Figures skaters use Olympics as regular reunion

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SOCHI, Russia – Olympic sports are different compared to their counterparts that gather on a yearly basis: Every four years the Games act as a certain kind of class reunion. This is the time that they’re sport – and themselves – are back in the spotlight for a short amount of time.

Figure skating is no different. In fact, it may the standout of the bunch.

There’s Katarina Witt, sitting in the TV booth doing commentary and watching if Yuna Kim can match her back-to-back Olympic gold mark. She somehow looks better than when she did in 1988 in Calgary, some 24 years ago.

There’s Tara Lipinski, 16 years after being a 15-year-old champion, calling the action for NBC Sports alongside fellow former Olympian Johnny Weir. The duo might win new golds for commentary glamor. Which somehow is a new event.

VIDEO: Watch the complete free skate replay

Scott Hamilton is also in the booth, as he has been for almost every Games since his memorable win in 1984 in Sarajevo. Paul Wylie runs back and forth to the media mixed zone, the 1992 silver medalist grabbing quotes and doing radio spots, his petite frame holding a microphone over the interview barrier.

“I was a long-program skater, too,” he tells Gracie Gold one night, reassuring her. On another he’s greeted warmly American ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, themselves new gold-medal winners.

At the practice rink, too, a close look in the crowd means several recognizable – and historic – faces: 2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek chats with two-time medalist Michelle Kwan while Jeremy Abbott works on his short program. Two-time silver medalist Elvis Stojko of Canada watches too, his brow furrowed as he studies the skaters on the ice.

VIDEO: Compare routines of Adelina Sotnikova and Yuna Kim

Russia’s Irina Slutskaya and Joannie Rochette of Canada, three medals between them, watch from the broadcasters’ booth as Adelina Sotnikova delivers a gold on Thursday night. Afterwards Slutskaya gets a picture with Lipinski, a then-and-now side-by-side.

Viktor Petrenko is at the boards, coaching both the Czech Republic’s Michal Brezina in the men’s event. Tanith Belbin, the U.S. ice dancer who won silver in 2006, interviews Maia Shibutani at one point in the seats of the Iceberg Skating Palace, talking about Maia’s free skate costume as it glitters under the TV lights.

Nancy Kerrigan happens through practice one day, the 1994 silver medalist watching 15-year-old American Polina Edmunds with curiosity, eventually making her way down to the mixed zone to observe the teen in press.

VIDEO: Sneak peek of Sunday’s Kerrigan-Harding documentary

Two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser coaches Yuzuru Hanyu to gold, Japan’s first-ever men’s singles winner. It’s four years after Orser led Yuna Kim to gold in the ladies’ event. But here, he has to console another skater, Javier Fernandez of Spain, who finishes fourth in the men’s event.

And Kristi Yamaguchi, winner of gold in 1992, does spots around the grounds for different TV engagements, just over 20 years after her victory – at the age of 20.

“Every four years it’s amazing to be able to come back and be able to be a part of the Olympic movement,” Yamaguchi says. “We share similar experiences – there’s a bond. Whether you’ve won a medal or not, you’ve been to battle together. It’s something very special.”

Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping