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Host South Korea seeks Olympic sliding breakthrough in skeleton

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Korean skeleton star Yun Sungbin is absolutely obsessed with Iron Man. He collects the figurines. He’s seen the movies. He knows every aspect of the superhero’s story.

Some even call him Iron Man. He may be called Gold Man soon.

South Korea has 26 gold medals in its Winter Olympic history — all on ice, all with skates involved, most from speed skating.

The nation doesn’t have much of a sliding history, but has made great strides as it builds momentum to host the PyeongChang Games.

And Yun is certainly one of the host nation’s top gold hopefuls, looking to parlay his home-track advantage into big things.

“I do believe that if I focus on what I should do, then everything will come out great,” Yun said in early January, according to South Korea’s JoongAng Daily.

He could be right.

Yun was the only slider on the circuit to finish first or second in each of the first six World Cup races this season.

If there’s any pressure on him as he goes into his second Olympics, and obviously his first at home, it’s not showing.

He will face serious competition from the Latvian brother duo of Martins Dukurs and Tomass Dukurs, while Matt Antoine of the United States — a Sochi bronze medalist — has been trying to build his entire season around peaking in PyeongChang.

In women’s skeleton, Great Britain might have a chance at a third straight gold from a third different woman.

Laura Deas will look to carry on her team’s tradition of winning the sport’s biggest race, after Amy Williams in 2010 and Lizzy Yarnold in 2014.

Since skeleton returned to the Olympic program in 2002, a British woman won gold, silver or bronze every time.

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Here’s some of what to know going into skeleton in PyeongChang:

MEDAL FAVORITES
The women’s race could be wide open with no fewer than 10 medal contenders from seven countries. Yun will be the men’s favorite, and since the host South Koreans have far more runs down the track at the Alpensia Sliding Center than anyone else, his familiarity there could be the edge he needs.

WHAT IS IT
No, you may not call it “headfirst luge.” Skeleton sliders go down the track headfirst, on a very different sled than those in the luge world, but can reach speeds exceeding 80 mph (128.74 kph). There’s a sprint at the start as racers hang onto their sled, then they jump aboard and go on a wild ride for the next minute or so.

BEST RIVALRY
Nothing like a sibling rivalry, and in this case, poor Tomass Dukurs. The Latvian is one of the sport’s very best sliders right now, but is also second-best in his own family. His brother Martins Dukurs finishes ahead of him more than 90 percent of the time when they’ve both been entered in the same international competition.

RISING STARS
The future of women’s skeleton is clear. Germany’s Jacqueline Loelling is 22, Canada’s Elisabeth Vathje is 23, and they have been consistently better than everyone else this season. This could be the start of a real Olympic rivalry.

RULE CHANGES
A World Cup has two heats on one day; an Olympic competition has four heats over two days.

DEFENDING SOMETHING
These are strange times in the Olympic world because of the still-developing fallout from the doping scandal that ensnared the host Russians at Sochi 2014, one that led to many medals getting stripped — but not yet reallocated.

So Martins Dukurs, who finished second in 2014, may go to PyeongChang and still not know if he’s the defending gold medalist in his event.

Katie Uhlaender, the hard-luck American veteran who has spent half her life chasing an Olympic medal, might be getting one because she finished fourth behind a since-banned Russian in Sochi four years ago. “I have to focus on what I can control, and I have to focus on myself,” Uhlaender said.

DON’T MISS
Dave Greszczyszyn of Canada is a 38-year-old who once was a teacher and part-time bus driver before deciding to pursue his Olympic skeleton hopes. He’s called Alphabet, for obvious reasons.

OLYMPIAN EFFORT
John Daly of the U.S. will make headlines for his super-coiffed hair. He retired after a last-run disaster in Sochi, then came back while holding down a full-time job, and everything he’s done over the last two years has been about getting ready for this race. He’ll go for broke, and it may net him a medal.

