Sergey Shubenkov
Getty Images

World hurdles champ ‘will get drunk’ if barred from Rio

Leave a comment

ZHUKOVSKY, Russia (AP) — Long jumper Ekaterina Koneva says she’ll cry. World hurdles champion Sergei Shubenkov says he’ll drown his sorrows.

A day before a sports court rules on Russia’s appeal against the ban on its track and field team from the Olympics, star Russian athletes at a meet near Moscow pondered how they will react if they lose their case and can’t go to Rio de Janeiro.

“What if we are not admitted, what do we do?” asked Koneva, a world championship silver medalist who would be a contender for gold if allowed to go to Rio. “I hope they will tell us something good.”

Shubenkov said: “I will get drunk.”

The Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland will rule Thursday on an appeal filed by Russia’s Olympic track and field team of 68 athletes against a ban imposed by the sport’s world governing body, the IAAF, following allegations of state-sponsored doping and cover-ups.

As it stands, the IAAF has approved just two Russians to compete, as “neutral athletes,” after they showed they had been training and living abroad under a robust drug testing regime. One is doping whistleblower Yulia Stepanova, the other is Florida-based long jumper Darya Klishina, who has received threats online from Russian fans who think she would betray her country by competing if the rest of the team is banned.

Thursday’s ruling is likely to weigh heavily on whether the International Olympic Committee could exclude the entire Russian team – across all sports, not just track – following new allegations of a vast state-sponsored doping program that covered many Olympic sports.

Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren, who was commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, issued a report Monday that accused Russia’s sports ministry of orchestrating a vast doping program that affected 28 summer and winter Olympic sports.

The Russian appeal of the track ban was heard by a CAS panel on Tuesday in Geneva, with two-time Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva on hand to represent the athletes. IAAF President Sebastian Coe also attended the hearing.

Two high-profile sports lawyers presented each side – California-based Howard Jacobs for the Russians, British attorney Jonathan Taylor for the IAAF.

The decision will be closely scrutinized by the IOC, which said Tuesday it would “explore the legal options” for a possible total ban on Russia but would wait until after the CAS ruling before making a final decision.

If the IAAF ban is thrown out and the Russian track athletes are let back in, that would seemingly rule out the IOC imposing a blanket ban. If the ban is upheld, however, it would keep the option open.

The uncertainty is weighing heavily on Russian athletes.

“It puts a lot of pressure on us,” said Koneva, who herself once served a two-year doping ban.

But the legal wrangling may not be over yet. Should the IOC then impose a total ban across all sports, Russian athletes – though probably not the track and field team – could conceivably appeal again to CAS.

The case dates back to November, when the IAAF suspended Russia’s track and field federation following a World Anti-Doping Agency commission report that alleged systematic and state-backed doping in the country. The International Association of Athletics Federations upheld the ban last month, a decision accepted by the IOC.

The Russian appeal questions the validity of the IAAF decision and seeks to ensure the participation in Rio of “any Russian athlete who is not currently subject to any period of ineligibility for the commission of an anti-doping rule violation.”

The CAS case hinges on a central issue: Can all of the country’s track athletes be banned collectively and is it right to punish those who have not been accused of wrongdoing?

In extending the ban, the IAAF said Russia’s entire drug-testing system had been corrupted and tainted and there was no way to prove which athletes were clean. Letting Russian athletes compete in the games would undermine the credibility of the competition, according to the IAAF.

For now, Russia’s track athletes remain in limbo.

“It’s very sad and frustrating, all these thoughts in our heads,” Koneva said. “But hope dies last.”

MORE: Five Russian track and field stars who may miss Rio

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

Lin Dan
Getty Images
Leave a comment

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?

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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

MyKayla Skinner
Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!