Russia turns back skating clock in team event

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SOCHI, Russia – More than any other night at these Winter Olympics, this one belonged to Russia as a skating nation.

As the inaugural team figure skating competition wrapped up with the men’s, ladies and ice dance free skates, Russia saw one of its beloved veterans and a rapidly rising star perform beautifully on the ice, all while a president who rarely shows emotion stood and gave his approval.

It was a night of triumph for the Russian skating tradition, which skidded away from the Vancouver Olympics four years ago with their boots dragging, having won just two of the 12 medals awarded at those Games, its worst haul since the 1964 Innsbruck Games, when, as the U.S.S.R., the nation won one medal at an Olympics where ice dance wasn’t included in the program.

One Russian, Yevgeny Plushenko, put himself into the record books, tying Swedish skater Gillis Grafstrom for the most Olympic medals in figure skating: four.

“I skated for my family, I skated for my country,” Plushenko said in the media mixed zone.

“I feel awesome. I feel great,” Plushenko added plainly. “I’m happy, my wife is happy, my sons are happy.”

So, too, is the whole of Russia, as it reclaimed a figure skating gold of any kind for the first time since Plushenko was the men’s champion at the Torino Games in 2006. The crowd roared as flowers were awarded to the Russians, but most emphatically for Plushenko, who has been through countless injuries, surgeries and at least two semi-retirements.

“The Russians are so strong across all the disciplines,” 1992 Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko, who skated for the Unified team, told NBCOlympics.com. “I think they’re doing a good job.”

A good job might be what Russian President Vladimir Putin would have said, as well. Putin was in attendance for most of the evening, taking in Yulia Lipnitskaya’s skate, as well as that of the ice dance team, Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov. It was unclear whether Putin watched Plushenko skate, as well.

Did Lipnitskaya, just 15, know that the president was watching her?

“Nyet,” she said – no – in response. Then, through a translator: “I didn’t know that the president was there, but even if I knew that he was there, it wouldn’t matter really because the support of the fans was so incredible, so massive for me.”

Lipnitskaya’s score, too, was massive, a 141.51 marking a career-best, 12 points ahead of American Gracie Gold, who was second.

While Plushenko appeared to tire during the second half of his free skate, turning normal triple jumps into doubles, he still won the men’s free skate, ahead of a decent field that included Japan’s Tatsuki Machida and American teenager Jason Brown.

The scene inside the Iceberg Skating Palace was more akin to that of a soccer stadium than figure skating one, dozens of red, white and blue Russian flags unfurled when it was announced that Russia had won the team gold, the first in Olympic history.

While much of the talk leading into Sochi over the last year was of the Russians having struggled in the recent past in figure skating, more medals could – and should – be on their way for the host nation in the individual events. Pairs skaters Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov are heavily favored in their event, while Lipnitskaya is now a threat not only for the podium, but for gold in two week’s time.

MORE: Images of team figure skating event

“Technically, she is so good,” Petrenko said. “I don’t see a weakness in  her skating. She’s doing an awesome job.”

It is then that Petrenko paused to hug Plushenko, who was walking by, the two embracing with pats on the back. That very back – and now a bum leg – will have to hold up physically in two more programs should Plushenko try for a record-shattering fifth Olympic figure skating medal, though he has tough competition to square off against.

“I don’t know if he will skate in the individual event, that’s not my decision,” Plushenko said. “Based on my experience, at his age, it’s very difficult to come out and skate again. I’m proud of Yevgeny and the job that he did – he’s still in good shape. Overall, he had enough to help win a medal here. It will be harder in the individual event. It makes it more interesting. If he feels strong, then we’ll see him next week.

And while Plushenko was the star of the night for the second time in just four days, Lipnitskaya produced the evening’s most aw-shucks moment, grabbing a baseball cap that was thrown onto the ice by a fan and placing the ill-fitting hat on her head.

What did it say?

“Russia.”

Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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