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Russia track and field eyes ‘neutral status’ for athletes at winter meets

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MOSCOW (AP) — A year after the release of a damning report into widespread doping, Russian track and field is hopeful of a way back into the global fold.

On Nov. 9, 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s independent commission unleashed a strongly worded, 323-page account of how Russian athletes, coaches and officials had colluded in the use of performance-enhancing drugs before and after the 2012 London Olympics.

That report set in motion a year of turmoil and legal battles for Russia, which had more than 100 athletes in various sports barred from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, including all but one member of the track and field team. The Russian track federation remains barred from international competition, with no date set for when it could return.

“We’ve lived through a hard year, very hard,” All-Russian Athletics Federation general secretary Mikhail Butov told The Associated Press. “Not just regarding the participation of our athletes at the Olympics, which was the most important thing for us, but in terms of recognizing the situation and understanding which way to go.”

Despite being under the heaviest sanctions in track and field history, Russian officials insist they are making progress on anti-doping reforms and plan to send athletes to major competitions in the coming months. The main target is the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, from March 3-5, federation president Dmitry Shlyakhtin said after talks with IAAF representatives in Monaco.

The IAAF will hold a special congress in Monaco on Dec. 3.

Any Russians who are allowed to compete will probably have to accept “neutral status” in IAAF events rather than officially representing Russia, Butov suggested. The IAAF declined to comment on the talks.

“The work has continued and there is something to show for it,” Butov said.

The only Russian who competed in track and field at the Rio Games was long jumper Darya Klishina, who was allowed to take part under IAAF rules because she had been based in the U.S. for several years, away from the Russian drug-testing system, which faced accusations that officials and lab staff had covered up hundreds of failed tests.

Russian track and field officials and athletes hope the IAAF will accept individual athletes’ applications to compete, even if the federation as a whole remains suspended.

“Now it seems as if that criterion about living abroad can probably be disregarded,” Butov said. “The issue now is that the testing that has been done in this period is considered convincing and guaranteed to give an athlete the opportunity to be considered for competition. If it’s not like that, it’ll be an endless process.”

The Russian drug-testing agency has been suspended for almost a year, with testing carried out in reduced numbers by Britain’s anti-doping agency. Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov said the situation was “totally unacceptable” because UK Anti-Doping plans to collect only 6,000 samples in 2017, compared to the 20,000 collected by the Russian agency at its peak. He said that only national team athletes are being targeted for testing, leaving youth and junior athletes out of the system.

“So, in a situation like this, why not to find a fast-track way to give the accreditation back to RUSADA and to renew its activities, especially since it is under the full control of WADA?” Zhukov said in a speech to IOC officials released Wednesday. “What is preventing this? For our part, we would like to appeal to you as WADA’s founders to assist in the prompt reinstatement of the Russian anti-doping agency and the anti-doping laboratory in their rights.”

Among those who missed the Rio Games was hammer thrower Sergei Litvinov, who had hoped to compete in his first Olympics.

“I’ve spent the whole year on edge,” he said.

Litvinov, a vocal critic of drug use, had requested extra drug-testing by the IAAF to prove he was clean, but still came under the Russian team’s ban. He still doesn’t know when he can compete again.

“Whatever will be, will be,” he said. “It could all change at any moment.”

MORE: Russia passes tough anti-doping bill

Yuzuru Hanyu opens Olympic season with record score

Yuzuru Hanyu
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A sore knee didn’t hold Yuzuru Hanyu back. A record score to open his Olympic season.

The Olympic and world champion from Japan hit a pair of quadruple jumps in his short program at the Autumn Classic, a lower-level event in Montreal.

He was rewarded with 112.72 points, the highest short program score recorded under the 13-year-old judging system. Video is here.

It looked like a home competition for Hanyu.

Upon finishing, he bowed toward one set of bleachers (maybe a dozen rows) at the Sportsplexe Pierrefonds. More than two dozen Japanese flags made it hard to see most of the faces.

He bettered Javier Fernández, a two-time world champion and training partner, by 11.52 points. Fernández also landed two quadruple jumps to tally 101.2.

Full scores will be here upon the conclusion of the short program. The free skate is Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. A live stream is here.

Hanyu now owns the three highest short program scores under the 13-year-old system. The other two were set in the 2015-16 season.

Showdowns like Hanyu-Fernández are usually reserved for, at the earliest, the Grand Prix series in late October and November.

Hanyu and Fernández are very familiar with each other, having shared a coach in Canadian Brian Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, since 2012. They train in Toronto.

In that time, Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic title (and the second teen from any nation to do it). He followed it up with world titles later in 2014 and this year.

Fernández achieved unfathomable success for a Spanish skater — world titles in 2015 and 2016, overtaking Hanyu in the free skate both times.

In PyeongChang, Hanyu can become the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1952. Fernández can become the third Spaniard to earn a Winter Olympic medal of any color in any sport, and the first since 1992.

The figure skating season continues next week with Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying competition. North Korea could clinch its first spots in any sport for the Olympics in the pairs event.

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USOC letter assures Olympians about South Korea security

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The U.S. Olympic Committee’s security chief sent a letter to potential Winter Olympians saying there are no indications that recent developments between the U.S. and North Korea have compromised security in South Korea.

The letter, obtained by The Associated Press shortly after it was sent Friday, makes no suggestion that the U.S. is considering skipping the PyeongChang Winter Games for security reasons.

But Chief Security Officer Nicole Deal does write that provocations that have been volleyed between the United States and North Korea are likely to persist for the foreseeable future, and “should not be dismissed as insignificant nor feared as precursors of an inevitable conflict.”

The letter comes at the end of a week in which France’s sports minister suggested the country’s athletes would stay home if security could not be guaranteed.

The International Olympic Committee, trying to calm concerns, reiterated that in conversations with high-level officials in China and South Korea, none have expressed doubt about the Winter Games proceeding as scheduled, next February.

The USOC also sent out a public statement Friday from CEO Scott Blackmun.

“We will continue to work with our State Department and local organizers to ensure that our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe,” he said.

The letter, sent to athletes, national governing bodies and other Olympic leaders in the United States, said the USOC’s security division is operating as “business as usual for our security planning and preparations.”

Deal writes that the USOC is reviewing crisis management plans that address a range of potential scenarios “to ensure our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe.”

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