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Clock ticking on Russia as anti-doping agency meets

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MONTREAL (AP) — The lurid details — dark-of-night swapping of tainted urine samples with clean ones through a hole cut into the wall — have been confirmed by an independent investigator who delivered a 144-page report with the proof.

The reaction of policymakers to the unprecedented level of anti-doping corruption in Olympic sports has been nowhere near as headline-grabbing.

On Thursday, a bit over a year after The New York Times revealed the sordid specifics of a doping scandal that pervaded Russia’s Olympic team, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s governing board meets. The board won’t so much enact drastic measures for Russia or for WADA’s own flawed set of deterrents as it will try to gain fractions along a miles-long road of needed reforms.

The most pressing matter: With nine months until the Winter Olympics, there are few signs of what, if any, price the Russian Olympic team will pay for the corruption that has been unmasked in that country.

Investigator Richard McLaren’s report, released last December, found that more than 1,000 Russian athletes competing in summer, winter and Paralympic sports could have been involved or benefited from manipulations to conceal positive doping tests.

“There’s worry we’ll find ourselves, if we’re not already there, in the very same position as we were in Rio,” said Paul Melia, CEO of Canada’s anti-doping agency.

At last year’s Summer Games, the International Olympic Committee refused to ban the Russians as a whole, instead giving leaders in the individual sports mere days to sort out who should be eligible to compete in Rio de Janeiro. All but one member of Russia’s track team was barred, the result of a decision by that sport’s governing body (IAAF) that came after an investigation — separate from McLaren’s — into doping corruption in athletics. Most Russians in other sports were allowed to compete.

The IOC is conducting its own investigations to follow up on McLaren’s work, which was a fact-finding mission, not one geared toward handing out sanctions.

While that has meandered, the IOC issued a position paper in March saying it supported making WADA independent from both governments and sports organizations, a mighty task that would free the agency from the conflicts that have hindered it at almost every point of the Russia investigations. Despite this call, IOC member Craig Reedie continues to serve as chairman of WADA. Reedie boldly bucked the IOC before the Rio Games and recommended a full suspension of the Russian team. He has been less definite in the lead-up to the Pyeongchang Games.

The IOC also is pushing to create an independent drug-testing authority, which would take responsibility for testing and punishment out of the hands of the sports; it was this conflict that exacerbated the Russian track crisis. The IAAF was as culpable for that scandal as Russia, and the federation still holds Russia’s track team under suspension, having received few indicators that the country’s anti-doping culture is changing.

Exhibit A: Russia appointed, then re-elected, Olympic champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who has consistently framed WADA’s investigations as an anti-Russian plot, as chairwoman of a newly remade anti-doping agency (RUSADA). The agency’s status will be discussed Thursday, though WADA leaders already have spoken out against Isinbayeva’s appointment.

“It had to be designed to be inflammatory,” Graeme Steel, CEO of New Zealand’s anti-doping agency, said of the Isinbayeva appointment. “There’s no other reason they’d do that. I don’t foresee a lot of swift action concerning Russia.”

A glimmer of progress came via a recent agreement among the seven federations who oversee Winter Olympic sports to move toward an independent testing agency, much like IAAF and the international cycling federation have done. But it is only an agreement in principle and the individual sports will make the ultimate decisions about who oversees their testing programs.

What to expect at this week’s meetings?

“I hope to hear more about the progress that Russia is making toward becoming compliant,” said Max Cobb, executive director of U.S. Biathlon. “It’s troubling to note the contrasting views, when you hear the IAAF saying absolutely no progress is being made, then you hear (others) saying they’re happy with the progress being made.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The Winter Olympics open Feb. 9.

“Athletes have been here before — it’s Groundhog Day,” said Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “But let’s hope this time it ends with decisions being made to ensure fair play and to truly reform the system so that Olympic fans everywhere can have faith that what they are watching is real.”

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MORE: Another Russian medal from 2008 Olympics stripped

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 18, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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