Ole Einar Bjoerndalen

Amazing race to catch most decorated Winter Olympian ever

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Michael Phelps‘ pursuit of the record for most career Olympic medals — a mark held since 1964 — was a major international storyline at the 2012 Olympics.

Phelps passed retired Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina‘s record of 18 and finished the London Games with 22.

The Winter Olympic record is held by retired Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie, who won 12 medals from 1992 through 1998.

That record could be matched or fall in Sochi. Olympians in three sports are chasing it, led by two more Norwegians.

The most likely is biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who is one behind Daehlie with 11 medals combined from the 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympics.

Bjoerndalen, known as the “King,” competed in Lillehammer 1994 but did not win a medal and entered one cross-country skiing race at the 2002 Olympics and finished fifth.

In Sochi, Bjoerndalen will surely be part of the men’s 4×7.5km relay, where Norway is a medal favorite. That would get him even with Daehlie.

It gets interesting after that. A new biathlon mixed relay will include two men and two women from each nation. Again, Norway is a medal favorite.

Norway’s best biathlete is Emil Hegle Svendsen. Its second best, in World Cup overall standings, has seen a shift this year. Tarjei Boe, the overall World Cup champion in 2010-11, has fallen behind Bjoerndalen this season. Bjoerndalen is having his best season in five years.

It would seem Bjoerndalen, 40, is now favored for that second spot in the mixed relay, but could that change if Boe rediscovers his world’s best form in individual events in Sochi? The individual events come before the relays on the Olympic program.

Complicating matters is Boe’s younger brother, Johannes, who was 8 months old when Bjoerndalen made his Olympic debut in 1994. Johannes has two wins this season, his first full year on the World Cup circuit, and is ranked two spots behind Bjoerndalen overall.

Bjoerndalen could save stress by winning an individual medal before the relays, but that will be tougher.

The other Norwegian candidate to catch or pass Daehlie is cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen.

Bjoergen, 33, owns seven medals combined from the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympics.

How could she possibly reach 12 or 13? If she repeats her Vancouver 2010 performance of five medals, she will match Daehlie. If she does the unprecedented, win six medals at a single Winter Olympics, she will pass Daehlie. She would have to be perfect as there are six women’s cross-country skiing events on the Winter Olympic program.

And it is definitely possible. Bjoergen is predicted to win medals in all four individual events by The Associated Press and Infostrada. Norway’s women are also predicted to win medals in both team events.

The problem lies with the team sprint. Bjoergen did not enter the two-woman event at the 2010 Olympics or either of two World Cup events this season. She also skipped it at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships.

If Bjoergen does not enter the team sprint, she can’t get to 13 in Sochi and she can’t break the record for most Winter Olympic medals at a single Games. She’s 33 and could definitely be around for 2018, unlike Bjoerndalen.

German speed skater Claudia Pechstein has an outside chance of reaching 12. Pechstein’s case is interesting given she was forced to sit out the 2010 Olympics because of a doping ban. She didn’t actually test positive but had irregular blood levels.

Pechstein, 41, is on nine medals from 1992 through 2006. She is a medal contender in the 3000m and 5000m in Sochi, which would get her to 11. She could also race the 1500m but is ranked seventh in World Cup standings there.

Germany won the 2010 Olympic team pursuit without Pechstein but did not qualify for the event in Sochi.

Sochi Olympic medals tested under extreme conditions

Deena Kastor withdraws from Olympic marathon trials

Deena Kastor
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Deena Kastor won’t try to make history at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials on Saturday.

Kastor, 42 and the last U.S. woman to earn an Olympic marathon medal (bronze, 2004), will not contest the 26.2-mile race in Los Angeles due to a recent glute muscle strain.

“I was diligent in resting, but my glute just won’t settle down,” Kastor said in a USA Track and Field press release.

If Kastor, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner in 2015, had finished in the top three at the trials in Los Angeles (live on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra on Saturday), she would have become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Kastor wasn’t thought to be a contender for the Rio Olympics until Oct. 11, when she clocked 2:27:47 at the Chicago Marathon. It marked her best time since her American record 2:19:36 at the 2006 London Marathon.

With Kastor out, the list of female contenders shrinks. That list still includes the top four women from the 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon trials — Shalane Flanagan, Desi Linden, Kara Goucher and Amy Cragg.

Meb Keflezighi, 40, can become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner if he finishes in the top three in the men’s race Saturday.

U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Previews: Men | Women

Kenya banned athletes allege doping bribery

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EMBU, Kenya (AP) — Two Kenyan athletes serving four-year bans for doping at the 2015 World Track and Field Championships say the chief executive of Athletics Kenya, the country’s governing body for track and field, asked them each for a $24,000 bribe to reduce their suspensions.

Joy Sakari and Francisca Koki Manunga told The Associated Press that CEO Isaac Mwangi asked for the payment in an Oct. 16 meeting, but that they could not raise the money. They were then were informed of their four-year bans in a Nov. 27 email, but never filed a criminal complaint because, they say, they had no proof to back up their bribery accusation and also feared repercussions.

