Maia, Alex Shibutani
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Maia, Alex Shibutani can bring ice dance title back to U.S.; Worlds preview

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BOSTON — The best U.S. hope for a World Figure Skating Championships medal this week comes in ice dance, and Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir believe it could be gold.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates have been the strongest U.S. figure skaters across all disciplines internationally the last two seasons, with Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White sitting out competition since Sochi.

Chock and Bates improved from eighth at the Sochi Olympics to fifth at the March 2014 World Championships to earn silver at the 2015 Worlds. They also earned silver medals at the last two Grand Prix Finals, the most prestigious annual competition outside of Worlds.

But another U.S. couple has been better the last two months — siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani. The Shibutanis upset Chock and Bates for their first U.S. title in January and then did so again at the Four Continents Championships in February.

“Since then, everything in our skating has just gotten better,” Maia said last week. “We’re stronger than we’ve ever been before.”

Before this year, the Shibutanis hadn’t outscored Chock and Bates since the 2012 U.S. Championships.

“Last season there was a big stretch of land between the two [couples],” said Weir, an NBC Olympics analyst and two-time Olympian. “It’s pretty unpredictable.”

That said, Weir believes the Shibutanis could be the biggest beneficiary of home-ice advantage in Boston, where their parents met as Harvard musicians and the older Alex was born during Larry Bird‘s final season with the Celtics.

“Ice dancing really is somewhat of a different beast than the rest of the disciplines in skating,” Weir said. “A lot of it has to do with opinion because so many of the top teams are so evenly matched on the technical side.”

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The Shibutanis’ free dance is set to Coldplay, which will be familiar music to many at TD Garden. The group’s tour manager saw the siblings’ performance from the U.S. Championships and invited Maia and Alex to a July 30 tour stop in Foxborough, Mass.

The Shibutanis earned Worlds bronze in their first senior season in 2011, when Maia was 16, but haven’t been better than fifth since and were ninth at the Sochi Olympics.

Now in their 12th season together, the 24-year-old Alex attributed the revival to entering the “the adult phase” of their careers.

“This is the perfect storm for the Shibs,” Lipinski said. “They have a connection to Boston. They’re skating to this magical Coldplay free dance, which is getting raves, which will only heighten the anticipation in the arena. With an audience backing you, there’s no greater setup for you to sweep in and win the gold medal.”

Weir agreed.

“And I think also that the politics of figure skating, a lot of people are going to want to see an American World champion at an American World Championships,” he said.

The Shibutanis hope to become the first siblings to win a World title in pairs or ice dance in 25 years.

“Simply being a brother and sister and skating together really limits the things they’re able to do successfully artistically, but I think that their programs this year are so strong,” Weir said.

But reputation means plenty in figure skating, especially in ice dance. The 2014 World champions from Italy, 2015 World champions from France and the 2014 and 2015 Grand Prix Final champions from Canada are all coming to Boston.

France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron stunned Chock and Bates in the free dance last year, overtaking the U.S. short-program leaders to become the youngest World champions in ice dance in 40 years.

“It was really the first time in recent history that I saw that the judging of ice dance really did reward the best performance,” Weir said. “It wasn’t necessarily who had the best track record or who had the best coaches or if you’re coming from the right country.”

Papadakis suffered a concussion in an August practice fall, but they returned to win the French Nationals in December and the European Championships in January, again coming from behind in the free dance at Europeans.

“My gut is saying the French will still come out on top,” Lipinski said, “but I feel like this is the Shibs’ year.”

Here are Lipinski and Weir’s medal predictions from last week:

Lipinski
Gold: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
Silver: Shibutani/Shibutani (USA)
Bronze: Chock/Bates (USA) or Weaver/Poje (CAN)

Weir
Gold: Shibutani/Shibutani (USA)*
Silver: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
Bronze: Chock/Bates (USA)

*”Handicap-wise, it’s probably Papadakis/Cizeron, but it’s figure skating and anything can change in the moment when the scores come up. I think that [the Shibutanis] are capable of creating that moment.”

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IOC group proposes Olympic ‘host’ can be multiple countries

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International Olympic Committee members will decide next month whether to tweak the definition of an Olympic host to make it clear that it does not necessarily refer to a single city but can also mean multiple cities, regions and even countries, IOC President Thomas Bach said Wednesday.

“It’s not an encouragement to spread the Games out as much as possible,” Bach said in announcing the IOC’s executive board approved the measure. “It may be preferable to have a region as a signatory or an additional signatory of the host city contract rather than just a city, and therefore, we wanted to enjoy this flexibility. This, on the other hand, does not change our vision, our request and our focus on having not only an Olympic Village, but to have an Olympic center.”

It’s one of six proposed changes by a working group chaired by Australian IOC member John Coates to examine the bid process. Another is to make the timing of Olympic host city elections more flexible. Typically, hosts are elected seven years before the Games, though two years ago an exception was made in the double awarding of the 2024 and 2028 Games to Paris and Los Angeles.

Bach repeated that the proposals are “to avoid producing too many losers as we had it in the past candidature procedures.”

The IOC previously said in 2014, in announcing Agenda 2020, that it “will allow events held outside the host city or, in exceptional cases, outside the host country, notably for reasons of geography and sustainability.”

This shift manifests in Stockholm’s 2026 Winter Olympic bid plan to have sliding sports in Sigulda, Latvia, home of the nearest existing track for bobsled, luge and skeleton, rather than building a costly new track in Sweden.

IOC members will vote to choose the 2026 Winter Games host next month. The finalists are Stockholm and a joint Italian bid of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, after five other potential candidates were dropped for various reasons.

There is precedent for events held far from the Olympic host city. In 1956, Melbourne held the Summer Games and had equestrian events in Stockholm due to quarantine laws in Australia. Similarly, equestrian at the 2008 Beijing Games was held in Hong Kong.

Soccer matches are often held in cities across the host country. Recent Winter Olympics have had mountain events in a different city or area than arena events.

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IOC board recommends AIBA suspension, boxing stays in Olympics

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The International Olympic Committee executive board recommended that AIBA has its recognition as boxing’s international federation suspended but that the sport remains on the Olympic program at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

An IOC decision on the recommendation will be made next month. The IOC created a group to organize 2020 Olympic boxing qualifying and competition if AIBA will not be allowed to run it.

“We want to ensure that the athletes can live their dream and participate in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 while drawing the necessary consequences for AIBA,” IOC president Thomas Bach said in a press release. “At the same time, we offer a pathway back to lifting the suspension, but there needs to be further fundamental change.”

The IOC said in October that boxing’s place in the Olympics was “under threat” after being introduced at the 1904 St. Louis Games and held at every Games since except Stockholm 1912.

In November, the IOC ordered an inquiry into AIBA, which has been in financial turmoil, faced claims of fixed bouts at the Rio Games and elected a president linked to organized crime.

That president, Uzbek Gafur Rakhimov, stepped aside in March to let an interim leader take charge but said he was not resigning. Rakhimov is on a U.S. Treasury Department sanctions list for suspected links to an organized crime group in former Soviet Union republics involved in heroin trafficking. He denies any wrongdoing.

“Serious governance issues remain, including breaches of the Olympic Charter and the IOC Code of Ethics regarding good governance and ethics, leading to serious reputational, legal and financial risks for the IOC, the Olympic Movement and its stakeholders,” the inquiry committee concluded. “AIBA has been unable to demonstrate a sustainable and fair management of refereeing and judging processes and decisions, increasing the lack of confidence that athletes can have in fair competitions.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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