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Russia Olympic track and field ban upheld, ‘tiny crack’ left open for athletes

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VIENNA — Russia’s track and field athletes will be banned from competing for their country at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics after a landmark decision Friday that punished the sports powerhouse for a systematic doping system that operated “from the top down” and tainted the entire team.

In an unprecedented ruling loaded with geopolitical ramifications, the IAAF upheld its ban on Russia’s track and field federation, saying the country had made some progress in cleaning up but failed to meet the requirements for reinstatement and would be barred from sending its athletes to the Rio Games that begin in 50 days.

“Russian athletes could not credibly return to international competition without undermining the confidence of their competitors and the public,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said.

Russia immediately condemned the decision, saying it was “deeply disappointed” and that the Rio Games will be “diminished” by the absence of its athletes. The Russian track federation said it was considering an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport — the sports world’s highest court.

The IAAF, track’s world governing body, left open a “tiny crack” that would allow any individual Russian athletes who have been untainted by doping and have been subjected to effective testing outside Russia to apply to compete in the games.

However, the IAAF said those athletes would be few and would be eligible to compete only as “individuals” — and not under the Russian flag.

“The crack in the door is quite narrow and there won’t be many who manage to get through that crack in the door,” said Rune Andersen, the Norwegian anti-doping expert who headed the IAAF task force that determined that Russia’s reforms were not enough.

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The IAAF said it was necessary to ban the entire track and field team because there was no way to verify which athletes could be considered clean.

“The system in Russia has been tainted by doping from the top level down,” Andersen said. “We cannot trust that what people might call clean athletes are really clean. If you have one or two or five with negative tests, it does not mean the athletes are clean. History has shown that is not the case.”

Coe dismissed suggestions that there were any political motivations behind the decision.

“There were members from all four corners of the world and the decision was unanimous,” he said. “Politics did not play a part today.”

The ruling came four days before a sports summit called by the IOC to address “the difficult decision between collective responsibility and individual justice.”

The IOC said it had “taken note” of the IAAF ruling and that its executive board will meet by teleconference Saturday to “discuss the appropriate next steps.”

There has been speculation the IOC could overrule the IAAF or impose a compromise that would allow “clean” Russian athletes to compete. However, Coe made clear that the IAAF runs the sport and determines which athletes are eligible to participate, not the IOC.

“I don’t have a message for the IOC,” said Coe, who will attend Tuesday’s meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. “Eligibility is a matter for the IAAF.”

The suspension of the Russian federation, known as RusAF, was imposed in November following a report by a World Anti-Doping Agency commission that alleged state-sponsored cheating, corruption and cover-ups. On Wednesday, WADA issue a new report citing continuing obstruction and violations of drug-testing in Russia.

“The deep-seated culture of tolerance, or worse, for doping that led RusAF being suspended in the first appears not to have changed materially to date,” the IAAF said.

Coe said the unanimous decision by the 25 members of the IAAF council to maintain the ban sends “a very clear signal to athletes and the public about our intention to reform our sport.”

The decision was hailed by many sports officials and athletes’ groups outside Russia who have been pushing the IAAF to take a hard line to restore some credibility to the much-maligned global anti-doping system.

“It gives a measure of hope to clean athletes that there are consequences not only for athletes who dope, but for countries which do not engage seriously in the fight against doping,” U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said. “That is a much-needed message.”

Added U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief executive Travis Tygart: “Obviously, banning Russian track and field from the Olympics is the right outcome. The world’s clean athletes came together and demanded that their voices were heard.”

In expressing its disappointment, Russia’s Sports Ministry appealed to IOC members to “consider the impact that our athletes’ exclusion will have on the dreams and the people of Russia.”

“Clean athletes’ dreams are being destroyed because of the reprehensible behavior of other athletes and officials,” the ministry said. “They have sacrificed years of their lives striving to compete at the Olympics and now that sacrifice looks likely to be wasted.”

It added that the Olympics “are supposed to be a source of unity, and we hope that they remain as a way of bringing people together.”

The IAAF rejected a last-minute plea by Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who claimed the country had cleaned up its anti-doping system and met all the requirements for readmission.

“We firmly believe that clean athletes should not be punished for the actions of others,” he said in an open letter to Coe.

Before the ruling was announced, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he rejected the idea of “collective responsibility” in doping cases and said the Russian state had never supported doping by any athletes.

Two-time Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva was among the Russian athletes hoping to compete in Rio. She has threatened to go to court on human rights grounds if she is excluded from the Games. Other cases could end up in CAS, the Swiss-based appeals court.

The IAAF did change its rules to make way for “any individual athletes who can clearly and convincingly show that they are not tainted” by doping and who have been outside Russia and subject to effective drug-testing systems.

Those individuals can apply to a special IAAF committee for permission to compete as a “neutral athlete,” not for Russia.

The IAAF also recommended that Russian whistleblower Yulia Stepanova be allowed to compete at the Olympics as an independent athlete. The 800m runner who served a doping ban gave information along with her husband that led to a broad investigation of doping inside Russia.

The IAAF task force recommended she be allowed to because of the “extraordinary contribution” she made to the anti-doping effort.

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WATCH LIVE: Nathan Chen in U.S. Figure Skating Championships free skate

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Nathan Chen tries to become the first man to win four straight U.S. figure skating titles since 1988, live on NBC Sports on Sunday.

NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage of the men’s free skate for subscribers starting at 2:30 p.m. ET in Greensboro, N.C. NBC joins with TV coverage at 3.

LIVE STREAM: Men’s Free Skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Chen, a 20-year-old Yale sophomore, is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics. He can become the seventh man since World War II to win four straight national titles.

Five of the previous six went on to earn Olympic gold, including Dick ButtonScott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano in 1988.

Chen carries a substantial 13.14-point lead from Saturday’s short program, where he landed two quadruple jumps on one week of full training following a flu bout.

The anticipated drama Sunday comes in the battle for silver and bronze medals and the last two world championships team spots.

Jason BrownAndrew TorgashevVincent Zhou and Tomoki Hiwatashi are separated by 8.78 points. Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, and Zhou, the 2019 World bronze medalist, are the only men in the field other than Chen with world team experience.

Key Skate Times
5:01 p.m. (ET) — Vincent Zhou
5:18 — Tomoki Hiwatashi
5:26 — Andrew Torgashev
5:35 — Nathan Chen
5:43 — Jason Brown

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

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.

Mikaela Shiffrin, with 66th World Cup win, moves one shy of career dream

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Mikaela Shiffrin has said one of her career dreams is to win in every discipline in one season. She is now one victory shy of realizing it.

Shiffrin earned her 66th World Cup victory — and her second in three days — at a super-G in Bansko, Bulgaria, on Sunday.

She prevailed by .29 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino and .70 over Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami. Gut-Behrami, the last skier other than Shiffrin to win a World Cup overall title back in 2016, earned her first podium in exactly one year.

Full results are here.

“Perfect weekend for me,” said Shiffrin, who moved one shy of recently retired Austrian Marcel Hirscher for third place on the World Cup career wins list. “The whole team is excited about the whole weekend, but especially today.”

She is en route to a fourth straight World Cup overall title. And she is a combined victory away from wins in all five disciplines in one season. Only Marc GirardelliPetra KronbergerJanica Kostelic and Tina Maze have done it.

“The thing that I’m most proud of right now is that I know how to win in slalom, [giant slalom], super-G and downhill, which I never expected that would really happen,” she said.

Shiffrin struggled with confidence during a winless stretch in early January, trying not to compare herself to last season, when she won a record 17 times. She still leads the men’s and women’s tours with six victories this season, a little more than halfway through.

“Every race is such a big fight, and I haven’t been the one on top of this fight every time,” she said. “Certainly I’ve been like sometimes the expectations that I have or that other people might have, I’m not quite living up to that. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’m failing sometimes, even though this is still just an incredible season.”

There are two combined races left this season for Shiffrin to achieve the dream — Feb. 23 in Switzerland and March 1 in Italy. While combined — mixing a speed run and a technical run — might seem perfect for Shiffrin, she has one victory in four starts in the discipline between the World Cup and Olympics.

And Shiffrin is careful about her race schedule. She is undecided on entering a downhill and super-G next weekend at the 2014 Olympic venue in Russia.

“After this weekend my brain is a little bit dead,” she joked.

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