Russia won’t boycott Olympics, will partially admit doping problem

Vitaly Mutko
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MOSCOW (AP) — With an Olympic boycott ruled out, Russia is planning to at least partially admit it has a doping problem.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told The Associated Press on Thursday that there will “not in any case” be a boycott of next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

A short time later in a separate interview, the acting president of the Russian track federation told the AP he is ready to own up to some of the charges leveled in the World Anti-Doping Agency commission’s massive report on doping in the country.

“We admit some things, we argue with some things, some are already fixed, it’s a variety,” said Vadim Zelichenok, declining to provide further details. “It’s not for the press.”

The governing body of track and field is expected to rule Friday on whether to suspend Russia from competition because of the doping scandal. If Russia is banned, the country’s track and field team could be excluded from next year’s Olympics.

Monday’s damning report by the WADA commission recommended that the Russian track federation be suspended, saying its athletes and officials were involved in “extensive” use of performance-enhancing drugs, obstructed doping tests and helped to cover up drug use. The report said Zelichenok “refused to cooperate” with investigators.

Even if Russia’s track and field team is banned, Mutko told the AP that the country has no intention of boycotting the Olympics.

“Russia is against a boycott. Russia is against political interference in sport,” Mutko said. “Understand that Russia is a dependable partner of the international Olympic movement.”

Mutko also appealed for Russia’s track team to be allowed to compete, arguing that a blanket ban would unfairly punish clean athletes.

“It will be painful for those athletes with clean consciences who could compete, that’s the first thing. And the second thing is that it goes against the spirit of the WADA code,” Mutko said. “The commission itself writes about it in its report. It’s about protecting the athletes with clean consciences.”

During the Cold War, the United States and allies boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet Union. Four years later, there was a Soviet-led boycott of the Olympics in Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted clean athletes should be allowed to compete and asked Russian sports officials to carry out an internal investigation into the allegations made in the doping report. Mutko said Russia would provide constant updates about its investigation.

“Practically every day, at the end of the day, we release some kind of information message about the steps we’re taking and we will continue to do that,” Mutko said. “We’re prepared to inform international society about the steps we’re taking, the investigation, the decisions.”

The Russian government has consistently slammed the WADA commission’s report for what it says is a lack of evidence. Mutko said there was an overreliance on confidential sources and condemned the inclusion of material from undercover recordings made by whistleblowers, which he said violated the rights of those accused of doping.

The scandal also entered the arena of international diplomacy as the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a stinging critique of the report’s authors.

“The position of the special commission on doping with regards to Russian athletes looks extremely biased, politicized,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in her weekly briefing, adding that sources cited in the report seem “extremely doubtful.”

In southern Black Sea resort of Sochi, the host city of last year’s Winter Olympics, some Russian track and field athletes trained in the sun on Thursday. Many remained upbeat about their chances of competing in the Olympics while questioning why other countries were not being investigated alongside Russia.

“It happens all around the world. Why are these measures taken only for the Russian team? I don’t understand this,” said Maxim Sidorov, a shot putter who competed at the 2012 Olympics. “Not only we, if it’s proved, are using doping. Other countries do it as well. Why aren’t they disqualified?”

As former European 400-meter relay champion Ksenia Aksyonova trained, her coach said that banning Russia would be “a disaster for athletes.”

“They devoted their life to this and because of broad political motives probably the whole team can be disqualified,” Rif Babikov said. “We have seen this – in 1984 we boycotted the Olympics in Los Angeles because of politics, in 1980 western countries boycotted Moscow. Nothing good came out of this.”

Also, Russian state-controlled bank VTB said Thursday it would not extend its sponsorship contract with the IAAF, which expires this year, but denied it was because of the fallout from the doping report.

“We think that all the goals have been achieved regarding this. We have not planned to extend (the contract),” VTB first deputy president Vasily Titov told the RIA Novosti news agency. “No, it’s not linked to the doping scandal in any way.”

MORE: Yelena Isinbayeva’s coach speaks amid Russian doping scandal

Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin
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Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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‘Her eyes would obliterate you’: Bold Isabeau Levito faces skating idol at Grand Prix Final

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The highlight of Isabeau Levito’s season so far came at Skate America in October.

It wasn’t the silver medal Levito won there, in her debut on figure skating’s senior Grand Prix circuit.

It was meeting the reigning world champion – and 2022 Skate America winner – Kaori Sakamoto of Japan.

“She is one of my idols,” Levito said of Sakamoto, who is also the 2022 Olympic bronze medalist.  “Right before her long program at worlds, you could see she was determined and strong and fierce.  Her eyes would obliterate you.

“That look and that fierceness and determination. . .I admire it so much, and I hope to have it someday.”

At only 15, Levito already belies her delicacy of movement on the ice with such powerful determination to reach her aspirations that she gets to meet Sakamoto again this week at the Grand Prix Final in Torino, Italy, where the senior women’s event begins Friday.

“One of my goals for this season was to make the Final, and I’m very glad I reached it,” she said.

