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Grand Prix of France figure skating preview, TV schedule

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The fields for December’s Grand Prix Final are starting to take shape, and the news lies with the skaters who won’t be there.

Particularly on the men’s side. It’s likely that the three men who combined to win the last seven world championships (and 2014 Olympic gold) won’t be in Nagoya at the final.

Yuzuru Hanyu and Patrick Chan are definitely out. Javier Fernandez, in this week’s France Grand Prix field (facing Japanese star Shoma Uno), is virtually eliminated, too.

In an Olympic season, this is big. The Grand Prix Final is the second-most-important annual event behind worlds. It’s also the most exclusive, taking the top six skaters per discipline from the six-event fall Grand Prix series.

With the Olympics in three months, the Grand Prix Final will be the best single indicator of PyeongChang medal favorites.

This week’s France Grand Prix and next week’s Skate America are the last two qualifying events for the Grand Prix Final.

While the top U.S. stars go next week, the competition in Grenoble will sort out plenty before Skate America.

Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA will air live coverage, which will also stream for subscribers on NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app, OlympicChannel.com and the Olympic Channel app.

Internationaux de France broadcast schedule
Friday

Women’s Short — 9-10:30 a.m. | SKATE ORDER | STREAM LINK
Short Dance — 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. | SKATE ORDER | STREAM LINK
Pairs Short — 12:30-2 p.m. | SKATE ORDER | STREAM LINK
Men’s Short — 2-4 p.m. | SKATE ORDER | STREAM LINK

Saturday
Women’s Free — 7:30-9:30 a.m. | SKATE ORDER | STREAM LINK
Free Dance — 9:30-11 a.m. | SKATE ORDER | STREAM LINK
Pairs Free — 1-2:30 p.m. | SKATE ORDER | STREAM LINK
Men’s Free — 3-5 p.m. | SKATE ORDER | STREAM LINK

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

Men
The rest of this fall is an opportunity for the new generation of male skaters. It starts this weekend with Shoma Uno, the diminutive, soft-spoken, baby-faced 19-year-old whose demeanor belies his athleticism.

Uno, the world’s second-best skater last season, has undoubtedly been No. 1 this fall. He’s the only man to break 300 points this season, which he did in both of his competitions in September (five quadruple jumps in a free skate) and October (four quads in a free).

A top-three finish Saturday puts Uno in a third straight Grand Prix Final.

His top challenger is two-time world champ Javier Fernandez, who is virtually assured of missing the Grand Prix Final for just the second time in six seasons. The Spaniard was shockingly sixth at his Grand Prix debut in China two weeks ago, reportedly slowed by a stomach bug. It was his worst Grand Prix finish in seven years.

There is a chance that two men from this field aside from Uno make their first Grand Prix Final.

If American Max Aaron, Israel’s Alexei Bychenko or Russian Alexander Samarin is runner-up to Uno or Fernandez this week, he’s likely into the six-skater final pending how Skate America shakes out.

Also watch Vincent Zhou, the U.S. silver medalist and world junior champion. Zhou came into this season as a favorite to grab one of the three U.S. Olympic men’s spots. He fell three times in his Grand Prix debut two weeks ago and is fighting with Aaron, Jason Brown and Adam Rippon for spots behind Nathan Chen going toward nationals.

Women
Perhaps the two biggest threats to Olympic favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva square off in Grenoble — Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond (world silver medalist) and Russian Alina Zagitova (world junior champion).

Each skater won her first Grand Prix start last month. A top-three finish for either this week is enough for a Grand Prix Final spot.

Osmond, 21, followed her surprise world silver medal from last season with personal-best short program and free skate scores at her first two events this fall.

Zagitova, 15, has scores this season bettered only by training partner Medvedeva.

American Polina Edmunds is a long shot for the podium here, but she could really use a decent performance.

Edmunds, the youngest U.S. Olympian across all sports in Sochi, competed for the first time in 20 months at a small event in October. She was 13th with three falls and eight under-rotated jumps. This is likely her last event before nationals in January, where she is looking like a big underdog to make the three-woman Olympic team.

Pairs
With every competition, China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong seem to be cementing Olympic favorite status. With the Chinese now qualified for the Grand Prix Final, this week is an opportunity for the top Russian pair to answer.

Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov won the two biggest events before worlds last season — the Grand Prix Final and Europeans. At worlds, Tarasova sliced her leg on Morozov’s skate in a practice accident hours before the short program. Ten stitches later, they went on win their first world medal — a bronze.

Tarasova and Morozov opened this season by winning a Grand Prix in Russia with the highest score in the world for the season. Sui and Han then topped it by 6.82 points two weeks ago and went even higher last week in their two events before December’s Grand Prix Final.

A top three puts Tarasova and Morozov back in the Grand Prix Final. They’re strong favorites this week, with the biggest challenge coming from France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres.