Mwangi dismissed the allegation as “just a joke,” denied ever meeting privately with the athletes and said Athletics Kenya has no power to shave time off athletes’ bans.

“We have heard stories, athletes coming and saying, ‘Oh, you know, I was asked for money,'” Mwangi said. “But can you really substantiate that?”

Sakari, a 400m runner, and Manunga, a hurdler, told AP they would be willing to testify to the ethics commission of the IAAF, the global governing body of athletics.

The commission already is investigating allegations that AK officials sought to subvert anti-doping in Kenya, solicited bribes and offered athletes reduced bans. The probe has led to the suspensions of AK’s president, Isaiah Kiplagat, a vice president, David Okeyo, and AK’s former treasurer, Joseph Kinyua.

Sharad Rao, a former director of prosecutions in Kenya who also has adjudicated cases for the Court of Arbitration for Sport, is leading the ethics investigation for the International Association of Athletics Federations. Sakari and Manunga’s decision to come forward could be a breakthrough, because Kenyan athletes have been unwilling to act as whistleblowers.

“There is obviously the reluctance on the part of the athletes to come forward,” Rao said. “They don’t want to stand out.”

As many as a half-dozen banned athletes have privately indicated to the IAAF commission that AK officials sought to extort them and that they feel their sanctions might have been less if they had paid bribes, Rao said.

AP’s interview with Sakari and Manunga is the first time Kenyan athletes have detailed such allegations publicly.

“That information would, of course, be very, very significant, very important for us,” Rao said.

Rao said he has been talking to at least one other athlete who may have been approached for a bribe, and that his first priority was to get responses from Kiplagat, Okeyo and Kinyua — all three of whom have flatly denied to him that they took or solicited bribes.

Sakari and Manunga, both police officers in Kenya, said Mwangi asked them for 2.5 million Kenyan shillings — or $24,000 — each.

“I told him I’ve never seen that much money in my life,” Manunga told AP. “Even if I sold everything, I wouldn’t be able to get together that amount of money.”

The athletes tested positive in August for furosemide, a diuretic banned because it can mask the use of forbidden performance-enhancers, and were sent home from the worlds in Beijing. They told AP the drug was sold to them by a chemist in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, who said it would alleviate side effects of supplements they were taking. The chemist testified in defense of the athletes to AK, saying he gave them furosemide to combat water-retention caused by the supplement.

Compared to doping cases involving other athletes, their four-year bans appear harsh. World Anti-Doping Agency rules classify furosemide as a so-called “specified substance,” distinguishing it from hardcore performance-enhancers like steroids or the blood-boosting hormone EPO.

For specified substances, IAAF rules allow for lesser bans of no more than two years, or even just a reprimand and no ban, if athletes can prove they weren’t at fault or negligent.

To impose a four-year ban, the rules require authorities to establish that athletes intentionally cheated. But AK appears to have discounted the chemist’s testimony. In the letter it sent to Manunga announcing her ban, AK said there was no “plausible explanation” for using furosemide and that the federation “can only infer” she took it intentionally as a masking agent.

Last year, Serbia’s athletics federation imposed a two-year ban on 800m runner Nemanja Kojic for the same substance. He can return to competition in 2017; Sakari and Manunga were banned until 2019.

They said they visited Mwangi’s first-floor office together, seeking news of their case. During that meeting, they said, he asked for the bribe, dangling the possibility of shaving time off their bans.

Both athletes say they are sure of the date of that meeting — Oct. 16 — because, they say, they went to the KCB bank together later that day to open accounts and deposit 600,000 Kenya shillings ($5,785) paid to each of them for being on Kenya’s team in the Bahamas.

“He was waiting for us to give him money, so that this ‘thing’ disappears,” Manunga said. “We left, kept quiet and later that’s when our names came out and we were told that we’ve been banned because we did not deliver that money.”

“He asked us if we could give him something. That’s what he said,” said Sakari. “He asked for money.”

Mwangi denied that he met privately with the athletes.

“Why we avoid those kinds of things is because we know athletes are fond of making any kind of claim,” he told AP.

“It is not possible to give anyone money to meddle with your case,” he added. “I will contact the athletes officially and I will ask the athletes to come, the two of them, and like I said they are police officers, so we will have to involve the police force.”

Soliciting a bribe is a crime in Kenya.

The athletes have told their story privately to the Professional Athletics Association of Kenya, an advocacy group of Kenyan runners. The association’s secretary, Julius Ndegwa, said Sakari and Manunga came to see him and a lawyer in January.

The athletes spoke to AP in an on-camera interview in Embu, a ramshackle town 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Nairobi where they were housed in police accommodation.

Sakari also raced at the 2012 London Olympics and 2009 Worlds. In Beijing, she competed under the name Zakary, but Sakari is her preferred spelling. She indicated that she is now done with athletics, because she will be 33 when her ban expires.

Manunga, 23, said she would have paid to return sooner to competition.

“For me, those four years are too many,” she said. “If I had the money, I’d have paid. But I didn’t have it. So I just left.”

MORE: Kenya marathon runner-up arrested for cheating in race