Chinese pair holds on for first world title

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Chinese pair Sui Wenjing and Han Cong needed a personal-best score by nearly five points to avoid a silver medal for a third straight year.

They delivered.

Sui and Han beat Germans Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot by 1.76 points at the world championships in Helsinki on Thursday.

They tallied the highest short-program and free-skate scores, including 150.83 in the free Thursday, despite Sui falling on a triple Salchow. Their previous best free skate was 144.28 points.

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov earned bronze as the top three after the short program stayed that way after the free skate.

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Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, who had been seeking the first pairs three-peat in 39 years, finished seventh.

Americans Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim finished 10th in their second competition this season after she came back from three abdominal surgeries last summer and fall.

“I am not as confident as I was before I got sick, but I think that’s 100 percent normal when you’re off the ice for so long and you have to re-learn things and start from the bottom,” Scimeca Knierim said. “I’ve only been back at my elite level for a month or two, so I think it’s OK that my confidence is a little shaken. I’m confident that my confidence will grow.”

U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier were 20th in the short program, failing to qualify for the free skate.

Based on those results, the U.S. earned one entry for pairs at the PyeongChang Winter Games, according to NBC Sports research in Helsinki. The only time that fewer than two U.S. pairs competed at the Winter Olympics was at the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France, in 1924.

Just about every star pairs team dealt with serious injury problems this season.

Sui and Han missed the autumn season due to Sui’s right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring, after they squandered the 2016 World Championships short program lead.

They returned at the Four Continents Championships in February and posted then-personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

Savchenko, who earned her 10th career worlds medal, and Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament.

Tarasova needed 10 stitches in her left leg after slicing it on Morozov’s skate in a Wednesday practice accident, hours before the short program. Their bronze medal meant Russia avoided a three-year world pairs medal drought. Soviet and Russian pairs have never missed the worlds podium three straight years since their run of dominance started in the 1960s.

Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, the only Sochi medalists competing together at worlds, missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury. They finished fifth on Thursday.

Duhamel and Radford suffered more recent injuries. Duhamel said after the free skate she may have a stress fracture in her left foot, according to the Associated Press. Radford suffered a hip injury in the week before worlds that led to thoughts of withdrawing.

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Pairs Results
Gold: Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 232.06
Silver: Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 230.30
Bronze: Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 219.03
10. Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Christopher Knierim (USA) — 202.37
20. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 56.23

World Cup Alpine season opener gets green light

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After checking the snow on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, FIS officials announced Thursday that the traditional World Cup season opener is set to go ahead as planned Oct. 26-27 with men’s and women’s giant slalom races.

Current conditions at Soelden show a solid 30 inches of snow at the summit. The race finishes at an altitude of 2,670 meters (8,760 feet), far above the currently snowless village.

The first races of the season are never guaranteed to have enough snow, though last year’s men’s race at Soelden had the opposite problem, being canceled when a storm blew through with heavy snowfall and high winds. 

France’s Tessa Worley won the women’s race last year ahead of Italy’s Frederica Brignone and U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who would go on to dominate the rest of the World Cup season.

The Soelden weekend is followed by three dormant weeks until the season resumes Nov. 23-24 in Levi, Finland. The World Cup circuits then switch to North America. The men will run speed events Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Lake Louise, Alberta, then head to Beaver Creek, Colo., for more speed events and a giant slalom Dec. 6-8. The women run slalom and giant slalom Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Killington, Vt., and head to Lake Louise the next weekend.

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Olympic marathon and race walk move from Tokyo to Sapporo draws some pushback

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In the wake of a dropout-plagued set of world championship endurance races in Qatar, moving the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks from Tokyo to the cooler venue of Sapporo is a quick fix for one problem, pending the potential for untimely heat waves.

But the move has drawn some opposition for a variety of reasons.

First, many organizers and politicians appear to have been caught by surprise. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, was “taken aback” and Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto, learned about the move from the media, Kyodo News reported. Koike even sarcastically suggested that the races could move all the way northward to islands disputed by Russia and Japan.

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker suggested that running in heat and humidity poses an interesting challenge for athletes, some of whom may be able to catch up with faster runners by preparing for the conditions.

British marathoner Mara Yamauchi made a similar point, saying the move was unfair to those who already were preparing for the heat, humidity and other conditions.

Belgian marathoner Koen Naert said he will make the best of the change but complained that some of his preparation and every runner’s logistical planning would no longer apply.

The angriest athlete may be Canadian walker Evan Dunfee, who placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic 50km race and nearly claimed bronze as a Canadian appeal was upheld but then rejected. He says runners and walkers can beat the conditions if they prepare, which many athletes did not do for the world championships in Qatar.

“So why do we cater to the ill prepared?” Dunfee asked on Twitter.

The move also takes athletes out of the main Olympic city and takes away the traditional, tough less frequent in modern years, finish in the Olympic stadium.

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