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A year into doping ban, Russian track and field inches closer to return

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MOSCOW (AP) More than a year into Russia’s exclusion from international track and field, high jump world champion Maria Kuchina feels like she’s stagnating.

“I need emotion, I need competition, I need rivals,” Kuchina said.

That’s all missing because Russian track and field exists in limbo, banned since November 2015 as a series of investigations revealed widespread doping and alleged government officials helped to cover it up.

Sunday saw Russia’s biggest meet of the year so far, though it featured only Russians, with very mixed quality in many events. Kuchina easily won her event in Moscow, but her result of 1.91 meters was far below her best.

However, after a string of false starts, Russia is inching closer to a return.

On Monday, track’s world governing body, the IAAF, will hold a council meeting with the stated aim of drawing up a road map for Russia’s return though, in some ways, the process has quietly begun.

Over the winter, the IAAF has been accepting applications from top Russian athletes who want to compete in international events as neutral athletes, rather than representatives of Russia’s still-suspended track federation.

As of Wednesday, 33 Russians had applied, sending off forms listing their drug-test history under newly relaxed IAAF rules which no longer insist on Russian athletes training outside their home country. If the IAAF accepts all of them, Russia will have close to a full team at next month’s European indoor championships in Serbia, just without a flag.

That’s good news for Daria Klishina, the long jumper who was allowed to be Russia’s only representative in track and field at last year’s Rio Olympics because she has long trained in Florida, rather than in the Russian system.

“I don’t want to be in that situation again, never,” Klishina said Sunday, recalling how she found it tough to be on her own at the Olympics, where she finished ninth. If more Russians get permission to compete this season, “I’ll feel a lot better, because I didn’t like competing alone with that huge responsibility.”

Competing as neutrals, not Russians, is a sensitive issue.

Many fans support the athletes who have submitted applications to the IAAF, though some Russian nationalists accuse them of betraying their country.

“There’s more support because people who I know understand what sport means to me,” Kuchina said. “I try never to read online comments because they could destroy anyone’s wellbeing.”

Middle-distance runner Elena Korobkina, however, said she’ll refuse a place at major championships if it means competing as a neutral, though she will take part in other meets. “Even if they let me, I won’t compete at the Europeans because I want to race under my own flag,” she said.

Even as Russia nears a return, there have been setbacks.

Documents released in December as part of a World Anti-Doping Agency inquiry showed eight unnamed Russians from the national track and field team had given suspicious samples ahead of the 2014 world indoor championships, but most were recorded as clean. The IAAF is looking into the issue.

In another blow, a German TV channel broadcast footage showing national-team runner Artyom Denmukhametov appearing to train with coach Vladimir Kazarin, who is suspended over alleged steroid use by several of his other athletes. Denmukhametov was in action at Sunday’s meet, coming second in the 400m. He hasn’t applied to the IAAF to compete as a neutral, according to Russian track federation records.

Until the IAAF either reinstates Russia or allows its top athletes to compete as individuals, Russian track will remain in suspended animation. Kuchina doesn’t know if she’ll be able to defend her world title in London in August.

“There’s no information,” she said, criticizing the lack of updates about her application. “We’re all waiting.”

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USA Gymnastics closes Karolyi Ranch

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USA Gymnastics said it will no longer use the Karolyi Ranch in Texas as its training center, where athletes said Larry Nassar sexually abused gymnasts.

“USA Gymnastics has terminated its agreement with the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas,” USA Gymnastics CEO and president Kerry Perry said in a press release Thursday. “It will no longer serve as the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center.

“It has been my intent to terminate this agreement since I began as president and CEO in December. Our most important priority is our athletes, and their training environment must reflect this. We are committed to a culture that empowers and supports our athletes.

“We have cancelled next week’s training camp for the U.S. Women’s National Team. We are exploring alternative sites to host training activities and camps until a permanent location is determined. We thank all those in the gymnastics community assisting in these efforts.”

MORE: Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

World champions Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols said that Nassar sexually abused gymnasts at the ranch.

“When I was 15 I started to have back problems while at a National Team Camp at the Karolyi Ranch,” Nichols wrote in a victim impact statement read at one of Nassar’s sentencing hearings on Wednesday and published last week. “This is when the changes in his medical treatments occurred.

“I trusted what he was doing at first, but then he started touching me in places I really didn’t think he should. He didn’t have gloves on and he didn’t tell me what he was doing. There was no one else in the room and I accepted what he was doing because I was told by adults that he was the best doctor and he could help relieve my pain.

“He did this ‘treatment’ on me, on numerous occasions.”

Raisman, a three-time Olympic champion, urged USA Gymnastics to close the ranch in a Tuesday interview on ESPN.

“I hope USA Gymnastics listens because they haven’t listened to us so far,” she said. “I hope they listen, and I hope they don’t make any of the girls go back to the ranch. No one should have to go back there after, you know, so many of us were abused there.”

Simone Biles did not specifically name the Karolyi Ranch in her Monday statement, but Raisman said Tuesday that Biles was referring to that site.

“It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences and it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing at Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused,” was posted on Biles’ social media.

Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympian, said Nassar was alone with her in her bed at the ranch.

“There was no one else sent with him,” she said on CBS last year. “The treatment was in the bed, in my bed that I slept on at the ranch.”

USA Gymnastics said in July 2016 that it reached an agreement with former national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi to purchase the training facility the couple owned.

The national governing body backed out of the purchase in May “for a variety of reasons” but continued under its current lease agreement while exploring alternative locations for camps. It held national team camps there in September and November.

The Karolyis established the ranch in 1983 after defecting from Romania. It had been a national team training center since 2001.

Larry Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A statement from McKayla Maroney read Thursday repeated that sexual assault by Larry Nassar “left scars” in her mind that may never fade as a judge heard a third day of testimony from victims.

Nassar could be sentenced Friday in Lansing. Since Tuesday, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has been listening to dozens of young women who were molested after seeking his help for injuries.

Aquilina started the hearing Thursday by saying Nassar had written a letter fearing that his mental health wasn’t strong enough to sit and listen to a parade of victims. He called the hearing “a media circus.”

The judge dismissed it as “mumbo jumbo.”

“Spending four or five days listening to them is minor, considering the hours of pleasure you’ve had at their expense, ruining their lives,” Aquilina said.

Nassar, 54, faces a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years in prison for molesting girls as a doctor for Michigan State University and at his home.

He also was a team doctor at USA Gymnastics for nearly two decades. He’s already been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for child pornography crimes.

“Dr. Nassar was not a doctor,” Maroney said in a statement read by a prosecutor (Maroney’s statement was previously posted in the fall). “He left scars on my psyche that may never go away.”

USA Gymnastics in 2016 reached a financial settlement with Maroney that barred her from making disparaging remarks. But the organization this week said it would not seek any money for her “brave statements.”

A 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher, looked at Nassar and said, “How dare you ask any of us for forgiveness.”

“Your days of manipulation are over,” she said. “We have a voice. We have the power now.”

Nassar wasn’t the only target. Victims also criticized Michigan State and USA Gymnastics.

Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon attended part of the session Wednesday. The school is being sued by dozens of women, who say campus officials wrote off complaints about the popular doctor.

“Guess what? You’re a coward, too,” current student and former gymnast Lindsey Lemke said Thursday, referring to Simon.

The judge has been praising each speaker and criticizing Nassar.

It’s “about their control over other human beings and feeling like God and they can do anything,” Aquilina said of sex offenders.

On Jan. 31, Nassar will get another sentence for sexual assaults at a Lansing-area gymnastics club in a different county.