Watching Yulia Lipnitskaya through the eyes of another prodigy … Nadia Comaneci

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SOCHI, Russia – There is plain silence, and then there is the sort of silence that smothers the Iceberg Skating Palace when a little girl named Yulia Lipnitskaya kneels near the center of the ice and waits for the music to begin. She is 15 years old but she looks 12 and a country holds its breath for her.

More than 6,000 miles away, in the American heartland, a woman holds her breath for her, too.

“I’m so excited to see her,” Nadia Comaneci said a couple of hours before the music starts. “She is so wonderful she makes you forget that she wasn’t born with these moves.”

Not so long ago – wait, can it really be 38 years? – that was what people were saying about Nadia. You could forget that she wasn’t born with these moves. She was 14 years old, she looked 12, and in a few days in Montreal at the Summer Olympics she changed the world. She took to the uneven bars as part of the Romanian gymnastics team and put on a performance so perfect, so blindingly perfect, that judges for the first time in international competition simply could not find a flaw.

The scoreboard flashed 1.00 because there was no capacity to display a perfect 10.

From that moment on, perfection in sports meant something different and little girls across the world wanted to be Nadia Comaneci, winner of three gold medals – including the all-around – in 1976. She would go on to win two more gold medals in 1980.

“People talk about nerves of someone so young,” Nadia says. “But when you are that young, you do not think about the same things as you do when you are older. I can understand how (Yulia) feels. When I think of being 14, nobody knew me. There was no buildup. There was no pressure. I was free.”

The music begins at the Iceberg Skating Palace – the song is “You Don’t Give Up on Love” by the Russian composer Mark Minkov – and Lipnitskaya begins tracing a heart on the ice. She performed this short program once already at these Games, in the team competition, and that performance made her a worldwide sensation.

“Lipnitskaya Is A Goddess” a Russian headline read.

“Russian teenager soars to gold, stardom, with more to come,” was the headline for U.S. News and World Report.

“Fifteen-Year-Old is Sensation of Sochi,” read a German newspaper.

VIDEO: Watch Lipnitskaya’s short program routine

It is striking to see someone so young perform so brilliantly under the world’s glare. I ask Nadia why it moves us so much. She suggests that maybe it makes us remember being young and feeling invincible ourselves.

“Yes, I love to see young athletes, 14 or 15 or 16 years old, do so wonderfully,” Nadia said. “I don’t know if I think about myself, but I love to see that young confidence. You can see it in her. You can see she just goes there, and she’s just doing what she loves and has trained to do. She knows she’s good.”

Lipnitskaya stops tracing, gets up, acts like she is getting out of the race. And she begins. She is so light and small, you wonder if her skates even make a sound on the ice. She builds up speed. Her first jump is a combination triple Lutz-triple toe loop. Someone says this will tell us everything about her nerves. The silence of the mostly Russian crowd has never broken. When she lands the first jump, there are halted cheers. When she lands the second, the noise seems loud enough to lift her off the ice.

“I remember what I told myself before I went out in Montreal,” Nadia had said. “I thought of my best routine in practice. And I told myself, ‘OK, just do that.’ It seemed so easy for me because of that. Just do what you did in practice. …  She knows she only has to do what she does in practice. She does not have to do any more or less. It’s when you try to do more that you can lose focus.”

The first two jumps cleared, Lipnitskaya skates beautifully. The experts all around are nodding to each other as she lands her double Axel and then runs through various artistic moves in time with the music. The crowd can begin to sense something wonderful is happening and their cheers begin to crescendo. Lipnitskaya seems to sense their confidence, and she skates a little faster.

For Nadia, once she got that first 10 in Montreal, what followed was a wonderful blur – she scored six more 10s, won three gold medals, success fed success.

“Oh, I remember when I was finished,” she says, “people were saying, ‘Who is this girl? And where is Romania by the way?’ … That was my introduction. And that was what (Yulia) looked like when she was skating at first. Like she was introducing herself. She doesn’t say anything. She’s a mystery. Except for her beautiful skating.”

