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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.”

World champion wrestler from Russia cedes Olympic spot after brawl

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MOSCOW (AP) — A two-time wrestling World champion said Tuesday he is giving up his place at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after a brawl marred a Russian qualifying tournament.

Viktor Lebedev was competing against Ismail Musukayev in a semifinal bout at the Russian nationals on Friday when Musukayev was angered by refereeing calls against him and shoved Lebedev.

Musukayev’s supporters and coaches charged into the ring, prompting a scuffle that was broken up by riot police (video here). Wrestlers from Musukayev’s home region of Dagestan then boycotted the tournament in protest at the standard of refereeing, causing a nationwide scandal.

Lebedev told local news outlet News.Ykt on Tuesday that he is withdrawing from the Olympic team as “a matter of honor” because he feels officials gave him favorable calls in front of his home crowd in the Siberian city of Yakutsk.

“Let’s say I win Olympic gold. I don’t doubt that I could win it,” he said. “Even if I were to climb onto that podium with the gold, I wouldn’t have those emotions. I wouldn’t be especially happy that my dream had come true.”

Lebedev said Musukayev had been wronged but insisted his opponent had been wrong to start the brawl. “You can’t behave that way regardless of how the judging goes for you,” he said.

Lebedev can be replaced on the team by another Russian in the 57kg class, though he was the favorite to go to the Rio Olympics after winning World Championships bronze and European Games gold last year.

Wrestling is traditionally a source of great pride for many of Russia’s ethnic minority groups, including in Lebedev’s Arctic home region of Yakutia and in Dagestan, a province in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus otherwise known for its Islamist insurgency.

Competition for a place on the Russian national team, one of the world’s best, is fierce and in recent years various domestic competitions have been marred by brawls between fans from different regions and ethnic groups.

Earlier this month, a wrestler from Chechnya hit his opponent after the end of the bout and some of his team, including a man with a pistol, rushed into the ring in support.

MORE: Eight Russians positive in 2012 Olympic retests

Zika, Rio’s readiness, new sports on IOC’s meeting agenda

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — With the Opening Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro just over two months away, Olympic leaders have plenty of troubling issues to deal with this week.

The Zika virus, unfinished venues and political chaos in Brazil. A flood of positive drug tests from the past two Summer Games. Fresh accusations of state-sponsored doping in Russia. Vote-buying allegations involving Tokyo’s winning 2020 bid.

All these challenges and more will be on the table when the International Olympic Committee executive board holds a three-day meeting starting Wednesday in Lausanne. It’s the last meeting before the IOC gathers in Rio on the eve of South America’s first Olympics.

The policy-making board will also name the team of Olympic refugee athletes for Rio, consider the proposed five additional sports for the Tokyo Games, review the bidding for the 2024 Olympics and nominate several new IOC members.

“I can’t recall an executive board meeting with so many issues on the agenda,” IOC vice president Craig Reedie told The Associated Press. “There is a whole range of difficult issues facing the Olympic movement, led by Rio.”

A look at what’s keeping the IOC busy:

RIO: READY OR NOT?

Rio organizing committee president Carlos Nuzman will give his latest update Thursday on preparations for the Games, which open Aug. 5. The buildup has been dogged by political, economic and public health crises.

Last week, a group of 150 scientists suggested the Olympics should be postponed or moved because of the outbreak of Zika, which has been linked to severe birth defects. But the World Health Organization said there was “no public health justification” for scrapping the Games, and Olympic officials have repeatedly said they will go ahead.

Some leading athletes have expressed concerns about going to Rio. Spanish NBA star Pau Gasol said Monday he may skip the Games because of the Zika threat and that other Spanish athletes were also considering staying away.

Meanwhile, Dilma Rousseff has been suspended as Brazil’s president pending a Senate impeachment trial, with Michel Temer taking over as acting president. A final vote on removing Rousseff could come on Aug. 2 — three days before the opening of the Games.

Brazil is dealing with its worst economic recession since the 1930s, leading to the slashing of Olympic budgets.

Some sports venues are behind schedule. UCI President Brian Cookson said he remains “very, very concerned” about delays to the velodrome, and the city said Monday it is changing contractors to take over the construction. ITF President David Haggerty said “an awful lot of work” is needed to get the tennis venue ready for the Games.

Water pollution remains a concern for Olympic sailing, rowing and open-water swimming events. Crime is a worry: Three Spanish sailors were recently robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight while training in Rio.

DOPING, DOPING, DOPING

Reedie, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, will deliver a report that will include an update on the agency’s independent probe into allegations by Moscow’s former drug-testing lab director, Grigory Rodchenkov, that he operated a state-backed doping scheme for Russian athletes that involved switching tainted urine samples for clean ones during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

Russia’s track and field athletes remain suspended from global competition, with the IAAF to decide on June 17 whether to keep or lift the ban for the Rio Games.

The IOC has recorded 55 positive results in retests of Olympic doping samples — 32 from the 2008 Beijing Games and 23 from the 2012 London Games. The tests were designed to catch cheats who might compete in Rio. More positives are expected.

The Russian Olympic Committee said 14 of its athletes from Beijing and eight from London tested positive. The IOC is retesting the “B” samples before announcing sanctions and medal reallocations.

NEW SPORTS

The IOC board will examine the proposed addition of baseball-softball, surfing, skateboarding, karate and sports climbing for the Tokyo Games. The sports, which would add 18 events and 474 athletes, were recommended for inclusion last year by Tokyo organizers.

While some officials have expressed concern over whether skateboarding has a unified governing body, the board is likely to recommend the five sports for inclusion as a package, which will go to a vote of the full IOC at its session in Rio before the Games.

TROUBLE IN TOKYO

After controversies over the main stadium, venue changes and the Olympic emblem, Japanese organizers are now embroiled in a corruption probe.

Leaders of the Tokyo bid acknowledged making payments, before and after the 2013 vote, totaling about $2 million to a Singapore company linked to Papa Massata Diack, son of former IAAF President Lamine Diack. The younger Diack is the subject of an Interpol wanted notice. Lamine Diack, a former IOC member, has been accused by French prosecutors of taking more than $1 million in bribes to cover up Russian doping cases.

Japanese Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda, who headed Tokyo’s bid, said the payments were for legitimate consultancy work. The committee has opened an investigation; the IOC says it remains a civil party to the French probe.

REFUGEE TEAM

On Friday, Bach will announce some feel-good news — the names of the refugee athletes who will compete as a team under the Olympic flag in Rio. A total of 43 refugees were originally considered for the team, including a teenage female swimmer from Syria, long-distance runners from central and western Africa, and judo and taekwondo competitors from Congo, Iran and Iraq.

While Bach initially said he expected the final list to comprise between five and 10 athletes, officials say the number could reach 12 to 15.

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