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IAAF officials explored covering up Russia track and field bans

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PARIS (AP) — Six years before the IAAF banned Russia, track and field’s governing body knew of doping so out of control it feared Russian athletes could die from abuse of blood-boosting drugs and transfusions, and officials considered collaborating with Russians to hide the full extent of the cheating before the 2012 London Olympics, according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press.

When the massive scandal of state-sponsored doping and cover-ups in Russia finally erupted with full force in 2015, IAAF leaders acted as though blindsided. “This has been a shameful wake-up call,” Sebastian Coe, the British Olympian and newly elected president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, said.

But in 2009, as a sophisticated new blood-testing program was launched, IAAF tests were already providing shocking insight into the scale and gravity of Russian doping, according to a six-year span of emails, letters and reports the AP received from a person intimately involved in the workings of the IAAF’s anti-doping program. The person requested anonymity because he wasn’t given permission to release the documents.

At that stage, the test results weren’t enough on their own to sanction athletes, but they provided an early warning of the crisis and raise questions about why the organization entrusted with the safekeeping of one of the world’s major sports waited six years before suspending Russia, which could see its athletes miss the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.

“This matter of the Russian athletes’ blood levels is now so serious and is not getting any better (in fact possibly getting worse) that immediate and drastic action is needed,” Pierre Weiss, then the IAAF general secretary, wrote in an Oct. 14, 2009, hand-delivered letter to Valentin Balakhnichev, the Russian athletics president banned last week for life from the sport.

“Not only are these athletes cheating their fellow competitors but at these levels are putting their health and even their own lives in very serious danger,” Weiss wrote, telling Balakhnichev that blood results from Russian athletes “recorded some of the highest values ever seen since the IAAF started testing.”

Tests conducted at the 2009 World Championships, where Russia won 13 medals, “strongly suggest a systematic abuse of blood doping or EPO-related products,” Weiss added.

EPO was also one of Lance Armstrong‘s drugs of choice. The injectable hormone and blood transfusions, both banned in sports, are used by cheats to boost their levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, artificially improving performance. Over-abused, they can make blood go sludgy, with increased risk of clots, strokes and heart attacks.

The documents reveal how the IAAF wrestled with Russia — nudging and cajoling its leaders to act, but also using scientific advances in blood testing to try to catch offenders. They shed light on key junctures in the crisis, which has been muddied by allegations that IAAF and Russian officials took bribes from athletes to hide their doping so they could continue competing.

Other key findings:

—Internal IAAF papers before the 2012 London Olympics proposed hiding doping sanctions for less well-known Russian athletes from public view. An April 2012 note said this hush-hush approach couldn’t be granted to Russia’s best athletes because that would allow them to keep “11 world titles and numerous European titles acquired under the influence of doping.” It added: “It is impossible to ‘discreetly’ remove from competition for two years athletes who are multiple world and/or Olympic champions. Their absence from major competitions will inevitably prompt questions and investigations from experts and the media.”

—A Sept. 28, 2012, internal brief for then-IAAF President Lamine Diack estimated that 42 percent of tested Russian elite athletes doped. Suspected doping in Turkey, Spain, Morocco and Ukraine also “is particularly worrying,” the brief said.

—After the 2009 Worlds in Berlin, Weiss told Balakhnichev that seven Russian athletes — including two gold medalists — would have been forced to sit out the competition if the IAAF had had the same “no start” rules as some other sports, which can forcibly sideline competitors with abnormal blood readings.

—Before the 2009 Worlds, Weiss also alerted Balakhnichev that athletes were evading tests by saying they were serving in the Russian military and couldn’t tell testers where they were. “These difficulties … effectively prevent the IAAF from conducting sufficient testing on Russian elite athletes compared to other major nations,” Weiss wrote.

The IAAF confirmed to AP that the letters were genuine. Spokesman Chris Turner said they were a “clear, open warning” to Russia and insisted the IAAF has been “very strong” in dealing with the sports powerhouse.

By 2011, two years after its launch, the IAAF’s new “blood passport” testing regime was starting to flag so many suspected Russian dopers that officials explored the idea of breaking their own rules and those of the World Anti-Doping Agency by dealing with some cases privately, two notes show.