Nadia Comaneci has never met Yulia Lipnitskaya nor does she live a life where she likely ever will. She and her husband, Bart Conner, live in Oklahoma. She’s just a distant fan, a mother, an inspirational speaker. But maybe she knows things about Lipnitskaya. Maybe there is a connection between athletic prodigies.

VIDEO: Nancy Kerrigan’s take on the short program

“There is one thing that is different for her,” Nadia said. “She is performing in her home country. For me, I was in Montreal, nowhere near where I was from. That was different. There was no pressure on me there. But for her to be at home, in Russia, with everyone wanting her to win, she will have to deal with a different pressure than I had to deal with.”

As Lipnitskaya makes her way around for her third and final jump of the short program, there is a lot of noise and joy and everyone senses her conviction, her self-assurance. This is the little girl they had all fallen in love with less than two weeks ago in the team competition. This is their Russian darling. Just a short while before the competition began, the Russian hockey team had lost to Finland in the quarterfinals, a bitter disappointment, and now the gaze is firmly on Lipnitskaya.

And then, on the third jump, Lipnitskaya falls.

The gasps throughout the arena are, in their own way, louder than any cheers.

She finishes her routine in an airless arena and then is met with thunderous applause. Bouquets and teddy bears rain on the ice. It is as if no one in Russia can bear to see her cry, and she does not cry. The response cannot help but make her smile a little. Her score of 65.23 places her fifth – more than nine points behind the top three. She has lost more or less any chance for gold, and at this point winning any medal would take a monumental shift during Thursday’s free skate. It almost certainly will not happen. Not this time.

In an odd twist, the Russian who is in gold medal contention is 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, who was once the country’s skating phenom. She won the national championship when she was just 12. She was viewed as the great hope for Sochi, but inconsistencies seemed to wreck her. Sometimes she was brilliant, other times hopeless. Wednesday, she was brilliant. Nobody knows quite what to expect on Thursday. Such is the fluctuation of youthful brilliance.

VIDEO: Sotnikova surprisingly sits in second

“That is something about the Olympics,” Nadia said before Lipnitskaya skated. “You only get one chance. That’s it. You get one time down the mountain, one time to skate, one time on the floor exercise, one time to swim. There is no second chance. Well, there is another chance at the next Olympics, but that is four years away. And four years is a long time.”

Then she laughed a little bit.

“Well,” she said, “fortunately, four years is not so long a time when you are young.”

President of National Olympic Committees association leaves FIFA post amid bribery claims

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GENEVA (AP) — FIFA Council member Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah of Kuwait is resigning from his soccer roles under pressure from allegations in an American federal court that he bribed Asian officials.

Sheikh Ahmad said Sunday in a statement he will withdraw from a May 8 election in Bahrain for the FIFA seat representing Asia, which he currently holds.

“I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA Congresses,” said the Kuwaiti royal, who denies any wrongdoing.

“Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC, for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions,” he said.

The long-time Olympic Council of Asia president contacted the ethics panels of FIFA and the IOC after the allegations were made in Brooklyn federal courthouse on Thursday.

FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai, an American citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes, including from Kuwaiti officials. The cash was to buy influence and help recruit other Asian soccer officials prepared to take bribes, Lai said in court.

Sheikh Ahmad resigned his candidacy ahead of a FIFA panel deciding whether to remove him on ethical grounds.

The FIFA Review Committee, which rules on the integrity of people seeking senior FIFA positions, has been studying the sheikh’s candidacy since the allegations emerged, The Associated Press reported on Saturday.

The FIFA ethics committee is making a separate assessment of whether to provisionally suspend the sheikh, a long-time leader of Kuwait’s soccer federation who was elected to FIFA’s ruling committee in 2015.

Resigning from his soccer positions does not necessarily put Sheikh Ahmad out of reach of FIFA ethics prosecutors and judges if any action was taken.

In 2012, former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar was banned for life by the ethics committee days after he resigned.

