Track and Field

Doping issues, missing stars cloud World Track and Field Championships

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The World Track and Field Championships are often considered more exciting to track nuts than the Olympics. They’re nine days where running, jumping and throwing are alone front and center, but the normal competitive storylines are shadowed by shame this year.

The doping issue is back in track and field, as if it ever left. The last two months produced a slew of drug-testing headlines, conjuring the frenzy of the BALCO scandal of the early- to mid-2000s.

It blew up on a Sunday morning in July, when it was revealed U.S. sprint champion Tyson Gay told The Associated Press in a teary telephone interview that he had been notified he failed a drug test in May.

Many in the track community were surprised and disappointed. Even once-every-four-years track fans surely rolled eyes. Here we go again. (It didn’t help that Gay’s admission came during the middle of the Tour de France, and cycling’s doping problems are second to none.)

A third, ominous reaction came from a few track insiders. This is only the beginning.

World Track and Field Championships broadcast schedule

That same afternoon, more reported failed drug tests, this time out of the sprinting hotbed of Jamaica. Asafa Powell, the world’s fastest man before Usain Bolt came along, and Sherone Simpson, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the women’s 100 meters, tested positive for a banned stimulant at their national championships the month before. This came a month after Jamaica’s most decorated active sprinter, Veronica Campbell-Brown, failed a test.

The World Championships begin Saturday in Moscow. The usual pre-meet questions from reporters — How’s the season going? What’s the motivation a year after the Olympics? — are coupled with the cloud of doping. Can record performances be trusted? Does track and field have a black eye?

The man who carries the sport, Usain Bolt, has said “it’s going to set us back a bit,” and that he’s now competing not just for himself but also to “help people forget what has happened.” Bolt runs 100-meter heats Saturday and the semifinals and finals Sunday. Of course, he’s not the only disappointed champion.

“It sucks for the sport,” Olympic decathlon gold medalist Ashton Eaton said. “It really hurts it.”

Eaton said he gets his track and field news like many fans, by going online to the various track-specific websites.

“I read the articles, you know,” he said when asked about his reaction to Gay and Powell’s positives. “Oh really, that happened? Come on. … I was really, really surprised.”

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Should he have been? Track’s history is littered with cheating, from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones, runners and throwers, Americans and Europeans.

“It doesn’t matter who it is, you’re always disappointed when it’s a positive test,” said Olympic and world 200-meter champion Allyson Felix, who entered the sport at the tail end of Jones’ career. “I love track and field and have a passion for it. Seeing it in a negative light, it’s really sad and frustrating. That was my initial feeling. On the other side, I was happy that the drug testing is working. It’s doing it’s job. That was kind of the only positive thing to take from this.”

Felix eyes 200 in Moscow, 400 later

Awareness is another takeaway. Gay said, “I basically put my trust in someone and I was let down.” A trainer for Powell and Simpson was blamed, though that’s turned into a back-and-forth argument.

“I think athletes always have to watch what they’re consuming because at end of the day they’re accountable for what they put in their body, even if they trust someone,” said Aries Merritt, the world record holder and Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles. “You have to be held accountable. It’s difficult to say that it’s someone (else’s) fault.”

Nowhere have performance-enhancing drugs been more widespread (that we know of) than in Turkey, where more than 30 athletes were recently banned, including teenagers. British marathon legend Paula Radcliffe likened it to child abuse.

Nick Symmonds, the outspoken U.S. 800-meter runner, is glad no stars from his event have been caught. But he knows the reality, that you can’t be sure all of your competitors are clean.

Symmonds said he would be “devastated” if a rival in the 800 tested positive.

“The system in place is catching cheats,” Symmonds said, “but it doesn’t do a good enough job of catching all the cheaters out there. It’s a cat and mouse game.”

There is no easy solution to clean up the sport. Track and field’s international governing body, the IAAF, wants to increase bans for first-time serious doping offenses from two years to four years. Basically, if you get caught, you must miss an Olympics.