The notes proposed a two-track approach: strictly by-the-book sanctions for the best-known elite Russians likely to win medals at the London Games, but “rapid and discreet” handling of second-tier cases, working “in close collaboration” with the Russian athletics federation, for less well-known athletes whose sudden and unexplained disappearance from competition would likely pass unnoticed.

For those athletes who agreed to the deal, the IAAF would in turn “undertake not to publish the sanction,” which would be shortened to two years from four, according to a Dec. 5, 2011, brief.

“These measures concern athletes without titles or major results. Their withdrawal from competition wouldn’t necessarily attract attention,” said a follow-up April 10, 2012, briefing note for Diack, marked “STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL.”

The IAAF says the proposals were never put into practice. Balakhnichev told the AP they also never reached him.

“There were no secret bans. At least I didn’t know and didn’t hear about there being any,” Balakhnichev said in a telephone interview.

Turner said the December 2011 note was sent by the IAAF’s anti-doping director at the time, Gabriel Dolle, to Habib Cisse, who was Diack’s legal counsel. The follow-up note in 2012 was from Dolle to Diack, Turner said.

Turner said a colleague of Dolle’s in the anti-doping department objected at the time to the proposed non-disclosure of bans and was assured by Dolle that sanctions would be published, “which they were.”

“Every athlete was investigated and has either been sanctioned or is currently going through a legal process as part of being sanctioned,” Turner said. He said the IAAF has successfully brought 33 blood-passport cases against Russian athletes “and more are pending.”

“In 2011 there was a huge influx of suspicious profiles coming through,” Turner said in a statement to the AP. Blood passport cases take 8-18 months on average from investigation to sanction, he said, adding: “There was a need to prioritize, and in particular to expedite those cases which involved potential medal winners ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games. No cases were concealed or suppressed, the IAAF simply tackled them in order of importance.”

The IAAF’s ethics commission last week banned Dolle from the sport for five years for what it called an “inexcusable lack of due care and diligence” in the case of Liliya Shobukhova, a Russian marathoner who blew the whistle on blackmail, bribery and doping cover-ups involving Balakhnichev and others.

The 2011 note named 10 second-tier athletes, in race walking, middle-distance running and marathon, eligible for “rapid and discreet” treatment.

Six were subsequently banned for two years, mostly in 2012 and 2013, after the London Games. The odd one out of those six was Tatyana Andrianova, an 800m runner whose ban for a positive test for the steroid stanozolol dating back to 2005 was just announced in December. Still, in each of those six cases, the IAAF did publish the sanction.

Four others named in the 2011 note have not been banned.

One of those, middle-distance competitor Yevgenia Zolotova, was subsequently flagged as “suspicious” by a WADA-ordered probe, in its first wave of findings last November. It urged WADA to follow up with the IAAF. But the IAAF says it found nothing fishy about Zolotova’s case, and that external blood experts who must be consulted in such instances simply didn’t agree on whether the athlete’s abnormal readings proved doping.

Another of the four is Lydia Grigoryeva, the Boston Marathon winner in 2007.

Turner said the IAAF has pursued a blood-passport case against her and her sanction “is about to be concluded and will be published accordingly.”

“Every suspicious ABP profile was investigated in full accordance with IAAF rules and the World Anti-Doping Code. All confirmed doping cases were publicly sanctioned. Nothing was covered-up,” he said.

The IAAF faces more questions this week, with the second round of findings due Thursday from the WADA probe led by International Olympic Committee veteran Dick Pound.

Pound told the AP that documents indicating that IAAF officials contemplated not disclosing doping bans were surprising and “not exactly in line with our rules.”

“It’s clear that there were deals,” he said in an AP telephone interview. “There didn’t seem to be any political will to take on Russia.”

IAAF officials may have been thinking expediently, he added, aiming to get cheats out of competition quickly and “protect clean athletes that way.”

Weiss, the IAAF general secretary from 2006-2011, said the governing body couldn’t have suspended Russia earlier than last year, after Pound’s commission concluded in November that President Vladimir Putin‘s government was complicit in a “deeply rooted culture of cheating” in Russian sports that is “widespread and of long standing.”

