything is locked down,” Felix said. “You can’t get on a track without jumping a fence.”

Olympic pole vault champion Kat Stefanidi is now back in the United States after an unscheduled long stay in her native Greece. She had returned for an Olympic torch event in March.

“After six cancelled flights, six failed attempts, we were able to get back to the U.S.” Stefanidi said, describing eight weeks of uncertainty as “super stressed.”

Stefanidi, like Felix, will compete in California against Diamond League record holder Sandi Morris in Florida and Angelica Bengtsson in Sweden. On the men’s side, Diamond League record champ Renaud Lavillenie of France takes on world champion Sam Kendricks and Polish star Piotr Lisek.

The men’s sprinters will mostly congregate in Florida, with Lyles lining up there in the 200 against Christophe Lemaitre in Zurich and Churandy Martina in the Netherlands.

There is also a women’s 300 hurdle competition and women’s 3×100 relay.

The winner of each event gets $10,000, second place is worth $6,000, and third gets $4,000.

Four months in the planning, the most complete track meet of the outdoor season is not expected to be a template for the near future.

“I don’t think the model or the format we are executing now … will be a serious format,” Weltklasse director Andreas Hediger said, adding it is the “only possibility we have now to bring the best athletes together.”

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