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Clock ticking on Russia as anti-doping agency meets

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MONTREAL (AP) — The lurid details — dark-of-night swapping of tainted urine samples with clean ones through a hole cut into the wall — have been confirmed by an independent investigator who delivered a 144-page report with the proof.

The reaction of policymakers to the unprecedented level of anti-doping corruption in Olympic sports has been nowhere near as headline-grabbing.

On Thursday, a bit over a year after The New York Times revealed the sordid specifics of a doping scandal that pervaded Russia’s Olympic team, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s governing board meets. The board won’t so much enact drastic measures for Russia or for WADA’s own flawed set of deterrents as it will try to gain fractions along a miles-long road of needed reforms.

The most pressing matter: With nine months until the Winter Olympics, there are few signs of what, if any, price the Russian Olympic team will pay for the corruption that has been unmasked in that country.

Investigator Richard McLaren’s report, released last December, found that more than 1,000 Russian athletes competing in summer, winter and Paralympic sports could have been involved or benefited from manipulations to conceal positive doping tests.

“There’s worry we’ll find ourselves, if we’re not already there, in the very same position as we were in Rio,” said Paul Melia, CEO of Canada’s anti-doping agency.

At last year’s Summer Games, the International Olympic Committee refused to ban the Russians as a whole, instead giving leaders in the individual sports mere days to sort out who should be eligible to compete in Rio de Janeiro. All but one member of Russia’s track team was barred, the result of a decision by that sport’s governing body (IAAF) that came after an investigation — separate from McLaren’s — into doping corruption in athletics. Most Russians in other sports were allowed to compete.

The IOC is conducting its own investigations to follow up on McLaren’s work, which was a fact-finding mission, not one geared toward handing out sanctions.

While that has meandered, the IOC issued a position paper in March saying it supported making WADA independent from both governments and sports organizations, a mighty task that would free the agency from the conflicts that have hindered it at almost every point of the Russia investigations. Despite this call, IOC member Craig Reedie continues to serve as chairman of WADA. Reedie boldly bucked the IOC before the Rio Games and recommended a full suspension of the Russian team. He has been less definite in the lead-up to the Pyeongchang Games.

The IOC also is pushing to create an independent drug-testing authority, which would take responsibility for testing and punishment out of the hands of the sports; it was this conflict that exacerbated the Russian track crisis. The IAAF was as culpable for that scandal as Russia, and the federation still holds Russia’s track team under suspension, having received few indicators that the country’s anti-doping culture is changing.

Exhibit A: Russia appointed, then re-elected, Olympic champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who has consistently framed WADA’s investigations as an anti-Russian plot, as chairwoman of a newly remade anti-doping agency (RUSADA). The agency’s status will be discussed Thursday, though WADA leaders already have spoken out against Isinbayeva’s appointment.

“It had to be designed to be inflammatory,” Graeme Steel, CEO of New Zealand’s anti-doping agency, said of the Isinbayeva appointment. “There’s no other reason they’d do that. I don’t foresee a lot of swift action concerning Russia.”

A glimmer of progress came via a recent agreement among the seven federations who oversee Winter Olympic sports to move toward an independent testing agency, much like IAAF and the international cycling federation have done. But it is only an agreement in principle and the individual sports will make the ultimate decisions about who oversees their testing programs.

What to expect at this week’s meetings?

“I hope to hear more about the progress that Russia is making toward becoming compliant,” said Max Cobb, executive director of U.S. Biathlon. “It’s troubling to note the contrasting views, when you hear the IAAF saying absolutely no progress is being made, then you hear (others) saying they’re happy with the progress being made.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The Winter Olympics open Feb. 9.

“Athletes have been here before — it’s Groundhog Day,” said Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “But let’s hope this time it ends with decisions being made to ensure fair play and to truly reform the system so that Olympic fans everywhere can have faith that what they are watching is real.”

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Nathan Chen hits short program, leads world championships

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That’s more like it, Nathan Chen.

After two disastrous Olympic short programs, Chen nailed his jumps at the world championships, taking the lead by 1.86 points over Russian Mikhail Kolyada in Milan on Thursday. American Vincent Zhou is third.

Full results are here.

“I learned a lot from the Olympics, and I used what I learned there heading into the short program in terms of where to place my mind, what to think about throughout the program,” Chen said. “It was great to have an opportunity to come back before the end of the season to try the short program again, sort of hope to redeem myself.”

Later Thursday, Germans Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot backed up their Olympic gold with a world title, shattering the longest-standing world record in figure skating with a record margin of victory. Full recap here.