“We always said we had problems with Russia,” Weiss said in an AP phone interview. “We didn’t have not any proof that the (athletics) federation was on the side of the doping.”

“WADA found out more than we could ever find ourselves,” he said. “Suspicion is not enough to suspend people.”

Still, the documents show the IAAF long worked behind the scenes with Russia before its Nov. 13 about-face, when IAAF Council members led by Coe voted 22-1 to suspend all Russian athletes. Russia needs to convince the IAAF it is changing to be reinstated. An IAAF team was in Moscow this week.

The documents provide no evidence of clear criminal activity. Diack is facing corruption and money laundering charges in France, accused of taking more than 1 million euros ($1.1 million) in a scheme to blackmail athletes and cover up their doping positives. French magistrates also are investigating Cisse and Dolle for suspected corruption.

Last week, the IAAF’s ethics commission issued a lifetime ban for Papa Massata Diack, one of Diack’s sons, for his role in the blackmail of Shobukhova. Also banned for life were Balakhnichev and Alexei Melnikov, former head coach of Russia’s race-walking and long-distance running programs.

Here, in greater detail, are more findings:

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COVERING UP PUNISHMENTS:

The two briefs which Turner said Dolle sent to Diack and his legal counsel, Cisse, before the London Games centered on some two dozen Russian cases flagged by the blood passport program.

They proposed dividing the athletes into two groups: likely medal winners so well-known their sanctions had to be managed “in strict conformity with IAAF anti-doping rules” and others whose punishments could be kept quiet and for whom rules could be broken.

“It has been proposed to distinguish the elite athletes from other athletes, especially taking account of the arrival of the Olympic Games,” the April 2012 brief said.

Not only did the notes say lower-level athletes could get two-year bans instead of four years, but the 2012 brief also proposed that the IAAF “exceptionally” allow them to keep their competition results, even though this was “contrary to what is laid down in Rule 40.8.”

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RACE WALKING:

Weiss alerted Balakhnichev in a July 2009 email that blood screening “results show there is still a problem with many of your athletes, in particular in the race walking events.”

Seven suspicious samples were collected at the 2009 European Team Championships in Portugal and “five of these were from Russian athletes,” Weiss wrote. And eight of nine suspicious samples at the European Race Walking Cup in 2009 also were from Russians.

“We make you aware of the suspicious samples from Russian athletes, particularly the walkers, and ask you to investigate and propose solutions in this discipline, to ensure that the athletes will be under control and competing clean,” he wrote.

Of Russia’s 13 medals the following month at the World Championships, three — all gold — were won by race walkers Valery Borchin, Olga Kaniskina and Sergei Kirdyapkin. Kaniskina and Kirdyapkin were subsequently banned for three years and two months in October 2012, while Borchin got an eight-year ban. The IAAF has appealed Russia’s handling of their cases as too lenient. They are now before the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

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NO START:

After the 2009 Worlds in Berlin, Weiss wrote to Balakhnichev that Russian competitors’ blood readings “were extremely high, and again much more so than any other country competing.”

Unlike others sports, the IAAF did not have so-called “no-start” rules that could have kept athletes from competing with abnormal readings.

“However I can tell you that if it was in place … seven of your Russian athletes would not have been allowed to start in Berlin,” including two gold medalists, Weiss wrote, underlining the part about the medalists.

Weiss added that other tests at world half-marathon championships in 2009 also found “very suspicious values.”

“In fact two of these athletes actually recorded some of the highest values ever seen since the IAAF started testing for blood,” he wrote. “These results are startling because not only are these athletes cheating their fellow competitors but at these levels are putting their health and even their own lives in very serious danger.”

As Cullen Jones leaves Olympic-level competition, his mission is amplified

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Cullen Jones‘ impact on his sport shone again in late May, despite competition being shut down since March and swimmers at all levels kept out of pools due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jones, motivated by a message from 2012 Olympic teammate Lia Neal, created a group text chat among 10 to 20 Black swimmers sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The topic: How can we make our voices heard?

