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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

Laurie Hernandez plans on competing in 2019, agent says

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Olympic gymnastics champion Laurie Hernandez plans on competing in 2019, her agent said.

Hernandez has not competed since taking team gold and vault silver at the Rio Olympics, followed by winning “Dancing with the Stars” later that fall.

She said in October that she hoped to compete in 2018 but would not rush a comeback. Hernandez since decided not to compete at the U.S. Championships this August.

No member of the Final Five has competed at the elite level since Rio, though Madison Kocian is in her sophomore season at UCLA and Simone Biles plans to return this summer.

Aly Raisman said in September 2016 that she planned to take one year off, then return to training for a Tokyo 2020 run. But her focus shifted in the last year to something more important — taking on USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee after Larry Nassar sexual-abuse crimes.

The last member of the Final Five, 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas, has not said in widely reported comments if or when she will return to competition.

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Sonja Henie record at stake; figure skating worlds pairs preview

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When Aljona Savchenko won her first gold medal at her fifth Olympics with her third different partner in PyeongChang, she said she “wrote history.”

She can write some more this week.

Savchenko, who at 34 became the oldest female figure skating champion in Winter Olympic history, and partner Bruno Massot are the only pairs medalists from PyeongChang who are back for the world championships in Milan.

The Germans headline the field for the short program Wednesday and free skate Friday.

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Savchenko can tie Norwegian Sonja Henie for the female record of 11 world championships medals. She can grab a share of second on the all-time pairs list with a sixth world title, four shy of Soviet Irina Rodnina‘s record.

Savchenko, who won four crowns with now-retired Robin Szolkowy, goes for her first world title with Massot. They’re clear favorites.

Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong withdrew from worlds due to Sui’s foot injury. Olympic bronze medalists Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford retired.

It’s arguably a surprise that Savchenko and Massot chose to compete in Milan. They’re the first Olympic pairs champions to compete at a post-Olympic worlds since 1992.

Their top challengers are Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, who outscored Savchenko and Massot in the Olympic short program but dropped off the podium in the free skate with a fall on their throw.

U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, 15th at the Olympics, made the top 10 in all of their four world championships appearances with a best finish of seventh. The last U.S. pairs medal came in 2002, the nation’s longest drought in any figure skating discipline.

The Knierims were the only U.S. pair in PyeongChang, but in Milan they’re joined by Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay.

Stellato earned singles silver at the 2000 World Junior Championships, then retired at age 17 due to hip injuries. She came back at age 32 in 2016 in pairs and, with the Sochi Olympian Bartholomay, took bronze at this year’s nationals.

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