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Olympic figure skating season starts with September must-sees

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The international figure skating season begins next week. By the end of the month, we’ll already have some answers for key questions heading into the Olympics.

Let’s dive in:

1. Which three women make the U.S. Olympic team?

This answer will not come definitively until after the U.S. Championships in January, but three of the top contenders compete at next week’s U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City — Karen ChenMariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu, who finished first, third and fourth at last season’s nationals.

The Olympic team is chosen by a committee that analyzes not only performances at nationals, but also recent international competitions. Which makes the next few months — starting with lower-level events next week and rising to the fall Grand Prix series — key for all of the American women given every single one was flawed last season.

Chen won the U.S. title and was the top American at worlds (fourth), but she struggled in her other six events. Bell chalked up a 12th-place finish at worlds to the worst nerves of her life. The 2010 Olympian Nagasu could unleash a triple Axel this season, but she was 10th, fourth and fourth at the last three nationals.

Last season was forgettable for all three 2014 Olympians. Ashley Wagner had her least successful campaign in six years. Gracie Gold hit rock bottom, changed coaches and announced last week that she is seeking unspecified “professional help” before her debut in November. Polina Edmunds didn’t compete at all in 2016-17 due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

2. What about the U.S. men?

Nathan Chen, the 18-year-old who broke out by landing a record five quadruple jumps in one program last year, is probably the most likely singles skater to make the Olympic team, male or female.

And Chen begins the Olympic season at the U.S. International Classic in his hometown of Salt Lake City. So does 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, who is certainly in the mix for one of the three Olympic spots.

Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, who were second and third at last season’s nationals, compete in separate events the following week. Adam Rippon, the 2016 U.S. champion, makes his international return from a broken foot in October.

With teens Chen and Zhou bringing an arsenal of quads, a four-revolution jump may for the first time be a necessity to make the U.S. Olympic team. Aaron, Brown and Rippon, all in their 20s, have struggled to consistently land quads.

3. The best U.S. medal hope?

Has to be sibling ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani, the only Americans to earn medals at each of the last two world championships. Silver in 2016. Bronze in 2017.

They are the most successful active U.S. skaters now that Meryl Davis and Charlie White will not attempt to defend their Olympic dance title from Sochi.

But it’s very possible the U.S. fails to win a gold or silver figure skating medal at an Olympics for the first time since 1972.

The Shibutanis have never beaten the world’s top couple — Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir — and haven’t bettered the world No. 2 — French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron — in nearly four years.

All should be at the Grand Prix Final in December, which will be a measuring-stick competition. But the Shibutanis aren’t locked in as the top U.S. dancers.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates outscored the Shibutanis in the free dance at the U.S. Championships and the short dance at the world championships. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue also bettered the siblings in the short at worlds. Keep an eye on all of their scores at the Grand Prix events.

4. Who are the Olympic favorites?

Until proven otherwise, gold-medal discussions start with the 2017 World champions.

Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva hasn’t lost in nearly two years and posted the three highest total scores of all time at her final three competitions last season. What makes Medvedeva an even bigger favorite is that the runners-up to her at major competitions have been musical chairs. And that the best women from Sochi — Adelina Sotnikova, Yulia Lipnitskaya and Yuna Kim — are out of the picture.

Perhaps the skaters worth the most looks this fall are senior debutants — Marin Honda and Alina Zagitova, who won the last two world junior titles after Medvedeva in 2015.

The men’s field has no shortage of challengers to reigning Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Hanyu, seeking to become the first repeat Olympic men’s champion since Dick Button in 1952, would be an underdog if he hadn’t dragged himself from fifth place after the worlds short program to capture his first title in three years in April.

The new generation arrived last year — Chen, 18, beat Hanyu at the PyeongChang Olympic venue, and Hanyu was joined on the world podium by a pair of 19-year-olds — Shoma Uno of Japan and Jin Boyang of China.

Hanyu will face his chief rival and training partner — double world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain — at a lower-level event in Canada in two weeks. A rare early season showdown.

Canada could go into PyeongChang with favorites in ice dance (Virtue and Moir, undefeated last year after two seasons off) and pairs (two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford). But the latter must shake off a seventh-place finish at worlds in the fall Grand Prix series to be considered rivals to Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong.

Hopefully, clarity will come soon regarding Olympic pairs champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov. The Russians haven’t competed since the 2016 World Championships, with Volosozhar giving birth to their daughter last February. They are not entered in any Grand Prix events. If they’re not back by the Russian Championships in December, you won’t see them at the Olympics.

5. Will North Koreans be in PyeongChang?

North Korea is used to winning Summer Olympic medals, but it has scant Winter Olympic history and sent zero athletes to the Sochi Games.

There’s a chance North Korea doesn’t qualify anyone for PyeongChang. Its most successful athletes across all winter sports are pairs skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, who are entered in the final Olympic qualification event in three weeks in Germany.

If Ryom and Kim perform like they did last season, they should qualify a North Korean pairs spot for PyeongChang by finishing top four later this month.

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Weightlifting investigation finds doping cover-ups

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — An investigation into the International Weightlifting Federation has found doping cover-ups and millions of dollars in missing money, lead investigator Richard McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said 40 positive doping tests were “hidden” in IWF records and that athletes whose cases were delayed or covered up went on to win medals at the world championships and other events. The cases will be referred to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We found systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF,” McLaren said.

