McKayla Maroney

What to watch at USA Gymnastics National Championships women’s competition

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The larger commentary surrounding this week’s U.S. Gymnastics National Championships may center on the lead up to Rio 2016, but in the year directly following an Olympic Games, the World Gymnastics Championships are comprised of individual events only, no team final, and the uniqueness of an individual world championships makes the gymnastics season following the London Games largely stand alone.

Take this bit of history: not a single woman on the 2009 World Championship squad made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. That included all-around champion Bridget Sloan and silver medalist Rebecca Bross.

This year is all about table setting for Team USA and identifying the potential (but surely not certain) foundation of the next Olympic team. Four women will be sent to Antwerp, Belgium, for worlds Sept. 30-Oct. 6. That makes room for two all-around gymnasts and two event specialists.

Podium training at the XL Center on Wednesday gave a peak into which gymnasts that team may be made up of. The women’s competition begins Thursday (8 p.m. Eastern time, NBC Sports Network and online here) and concludes Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC and online here).

The old guard came on strong with Olympian Kyla Ross, 16, assuming her new role as seasoned veteran. She looked even across all four events, showcasing her steady skills and her impeccable execution. Ross won last month’s U.S. Classic, a qualifier for this meet, and barring injury she should punch her ticket to Antwerp as an all-arounder by the end of the weekend.

Olympic teammate McKayla Maroney should join her. There wasn’t an “unimpressed face” to be found in her first competition since the Olympics at the U.S. Classic last month. There weren’t any Wednesday, either. Maroney doesn’t look like an athlete coming back from two leg surgeries in the last year. She is stronger than ever, showing improved power on floor exercise, in particular her double Arabian tumbling pass, which has caused her trouble in the past.

“It’s just been a lot of hard work, after coming back from the surgeries I had to do so much conditioning, more than I’ve ever done in my life to get where I need to be really fast,” said Maroney, the reigning world champion on vault.

Maroney trained all four events Wednesday but is competing only vault and floor to make the worlds team as a specialist with the goal of defending that vault title from Tokyo in 2011.

There were some surprises Wednesday. Lexie Priessman, the 2012 U.S. junior all-around champion, pulled out at the last minute due to an Achilles strain after looking great in early training sessions. This will effectively end Priessman’s debut senior year and open up the door for others to challenge Ross.

Like Peyton Ernst, 16, who won balance beam gold and all-around and floor silver at the U.S. Classic. The Kim Zmeskal protege showed up with even more difficult routines this week and plans to compete in the all-around.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Elizabeth Price. The 2012 Olympic team alternate was white-hot after the Games, winning back-to-back World Cup titles to round out her year. She fell off the radar after pulling out of the American Cup with a hip injury. Wednesday, however, she effectively “won” podium training, looking phenomenal on all four events.

Nonetheless, Price, who trains with legendary coaches Bill and Donna Strauss at Parkettes in Allentown, Pa., said she’s only been back training 2 1/2 weeks and will compete on only two events, vault and uneven bars (where the U.S. is weak). She plans on being able to do the all-around before the final selection camp for the World Championship team in three weeks.

One of the most anticipated performances Thursday will come from tiny dynamo Simone Biles. Biles, 16, burst onto the scene this year with her big, energetic smile and even bigger gymnastics.

A fan favorite, Biles boasts the difficulty to contend for a world all-around title and then some, however, she has yet to put it all together in high-pressure situations, falling at the American Cup and counting three falls before scratching the last event at the U.S. Classic.

Biles was clear in her goals for Hartford and Antwerp.

“To hopefully be top three here, to make the world team and be top three at worlds,” she said.

To get to Belgium, Biles must prove that she can hit her routines consistently over two sessions in Hartford.

Dark-horse contenders this weekend will be steady all-arounder Brenna Dowell of Odessa, Mo., and mega trickster Mykayla Skinner of Gilbert, Ariz., who is one of two women in the world currently performing a double twisting double layout on floor.

Even with all the new faces, the 2012 Olympians are poised to take the spotlight in Hartford, which they’ve grown accustomed to after walking red carpets, attending award shows, appearing on TV and penning books.

The Fierce Five will reunite Friday to be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

All but Ross have turned professional, picking up agents and endorsements. Her focus remains on competition and retaining her NCAA eligibility — at least for now. The rising California high school junior may be the center of attention come Saturday, should she take the all-around title.

Jackie Chan endorses finalist sport for 2020 vote

7 more Kenyan athletes banned for doping

Emily Chebet
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Two-time cross-country world champion Emily Chebet was among seven Kenyan athletes banned for doping Friday, another indication that the country has a serious problem of cheating among its famed distance runners.

Chebet, the cross-country world champion in 2010 and 2013, was banned for four years after testing positive for the diuretic and masking agent furosemide, the Kenyan athletics federation said.

The list of sanctions announced by Athletics Kenya included bans for the two runners that failed doping tests at the world championships in Beijing in August. Joyce Zakary and Koki Manunga, who were provisionally suspended at the worlds, also received four-year bans for furosemide.

There has been a recent spike in doping cases in Kenya and more than 40 athletes have now failed tests since 2012. Kenyan track officials are under scrutiny after allegations of doping cover-ups, and separate accusations of embezzlement of money at the national federation.

This week, a group of athletes stormed the federation headquarters in Nairobi demanding the resignation of top officials over the doping scandals and corruption allegations.

