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Russia athletes can qualify for PyeongChang Paralympics as neutrals

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Russia’s ban from Paralympic competition was extended until November, putting the nation at further risk of being excluded from the PyeongChang Winter Games in March, but there are reasons for optimism.

The International Paralympic Committee is “impressed and encouraged” at significant progress made by Russia to meet anti-doping criteria for reinstatement, president Philip Craven said in a press release Wednesday.

The IPC is confident enough that it is allowing Russian athletes to attempt to qualify for the Winter Games. Athletes can apply to be cleared as neutral athletes apart from the Russian flag and federations, similar to the current setup for Olympic track and field athletes.

“This limited interim measure is intended to preserve the ability of the RPC [Russia Paralympic Committee] to enter its qualified athletes into the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games should it have its suspension lifted in time,” the IPC said. “The IPC also hopes this decision will further encourage the RPC and importantly the Russian authorities to meet the remaining reinstatement criteria as soon as possible.”

Russia has been banned from IPC-sanctioned competition since August 2016 due to its poor anti-doping record. That included a suspension from the Rio Games last September.

Russia topped the Winter Paralympic medal standings in 2006, 2010 and 2014. It won a record 80 medals and 30 golds in Sochi, more than three times as many as the second-place nations.

Craven is confident that Russia can meet five of seven remaining reinstatement conditions “in the near future.” The other two — the reinstatement of Russia’s anti-doping agency (RUSADA) and the acknowledgment and acceptance of the McLaren Report into Russian doping — have to wait until a World Anti-Doping Agency meeting in November.

Russians will be able to compete as neutrals in four of the six Winter Paralympic sports this fall — Alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing and snowboarding.

Russia already missed the chance to qualify for PyeongChang in hockey. That’s key, as Russia took silver behind the U.S. men at the Sochi Paralympics and bronze at the 2013 and 2015 Worlds before its suspension.

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MORE: Five Paralympic storylines ahead of PyeongChang

Chinese figure skating judges banned for biased Olympic scoring

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Two Chinese figure skating judges were suspended by the International Skating Union for biased judging at the PyeongChang Olympics.

Chen Weiguang and Huang Feng had “preferential marking” for top Chinese skaters Jin Boyang (fourth place in PyeongChang) and the silver medalist pairs’ team of Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, respectively, according to the ISU.

Chen was banned two years and excluded from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Huang got a one-year ban.

Chen awarded her highest grades of execution scores of the men’s competition to Jin, as well as her second-highest program components scores, trailing only gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu. Both sets of scores, in both the short and long programs, were out of line with the other eight judges.

“There is evidence of preference for the Chinese skater and prejudice against his strongest competitors,” an ISU report read. “Her marks were completely unrealistic.”

The pairs’ judge Huang “obviously favored his pair also vis-à-vis the other top candidates for the Olympic gold medal,” the ISU said in a report, referencing inflated scores for Sui and Han and lower scores for gold and bronze medalists Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada.

Huang was warned one month before the Olympics by the ISU for biased judging at the December 2017 Grand Prix Final pairs’ event.

Both suspensions are subject to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

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Javier Fernandez to skip Grand Prix, still compete next season

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Javier Fernandez, who in PyeongChang became the first Spanish Olympic figure skating medalist, will skip the fall Grand Prix series but return for January’s European Championships, which could be his final competition.

Europeans will be Fernandez’s focus for the season, his agent said Tuesday.

Fernandez, 26, added an Olympic bronze medal to his 2015 and 2016 World titles. He has said that his third Olympics in PyeongChang would be his last. But Fernandez did not say he would retire after the Winter Games, though he did skip the world championships in March.

Fernandez now plans to compete in his 13th straight European Championships in Minsk in January. He won the last six titles. It’s unknown if he will continue on to the world championships in Saitama, Japan, in March.

In Fernandez’s absence, the top male singles skaters in the fall Grand Prix season should be double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, PyeongChang silver medalist Shoma Uno and American Nathan Chen, who was fifth at the Olympics after a disastrous short program but ran away with March’s world title by the largest margin in history.

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MORE: Adam Rippon opines on figure skating future