Figure skating team event preview: U.S., Russia among favorites

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SOCHI, Russia – History is made at the Olympics Thursday night in Sochi when figure skating begins its first-ever team event, consisting of ten teams all chasing after three medals. The U.S. factors into the gold-medal conversation, anchored by reigning world champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Here, a comprehensive preview of the inaugural event.

How does it work?
In brief, the team event goes like this: skaters from all four disciplines (men’s, ladies, pairs and ice dance) skate both a short and long program with points being awaded for their placement in said events. Ten teams in total compete in the short program, with just the top five advancing to the free skate portion. Each team is allowed two substitutions between the short program and the free skate, meaning one man can skate in the men’s short, then another in the free skate. Substitutions can be made in ladies, pairs and/or ice dance, as well, as long as no more than two substitutions are made in total. For a comprehensive explanation of the team event and its proceeding, click here.

MORE: Understanding the team event

Who are the favorites?
Teams are ranked by an international system that tracks performances of skaters from throughout the skating season. Canada comes in as the top seed, followed by Russia, the U.S., Japan and Italy. The top four teams – Canada, Russia, the U.S. and Japan – are seen are the favorites for the three podium spots, with Italy having an outside shot at landing inside the top three.

Breaking it down
Canada has the upper hand because of strength in three out of the four disciplines: men’s, ice dance and pairs. The Canadians are led by reigning and three-time world champion Patrick Chan in men’s singles, followed closely by Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the ice dancers who won Olympic gold in Vancouver. Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, Canada’s best pairs team, were third at the World Championships in 2013.

Russia isn’t far behind, particularly thanks to a surging season from 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya, who became the youngest Euopean Championships winner ever in January. She joins Yevgeny Plushenko in singles, the 31-year-old veteran who was selected as the lone man to represent Russian after a controversial process. The reigning pairs world champions, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, bolster that strong line-up, which also includes Yekaterina Bobrova and Dimitry Soloviyev, bronze medalists at the World Championships in 2013.

And what of the U.S.? No doubt its leader is the ice dancing duo of Davis/White, who have won two out of the last three World Championships golds and have not earned anything less than gold in almost two years. The Americans will need to outdo rivals and training partners Virtue/Moir to help the U.S. beat out Canada, however. Jeremy Abbott will skate the short program in the men’s event, while fellow U.S. champs Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir will do so in pairs. The great mystery lies in the ladies portion of the event, where it is believed that two-time U.S. champ Ashley Wagner will skate the short program and 2014 winner Gracie Gold will do the free skate. The wildcard: 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who won silver in Boston and is also seen as a free-skate option.

What the experts say
“It’s really going to between Russia, Canada and the U.S. for the medals,” said Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian and analyst for NBC Sports. “It’ll just be a matter of are the American dancers so much better than the rest of the field.”

“At the Olympics, it’s such a different event from what you’re training for in the span of four years,” says fellow analyst Tara Lipinski, who won Olympic gold in 1998. “Your process of peaking has to change because this is a whole different competition before the individual events.”

What Lipinski is referring to is that figure skaters are now dealing with twice the amount of skating that they normally would at the Olympics, something Weir said he would have “hated” and Lipinski “loved” having to skate two different events at one Games had the team event existed when they competed.

“If Chan skates well, he’s far ahead of the Russian and U.S. men,” Weir adds. “For the ladies, Russia has a slight advantage there with the home ice and when you get to pairs it’s all about the Russians. So it’s a mixed bag. Everyone has their strengths, but it’s going to be whoever goes out and blows us away.”

But who’s skating?
The U.S. – as mentioned above – has named its men’s and pairs participants for the short programs and will wait to announce ladies and dance until Friday. “Whoever they send out for short or free skate I believe the outcome will be positive,” Lipinski said. “Selecting Ashley for the short could be a nice way for her to shake off all the hype from Nationals and settle into the ice. She has a very powerful short program that could set the tone well for her individual event. Gracie is a solid choice for both programs. It would be beneficial for her to use this opportunity to acclimate to Olympic competition especially since she doesn’t like surprises and excels when she can focus in and feel at home.”

The ten countries skating are: Canada, Russia, the U.S., Japan, Italy, France, China, Germany, Ukraine and Great Britain.

