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Ahead of Russia decision, Thomas Bach warns critics

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GENEVA (AP) As four more Russians were disqualified Friday for doping at the Sochi Olympics, IOC President Thomas Bach told critics not to put pressure on his executive board before a key decision next month on the country’s participation at the Pyeongchang Games.

Two-time bobsled gold medalist Alexander Zubkov was removed from the 2014 records in the latest round of verdicts from an International Olympic Committee panel prosecuting individuals caught in a program to cover up doping and tamper with tainted samples.

Now the president of the Russian bobsled federation, Zubkov was disqualified and banned for life from the Olympics along with speedskater Olga Fatkulina, who won silver in the 500 meters.

Russia originally topped the medals table in Sochi, but the latest cases drop it to nine gold medals, fewer than Norway and Canada. In total medals, Russia now has 24, behind the United States, Norway and Canada.

A total of 14 Russians have now been disqualified this month, with nine medals lost.

Hours earlier, Bach’s comments in a keynote speech – highlighting that Olympic medalists were involved in attacking the integrity of the games – signaled a possible shift toward barring Russian athletes from the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Bach will chair an IOC board meeting on Dec. 5 which could ban Russia’s team from Pyeongchang because of state-sponsored doping at the Sochi Games.

Long seen as Russia’s ally, Bach seemed to confirm that position this month when he criticized “unacceptable” demands for a total ban while two Olympic panels investigate an alleged doping conspiracy.

However, in a speech on Friday, Bach cautioned against those “from whichever side” who seek to influence the IOC.

“Some may try to build pressure. They will be wrong,” the IOC leader told European Olympic officials meeting in Zagreb, Croatia.

Russian officials have this month threatened not to televise the Pyeongchang Games, and block the release of players from clubs in the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League. The KHL warning came from league president Dmitry Chernyshenko, who previously headed the Sochi organizing committee.

The IOC is facing the same politicized decision over Russia as it did before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

In July 2016, Bach’s board did not impose a blanket ban on Russia after investigator Richard McLaren published his first report into the Sochi program less than three weeks before the opening ceremony. Instead, the IOC let individual sports governing bodies lead the decision-making.

More: Russian skiers banned from Olympics allowed to race World Cup opener

Bach was seen then as prioritizing Russian athletes’ rights to compete in what proved a chaotic period of urgent legal cases based on McLaren’s interim report. The full investigation report published last December went even deeper into the Russian doping program, and beyond winter sports.

The “important difference” this time, Bach said Friday, was that accused Russian athletes have had due legal process and a fair hearing from the IOC.

“Now it is about what happened at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. Now it is about us,” Bach told leaders of European national Olympic bodies. “Now it is about the integrity of the Olympic Games. Now it is about what happened at Olympic Games in a laboratory of the Olympic Games. What happened with Olympic athletes. What happened with Olympic medalists.

“This is what we have to bear in mind when I say that we will take a fair decision.”

Zubkov, Russia’s flagbearer at opening ceremony in Sochi, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but has been critical of the IOC.

On Thursday, he told Russian newspaper Sport Express that IOC bans for other Russian athletes were “a joke … at the hearings not one fact or piece of evidence was presented.”

Bobsled athletes who could be upgraded by the IOC include United States driver Steven Holcomb, who placed third in the two-man and four-man events but died unexpectedly in his sleep six months ago. Swiss and Latvian crews are in line for gold medals.

Also disqualified and expelled from the Olympics on Friday were women’s bobsledder Olga Stulneva and men’s speedskater Alexander Rumyantsev. They did not win medals.

The Russian Skating Federation said it would appeal the bans at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Russian authorities, including President Vladimir Putin, deny they knew of a widespread doping program. Instead, they blame former laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov.

Rodchenkov fled to the United States, where he is in a witness protection program, and made allegations as a whistleblower in May 2016 which McLaren later supported with evidence.

Politics and sports are often linked in Russia, and athletes from Zubkov’s sleds have gone on to high-level positions.

His brakeman, Alexei Voevoda, is now a member of the Russian parliament, while pusher Dmitry Trunenkov ran a youth program for the Russian military. Trunenkov was banned from all sports activities last year in a separate doping case brought by Russian authorities.

MORE: Russian skeleton stars banned from World Cup

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, 19, 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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