The number of athletes missing from the World Championships is startling. The doping-related absences of Gay and Campbell-Brown are compounded by an out-of-control list of injuries — Jessica Ennis-HillYohan BlakeDavid Rudisha and others. Name the 10 most recognizable track and field athletes in the world, and it’s likely at least six or seven aren’t going to be suiting up at Luzhniki Stadium.

The two days before the start of competition saw the U.S. champion in the women’s 1,500, already in Moscow, withdraw with an injury. So, too, did the bronze medalist in the event at the Olympics, joining the gold and silver medalist on the sideline.

No event is safe. Two Russian Olympic race walking champions reportedly pulled out Friday.

“The more it’s getting closer to competition, the more I’m not really surprised,” Eaton said. “My coach has been saying people after the Olympic year, they’re drained, they’re hurt. My training this year, as it’s going, I’m more tired, I’m getting more dings. That motivation is hard.”

If there’s a silver lining, and track and field could use any life preserver these days, it’s that medals will still be awarded. Through the gloom, the sport must go on.

“There are others who are stepping up to the plate,” Merritt said. “It’s giving the youth the opportunity to shine as well.”

IAAF moves forward with 4-year doping bans plan

Nathan Chen, Ashley Wagner headline Skate America; preview, TV schedule

Nathan Chen, Ashley Wagner
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Nathan ChenAshley Wagner and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani headline Skate America, live on NBC and the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA this weekend.

Chen, Wagner and the Shibutani siblings, all reigning U.S. champions, seek berths in December’s Grand Prix Final, the biggest competition ahead of February’s Olympics.

The competition in Lake Placid, N.Y., is spread across three days.

Skate America broadcast schedule (all times ET)
Friday

Pairs Short — 6-7:30 p.m. (Olympic Channel)
Men’s Short — 8-9:30 p.m. (Olympic Channel)

Saturday
Pairs Free — 2-3:30 p.m. (Olympic Channel)
Men’s Free — 4-6 p.m. (NBC)
Short Dance — 7:30-9 p.m. (Olympic Channel)
Women’s Short — 9-11 p.m. (NBC)

Sunday
Free Dance — 2-3:30 p.m. (Olympic Channel)
Women’s Free — 4-6 p.m. (NBC)

All broadcasts will stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. The Olympic Channel broadcasts will stream for subscribers on NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app, OlympicChannel.com and the Olympic Channel app.

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

Men
Chen, the world’s second-ranked skater this season, will qualify for the Grand Prix Final with a finish of fourth or better. That shouldn’t be a problem.

The 18-year-old won his first two competitions this season, including beating Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu at his Grand Prix opener in Russia last month.

He landed six quadruple jumps between two programs in Russia but has the ability to add one or two more. He’ll face another quad king — China’s Jin Boyang, the world bronze medalist — in Lake Placid.

Both Chen and Jin should qualify for the Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix series. The Final will be the single best indicator of Olympic medal favorites of all pre-Olympic competitions.

Chen broke out at last season’s Grand Prix Final, winning the free skate and placing second overall in his debut at the event. As of now, he’s a medal favorite along with Japan’s Shoma Uno, the top-ranked man in the world this season.

Chen’s training partner, Adam Rippon, will join him at the Grand Prix Final for a second straight year with a top-three finish at Skate America. It would mark an incredible comeback for the 28-year-old who was unable to defend his national title last season due to a broken foot.

The Olympic team of three men will be named after the U.S. Championships in January. The selections will be based not only on nationals results, but also on a skater’s body of work over the last two seasons.

Chen has all but wrapped up his first Olympic berth. Rippon can really boost his case with a second Grand Prix Final.

Women
Wagner, who also trains with Chen and Rippon in Southern California, is in must-win mode. Five of the six women’s spots for the Grand Prix Final are spoken for, and it will take a victory for Wagner to pass the clubhouse leader for the last spot.

Wagner has struggled since winning Skate America last season — sixth, seventh and third at her three international events. But this week’s field lacks Olympic medal favorites. It’s wide open.

Surprise world bronze medalist Gabrielle Daleman of Canada was sixth in her first two events this season.

