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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.

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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

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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