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MORE: First U.S. skeleton slider qualifies for PyeongChang

Deajah Stevens, Olympic sprinter, suspended through Tokyo Games

Deajah Stevens
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Deajah Stevens, a U.S. Olympic 200m sprinter, was suspended 18 months, through Aug. 15, 2021, for missing drug tests, ruling her out of the Tokyo Games unless she successfully appeals.

Stevens, who placed seventh in Rio, missed three drug tests in 2019, grounds for a suspension between one and two years. Full details are here.

The 18-month ban was backdated to Feb. 17, the date that Stevens requested her case be expedited. Her last of three missed tests was Nov. 25.

Stevens’ initial provisional suspension was announced May 1.

Stevens, 25, was disqualified from the 2019 U.S. Outdoor Championships 200m semifinals in her only outdoor meet of the year, according to World Athletics.

She ranked No. 3 in the U.S. in the 200m in 2017 (and placed fifth at the world championships), No. 31 in 2018 and No. 59 in 2019.

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MORE: Seb Coe: Track and field athletes need 6-7 weeks of specific training to return

Virtual figure skating competition offers glimpse of sport’s possible future

Karen Chen
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It was early April. The 2020 World Figure Skating Championships had been canceled by Covid-19, abruptly ending last season. Rinks were closing down for health reasons. Some entire countries were on lockdown.

Anyone who has been around figure skating as long as Gale Tanger could see even then how difficult it would be to have any competitions the rest of 2020 if they required travel by athletes or officials, whether the events were international, national, regional or local.

Tanger, an international judge for 32 years, began looking for an alternative to give elite U.S. skaters left unmoored by the pandemic’s impact at least something that could feel like a competition, something to anchor a goal in the early part of the 2020-21 season.

So the Peggy Fleming Trophy became the first virtual event in the sport’s history.

“It worked!!!!!!!” an excited Tanger said in an email late Tuesday, after the judging of the competition was completed. “What an incredible leap for our sport. Obstacles have been removed, and a new highway has been paved.”

A 90-minute streamed video of the event will be available to the public beginning Friday at 7 p.m. EDT on the U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone video center. The question now is whether this concept can be expanded during the pandemic to make more competitions possible.

“Any time you experiment with something new, you always are paying attention to how it can be applied to other things – and for normal times, as well,” U.S. Figure Skating spokesman Michael Terry said. “The virtual concept has not yet been discussed for any other specific events, including the qualifying season (for the 2021 U.S. Championships).”

Tanger figured the Peggy Fleming Trophy was a good place to experiment. The event, which she and 1968 Olympic champion Fleming had created in 2018, already was an alternative to the usual competition format.

It has just one program, a three-and-a-half-minute freestyle in which there is heavy emphasis on artistry and musicality and significantly reduced weight on jumps. It allows men to compete against women and is easier to judge than an event using the International Judging System and ISU rules.

The third Peggy Fleming Trophy was supposed to take place July 1 at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, its home in 2018 and 2019. When it was clear by late April that doing it live would likely be impossible for public safety reasons, Tanger enlisted the help of U.S. Figure Skating and immediately began working through the logistics of doing it virtually.

After all, Tanger and her husband, Tom, who live in Wauwatosa, Wis., had been using Zoom to help with the virtual schooling of their grandchildren in Sydney, Australia, and she was using Facebook Live to judge off-ice competitions in Latin America. She thought there had to be a way to use such technology for a judged competition in which both athletes and judges could take part from their own rink or, in the case of the judges, their home or office.

Once the various parties were sufficiently convinced it could be done to post an online entry announcement, the 18-person field filled overnight.

Gale Tanger
Gale Tanger at the 2019 Peggy Fleming Trophy at the Broadmoor World Arena. (Courtesy Gale Tanger)

“I thought we may have found the Holy Grail,” Tanger said, referring to the way skaters responded to a solution to save at least this event.

“It’s so great that everyone associated with the event is trying to test the waters and see what is possible,” said 2018 Olympian Karen Chen, third in last year’s Peggy Fleming Trophy and a virtual contestant in the 2020 event.

