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IOC to ‘explore legal options’ to potential Russian ban from Rio Olympics

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LONDON (AP) – With just over two weeks until the opening ceremony, Russia still doesn’t know whether its athletes – all or even some – will be competing in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It may all come down to the lawyers.

While the IOC decided Tuesday to ban from the Rio Games all Russian Sports Ministry officials and other administrators implicated in allegations of a state-run doping program, it delayed a ruling on whether to take the unprecedented step of barring the entire Russian Olympic team.

The International Olympic Committee said it “will explore the legal options with regard to a collective ban of all Russian athletes for the Olympic Games 2016 versus the rights to individual justice.”

The IOC has also said it could let individual international sports federations decide on whether to ban Russians from their events in Rio, just as the IAAF has done by ruling track and field athletes from the games. The 28 international federations that govern the individual sports at the summer games have made clear that they do not support a blanket ban,

The IOC’s legal options may become clearer after Thursday, when the highest court in sports will rule on an appeal by 68 Russian track and field athletes seeking to overturn their ban from the games.

Two-time Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva was among those arguing the Russian track and field team’s case Tuesday in Geneva at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Should the court rule Thursday in their favor, it would seemingly rule out the chance of the IOC imposing a blanket ban.

If the court upholds the IAAF’s exclusion of the track athletes, however, that would keep the possibility of a total ban in play. Further appeals are also possible, meaning that the final word on the Russians may go down to the wire before Aug. 5, when the Rio games open.

Still, it will take a major leap for the IOC to impose the ultimate sanction of kicking out Russia entirely. IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly called for a balance between “individual justice and collective punishment.”

No country as a whole has ever been barred from the games for doping, and Russia is a major force in the Olympic movement as well as a sports powerhouse. The last time Russia was missing from the Olympics was when it boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games in retaliation for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the doping allegations “a dangerous return to … letting politics interfere with sport.”

“The Olympic movement, which is a tremendous force for uniting humanity, once again could find itself on the brink of division,” he said in a statement Monday after the release of the report into Russian doping issued by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren.

The 15-member IOC executive board met by teleconference Tuesday to consider its moves following McLaren’s report.

The report, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, accused the Russian Sports Ministry, headed by Vitaly Mutko, of overseeing the doping of the country’s Olympic athletes on a scale larger than previous alleged. It said the ministry had help from Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB.

The investigation uncovered an alleged doping program that ensnared 28 sports, both summer and winter, and ran from 2011 to 2015. It found 312 positive tests that Russia’s deputy minister of sport directed lab workers not to report to WADA.

Mutko on Tuesday denied all wrongdoing and said he expected his subordinates to be cleared. But addressing the ban by the IOC of Russian sports administrators, he said he was ready to accept it because “we have always been guests at the Olympics,” and that the important issue was that the Russian Olympic team go to the games.

The summer sports federations prefer that doping allegations are handled on an individual basis.

The Association of Summer Olympic International Federation asked WADA “to immediately provide all the detailed information to the 20 international federations concerned so that they may begin processing the individual cases under their own separate rules and regulations as soon as possible, and in line with the WADA Code and the Olympic Charter.”

“It is important to focus on the need for individual justice in all these cases.”

Rather than applying a total ban, federations could suspend individual Russian sports. That already was the case with the IAAF ban on Russia’s track athletes from Rio following previous WADA-commissioned reports into Russian doping.

The summer association’s position falls in line with recent comments by Bach, who cited the need for balancing “individual justice and collective punishment.” He said last week that, if summer sports were implicated in the McLaren report, the federations would have to decide on the eligibility of Russians “on an individual basis.”

McLaren’s report also confirmed details of state-supported doping that subverted the testing at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. That included allegations by Moscow’s former lab director, Grigory Rodchenkov, that dirty urine samples of Russian athletes – including medalists – were swapped out for clean ones in covert middle-of-the-night operations at the Sochi lab.

WADA and its president, Craig Reedie, urged the IOC to consider a total ban on Russia. Reedie, who is also an IOC vice president, presented details of the McLaren report to the executive board Tuesday and answered questions about it, before Bach asked him to recuse himself from the meeting because of a “conflict of interest.”

While putting off a decision on banning Russia, the executive board announced a series of measures to punish Russian athletes and officials implicated in doping.

Among the sanctions, the IOC:

– said it will not organize “or give patronage” to any sports event or meetings in Russia, including plans to hold the European Games in the country in 2019.

– will launch retesting, including forensic analysis, of doping samples from the Sochi Games. It set up a commission to carry out a “full inquiry” into all of the Russian athletes who competed in Sochi, along with their coaches, officials and support staff.

– asked WADA to extend McLaren’s mandate to disclose the names of Russian athletes whose positive doping samples were covered up, and whose samples were manipulated in Sochi.

– called on all international winter sports federations to “freeze” their plans for holding major events in Russia, including world championships and World Cups, and seek alternative venues in other countries.

The IOC said the “provisional measures” would apply until Dec. 31, and be reviewed by the IOC that month.

MORE: Olympic sports federations do not endorse total Russian ban from Rio

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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