Takeaways from World Figure Skating Championships

Leave a comment

Five thoughts following the world figure skating championships, looking toward the Olympics … 

1. Reality check for Nathan Chen

When Nathan Chen beat Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the Four Continents Championships in February, he scored 307.46 points, the highest in the world this season to that point. It instantly made him a medal favorite at worlds, and arguably the gold-medal favorite.

While Chen failed to deliver on those expectations, finishing sixth in Helsinki, he is still very much an Olympic medal contender given the surrounding circumstances of the world championships.

For one, his eye-popping score at Four Continents would have earned bronze in Helsinki. It would have taken 12 more points than his Four Continents total to unseat Shoma Uno for silver.

That’s a large improvement to ask of a 17-year-old, younger than any previous men’s world champion, even with Chen adding a record sixth quadruple jump attempt to his free skate. He fell three times between two programs in Helsinki and still managed 290.72 points, higher than four of his other five international events this season.

That Chen was considered a gold-medal threat in perhaps the greatest men’s field ever assembled was a testament to his unprecedented rise the last several months.

Chen came into this season with a personal best of 236.76 points in international competition and no senior international experience. And coming off hip surgery that kept him off the ice for nearly half of 2016.

He ended it by upping his personal best by nearly 71 points, becoming the first man to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate (doing so twice) and beating Hanyu, Uno, two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and three-time world champion Patrick Chan at various competitions.

Chen was the only man in the top 13 at worlds younger than age 19. He admitted to nerves, causing a lack of sleep, and boot discomfort in Helsinki. Common problems for skaters, and ones that tend to lessen with experience.

Hanyu was seventh in the short program at his first worlds in 2012, despite landing a quad and a triple Axel. He singled a Lutz. Uno was seventh overall at his first worlds last season. Chen could very well be following their trend.

2. Three U.S. men vying for last two Olympic spots

With Chen placing sixth and Jason Brown seventh, the U.S. qualified the maximum three spots for PyeongChang without any margin for error.

Brown, often criticized for his inability to land a quadruple jump, deserves credit here. The top six in men’s skating is clearly defined — Hanyu, Uno, Jin Boyang, Fernandez, Chan and Chen — and Brown managed to beat the rest of the field despite attempting only one quad in Helsinki (and falling on it).

Brown’s component scores — the artistic marks — were higher than Jin and Chen in both the short and free.

Which will make for a captivating 2017-18 season for the U.S. men.

Chen is already a near-lock for PyeongChang, given it’s expected a selection committee will choose the trio based on results from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. Chen can boast his U.S. and Four Continents titles from this season, plus a Grand Prix Final silver medal.

Brown might look like a favorite to make his second straight Olympic team, too, but that could quickly change in the fall.

Remember, 16-year-old Vincent Zhou beat Brown by nine points for silver at the U.S. Championships in January but was left off the worlds team largely for his lack of experience. Zhou went on to win the world junior title with the highest score ever in junior international competition by nearly 11 points, landing three quads in his free skate.

Then there is 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, who missed nationals with a broken left foot. Rippon, 27, was stronger than Brown in the fall season, qualifying into the six-skater Grand Prix Final in December with Hanyu, Uno, Fernandez, Chan and Chen.

There is a clear dropoff after that. No other U.S. men’s skater was within 15 points of that quartet’s bests internationally this season, and they combined to post the 16 highest international scores among Americans this season.

3. U.S. women’s Olympic picture less clear

This season provided the biggest shake-up in U.S. women’s skating in several years. The Ashley WagnerGracie Gold teeter-totter at the top is no longer the overriding storyline.

With three Olympic spots available, Karen Chen ends the season with the best early Olympic selection credentials — a national title and a fourth-place finish at worlds.

Wagner followed the best result of her career — silver at the 2016 Worlds — with her worst season since 2011. She failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2012 and was seventh at worlds, her lowest result there since 2014.

Still, Wagner was the strongest American woman over the course of the season. It would be a shock if she doesn’t make a second Olympic team.

Everyone else is more of a wild card. There is Mariah Bell, who finished 12th in her worlds debut but outscored training partner in the free skate. Bell was the second-best U.S. skater in the fall behind Wagner.

There is Mirai Nagasu, whose 194.95 points at Four Continents in February was more than Wagner and Bell’s totals at worlds. The 2010 Olympian was fourth at the U.S. Championships, though, and will likely need to break into the top three next January to return to the Olympics.

Two Sochi Olympians are mysteries at this point. Polina Edmunds, the youngest U.S. competitor across all sports in Sochi at age 15, hasn’t competed since the January 2016 U.S. Championships due to a foot injury.

Finally, Gold. Her disastrous season was well-documented, but it would not take that much of an improvement to get into the Olympic team picture. Gold changed coaches after finishing sixth at nationals in January, moving from California to Michigan. She remains the last woman to beat Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva in a program.

4. U.S. dance, pairs continue down different paths

Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani salvaged a bronze for the U.S. in the final worlds event, keeping the Americans from going medal-less at a pre-Olympic worlds for the first time since 1993.

By results, U.S. dance took a step back from 2016, when it put three couples in the top six at worlds for the first time since 1955.

This year, the Shibutanis were third, followed by Madison Chock and Evan Bates in seventh and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in ninth.

A silver lining? Hubbell and Donohue were third after the short dance, one year after the Shibutanis and Chock and Bates both made the world podium. They plummeted due to Donohue’s fluke fall on a twizzle.

The U.S. has three ice dance couples capable of earning a medal in PyeongChang, though bronze may be the ceiling given the abilities of Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

Conversely, the U.S. hit a nadir in pairs. By virtue of weak worlds results, the U.S. will send one pairs team to an Olympics for the first time since the first Winter Games in 1924. Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline — no Olympic medals since 1988.

The top U.S. pair at worlds — Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim — finished 10th. The Knierims performed admirably, given Scimeca Knierim’s comeback from a life-threatening abdominal condition.

However, U.S. pairs champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had a disastrous short program, placing 20th. If they had been top 16, the U.S. would have qualified two pairs for PyeongChang.

5. Olympic team event is Canada’s to lose

Russia is not favored to repeat as Olympic champion in the team event. The Russians lack a men’s star and trail the medalists in ice dance.

Instead, Canada looks likely to upgrade on its silver medal from the event’s debut in Sochi. In 2014, Canada’s weakness came in the women’s discipline, but now it is a strength after Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman both made the podium in Helsinki.

It looks like the Canadians can count on Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in both the short and free dance and Patrick Chan in both men’s programs.

Though 2015 and 2016 World champions in pairs Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford struggled to seventh place in Helsinki, another Canadian pair, Lyubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch, took sixth, giving the nation some flexibility. (Assuming Ilyushechkina gains Canadian citizenship.

In Sochi, the team event required each nation to sub out skaters in two of the four disciplines between the short and long programs. The Canadians can do this in PyeongChang without much drop-off in the women’s and pairs events.

Russia would take silver in the team event in PyeongChang if skaters repeat their worlds results. The U.S. would earn a second straight bronze, with China its biggest threat.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Japan superfans travel far for figure skating heroes

Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

Getty Images
Leave a comment

His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

MORE: Russia track and field faces expulsion if it misses deadline

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

Noah Lyles
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

MORE: Trayvon Bromell’s return from destruction, death to sprinting

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!