Bin Hammam was also clearly identified in Lai’s court hearing for having paid Lai a total of $100,000 in bribes to support the Qatari’s failed challenge to FIFA’s then-president Sepp Blatter in 2011. Bin Hammam was removed from that election contest in a Caribbean bribery case.

Sheikh Ahmad has also contacted the IOC’s ethics commission about the allegations against him, the IOC said on Saturday.

As president since 2012 of the global group of national Olympic bodies, known as ANOC, Sheikh Ahmad’s support has often been cited as key to winning Olympic election and hosting awards. The sheikh was widely credited for helping Thomas Bach win the IOC presidency in 2013.

Although Sheikh Ahmad was not named in Department of Justice and court documents last week, he has become one of the most significant casualties of the sprawling U.S. federal investigation of bribery and corruption in international soccer revealed two years ago.

The sheikh could be identified in a transcript of Lai’s court hearing which said “co-conspirator #2 was also the president of Olympic Council of Asia.” Sheikh Ahmad has been OCA president since 1991.

Co-conspirator #3 was described as having a “high-ranking” role at OCA, and also linked to the Kuwait soccer federation.

According to the published transcript, Lai claimed he “received at least $770,000 in wire transfers from accounts associated with Co-Conspirator #3 and the OCA between November of 2009 and about the fall of 2014.”

“I understood that the source of this money was ultimately Co-Conspirator #2 and on some occasion Co-Conspirator #3 told me to send him an email saying that I need funds so he could show the email to Co-Conspirator #2,” Lai said in court.

Lai admitted that he agreed to help recruit other Asian officials that voted in FIFA elections who would help Kuwait’s interests.

The Guam soccer federation leader since 2001, Lai pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges and failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. He agreed to pay more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties, and will be sentenced at a later date.

The American federal investigation of corruption linked to FIFA has indicted or taken guilty pleas from more than 40 people and marketing agencies linked to soccer in the Americas since 2015.

Lai’s case marked the first major step into Asia, and suggests other soccer officials potentially recruited by the Kuwait faction could be targeted.

The Asian election for FIFA seats on May 8 in Manama, Bahrain, is the same day as a FIFA Council meeting which the sheik will not attend. The FIFA congress is held in the city three days later.

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AVP set to start season without Kerri Walsh Jennings

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BOSTON (AP) — The AVP said it has reached an agreement with “practically all the players” on a contract that will carry it through the 2020 Summer Games, even as a holdout by five-time Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings threatens to deprive the domestic beach volleyball tour of its biggest name.

“I respect her decisions, and I wish her well,” AVP owner Donald Sun told The Associated Press. “But in the meantime, we’re just geared up. All the athletes that are signed are fired up to play Huntington Beach next weekend.”

Walsh Jennings did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment. But she told the AP in March that negotiations were “a work in progress” and that the two sides were “pretty far off.”

She also boycotted an AVP event last summer over experimental rules that she said weren’t discussed with the athletes.

Each of the other seven Americans who went to the 2016 Olympics has signed, Sun said, except for Brooke Sweat. Sweat, who failed to make it out of group play in Rio de Janeiro with teammate Lauren Fendrick, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Sun told the AP that the tour has “a four-year agreement with practically all the players, which is awesome.” The deal includes a minimum of eight events per season and prize money minimums that will increase by at least 50 percent over the term of the deal, he said.

“It was a few months of process, discussing with individual players, groups of players, discussing what concerns they had,” Sun said. “We all made it. I think we’re all pretty happy.”

Well, not everyone.

The rift with Walsh, a three-time gold medalist who won bronze with April Ross in 2016, was exposed when the tour released its 2017 schedule in March and her name wasn’t among the list of those expected to participate.

Sun told the AP this week that the tour is prepared to proceed without Walsh Jennings, who has missed events previous summers because of injury, childbirth or to play on the international tour that determines Olympic qualification.

“It didn’t seem to affect attendance, TV ratings, or viewership on line,” Sun said. “The AVP is not just one person or one athlete; if it was, it would be a very challenging business model.”

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