Schedule
The team event kicks off Thursday night in Sochi at 7:30 pm local time (10:30 am ET) and will be streamed in its entirety on NBCOlympics.com. The men’s short program kicks off the competition, with Plushenko skating fourth, Abbott fifth and Chan ninth. Pairs is set to get underway thereafter, around 9:10 local time. Ladies and ice dance will skate their short programs – along with pairs free skate – Saturday night.

For a full schedule of the team event, click here.

Salt Lake City forms committee to weigh Olympic bid

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Salt Lake City has formed an exploratory committee to decide if the city will bid to host the Winter Olympics in either 2026 or 2030 — taking a key step toward trying to become a rare two-time host city.

The group made up of elected officials, business leaders and one key member of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City said Monday that it plans to make a recommendation to state leaders by Feb. 1.

The announcement comes after the U.S. Olympic Committee board said Friday that it was moving forward with discussions about bringing the Winter Games to America for either 2026 or 2030.

Because Los Angeles was recently awarded the 2028 Summer Games, a bid for 2030 would make more sense, chairman Larry Probst said Friday.

The USOC has until next March to pick a city; those expressing interest include Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno, Nevada.

Innsbruck, Austria, said Sunday it wouldn’t bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, taking one more city out of the running. The hosting rights are set to be awarded in July 2019.

The same country hasn’t hosted back-to-back Olympics since before World War II, though when the International Olympic Committee scrapped its traditional rules and awarded 2024 (Paris) and 2028 (LA) at the same time, it indicated it was certainly open to new ideas.

Since 2012, Salt Lake City has been letting Olympic officials know the city was ready and willing to host again with a plan based on renovating and upgrading venues that have been in use since the Games ended.

The city had previously estimated it could put on a Winter Olympics for about $2 billion, but the committee will come up with a new cost estimate, said Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission.

Robbins is one of three co-chairs on the committee along with Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and Fraser Bullock, a key player in Salt Lake City’s 2002 Olympics.

Robbins said he thinks the city has a great shot at winning a bid based on the relatively low cost and because it has demonstrated it knows how to maintain venues and keep them in use, putting the city in line with Agenda 2020, the blueprint that IOC President Thomas Bach created for future Olympics calling for less spending on new venues and infrastructure.

There’s an eight-lane interstate running from the Salt Lake airport, which was upgraded for the Olympics, to Park City, which is the home of U.S. Ski and Snowboard. Park City is the host for key U.S. training centers for freestyle skiing, speedskating and cross country skiing.

Overall, the area has hosted about 75 World Cup and world-championship events in winter sports since the Olympic cauldron was extinguished more than 15 years ago.

He said an expanded light rail train line grid around Salt Lake City and a $3 billion airport renovation already underway are two examples of how Salt Lake City is even better prepared now to host than in 2002.

But he and other organizers will also have to answer questions about a bidding scandal that marred the 2002 Games and resulted in several International Olympic Committee members losing their positions for taking bribes.

“You can’t control the past,” Robbins said. “The results of what happened I think would certainly speak volumes. While there was some challenges, we hosted arguably one of the best Olympics ever hosted.”

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Simone Biles announces new coach

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When Simone Biles begins her comeback in earnest next month, she’ll be training under a new coach — Laurent Landi — who coached one of her Olympic teammates, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Landi, a 39-year-old former French gymnast, guided Rio uneven bars silver medalist Madison Kocian at the Dallas-area gym WOGA, along with wife Cecile.

“[Landi] was in Dallas, which is not far away, and had recently left WOGA, and I had worked with alongside him and know how he is with athletes,” Biles said, according to the newspaper. “He does a good job not letting pressure get to the athletes. You can see some coaches get stressed but he doesn’t.”

Biles’ previous coach since she was 7, Aimee Boorman, left their Houston-area gym for a gymnastics job in Florida after the Rio Games.

Biles said last week she plans to return to full-time training Nov. 1 and return to competition next summer.

Kocian is now at UCLA and uncertain to return to elite gymnastics.

Two other Final Five members — Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez — have said they plan to return to training for a Tokyo 2020 run. But neither has announced a return to the gym like Biles.

The last member — 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas — has not said whether she will come back.

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