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Ahead of Russia decision, Thomas Bach warns critics


GENEVA (AP) As four more Russians were disqualified Friday for doping at the Sochi Olympics, IOC President Thomas Bach told critics not to put pressure on his executive board before a key decision next month on the country’s participation at the Pyeongchang Games.

Two-time bobsled gold medalist Alexander Zubkov was removed from the 2014 records in the latest round of verdicts from an International Olympic Committee panel prosecuting individuals caught in a program to cover up doping and tamper with tainted samples.

Now the president of the Russian bobsled federation, Zubkov was disqualified and banned for life from the Olympics along with speedskater Olga Fatkulina, who won silver in the 500 meters.

Russia originally topped the medals table in Sochi, but the latest cases drop it to nine gold medals, fewer than Norway and Canada. In total medals, Russia now has 24, behind the United States, Norway and Canada.

A total of 14 Russians have now been disqualified this month, with nine medals lost.

Hours earlier, Bach’s comments in a keynote speech – highlighting that Olympic medalists were involved in attacking the integrity of the games – signaled a possible shift toward barring Russian athletes from the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Bach will chair an IOC board meeting on Dec. 5 which could ban Russia’s team from Pyeongchang because of state-sponsored doping at the Sochi Games.

Long seen as Russia’s ally, Bach seemed to confirm that position this month when he criticized “unacceptable” demands for a total ban while two Olympic panels investigate an alleged doping conspiracy.

However, in a speech on Friday, Bach cautioned against those “from whichever side” who seek to influence the IOC.

“Some may try to build pressure. They will be wrong,” the IOC leader told European Olympic officials meeting in Zagreb, Croatia.

Russian officials have this month threatened not to televise the Pyeongchang Games, and block the release of players from clubs in the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League. The KHL warning came from league president Dmitry Chernyshenko, who previously headed the Sochi organizing committee.

The IOC is facing the same politicized decision over Russia as it did before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

In July 2016, Bach’s board did not impose a blanket ban on Russia after investigator Richard McLaren published his first report into the Sochi program less than three weeks before the opening ceremony. Instead, the IOC let individual sports governing bodies lead the decision-making.

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Bach was seen then as prioritizing Russian athletes’ rights to compete in what proved a chaotic period of urgent legal cases based on McLaren’s interim report. The full investigation report published last December went even deeper into the Russian doping program, and beyond winter sports.

The “important difference” this time, Bach said Friday, was that accused Russian athletes have had due legal process and a fair hearing from the IOC.

“Now it is about what happened at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. Now it is about us,” Bach told leaders of European national Olympic bodies. “Now it is about the integrity of the Olympic Games. Now it is about what happened at Olympic Games in a laboratory of the Olympic Games. What happened with Olympic athletes. What happened with Olympic medalists.

“This is what we have to bear in mind when I say that we will take a fair decision.”

Zubkov, Russia’s flagbearer at opening ceremony in Sochi, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but has been critical of the IOC.

On Thursday, he told Russian newspaper Sport Express that IOC bans for other Russian athletes were “a joke … at the hearings not one fact or piece of evidence was presented.”

Bobsled athletes who could be upgraded by the IOC include United States driver Steven Holcomb, who placed third in the two-man and four-man events but died unexpectedly in his sleep six months ago. Swiss and Latvian crews are in line for gold medals.

Also disqualified and expelled from the Olympics on Friday were women’s bobsledder Olga Stulneva and men’s speedskater Alexander Rumyantsev. They did not win medals.

The Russian Skating Federation said it would appeal the bans at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Russian authorities, including President Vladimir Putin, deny they knew of a widespread doping program. Instead, they blame former laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov.

Rodchenkov fled to the United States, where he is in a witness protection program, and made allegations as a whistleblower in May 2016 which McLaren later supported with evidence.

Politics and sports are often linked in Russia, and athletes from Zubkov’s sleds have gone on to high-level positions.

His brakeman, Alexei Voevoda, is now a member of the Russian parliament, while pusher Dmitry Trunenkov ran a youth program for the Russian military. Trunenkov was banned from all sports activities last year in a separate doping case brought by Russian authorities.

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Alina Zagitova eyes more gold at worlds; women’s preview

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Alina Zagitova hasn’t lost internationally in 18 months, and that doesn’t figure to change this week at the world championships in Milan.

The 15-year-old Russian is favored to become the youngest world gold medalist since Tara Lipinski (duplicating her feat from the Olympics) and make it five straight Olympic or world titles for Russian women, the longest streak for one country since American Carol Heiss won six straight Olympic/world titles from 1956 through 1960.

Zagitova would also become the first Olympic women’s champion to win worlds the following month since Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992. That’s largely because Olympic champions usually skip worlds in Olympic years. Since Yamaguchi, the only one to compete was Yuna Kim, who grabbed silver in 2010.

Zagitova may be young, but she may not have the longevity of Kim to make it to a second Olympics. Russia turns over a new class of elite women’s skaters every year.

Two weeks ago, 13-year-old Alexandra Trusova won the world junior title as the first woman to land two different quadruple jumps in one program. Trusova isn’t old enough to compete at the senior worlds until 2020.

Zagitova’s current rival and training partner, Olympic silver medalist and 2016 and 2017 World champion Yevgenia Medvedeva, withdrew from worlds due to injury.

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Which leaves the last two Olympic bronze medalists, Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada and Carolina Kostner of Italy, plus PyeongChang fourth-place finisher Satoko Miyahara of Japan as the top challengers this week.

None finished within seven points of Zagitova at any competition this season, the Russian’s first on the senior international level.

Zagitova set herself apart at the Olympics by putting all of her jumps in the second half of her programs for 10 percent bonuses and landing them all with positive grades of execution.

The U.S. contingent includes national champion Bradie Tennell, two-time Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell (replacement for 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen).

It is the end of a challenging season for U.S. women. In the autumn, none qualified for the Grand Prix Final for a second straight year (after at least one had done so each of the previous seven seasons).

In PyeongChang, no U.S. woman finished in the top six for the first time in Winter Games history. Tennell, who emerged this season after placing ninth at 2017 Nationals, was the top U.S. Olympic finisher in ninth.

Tennell goes into worlds as the top seeded American — seventh — by best international scores this season.

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Olympic golf qualifying, format largely unchanged for 2020

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The Tokyo 2020 Olympic golf tournaments qualifying and format will remain largely the same as they were for the sport’s return to the Games in 2016, according to Golf Channel, citing a memo sent to PGA Tour players.

The format will again be four rounds of stroke play with 60 men and 60 women taken from the world rankings, according to the report.

The qualifying window to determine the rankings will be July 1, 2018 to June 22, 2020 for men and July 8, 2018 to June 29, 2020 for women. That’s a slight change, as for 2016 the dates were the same for men and women.

The 2016 process saw a maximum of two men and two women per country, or up to four if they were ranked in the top 15.

Then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said one month after the Rio Games that he hoped the Olympic golf format would be changed to have more medals awarded.

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