Maria Savinova, Ekaterina Poistogova
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Russia should be banned from track and field, WADA panel says

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian track and field athletes could be banned from next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after a devastatingly critical report accused the country’s government of complicity in widespread doping and cover-ups.

The World Anti-Doping Agency commission set up to investigate doping in Russia said even the country’s intelligence service, the FSB, was involved, spying on Moscow’s anti-doping lab, including during last year’s Olympics in Sochi.

The commission chaired by Dick Pound recommended that WADA immediately declare the Russian athletics federation “non-compliant” with the global anti-doping code, and that the IAAF suspend the federation from competition.

“It’s worse than we thought,” Pound said. “It may be a residue of the old Soviet Union system.”

The IAAF responded immediately, saying it will consider sanctions against Russia, including a possible suspension of the athletics federation that would ban Russian track and field athletes from international competition, including the Olympics.

“If they are suspended — and it sounds like the IAAF is moving in that direction already — and they are still suspended, at the time of Rio there will be no Russian track and field athletes there,” Pound said in an interview with The Associated Press after the release of his commission’s findings.

He said Russia’s doping could be called state-sponsored.

“They would certainly have known,” he said of Russian officials.

To the AP, he added: “We have finally identified one of the major powers as being involved in this. It’s not just small countries or little pockets. This is a major sporting country. It’s got to be a huge embarrassment.”

The gold and bronze-medal winners at 800 meters at the London Olympics are among five Russian runners targeted for lifetime bans.

The commission recommended lifetime bans for Olympic champion Mariya Savinova-Farnosova and bronze medalist Ekaterina Poistogova.

South African Caster Semenya, she of the gender-testing controversy, took silver between the Russians in the 2012 Olympic 800m. American Alysia Montaño was fifth.

“I don’t have any medals in my hands still yet, but with the findings it looks promising, and I’m very, very hopeful,” Montaño said on Periscope, crossing her fingers during a nine-minute video. “Here’s to retribution and to justice being served.”

MORE: Read the full WADA report

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, whose ministry was accused by the WADA probe of giving orders to cover up doping violations, insisted Russia’s problems are no worse than in other countries and said Russia is being persecuted, telling the Interfax news agency: “Whatever we do, everything is bad.”

He threatened to cut all government funding for anti-doping work, saying “if we have to close this whole system, we would be happy to” because “we will only save money.”

The acting president of the Russian athletics federation, Vadim Zelichenok, said he does not believe doping there is systematic or that the government or security services helped to cover up cases.

The WADA commission said the International Olympic Committee should not accept any entries from the Russian athletics federation until the body has been declared complaint with WADA’s doping code and a suspension has been lifted.

Pound said there may still be time for Russia to avoid the “nuclear weapon” of a ban from the Olympics, if it starts reforming immediately. That work that will take at least “several months” and “there are a lot of people who are going to have to walk the plank before this happens,” he said.

“I think they can do it. I hope they can,” he added.

More damaging revelations are to come. The WADA commission is also looking at the role senior officials at the IAAF allegedly played in bribery and extortion involving Russian athletes. French authorities last week detained and later charged former IAAF President Lamine Diack with corruption and money laundering. The WADA commission’s findings on that angle could come before the end of the year.

As it was, the WADA report on Monday said “widespread inaction” by the IAAF and Russian authorities allowed athletes suspected of doping to continue competing.

“(The) Olympic Games in London were, in a sense, sabotaged by the admission of athletes who should have not been competing, and could have been prevented from competing,” it said.

The commission accused the Russian state of complicity. It said its months-long probe found no written evidence of government involvement, but it added: “It would be naive in the extreme to conclude that activities on the scale discovered could have occurred without the explicit or tacit approval of Russian governmental authorities.”

The findings prompted a damning response from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that brought down Lance Armstrong, another case that shattered public faith in sports.

“If Russia has created an organized scheme of state-supported doping, then they have no business being allowed to compete on the world stage,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said.

The WADA probe found that agents from the FSB even infiltrated Russia’s anti-doping work at the Sochi Olympics. One witness told the inquiry that “in Sochi, we had some guys pretending to be engineers in the lab but actually they were from the federal security service.”

Staff at Russia’s anti-doping lab in Moscow believed their offices were bugged by the FSB and an FSB agent, thought to be Evgeniy Blotkin or Blokhin, regularly visited.

This was part of a wider pattern of “direct intimidation and interference by the Russian state with the Moscow laboratory operations,” the report said.

Pound said Mutko, the sports minister, must also have known.

“It was not possible for him to be unaware of it,” Pound said.

Mutko, who is also a FIFA executive committee member and leads the 2018 World Cup organizing committee, denied wrongdoing to the WADA inquiry panel, including knowledge of athletes being blackmailed and FSB intelligence agents interfering in lab work.

The WADA report also said Moscow testing laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov ordered 1,417 doping control samples to be destroyed to deny evidence for the inquiry.

It said Rodchenkov “personally instructed and authorized” the destruction of evidence three days before a WADA audit team arrived in Moscow last December.

The WADA panel said it wanted to send the Russian athletes’ samples to labs in other countries to detect banned drugs and doping methods.

The panel also raised suspicions that Russia may have has been using an obscure laboratory on the outskirts of Moscow to help cover up doping, possibly by pre-screening athletes’ samples and ditching those that test positive.

It said whistleblowers and confidential witnesses “corroborated that this second laboratory is involved in the destruction and the cover-up of what would otherwise be positive doping tests.”

The panel also said it does not believe that the doping problem is limited to athletics or to Russian sports. Pound singled out Kenya, saying it seems the East African powerhouse of long-distance running “has a real problem.”

“In its considered view,” the commission said, “Russia is not the only country, nor athletics the only sport, facing the problem of orchestrated doping.”

MORE TRACK AND FIELD: Seb Coe: ‘Dark days’ for the sport

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 18, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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