This was the basic premise: each skater would perform a program at his or her convenience between July 8 and 10. He or she would submit video of the program, to be shot from a high center-ice position. Multiple attempts were permitted, but the video chosen had to be of a single complete attempt, with no editing.

The seven judges and technical specialist David Santee, all qualified to work international events, watched the videos from eight different places via Zoom at the same time Tuesday, as if they were in an arena. They scored on iPads, using the IJS software they have at live events, and they have taken a vow of secrecy about the results until the event is streamed.

Could it be more than a one-off? Probably not for more significant events like the Grand Prix series. The International Skating Union council will again discuss its fate for 2020 in early August. A decision is supposed to be made by Aug. 1 on Skate America, the series opener, scheduled Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

To the question of whether the ISU is looking at a virtual format as a possibility for some events this season, ISU vice-president Alexander Lakernik said in an email: “No… At least at the moment.”

Added Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee: “I didn’t know about the idea of having it (the Peggy Fleming Trophy) online this year, and I think it is a wonderful possibility to do it in this way in such a difficult moment. As to the possibility of using this format for other events this season, I have no answer. The matter has never been discussed so far.”

Chen, who has been training at the World Arena since late May, chose an expanded version of a short program to Katy Perry’s version of “Rise” that Drew Meekins had choreographed for her to use this season. She did three “takes,” with about 30 minutes between each, for an iPhone recording done by her boyfriend, Camden Pulkinen, the 2018 U.S. junior champion, who also competed. Another competitor, Andrew Torgashev, shot iPhone video of Chen as a backup.

(Defending champion Jason Brown heads the field, which includes 12 athletes who train at the World Arena. For a complete list of the competitors, now 10 women and seven men after Amber Glenn withdrew, click here.)

“I was quite happy with my first attempt, but I got nit-picky and ran two more,” Chen said. “I finally decided to use the third because it didn’t make sense to go with the first after all that effort.”

The limitations of iPhone video, where close-ups can lead to a blur from pixelization, meant about half the rink was visible on nearly all of Chen’s video. That obviously reduced the size of her image.

“For the most part, all the skaters’ videos were clear,” Tanger said.

Pulkinen, who competed in the first two editions of the Peggy Fleming Trophy (finishing second in 2018), also did three takes, using the third, as videographed by Torgashev. His performance, to “In This Shirt” by The Irrepressibles, enlarged on the new short program choreographed for him by Josh Farris.

“I tried to treat it as if each run-through was my only shot, the way it would be in a normal competition, instead of falling back on the mindset that if one was bad, I have multiple attempts,” Pulkinen said. “I felt the same sense of relief one would typically feel at the end of a competition.”

Pulkinen did not think it was impossible for a variation on this format to be used for more important events, perhaps with each competitor using a live feed and taking the ice one after another for a single attempt. It might require choreographic changes for skaters knowing they are not being judged on the view from several sets of eyes but on the view from a single camera angle.

“I’m keeping an open mind and taking this as, ‘Okay, this is a trial run for how video competitions may be, and maybe I learn how to choreograph something differently to appeal more to that specific camera more,’” Pulkinen said.

Such “virtually live” competitions would eventually depend on the ability of the ISU or USFS to ensure a high-quality, very reliable stream created with professional video equipment by a professional camera operator at the many rinks where skaters would perform. Given the money saved if there are no live Grand Prix or Junior Grand Prix events, arranging for such equipment might be money well spent to preserve some of the season.

“I think it would be very mentally challenging to do live feed competitions,” Chen said. “Part of competition is its whole environment: being with other skaters, feeling the pressure, having the adrenaline kick in when you get on the ice with people cheering.

“Letting go of that side of competition and embracing this new side will be quite challenging for people. I think it could work, but there will need to be a lot of experimentation.”

Over the weekend, Tanger judged a “live” off-line competition run by Argentina that had skaters from four countries. The marks were simple, on a scale of 1-to-10, but so was the execution of a concept that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago.

Now the Peggy Fleming Trophy has paved a few miles of a way for figure skating to travel the information highway.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

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