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Russia track, anti-doping changes ‘just fake’ so far, whistleblower says

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MONTREAL (AP) — In the opinion of a whistleblower who uncovered Russia’s doping scourge, most of the changes in the country’s track and anti-doping programs are “just fake,” and not nearly extensive enough to allow the team into the Olympics this summer.

Vitaly Stepanov, who along with his wife, Yulia, blew the lid off systemic doping in Russia, told The Associated Press that he estimated 80 percent of coaches in high-level Russian track had used doping to prepare athletes for the London Olympics. A decision on the track team’s eligibility for the Rio de Janeiro Games is coming next month from the sport’s international federation.

But Stepanov told the AP he hasn’t seen enough reform or penalties to make him believe the team could be clean by the time the Olympics start in August.

“Those 80 percent of coaches must be sanctioned,” he said. “I’ve seen a few coaches facing lifetime bans, but others, they still prefer to hide everything. All the changes being shown are just fake ones.”

The World Anti-Doping Agency is meeting this week in Montreal, where Russia’s issues will be discussed.

An AP review of news reports and official documents announcing sanctions estimates fewer than a dozen high-level athletics coaches and other support personnel have been suspended since the German documentary about the scandal in Russia’s track team aired in December 2014.

Britian’s Sky News television reported that the number of doping tests being conducted in Russia, which have been overseen by Britain’s anti-doping agency since Russia’s was suspended, has fallen dramatically. But Russian sport minister Vitaly Mutko told Sky News the Russians have been cooperating with testers and “there is no basis for our team to not be participating in the Olympic Games.”

Stepanov disagrees. He also has long been flustered by WADA’s slow pace.

The former high-level employee at the Russian anti-doping agency spent four years sending dozens of emails to WADA that laid out precise details about schemes to load up athletes with illegal drugs, then make sure they wouldn’t get caught.

Stepanov said he commonly received nothing more than a simple, three-word response to those emails: “Confirmed. Message received.”

WADA officials say they did not have the authority to act until the anti-doping code was revised in 2015, and they didn’t think turning the information over to Russian authorities would produce results. There are passages in the old code, however, that can be interpreted differently, including one that says WADA’s roles and responsibilities include cooperating with “relevant national and international organizations and agencies, including but not limited to, facilitating inquiries and investigations.”

“WADA continues to obfuscate the issue,” U.S. Biathlon president Max Cobb said. “They keep saying, ‘Show us the evidence.’ But evidence is what you get when you investigate.”

It wasn’t until Stepanov went to the media with his information that WADA finally called for an investigation, leaving a four-year gap — new evidence shows that gap may also include the Sochi Olympics — during which the world’s highest authority on anti-doping knew there was trouble throughout the Russian system but did little.

“I was thinking, there’s this huge structure that’s been there since 2000 and they’ve dealt with this kind of case many times and they have investigators,” said Stepanov, who lives in the United States in a location he does not reveal. “So, I thought it was something that was usual for them. But I guess I was wrong on this one.”

Last year, WADA appointed an independent commission chaired by its former president, Dick Pound. Since Pound issued his first of two reports in November, WADA and track’s governing body, the IAAF, have taken a number of steps, including:

— Suspending the Russian track team and declaring both Russia’s anti-doping agency and the Moscow testing lab out of compliance.

— Putting the British anti-doping agency in charge of testing in Russia.

— Naming international experts to help rebuild Russia’s anti-doping agency.

— Proposing that TV networks pay a portion of their Olympic rights fees into an anti-doping fund, in part to improve WADA’s ability to conduct investigations.

— Naming an independent commission that set a comprehensive list of milestones the Russian track team must meet to have its suspension lifted.

But efforts to clean up Russia’s doping scourge was complicated this week by Stepanov’s latest revelation — that four Russian gold-medal winners at the Sochi Games were using performance-enhancing drugs.

It’s not all that surprising. Pound made clear in his report: “There is no reason to believe that athletics is the only sport in Russia to have been affected by the identified systemic failures.”

WADA announced Tuesday it was investigating the new claims, first by trying to access conversations Stepanov secretly recorded with Grigory Rodchenkov, who resigned as head of Moscow’s anti-doping lab after Pound’s commission issued its first report.

Stepanov said Rodchenkov told him there was a “Sochi List” of Russian athletes who had doped.

“That was really frustrating to learn, that this is what happened in competition that billions of people watch around the world,” Stepanov said. “Some of the competitions are decided not on the field, but in the lab. Obviously, I’m really concerned.”

MORE: WADA probes report of Russia doping at Sochi Olympics

With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

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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Maddie Bowman, first Olympic ski halfpipe champion, ends competitive career

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Maddie Bowman knows she has been very fortunate. She just turned 26 years old and has already accomplished everything she wanted in her sport, halfpipe skiing.

Bowman, who won the event’s Olympic debut in Sochi in 2014, recently decided to retire from competition.

“I’ve really given the sport everything I could that was positive, and I knew the sport would be in great hands when I walked away,” she said. “So I decided it was my time to be done.

“I just felt like I couldn’t give anything else to the sport because I was a little bit afraid [of injury], but also it’s mentally exhausting. It drained my mental health for sure, but I loved doing it, and I still love skiing. Competition just isn’t for me anymore.”

The decision weighed on the South Lake Tahoe native last season. She competed at the Winter X Games for the last time, taking fifth place. She earned medals each of the previous seven years, including five golds, despite undergoing two major knee surgeries in that span.

“I was thinking [last year] that this is really hard, and I don’t know if I want to keep doing this,” she said. “It was really hard for me to get into the right mental state again. It’s painful. My knees hurt, but I was torn. I was torn between wanting to walk away and the love I had for the people I was around, people I competed against and just the lifestyle. I worked really hard on opening up other doors for myself besides skiing, which is making my transition a lot smoother.”

Those opportunities include activism, spreading awareness around climate change for Protect Our Winters. Bowman wants to finish her college degree and teach high school biology and health. She aims to continue public speaking regarding motivational talks and mental health.

Bowman struggled with depression between the Sochi and PyeongChang Olympics. She is equally proud of her second Olympic performance — finishing 11th in South Korea — as her landmark gold medal in Russia. While in PyeongChang, she believed it would likely be her last Olympics.

“I had doubts if I would even make it to PyeongChang, and making it there was one of my huge accomplishments,” Bowman said. “It was such a special event. Even though I only got 11th, I skied my freakin’ heart out. I gave it everything I had.”

Bowman, the daughter of two former professional skiers, took gold in Sochi as the youngest finalist. She landed back-to-back 900s for the first time in her career (by accident after having to improvise her opening run). She did so in front of family that included 78-year-old Lorna Perpall, who wore a T-shirt that read “badass grandma.”

Afterward, Bowman spoke about friend Sarah Burke, the Canadian ski halfpipe pioneer who died after a training accident in 2012.

“It means so much for us to be able to show the world what our sport is,” Bowman said that night in Russia. “She’s here with us.

“I sure hope I, and everyone else, made her proud because we would not be here without her.”

Bowman has her own place in history. No matter how long ski halfpipe is in the Olympics, she will always be the first woman to earn gold.

“I know as our sport gets more solidified into the Olympic Games, it can become pretty national, cutthroat and competitive,” she said. “I would love to see it stay this free-spirited work of art, something beautiful like that.”

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