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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

Weekend Gymnastics Roundup: Carey and McCusker on World Cup podium

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World medalists Jade Carey and Riley McCusker headlined gymnastics action over the weekend as the World Cup circuit continued with an all-around competition in Birmingham, England, and an apparatus event in Doha, Qatar.

Carey won both the vault and floor events in Doha, pushing her to the top of the standings on both apparatus (she also won the vault and floor competitions the previous weekend at the World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan).

Doha marked the halfway point of apparatus World Cups, putting Carey in a promising position to qualify for the Tokyo Games heading into the next four events. The apparatus World Cup series includes a total of eight competitions spread over two seasons, and one gymnast per apparatus will qualify for the Olympics based on his or her top three results across the eight events.

Carey, 18, was the 2017 world silver medalist on vault and floor. But she opted not to try for a spot on the 2018 World Championships team due to the International Gymnastics Federation’s rules that active team members who help their countries qualify team spots for Tokyo (as the U.S. women did in November) cannot earn individual spots. Carey, an apparatus specialist rather than an all-around gymnast, chose the World Cup route to keep open her options of qualifying individually.

McCusker, who was part of the U.S. team that won the world title last year, finished second at the all-around World Cup in Birmingham, posting the top scores on the uneven bars and floor. Russia’s Aliya Mustafina, a seven-time Olympic medalist, won the event. Mustafina bounced back from a shaky showing last weekend at the World Cup in Stuttgart, where she finished fifth in an event won by Simone Biles. Mustafina, 24, is trying to qualify for her third Olympics after giving birth to daughter Alisa in June 2017.

The all-around World Cup circuit continues on April 7 in Tokyo, Japan, where two-time world all-around medalist Morgan Hurd and two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak are expected to compete.

First Olympic women’s aerials champion Cheryazova dies at 50

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MOSCOW — Lina Cheryazova, the first woman to win an Olympic aerials skiing gold medal, has died. She was 50.

Officials in the Russian city of Novosibirsk, where Cheryazova was living for the last two decades, said she died “following a lengthy illness,” without giving further details.

Competing for Uzbekistan, Cheryazova won gold with a triple flip when aerials skiing debuted on the Olympic program in 1994 in Lillehammer.

Shortly after winning, she learned her mother died three weeks before.

Cheryazova’s career was derailed later that year when she suffered a serious head injury while training in the United States, and spent days in a coma. She retired after failing to qualify for the 1998 Winter Olympics.