The International Olympic Committee said it was studying the report “very carefully,” adding that “the content is deeply concerning.”

McLaren said former IWF president Tamas Ajan was “an autocratic leader” who kept the board in the dark about finances and left officials fearing reprisals if they spoke out. Ajan received cash payments on behalf of the IWF as doping fines from national federations or sponsors, the report said, but what happened to some of the money is unclear.

McLaren said $10.4 million was unaccounted for, based on his team’s analysis of cash going in and out of the IWF over several years. Ajan denies any wrongdoing.

The largest fine recorded in the report was $500,000 paid by Azerbaijan. It’s unclear how that payment was made. On one trip to Thailand for a competition and conference, Ajan collected more than $440,000 across 18 cash payments, according to the report.

“Everyone was kept in financial ignorance through the use of hidden bank accounts (and transfers),” McLaren said. “Some cash was accounted for, some was not.”

McLaren said that the investigation found information which law enforcement “might be interested in,” and that he would cooperate with any later investigations. That was echoed by Ajan’s successor at the IWF.

“The activities that have been revealed and the behavior that has occurred in the years past is absolutely unacceptable and possibly criminal,” IWF interim president Ursula Garza Papandrea said.

She added that the IWF will pass on information to law enforcement if it indicates there were “potential crimes.”

McLaren said Ajan “permitted the (federation) elections to be bought by vote brokers” as he kept the presidency and promoted favored officials. Large cash withdrawals were made ahead of federation congresses, McLaren said, adding that voters were bribed and had to take pictures of their ballots to show to brokers.

The 81-year-old Ajan stepped down in April, ending a 20-year reign as president and a total 44 years in federation posts. A month before that he also gave up his honorary membership of the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement to Hungarian state news agency MTI, Ajan said the IWF’s finances were managed in a “lawful” manner with oversight from the board.

“All my life, I’ve abided by the laws, the written and unwritten rules and customs of the sport,” he said.

Ajan accused McLaren’s team of not giving him enough information to respond to the allegations about his conduct.

Ajan was a full IOC member between 2000 and 2010, voting to select Olympic host cities. A previous complaint about IWF finances in 2010 was closed by the IOC.

McLaren’s investigation was sparked in January when German broadcaster ARD reported financial irregularities at the federation and apparent doping cover-ups.

The focus of the investigation was on the period from 2009 through 2019. McLaren said he heard allegations of misconduct dating back as far as the 1980s, but chose to prioritize more recent matters with stronger evidence.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed McLaren’s findings.

“Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take,” it said in a statement.

Some allegations regarding doping misconduct around the 2019 world championships in Thailand and involving athletes from Moldova were passed to the International Testing Agency, which is still investigating.

McLaren, a Canadian law professor, was WADA’s lead investigator for Russian doping and has judged cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Weightlifting’s reputation under Ajan had already been hit by dozens of steroid doping cases revealed in retests of samples from the Olympics since 2008.

Since he left office in April, the IWF has begun moving its headquarters from Ajan’s home country of Hungary to the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based.

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Gwendolyn Berry gets apology from USOPC CEO after reprimand for podium gesture

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Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized to her Wednesday “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” after Berry was put on probation last August for one year after raising her fist at the end of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,” Hirshland said in a statement. “I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”

Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sent August letters of reprimand by Hirshland, along with each receiving probation, after each made a podium gesture at Pan Ams in Peru.

This week, Berry tweeted that she wanted a public apology from Hirshland. That tweet came after Hirshland sent a letter to U.S. athletes on Monday night, condemning “systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States.”

Then on Wednesday night, Berry said she had a “really productive” 40-minute phone call with Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel and other USATF officials.

“I didn’t necessarily ask for [an apology] from [Hirshland],” Berry said Thursday. Berry said she lost two-thirds of her income after Pan Ams, that sponsors dropped her in connection to the raised fist fallout.

“We came to some good conclusions,” Berry said of the group call. “The most important thing were figuring out ways to move forward. [Hirshland] was aware of things that she did and how she made me feel about the situation, and I was happy that I was able to express to her my grievances and she was able to express to me how she felt as well about the situation.”

Berry said her probation, which is believed to still be in effect, wasn’t discussed. She made a point to say that USATF has always been on her side.

“The conversation was more for awareness purposes, and we’ll probably have more conversations this week,” said Berry.

Berry also plans to participate in a U.S. athlete town hall Friday.

“First and foremost, we should and we will discuss how people are just feeling and how people are holding up because athletes in general, because of the pandemic and because of everything that’s been going on, I know a lot of people are in distress, they’re sad, they’re confused,” she said. “I think that’ll be the main point of the discussion. Just to make sure everybody’s OK. Just to see how everybody’s holding on.”

On Aug. 10, Berry raised her fist at the end of the national anthem after winning the Pan American Games title.

The next morning, Berry said the gesture, which drew memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games, wasn’t meant to be a big message, but it quickly became a national story.

“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said then. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Berry said then that the motivation behind her gesture included the challenges overcome of changing coaches and moving from Oxford, Miss., where her family resides, to Houston.

“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” she said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”

Berry also said that weekend, according to USA Today, that she was standing for “extreme injustice.”

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry said, according to that report. “It’s too important to not say something. Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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