Along with her two cross-country world titles, the 29-year-old Chebet was a bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Her ban was backdated to July 17 and she will be unable to compete until July 16, 2019.

The doping cases of Zakary, a 400-meter runner, and Manunga, a 400-meter hurdler, undermined Kenya’s impressive display at this year’s worlds, where the country tied with Jamaica for the most gold medals with seven. They failed targeted tests carried out by world athletics body the IAAF in Beijing, enhancing suspicions that doping in Kenya is widespread.

Zakary set a national record of 50.71 seconds at the worlds before her failed test. The two were banned until Aug. 24, 2019.

The other four athletes banned on Friday were Agnes Jepkosgei, Bernard Mwendia, Judy Jesire Kimuge and Lilian Moraa Marita.

Jepkosgei was banned for four years for testing positive for the anabolic steroid metabolite norandrosterone. Mwendia was given a two-year ban for norandrosterone. Kimuge was banned two years for the norandrolone and Marita two years for the blood-booster EPO.

A World Anti-Doping Agency panel that recently reported on a systematic program of doping cover-ups in Russia said that Kenya also has a serious doping problem. That has spurred speculation that, like Russia, Kenya could face a blanket ban from international competition.

The IAAF has opened investigations into allegations that track officials in Kenya were involved in covering up positive doping tests. In a separate investigation, the IAAF is also looking at accusations of corruption against top officials at Athletics Kenya after they were questioned by Kenyan police over the alleged embezzlement of around $700,000 of the federation’s money.

One of the officials accused, AK Vice President David Okeyo, is a member of the IAAF’s decision-making council. The athletes protesting at Athletics Kenya this week demanded that Okeyo and AK President Isaiah Kiplagat step down.

IAAF clears Paula Radcliffe, defends its blood testing program

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(AP) — The IAAF cleared marathon world record-holder Paula Radcliffe of doping allegations on Friday and rejected claims that it failed to act on hundreds of suspicious blood tests, saying the accusations lacked “any scientific or legal basis.”

Track and field’s governing body issued a 38-page response to allegations by British and German media outlets that it had ignored and tolerated rampant blood doping in the sport.

“The IAAF is not complacent about doping in its sport,” the federation said. “It will continue to use every tool at its disposal to fight doping and protect clean athletes.”

The statement was released a few days before IAAF President Sebastian Coe faces a British parliamentary hearing into the doping allegations made by The Sunday Times newspaper and German broadcaster ARD.

Already reeling from revelations of government-backed doping in Russia and criminal corruption charges against former president Lamine Diack, the International Association of Athletics Federations said it had a duty to set the record straight on the blood doping issue.

“The IAAF cannot sit idly by while public confidence in its willingness to protect the integrity of its sport is undermined by allegations of inaction/incompetence that are based on bad scientific and legal argument,” it said.

The IAAF singled out the case of Radcliffe, saying the three-time London Marathon winner was publicly accused of doping “based on the gross misinterpretation of raw and incomplete data.”

Elevated blood value readings in some of Radcliffe’s tests had “clearly plausible” explanations that were “entirely innocent,” the IAAF said.

“Any competent scientist would immediately conclude that they should be disregarded,” the statement added.

The IAAF said it followed up by testing Radcliffe’s urine and blood samples for EPO and blood transfusions, and all the results came back negative.

“Obviously there’s been damage done to my reputation, and to the reputation of the sport, and that’s why I took the stand I did against this,” Radcliffe said Friday after the release of the IAAF statement. “Yes, it was only me being singled out but there are a lot of other innocent, clean athletes who have or may produce an atypical value at some point.

“That’s precisely why it has to be kept so confidential until an expert that’s properly qualified looks at it and assesses it.”

Britain’s national anti-doping agency said it also reviewed Radcliffe’s test results and agreed there was no case against her.

“The data does not provide any evidence that any anti-doping rule violation proceedings should be brought,” the UK Anti-Doping Agency said.

Radcliffe, who retired from competition this year, was publicly implicated during a British Parliamentary hearing in August into the doping allegations leveled by the British and German media.

She acknowledged that her blood-testing data may have shown “fluctuations” but insisted there were no “abnormalities” and experts had concluded she had done nothing wrong.

Radcliffe set the world record when she ran 2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds in winning the 2003 London Marathon. She also won the New York Marathon three times (2004, `07 and `08) and the Chicago Marathon in 2002. Radcliffe competed in four Olympics but never won a medal.

The Sunday Times and ARD examined the results of 12,000 blood tests involving 5,000 athletes from a leaked IAAF database covering 2001 to 2012 and concluded there was evidence of widespread cheating.

The reports said that 146 medals — including 55 golds — in disciplines ranging from the 800 meters to the marathon at the Olympics and world championships were won by athletes who have recorded suspicious tests. The Sunday Times also claimed the London Marathon was won seven times over a 12-year period by athletes who recorded suspicious tests.

The IAAF said Friday that its biological passport program — which monitors athletes’ blood profiles over time for evidence of doping — began in 2009 and that all screenings done before then could not be used as proof of doping.

“No charge could ever be brought based on the pre-2009 tests,” the statement said.

The IAAF said it would respond separately to allegations made in a report by a World Anti-Doping Agency commission this month that IAAF officials swept aside up to eight blood doping cases in 2012, allowing athletes to compete at the London Olympics when they should have been suspended.

MORE: Russia vows to follow all WADA recommendations on doping