Japanese Satoko Miyahara, the world’s second-best female skater last fall, missed last season’s worlds with a hip injury and then was sixth at her comeback event two weeks ago.

Then there’s Karen Chen, the surprise U.S. champion last season who turned more heads by placing fourth at worlds. She was seventh at her opening Grand Prix last month and is out of the running for the Grand Prix Final.

Another skater to watch is the third American in the field. Bradie Tennell, the top U.S. woman at last season’s junior worlds in seventh place, makes her senior Grand Prix debut.

Tennell actually has the highest score of any U.S. woman this season, 196.70 points at a low-level event in Italy in September. If Tennell can match it this week, she arguably becomes a favorite to make the three-woman Olympic team. She is ineligible for the Grand Prix Final because she didn’t receive two Grand Prix series assignments.

Ice Dance
The Shibutani siblings will make the Grand Prix Final with a finish of fourth or better.

No problem. The Skate America field lacks all of the other Olympic medal contenders from the U.S., Canada and France.

The Shibutanis go into Skate America seeking a repeat title and to reclaim the top spot in the U.S. rankings for the season.

U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue‘s score of 189.43 at Skate Canada bettered the Shibutanis’ total from Rostelecom Cup by .19 of a point.

Both couples’ scores are more than 10 points shy of the Olympic gold- and silver-medal favorites, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.

The U.S. Olympic team of three dance couples will be named after nationals. It would be a complete surprise if the team is anything different than the Shibutanis, Hubbell and Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates.

Those three U.S. couples should make up half of the Grand Prix Final field for a third straight year.

Pairs
Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot and Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are the class of this field.

Savchenko and Massot (a Frenchman attempting to gain German citizenship to compete in the Olympics) will make the Grand Prix Final with a top-two finish. They haven’t been lower than second in any event since the 2016 Worlds.

Duhamel and Radford, the 2015 and 2016 World champions who struggled last season, bounced back to win Skate Canada last month. A podium at Skate America would be enough to reach a seventh straight Grand Prix Final, the longest active streak across all disciplines.

Neither pair has been within 10 points this season of Chinese world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who aren’t competing at Skate America but will be the favorites at the Grand Prix Final.

A competition within the competition at Skate America will happen in U.S. pairs. The first- and fourth-place finishers at from last season’s nationals, plus the top U.S. pair from last season’s worlds, are all in this field.

The U.S. can send only one pair to the Olympics. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim are in the driver’s seat despite missing last season’s nationals due to her life-threatening abdominal condition.

The Knierims are 10 points clear of any other U.S. pair this season.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who won the national title in the Knierims’ absence, struggled to a seventh-place finish at their opening Grand Prix last month.

Then there are Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay, who make a great story. Bartholomay is on his second partner since splitting with 2014 Olympic teammate Felicia Zhang.

Stellato, 34, is making her first Grand Prix appearance since 2000, when she was a singles skater in her only senior international season before injuries forced retirement.

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Yevgenia Medvedeva sidelined by foot injury, in cast

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Olympic figure skating favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva‘s right leg is in a cast after an MRI revealed bone cracks in her right foot, according to the Russia Figure Skating Federation.

Medvedeva said she plans to compete in her next scheduled event — the Grand Prix Final in two weeks — unless a doctor rules her out, according to the federation.

The Russian Championships are later in December, after which the Russian Olympic team of three women is expected to be named.

It’s believed that Medvedeva could miss nationals and still be named to the Olympic team on the basis of her incredible dominance.

Medvedeva, 18, is on a two-year winning streak, the best run in women’s skating since Katarina Witt dominated in the 1980s.

She won her two Grand Prix events this season despite rare falls in both free skates.

Medvedeva said she first felt right leg pain before her opening Grand Prix in Moscow last month, undergoing an MRI that determined a cracked bone, according to the federation.

She skated anyway and won by a comfortable 15 points.

She still felt pain before her second Grand Prix in Japan two weeks ago. After winning by 12 points, she underwent another MRI in Japan and flew home to Moscow and was put in a cast, according to the federation.

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