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IOC creates pool of Russians eligible for PyeongChang Olympics

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The International Olympic Committee said Friday it has created a pool of 389 Russians who are eligible to compete under a neutral flag at next month’s Winter Olympics amid the country’s doping scandal.

An IOC panel whittled down an initial list of 500 to create what the IOC calls “a pool of clean athletes.”

That could potentially make it possible for Russia to meet its target of fielding around 200 athletes in PyeongChang — slightly fewer than in Sochi in 2014, but more than in Vancouver in 2010.

It wasn’t immediately clear why 111 other Russians were rejected by the IOC.

The IOC didn’t list the athletes who were accepted or rejected but said it hadn’t included any of the 46 the IOC previously banned for doping at the Sochi Olympics.

Valerie Fourneyron, the former French Sports Minister leading the invitation process, said the pool also left out any Russians who had been suspended in the past for doping offenses.

“This means that a number of Russian athletes will not be on the list,” she said. “Our work was not about numbers, but to ensure that only clean athletes would be on the list.”

That would appear to rule out potential Russian medal contenders like former NHL hockey player Anton Belov and world champion speed skater Pavel Kulizhnikov, both of whom served bans in the past but have since resumed competing.

“More than 80 percent of the athletes in this pool did not compete at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014,” the IOC said in a statement. “This shows that this is a new generation of Russian athletes.”

The IOC will use the pool list to issue invitations to Russian athletes to compete in PyeongChang, after checking their record of drug testing and retesting some samples they gave previously.

The IOC also said it recommended barring 51 coaches and 10 medical staff “associated with athletes who have been sanctioned” for Sochi doping.

The IOC has allowed the Russian Olympic Committee to select its preferred athletes despite being suspended by the IOC last month over drug use and an elaborate cover-up at the Sochi Olympics, including swapping dirty samples for clean urine.

Russian sports officials say they simply want to give the IOC recommendations to ensure that top athletes aren’t accidentally left out in favor of reserves.

The Russians will officially be known as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” and they will wear gray and red uniforms that don’t feature any Russian logos.

If they win gold medals, the Olympic flag will be flown and the Olympic anthem played.

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MORE: NBC Olympics PyeongChang preview series on Netflix

How Arianna Fontana quietly skated into short track history

Arianna Fontana
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Arianna Fontana is silently one of the greatest short track skaters in Olympic history.

Her numbers at the Games speak for themselves; one gold, two silver, and five bronze. Those eight total medals make her the most decorated female short track skater by two medals, and tie her with legends Apolo Ohno and Viktor Ahn for most Olympic medals ever won by a short track skater.

But it is her numbers outside the Olympic stage that really call attention to her Olympic success. She is a 14-time world medalist, which is no small feat, but her podium appearances are spread over a 12-year competitive career. Someone like Elise Christie, for example, has won 12 world championships medals in just five years. And also unlike Christie, Fontana has never won an overall title.

But Christie struggled on the sport’s biggest stage in both Sochi and PyeongChang, and has yet to win her first Olympic medal. Fontana, on the other hand, has become such a consistent podium presence over the last two Games that she almost makes it look easy.

Before retiring from competition, Ohno won 21 world medals, eight of them gold. Ahn, still competing but not one of the athletes invited to competed at the PyeongChang Olympics as an Olympic Athlete from Russia, has to date has won 35 world medals, 20 of which were gold.

Fontana does not come from a short track power like South Korea or China, perhaps another reason why she is not more notorious.

Most of her medals are bronze, which could be used as a strike against her, but just ask Lindsey Vonn how hard she worked to get hers this year.

Fontana’s first medal came at the 2006 Torino Olympics, when she helped the Italian women to bronze in the 3000m relay at just 15 years old. Fontana earned her first individual medal, a bronze in the 500m, four years later in Vancouver.

But in Sochi, she exploded, making the podium in three out of four events: the 500m, where she won silver, and the 1500m and 3000m relay, where she picked up two more bronzes.

“I thought I was going to win a gold medal in Sochi but I still don’t have that,” Fontana said to the ISU in early 2017. “That’s there up in my mind and sometimes it comes out and says, ‘Hey, you still miss me? So come get me!'”.

But after the 2014-15 season, Fontana’s desire for gold was eclipsed by something else: burnout.

“I was pretty tired mentally. My body was ready to race again but my mind was not. It was hard for me. After the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, I had some doubts about whether to keep skating or not,” Fontana said to the ISU. “Maybe it would have been better to take that year right after the Olympic Games off, but I decided to keep going. It is not that I regret it, but I had some hard times that season.”

She stayed active during her time off, learning how to box, which eased the transition back to skating.

Her pursuit for gold was what motivated her comeback, and in 2018 Fontana got what she came back for.

“When I saw I was first, I was just yelling and started crying. I worked for four years and the last four months were really hard for me. I was really focused on getting here in the best shape ever,” Fontana said after earning the 500m Olympic title.

“I was chasing it and finally I got it.”

In addition to her 500m gold medal, Fontana also added a 1000m bronze and 3000m relay bronze.

Fontana has spoken about retirement, but has not made a definitive decision. She will only be 31 years old by the time 2022 rolls around, so she could feasibly add to her medal haul if she competes. What she has made clear is that when she does leave the sport she hopes to become a personal trainer.

Whenever she does retire Fontana should be considered not only one of the greatest Italian athletes or greatest short track skaters, but also one of the greatest Winter Olympians.

How to watch Closing Ceremony of 2018 Winter Olympics

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Another Olympics is in the books.

The PyeongChang Closing Ceremony will cap off the 2018 Winter Games Sunday morning, beginning at 6 a.m. ET / 3 a.m. PT with a live stream of the events.

Jessie Diggins has been named the U.S. flag bearer after an incredibly gutsy performance to take home the country’s first-ever gold medal in Cross-Country.

How, when and where to watch the Closing Ceremony

Stream LIVE on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app: Sunday at 6 a.m. ET / 3 a.m. PT (Stream here)

The live stream will feature all the sights and sounds of the Closing Ceremony without any commentary.

Watch on TV: Sunday at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on NBC (Stream here)

The Olympic figure skating commentating trio of Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir and Terry Gannon will host the Closing Ceremony on NBC in primetime beginning at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT.

“It’s a huge honor and privilege,” Lipinski said. “I’m so excited to embark on this new and exciting adventure and bring the Closing Ceremony to the U.S.”

“This is a glorious and unexpected experience that I can’t wait to get fancy for!” Weir said.

Mike Tirico – NBC’s primetime host throughout the PyeongChang Games – hosted the Closing Ceremony for Rio in 2016 alongside Ryan Seacrest and Mary Carillo.

Tirico and Katie Couric hosted the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony in South Korea two weeks ago.

Sunday night’s primetime edition of the Closing Ceremony will also feature simulstreams on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. (Stream here)