That kind of get-together was impossible during Jones’ ascent more than a decade ago. He was the first Black swimmer to hold a world record and the only Black swimmer on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

The U.S. swim team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 could include multiple Black swimmers for both genders for the first time.

Jones, a 36-year-old Olympic gold and silver medalist (two of each color), will not be one of them. He recently announced retirement from the highest level of swimming. The last member of the epic Beijing 4x100m freestyle relay to bow out.

His legacy includes not only records and medals, but also role model status for countless young swimmers. And the face of USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash” program, barnstorming the last 12 years to help teach kids how to swim, particularly in underserved communities.

Jones is not finished working toward equality outside of the competition pool.

“George Floyd’s death is a catalyst for me,” Jones said in a June interview. “Just emboldens me to do more.”

Jones decided to speak out about discrimination, sharing stories of racism that he’s faced since becoming a swimmer after nearly drowning as a child. He filmed social media videos, joined a webinar series started by Jacob Pebley and Neal and contacted longtime sponsor Speedo.

“I always kept it very corporate,” Jones said. “I was always very neutral. You would never see me hanging out with my friends drinking, because I worked with kids. That wasn’t the image that I really wanted to put out there. When it came to my political ideals, I never really put it out there because I wanted my platform to be very straightforward, clean cut so that when companies want to align with me they know they’re aligning with a safe brand.

“But, after George Floyd’s death, I was of course enraged and upset.”

Jones and other Black swimmers helped USA Swimming recraft a June 1 statement condemning racism. On June 12, USA Swimming published a new statement, acknowledging that the sport, like society, fostered systemic racism. It detailed four short-term steps the organization would take.

Jones said “Make a Splash” was already in the process of restructuring before the pandemic. Now, he wants to be sure the tour hits the neighborhoods that most need it, such as the South Side of Chicago and Memphis.

More than 30 U.S. Olympic, Paralympic and national teamers came together to educate the swimming community on what Black Lives Matter means and to raise money for charities that support Black communities. Jones urged contributions to the Innocence Project to help exonerate the wrongfully convicted and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

“Many times we’re expected to be athlete first, and then Black second,” Jones said on a webinar with Neal and two-time Olympic 50m freestyle gold medalist Anthony Ervin titled “Swimmers for Change.” (Neal and Ervin each have one African-American parent. Ervin’s dad is three quarters African American and one quarter Native American.)

We need to keep our mouths open about things that are going on because we are the faces of what USA Swimming is in diversity,” Jones continued. “We need to make sure that these young people, as they’re coming up, they understand that they can look to us.”

Jones was born in the Bronx and moved to Irvington, N.J., as a kid. “Crips and the Bloods, gun shots, everything, that’s what I grew up around,” he said. “I leave my house, and I don’t wear certain colors because I don’t want one side to get upset.”

Jones, at “Make a Splash” stops, told families his swimming story. At age 5, he nearly drowned coming off a slide at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pa.

“It can take as little as 20 seconds for a kid to drown,” Jones, whose best event, the 50m freestyle, is a 21-second splash and dash without taking a breath, wrote in The Players’ Tribune in 2015. “I was under water for 30 seconds.”

Jones was rescued by a lifeguard and resuscitated with CPR. “The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘What’s the next ride we’re getting on?'” Jones wrote. “My mom’s first words were, ‘We’re gonna get you swim lessons.'”

By 8, Jones began a competitive swim career that lasted nearly three decades.

At 15 years old, the mom of a swimmer that he finally defeated said, “Shouldn’t he be playing basketball?”

“I was not instructed to speak out at the time,” Jones said. “I was instructed to work harder and not let anyone get in my way. That determination is what led me to the podium at the Olympic Games.”

Jones carried that memory through college at NC State, where he regularly heard boos after winning races at dual meets in his senior season in 2006.

Then a few years ago, as an Olympic champion professional, Jones was pulled over by a police officer. He was told to pop the trunk. The officer didn’t have a warrant, but Jones complied. Inside of it were some fins, paddles, a kickboard, swimsuits and copies of Jones’ autographed card that he distributes.

“The guy looks, and he goes, oh, you’re that Black swimmer that went to the Olympics. OK, well you have a good day. Took off,” Jones said. “There’s so many different ways that this still happens today.”