She became the youngest U.S. skater to make the final since 14-year-old Caroline Zhang in 2007. (The minimum age has since been raised for all senior international events.) Levito is three years younger than any of the other five qualifiers this year, four of whom are in their 20s.

And her goal there?

“To make the podium,” Levito said.

If she does that, Levito would be the first U.S. woman to make the podium at the Grand Prix Final since Ashley Wagner won bronze in 2014.

Levito had a similar aim for her senior debut at the U.S. Championships last season, when her stated goal was to make the podium.  In the absence of two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who withdrew with Covid after edging Levito for third in the short program, Levito took second in the free skate and won the bronze medal.

Levito earned one of the six women’s places in the Final by also winning silver at her second Grand Prix event, the MK John Wilson Trophy in England last month.  Her performances there were her best of the year internationally, with personal-best scores for the total and free skate and a season’s best in the short program.

“I think she is progressing very well,” said her coach, Yulia Kuznetsova.

While comparing scores is tricky because of different judging panels, the best scores this season for each of the six women in the Final are separated by fewer than five points, led by Sakamoto at 217.61, with Levito fourth at 215.74.  The closeness of the field is reflected by having five different winners in the six “regular season” Grand Prix events, with Mai Mihara of Japan as the only double winner.

The last time the Grand Prix Final was held, in 2019, three skaters were double winners, accounting for all six regular-season wins. The Covid pandemic forced cancellation in 2020 and 2021.

It’s easy to forget that last spring, after winning the World Junior Championships, Levito was unsure about whether she would move up to the senior level internationally.

“I really wasn’t the person making that decision,” she said. “Yulia and people from U.S. Figure Skating came to that decision, and I was like, `Okay, seniors, sure.’’’

Kuznetsova, who has coached Levito for 11 years, said it was time for the skater to try new challenges.

“Of course, in the beginning we were a little (curious) about how we were going to be judged in moving from juniors to seniors, but after her first international (event), we understood we were in a pretty good position.  We feel confident and comfortable, and we just learn from competition to competition.”

Figure skating has a tradition of young skaters needing to pay their dues with judges, most often reflected in the more subjective program component scores (PCS), sometimes referred to as the “artistic” mark.  Levito’s mean PCS marks this season have been respectably in the mid-8s (out of perfect 10s), with Sakamoto the only skater to have her mean PCS in the low 9s.

The need to raise her PCS and the ban of the Russian female jump phenoms from international competition because of their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine mean Levito has sensibly put quadruple jumps and triple Axels on the back burner.  Russian women had won gold at five of the last six Grand Prix Finals and 13 of the 18 medals.

RELATED: 2022 Grand Prix Final figure skating TV, live stream schedule

Only one woman, Rion Sumiyashi of Japan, has tried a quad in a senior event this season, and her three attempts were all badly flawed.

“Developing my skating and maturing are higher on my priorities,” Levito said.  “A triple Axel and/or quads will come in time.  We’re not trying to rush the process.”

At Kuznetsova’s behest, one of the world’s most acclaimed artists on ice, 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy, spent time last spring at the New Jersey rink where Levito trains. Kuznetsova said Kostner was there for a week.

Levito posted a photo with Kostner on Instagram in June with a caption that read,  “It was a wonderful experience skating with you!”  Yet she and Kuznetsova are reluctant to discuss Kostner’s visit, with the coach saying only, “We really didn’t take any lessons (from Carolina).”

“I (made contact with) Isabeau through a mutual friend in 2018, and I’ve been in contact with her and her family ever since,” Kostner said in a text message.

“This spring I was in the area and I popped by for a visit. After many phone calls, we finally met in person.  I love sharing my experience with her and am thrilled to see her grow as a skater and as a young woman.”

Maybe Team Levito simply wanted even more of a karmic connection with Italy, home to not only this Grand Prix Final but the 2026 Winter Olympics, with figure skating to be held in Milan.  The skater, a home schooler who will finish the tenth grade this month, has been brushing up on Italian with help from both Duolingo and her mother, Chiara Garberi, a native of Milan who moved from Italy to the United States in 1997.

“Growing up, my mother always spoke to me in Italian, and I would reply in English,” Levito said.  “Now I think, `Why did I do that?’  I still understand everything in Italian, but when I open my mouth to speak, a lot of the vocabulary escapes me.  I’m kind of relearning Italian.  I’m getting there.”

Levito is likely to get to the 2026 Olympics, even if such predictions are risky with more than three years before those next Winter Games.  At this point, with all three U.S. women’s singles skaters from the 2022 Olympic team having stopped competing, either permanently or temporarily, Levito is clearly the leading U.S. woman.

That means she will go to the 2023 U.S. Championships as the title favorite.  It is a far different position from last season, when Levito was not old enough for Olympic consideration and could skate without the pressure of trying to make the team.

“I’m not concerned about the attention from being a favorite,” she said.  “I’m just really excited to hopefully do better than last year.”

If that is Levito’s goal, figure on her being determined enough to make it.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.