By Gene Cherry
(Reuters) - New opportunities are popping up for North American Olympic standouts and hopefuls to compete closer to home in the build-up to August's Rio Games.
Four new U.S. and Caribbean meetings have joined the North America schedule, providing alternatives to traveling to Europe for competitions and offering athletes a chance to be fresher for the Olympics.
Already world record holders Usain Bolt, Ashton Eaton and Jenn Suhr have agreed to participate in one or more of the events, organizers said.
Jamaican Bolt, who typically divides his early schedule between North America and Europe, will help launch the Racers Grand Prix in Kingston on June 11.
The world's fastest man also has a Caribbean race in the Cayman Islands (May 14), his agent told Reuters.
In the U.S., the American Track League is adding a second meeting, July 23 in Houston, and new ventures the Boston Games (June 17-18) and the July 29 TrackTown Summer Series in Eugene, Oregon are hoping to boost a sport sagging in fan interest.
"The United States is the country that puts the most money into sports," Track League founder and agent Paul Doyle told Reuters, yet little of it goes for track and field competitions.
"We want to bring track and field back to America in such a way that people want to be involved in it."
Doyle and U.S. Olympic men's coach Vin Lananna, who is spearheading the Eugene meet, both envision expanding their series to multiple U.S. cities.
The events pay less than top European competitions but reduce travel that wears on the body.
"The U.S. Olympic trials end July 10," Doyle said. "What are you going to do, hop on a plane to compete in Monaco five days later? It's tough. It's something that is not (always) favorable for having an athlete prepared for the Olympic Games."
Olympic decathlon champion Eaton, who will also compete in Europe, and his wife, Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton, will wrap up Olympic preparations at the Houston meeting, Doyle said.
The June 4 Track League opener in Atlanta will feature Eaton and former 100m world record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica.
Pole vaulter Suhr will be a key attraction at the Boston Games, which include street competitions as it looks to take athletics in a new direction in place of the previous New York Diamond League meeting.
Athletes for Eugene's four-team TrackTown Summer Series will be drafted in June
"Most of our U.S. athletes who are based on the West Coast would ideally like to stay in the U.S./Caribbean," Bolt's agent Ricky Simms told Reuters. "But the likes of (sprinter) Trayvon Bromell will compete in Europe."
Top U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin also will travel. His first three meetings will be in Asia.
(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by Larry Fine)