The night after Floyd’s death, Jones was walking Vinny, his family’s French Bulldog, around 10 p.m. outside his South Carolina house in what he describes as a nice neighborhood.

He saw a police car go past, stop at an intersection, turn around and drive up to him. The officer rolled down his window and asked Jones if everything was OK. Yes, Jones told him. The officer asked how old Vinny was (six years). They made small talk about each owning dogs. Then the officer told him once more he wanted to make sure everything was OK and drove away.

“If I wasn’t 6-foot-5, muscular and Black, I don’t know that you would have necessarily turned around. You definitely wouldn’t have asked me twice if everything was OK by me walking my dog,” Jones said in recalling the interaction. “I had to verbally disarm him by telling my vast — not so vast — knowledge of dogs so that he would feel comfortable with me, even though he’s the one with the gun. And I’m going to have to teach my child [11-month-old Ayvn] how to do that.”

Jones became visible to the nation as part of the 2008 U.S. Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay that won in Beijing, anchored by Jason Lezak‘s fastest split in history to overtake the French.

Jones earned the fourth and final spot on the team with the fastest split in the preliminary heat the night before. (That same night was one of Jones’ favorite memories: meeting the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team and LeBron James quipping, “Oh, snap, you got a brother on the team?”).

After Jones completed the third leg of the morning final, he was so exhausted that he said he “was blacking out.” Jones made what he called “an idiot move” and swam to the side of the pool to exit — traditionally done after individual races — rather than lift himself out right there at the wall.

When Lezak out-touched Alain Bernard, Jones was still on his way back to join the first two U.S. swimmers, Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale, behind the starting block. So Jones wasn’t in the immediate celebration photos and video that spread across the world.

But he was the only one to make the media rounds throughout the rest of the day because he didn’t have any more races left at the Games.

He estimated he did 13 hours of media that day. Jones returned to the Athletes’ village around 2 the next morning. He never cooled down after his swim. He was speechless after so many interviews when he entered his room, which he shared with close friend Ryan Lochte. (Lochte greeted Jones by jumping on his back, and even crying a little bit.)

Soon after, Jones received two phone calls that also changed his life. One, from a friend who told Jones, “Do you know what you just did? Tiger. Venus and Serena. That’s what you just did.”

Another, from the USA Swimming Foundation. Jones was told that drowning was the second-leading cause of accidental death in America. That 70 percent of African-American children can’t swim. That swim lessons could reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent for children ages 1-4.

He became a leader for “Make a Splash,” which started in 2007. The tour took off after his involvement following the Beijing Olympics. Four millions kids have received swim lessons through the program and its local partners.

“I don’t think there’s any question, at least up to date now, that Cullen has certainly made the biggest impact on the African-American community and the Black community in general in the sport of swimming,” said Olympic champion and NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines, who estimated he has traveled with Jones for more than 50 “Make a Splash” stops. “There are trailblazers, but nobody has made the overall impact of Cullen.

“We’ll look back on this — hopefully 20 or 30 years from now — he’ll be sort of our Jesse Owens and have had that kind of impact.”

Jones’ peers can attest.

Simone Manuel became the first Black female swimmer to win an Olympic title for the U.S. in Rio. In her famous, tearful interview after the 100m freestyle, Manuel said the gold medal was not just for her, but for those who inspired her. She named Maritza Correia, the first Black woman on a U.S. Olympic swim team in 2004, and Jones.

Jack LeVant, a rising Stanford junior and 2019 World Championships team member, remembers sitting around the TV with his family back in 2008 to watch the relay. He was 8 years old.

“Cullen, undoubtedly, has been my biggest role model in the sport,” LeVant said. “It was so awesome to see someone who looked like me doing the things that I wanted to do one day.”

Which made an interaction between LeVant and Jones in 2017 so meaningful. Jones, in what turned out to be his last major meet, missed the world championships team by .02 of a second in the 50m free. LeVant, then 17, saw his idol on the pool deck.

“I was devastated for him,” LeVant said. “As he was walking by, I was like, yo, great job, Cullen, we all love you man. He stopped and he shook my hand. He looked me right in the eye and thanked me for saying that.”