In Saturday’s men’s free skate, Chen can become the youngest men’s world champion since Yevgeny Plushenko in 2001. Zhou can become the first man to make a senior world podium the year after winning a world junior title since Plushenko in 1998. The U.S. last put two men on a world podium in 1996 (Todd EldredgeRudy Galindo).

This week’s field lacks Yuzuru HanyuJavier Fernandez and Patrick Chan, who combined to win every Olympic and world title since 2011 but ended their seasons at the Olympics.

On Thursday, Chen hit a quadruple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, a quadruple flip and a triple Axel for 101.94 points (2.18 shy of his personal best). It was a reversal from PyeongChang, where Chen’s short programs began unraveling with that opening combination, and he scored 80.61 and 82.27 points.

Chen placed 17th in the Olympic short program and redeemed himself with the top free skate, moving up to fifth. He went into the Olympics as the only undefeated male skater for the season.

“That I was able to bounce back and have the long program that I did, because of that the whole Olympic experience wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be after the short program,” Chen said Thursday. “Being able to have that, I didn’t have any ghosts of the Olympics following me [to worlds].”

Zhou, the youngest of 37 men in the field at 17, landed a quad Lutz-triple toe loop combination and a quad flip, fist pumping at the end of his skate. He shattered his personal-best short program by 12.25 points. Zhou was sixth at the Olympics.

“I came here to skate a clean program, I did that, and being in the top three is icing on the cake,” Zhou said.

Two other medal favorites — Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and two-time world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China — struggled with jumps. Jin is fourth and Uno fifth.

Uno, competing with a reported ankle injury, performed a triple-double combination rather than the quad-triple he did in PyeongChang. Jin had a quad toe called under-rotated.

The third American, 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, is in 15th place. Aaron put his hand down on his opening quad Salchow and turned out of his triple Axel landing.

Key Free Skate Start Times (Saturday ET)
Max Aaron (USA) — 6:05 a.m.
Shoma Uno (JPN) — 8:21 a.m.
Jin Boyang (CHN) — 8:29 a.m.
Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 8:38 a.m.
Vincent Zhou (USA) — 8:47 a.m.
Nathan Chen (USA) — 8:55 a.m.

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Olympic pairs’ champs crush world record for world title; U.S. struggles

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Germans Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot added a world title to their Olympic gold with a world-record score, while U.S. pairs’ struggles continued with the Americans’ lowest-ever results at a world championships.

Savchenko and Massot broke the longest-standing record total in figure skating, extending their lead from Wednesday’s short program to win by 20.31 points over Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres took bronze, France’s second Olympic or world pairs medal in 86 years.

Full results are here.

Savchenko and Massot’s free skate — the first to eclipse 160 points under the current judging system — included a side-by-side triple Salchow-double toe loop-double toe loop combination and a throw triple flip and throw triple Salchow.

Their total score — 245.84 points — shattered 2014 Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov‘s record of 237.71 set at 2013 Skate America. Their winning margin also broke Volosozhar and Trankov’s record for an Olympics or world championships under the 14-year-old points system.

Savchenko earned her 11th world medal — tying the female record held by Norwegian singles legend Sonja Henie — and sixth world title — tying Soviet Alexander Zaitsev for second on the all-time pairs’ list, four behind Irina Rodnina.

This was the French-born Massot’s first world title. Savchenko’s previous five world titles came with now-retired Robin Szolkowy.

The two U.S. pairs finished 15th and 17th, which means the U.S. drops to one pairs’ spot for the 2019 Worlds, its fewest since 1957.

U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim dropped from 11th after the short program to 15th of 16 pairs after the free skate. Scimeca fell on their death spiral and a throw triple flip, looked distraught skating off the ice and tweeted 10 minutes later, “I’m sorry for losing us a spot” and “Bad day to have a bad day.”

The Knierims made the top 10 in their four previous world championships appearances with a best finish of seventh.

The other U.S. pair, 2000 World junior singles silver medalist Deanna Stellato and 2014 Olympian Nathan Bartholomay, were 17th in Wednesday’s short program, missing the cutoff for the free skate by one spot.

It’s the first time all U.S. pairs finished outside the top 11 at a worlds, granted worlds didn’t regularly have a field greater than 15 pairs before 1990.

It came on the heels of the U.S. having its smallest pairs’ contingent — one pair — at an Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924. The Knierims were 15th in PyeongChang, marking the first time the U.S. sent a pair to an Olympics and put none in the top 10.

The last U.S. pairs’ medal at worlds came in 2002, making this the nation’s longest drought in any figure skating discipline. The last Olympic medal was in 1988.

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