A year into doping ban, Russian track and field inches closer to return

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MOSCOW (AP) More than a year into Russia’s exclusion from international track and field, high jump world champion Maria Kuchina feels like she’s stagnating.

“I need emotion, I need competition, I need rivals,” Kuchina said.

That’s all missing because Russian track and field exists in limbo, banned since November 2015 as a series of investigations revealed widespread doping and alleged government officials helped to cover it up.

Sunday saw Russia’s biggest meet of the year so far, though it featured only Russians, with very mixed quality in many events. Kuchina easily won her event in Moscow, but her result of 1.91 meters was far below her best.

However, after a string of false starts, Russia is inching closer to a return.

On Monday, track’s world governing body, the IAAF, will hold a council meeting with the stated aim of drawing up a road map for Russia’s return though, in some ways, the process has quietly begun.

Over the winter, the IAAF has been accepting applications from top Russian athletes who want to compete in international events as neutral athletes, rather than representatives of Russia’s still-suspended track federation.

As of Wednesday, 33 Russians had applied, sending off forms listing their drug-test history under newly relaxed IAAF rules which no longer insist on Russian athletes training outside their home country. If the IAAF accepts all of them, Russia will have close to a full team at next month’s European indoor championships in Serbia, just without a flag.

That’s good news for Daria Klishina, the long jumper who was allowed to be Russia’s only representative in track and field at last year’s Rio Olympics because she has long trained in Florida, rather than in the Russian system.

“I don’t want to be in that situation again, never,” Klishina said Sunday, recalling how she found it tough to be on her own at the Olympics, where she finished ninth. If more Russians get permission to compete this season, “I’ll feel a lot better, because I didn’t like competing alone with that huge responsibility.”

Competing as neutrals, not Russians, is a sensitive issue.

Many fans support the athletes who have submitted applications to the IAAF, though some Russian nationalists accuse them of betraying their country.

“There’s more support because people who I know understand what sport means to me,” Kuchina said. “I try never to read online comments because they could destroy anyone’s wellbeing.”

Middle-distance runner Elena Korobkina, however, said she’ll refuse a place at major championships if it means competing as a neutral, though she will take part in other meets. “Even if they let me, I won’t compete at the Europeans because I want to race under my own flag,” she said.

Even as Russia nears a return, there have been setbacks.

Documents released in December as part of a World Anti-Doping Agency inquiry showed eight unnamed Russians from the national track and field team had given suspicious samples ahead of the 2014 world indoor championships, but most were recorded as clean. The IAAF is looking into the issue.

In another blow, a German TV channel broadcast footage showing national-team runner Artyom Denmukhametov appearing to train with coach Vladimir Kazarin, who is suspended over alleged steroid use by several of his other athletes. Denmukhametov was in action at Sunday’s meet, coming second in the 400m. He hasn’t applied to the IAAF to compete as a neutral, according to Russian track federation records.

Until the IAAF either reinstates Russia or allows its top athletes to compete as individuals, Russian track will remain in suspended animation. Kuchina doesn’t know if she’ll be able to defend her world title in London in August.

“There’s no information,” she said, criticizing the lack of updates about her application. “We’re all waiting.”

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Mo Farah likely to retire this year

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British track legend Mo Farah will likely retire by the end of this year.

“I’m not going to go to the Olympics, and I think 2023 will probably be my last year,” the 39-year-old Farah said, according to multiple British media reports.

Farah, who swept the 5000m and 10,000m golds at the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, was announced Tuesday as part of the field for the London Marathon on April 23.

Last May, Farah reportedly said he believed his career on the track was over, but not the roads.

London might not be his last marathon. Farah also said that if, toward the end of this year, he was capable of being picked to run for Britain again, he would “never turn that down,” according to Tuesday’s reports.

It’s not clear if Farah was referencing the world track and field championships, which include a marathon and are in Budapest in August. Or selection for the 2024 British Olympic marathon team.

The fastest British male marathoner last year ran 2:10:46, ranking outside the top 300 in the world. Farah broke 2:10 in all five marathons that he’s finished, but he hasn’t run one since October 2019 (aside from pacing the 2020 London Marathon).

Farah withdrew four days before the last London Marathon on Oct. 2, citing a right hip injury.

Farah switched from the track to the marathon after the 2017 World Championships and won the 2018 Chicago Marathon in a then-European record time of 2:05:11. Belgium’s Bashir Abdi now holds the record at 2:03:36.

Farah’s best London Marathon finish in four starts was third place in 2018.

Farah returned to the track in a failed bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, then shifted back to the roads.

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Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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