Reece Whitley, a rising junior at Cal, remembered his first time meeting Olympians at a childhood swim meet. He was not there to compete. But his mom thought it would be a great idea for Whitley to see two Olympians who were there: Brendan Hansen (a Pennsylvania breaststroker like Whitley) and Jones. A decade later, Whitley, as a high school senior, was an instructor at a “Make a Splash” stop with Missy Franklin, Gaines and Jones.

“A lot of professional swimmers, once they get to their later 30s and early 40s, and once they have a kid and start a family, they kind of leave the sport, but Cullen clearly has a mission that I stand behind, and he’s going to stick with it until everything is right,” Whitley said.

Jones’ devotion to “Make a Splash” was so ardent that Neal believes it cost him in competition.

“He was traveling so much for ‘Make A Splash’ one year leading up to trials,” she said. “He wasn’t able to reach his potential that summer of making whatever team that was because he also dedicated so much of himself to advocating for water safety.”

In a way, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Jones’ original mission.

“This kind of puts a halt on all the kids that could have learned how to swim this summer because these public pools are being shut down,” Neal said, “but then when you have private pools still opening, that attracts more predominantly white families and kids, and they’re still on track to learn how to swim.”

Jones said that, at last check a few years ago, the amount of African-American children who couldn’t swim dropped to 64 percent, from 70 percent when he partnered with “Make a Splash” in 2008.

There were similar improvements for Latin American and white children. Jones attributed the success at least partially to swimming’s popularity — “the Michael Phelps phenomenon.”

“At the same time, you had this water safety prevention initiative that was there, screaming, i.e. me, that it’s important to get kids to learn how to swim,” he said. “So to see those numbers drop in my lifetime, I did not even expect that, let alone to see it in about eight years.”

The USA Swimming Foundation told a story from 2010, when “Make a Splash” stopped in Shreveport, La., three months after six Black teenagers drowned in the Red River.

The foundation reported that six kids total showed up for the swim clinic with Jones, all terrified.

“I got out of the pool,” Jones said after eventually getting all six into the water, according to the foundation. “I went into the bathroom, and I just started crying. I thought, ‘I get it. This is what I need to be doing.'”

MORE: Jason Lezak’s memories of Beijing Olympic relay

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World Alpine Skiing Championships on for 2021 after request to delay rejected

Alpine Skiing World Championships
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GENEVA (AP) — A request by the organizers of next year’s skiing world championships in Italy to postpone the event by one year was rejected Thursday by the International Ski Federation.

FIS ruled that the event will go ahead from Feb. 9-21, 2021, in Cortina d’Ampezzo — the highlight of an Alpine season that faces challenges to find safe protocols for international travel and attending races in Europe, North America and China.

The Veneto region of northern Italy was hit hard by the coronavirus and the season-ending World Cup races in Cortina in mid-March were canceled. That week-long event was to be a test for the 2021 worlds.

“The last month of efforts to come to this solution demonstrates the strong collaborative spirit of the ski family and stakeholders.” FIS president Gian-Franco Kasper said.

Organizers in Italy have said they expect losses of about 30 million euros ($34 million) if the worlds are also canceled. They asked for a postponement to March 2022, which would be only weeks after the Beijing Olympics.

“But we will be ready in any case and we will show that these world championships can change the history of a region despite the current difficulties,” Alessandro Benetton, president of the Cortina organizing committee, said in a statement.

Italian racer Sofia Goggia, the 2018 Olympic downhill champion, said she was “happy for Cortina because it will host the first major international event after the coronavirus epidemic.”

Cortina, which hosted the 1956 Olympics, will co-host the 2026 Winter Games with Milan and use the worlds as a showcase for the resort.

The women’s World Cup downhill on the Olympia delle Tofane course each January is one of the most scenic in the sport with a signature jump between tall outcrops of jagged rock.

The Dolomites venue was awarded the 2021 worlds by FIS after missing out as a candidate four straight times from 2013-19.

MORE: Anna Veith retires, leaves Austrian Alpine skiing in unfamiliar territory

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