The lone American pair in the field — U.S. silver medalists Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran — are not eligible for the Olympics due to Tran not being a U.S. citizen.

Ice Dance
France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron injected suspense into the Olympic ice dance picture two weeks ago by breaking the world record total score.

That record had been held by Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who bettered the mark four times in an 11-month stretch from November 2016 to last month.

Virtue and Moir, Olympic gold medalists in 2010 and silver medalists in 2014, are undefeated in their comeback after taking the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons off. That included three wins over Papadakis and Cizeron, the 2015 and 2016 World champs, last season.

But last week, Virtue and Moir were unable to challenge Papadakis and Cizeron’s world record. If the French can score 199 or 200 points again this week, they arguably enter the Grand Prix Final as favorites.

There’s more drama ahead this week. Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are likely battling for second place and a guaranteed Grand Prix Final spot.

Weaver and Poje outscored Chock and Bates by 5.51 points at each couple’s first Grand Prix last month, though they were not at the same events.

A third-place finish by either couple would put them in a tiebreaker scenario with Russians Yekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev for the last Grand Prix Final spot.

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Brigid Kosgei beaten as another world record smashed in Nike shoes

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Ethiopian Ababel Yeshaneh broke the half marathon world record by 20 seconds, beating new marathon world-record holder Brigid Kosgei in the United Arab Emirates on Friday.

Nike-sponsored runners lowered the men’s and women’s marathon and half marathon records since September 2018, each appearing to race in versions of the apparel giant’s scrutinized Vaporfly shoes.

Yeshaneh, a 28-year-old who finished 14th in the 2016 Olympic 5000m, clocked 1:04:31 for 13.1 miles to better Kenyan Joyciline Jepkosgei‘s world record from 2017.

Kosgei, a 26-year-old Kenyan, also came in under the old world record but 18 seconds behind Yeshaneh.

Kosgei took 81 seconds off Paula Radcliffe‘s 16-year-old women’s marathon world record on Oct. 13, clocking 2:14:04 to win the Chicago Marathon.

Nike Vaporfly shoes, including the prototypes worn by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge when he ran a sub-two-hour marathon, were deemed legal by World Athletics’ new shoe regulations last month, according to Nike.

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Olympic, world champion lugers pull out of World Cup event over safety

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U.S. Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer and other top lugers are skipping this weekend’s World Cup stop in Winterberg, Germany, citing unsafe track conditions and a growing frustration with the international federation over athlete concerns.

“This was brought to the attention of the FIL [International Luge Federation] and yet again we were told that everything is ok,” was posted on Mazdzer’s Instagram. “I realize that a boycott is a lose-lose situation and there are no winners. But I have no other option at this point. I feel personally that this track is not safe for doubles sleds or for athletes who do not have adequate numbers of runs.”

Mazdzer said by phone Friday that he noticed significant bumps on the track in his first training run earlier this week.

“I couldn’t drive because I’m being thrown everywhere,” he said. “When you’re going 130 kilometers an hour [80 miles per hour], you don’t really want the track to be bad.”

An FIL spokesperson said Friday that Mazdzer’s choice was “his individual decision” and declined further comment ahead of races scheduled Saturday and Sunday. Mazdzer said that he was told the race starts will be moved down.

USA Luge said in a Friday statement that it will not participate in the World Cup and would communicate its concern for athlete safety to the FIL.

Two-time U.S. Olympian Summer Britcher said she was boycotting via Instagram, calling it “a farce of a World Cup.” Top lugers said athletes suffered serious injuries in training runs.

“I love this sport, but after too many decisions too many times that disregard 1-the safety of the athletes, and 2- the integrity and fairness of our sport, I have grown a great disdain for the International Luge Federation, and those who make these decisions,” was posted on Britcher’s account. “I will not race this weekend. I do not believe the track is safe, I do not believe it has been prepared to a World Cup standard, and I do not believe that the International Federation and Winterberg World Cup organisers should get away from this with no consequences.”

Britcher’s post noted that her team notified coaches and the technical director that the track was unsafe after her first training run Wednesday.

“Our concerns, and the concerns of the rest of the athletes from other nations throughout the day were not taken seriously,” Britcher posted.

Britcher said that several coaches attempted to fix the track for several hours on Thursday after athletes refused to train.

Olympic champion David Gleirscher of Austria and World Cup standings leader Roman Repilov of Russia and the top doubles teams of Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken and Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt of Germany also posted on Instagram that they’re skipping the Winterberg World Cup, the penultimate stop of the season, for safety reasons.

Mazdzer estimated a 20 percent crash rate in training, but that the track condition has improved since Wednesday. He still plans to race next week at the last World Cup in Königssee.

“There’s a lot of problems with Winterberg,” he said after detailing the situation between athletes and the FIL, “and it’s not just the track.”

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