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Marit Bjoergen eyes Winter Olympic medal record

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Marit Bjoergen is heading to PyeongChang looking for a three-peat of her three-peat.

Bjoergen, the most successful female cross-country skier in history, won three gold medals in each of the past two Winter Games and will be looking to make it three in a row when the Olympics open Feb. 9.

Bjoergen owns 10 medals overall, tied with Raisa Smetanina and Stefania Belmondo as the most decorated female Winter Olympian ever.

She is three medals shy of the overall Winter Olympic medal record held by countryman and biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen.

Behind Bjoergen, Norway won 11 cross-country medals in Sochi — including five gold — to tie the country’s record.

The Norwegian team once again looks like the team to beat despite losing one of its top athletes to a doping ban.

“They are the traditional powerhouse in our sport,” said Jeff Ellis with the International Ski Federation (FIS). “They know how to get ready on time for the Olympics, which is a big deal. They are one of those nations.”

Things to know about the sport entering the PyeongChang Olympics:

WHAT IS IT: Cross-country skiing is a competition where skiers rely on their own locomotion to move themselves across snow-covered terrain — some flat, some hilly — wearing skinny skies and with the aid of poles. Cross-country skiing has been an event at the Winter Olympic Games since their inception in 1924 in Chamonix, France.

WHAT THEY’RE COMPETING FOR: There are six men’s and six women’s cross-country events at this year’s Winter Games. The men compete in the 15km classic, 30km skiathlon, sprint free, team sprint, 50km free mass start and 4x10km relay. The women compete in the 10km classic, 15km skiathlon, sprint free, team sprint, 30km mass start and 4x5km relay.

MEDAL FAVORITES: Dario Cologna from Switzerland won gold medals in the 15km classic and the 30kr skiathlon in Sochi four years ago. The 31-year-old Cologna, known as “Super Dario,” passed Sweden’s Marcus Hellner on the final climb and went on to win a tightly contested 30-kilometer skiathlon. Cologna remains at the top of his game, winning his fourth Tour de Ski overall title to start the new year. On the women’s side, Bjoergen could be challenged for gold by teammates Heidi Weng and Ingvild Flugstad and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in the 15km skiathlon.

BEST MATCHUPS: Expect some fireworks in the women’s relay following an edge-of-your-seat finish in 2014 in which Charlotte Kalla fought back from 25 seconds down on the final leg to win it for Sweden. Surely, Finnish and German skiers haven’t forgotten their epic meltdown on the final leg and will be looking for a bit of revenge. Kalla has spent most of her career in Bjoergen’s shadow but could be ready for a breakout Olympics.

RISING STARS: Norway’s Johannes Klaebo, 21, won seven of nine World Cup races before Christmas. For the women, Kalla was atop the World Cup leaderboard before Christmas before taking time off — as many of the top Olympians do — to begin focusing on South Korea. Also, keep a close eye on Weng, who recently won her second straight Tour de Ski.

AMERICAN HOPEFUL: The Americans don’t have a great history with cross-country skiing — they have only won one Olympic medal in the sport’s history — but Jessie Diggins might be the country’s best hope. The fun-loving Diggins is the most decorated U.S. cross-country skier, male or female, in world championships history. She ranks third in this season’s World Cup standings.

FALLEN STAR: Two-time World Cup overall champion Therese Johaug is barred from racing until mid-April following a doping ban. The 29-year-old Norwegian tested positive for an anabolic agent listed in the contents of a treatment for sunburn, and a Court of Arbitration for Sport panel announced in August an 18-month ban was “appropriate.”

POTENTIAL RECORD-SETTERS: Norway’s Ola Vigen Hattestadand won the Sochi sprint freestyle and is capable of bettering his time in Pyeongchang, where the sprint will be skied in the classic technique. For the women, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, who won the 10km classic in Sochi, could be a factor. Former Tour de Ski champion Sergey Ustiugov from Russia is expected to medal, too.

OLYMPIAN EFFORT: Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless, oiled-up flag-bearing taekwondo competitor from Tonga who turned heads at the Summer Games in Rio two years ago, is now trying his hand at being a cross-country skier. He is one race from qualifying for PyeongChang. Although it’s hard to imagine him shirtless and oiled up in sub-freezing temperatures at the Winter Games.

WHERE IT HAPPENS: The cross-country events will be held at the Alpensia Cross-Country Centre, which is located in the PyeongChang Mountain Cluster.

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Weightlifting investigation finds doping cover-ups

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — An investigation into the International Weightlifting Federation has found doping cover-ups and millions of dollars in missing money, lead investigator Richard McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said 40 positive doping tests were “hidden” in IWF records and that athletes whose cases were delayed or covered up went on to win medals at the world championships and other events. The cases will be referred to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We found systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF,” McLaren said.

The International Olympic Committee said it was studying the report “very carefully,” adding that “the content is deeply concerning.”

McLaren said former IWF president Tamas Ajan was “an autocratic leader” who kept the board in the dark about finances and left officials fearing reprisals if they spoke out. Ajan received cash payments on behalf of the IWF as doping fines from national federations or sponsors, the report said, but what happened to some of the money is unclear.

McLaren said $10.4 million was unaccounted for, based on his team’s analysis of cash going in and out of the IWF over several years. Ajan denies any wrongdoing.

The largest fine recorded in the report was $500,000 paid by Azerbaijan. It’s unclear how that payment was made. On one trip to Thailand for a competition and conference, Ajan collected more than $440,000 across 18 cash payments, according to the report.

“Everyone was kept in financial ignorance through the use of hidden bank accounts (and transfers),” McLaren said. “Some cash was accounted for, some was not.”

McLaren said that the investigation found information which law enforcement “might be interested in,” and that he would cooperate with any later investigations. That was echoed by Ajan’s successor at the IWF.

“The activities that have been revealed and the behavior that has occurred in the years past is absolutely unacceptable and possibly criminal,” IWF interim president Ursula Garza Papandrea said.

She added that the IWF will pass on information to law enforcement if it indicates there were “potential crimes.”

McLaren said Ajan “permitted the (federation) elections to be bought by vote brokers” as he kept the presidency and promoted favored officials. Large cash withdrawals were made ahead of federation congresses, McLaren said, adding that voters were bribed and had to take pictures of their ballots to show to brokers.

The 81-year-old Ajan stepped down in April, ending a 20-year reign as president and a total 44 years in federation posts. A month before that he also gave up his honorary membership of the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement to Hungarian state news agency MTI, Ajan said the IWF’s finances were managed in a “lawful” manner with oversight from the board.

“All my life, I’ve abided by the laws, the written and unwritten rules and customs of the sport,” he said.

Ajan accused McLaren’s team of not giving him enough information to respond to the allegations about his conduct.

Ajan was a full IOC member between 2000 and 2010, voting to select Olympic host cities. A previous complaint about IWF finances in 2010 was closed by the IOC.

McLaren’s investigation was sparked in January when German broadcaster ARD reported financial irregularities at the federation and apparent doping cover-ups.

The focus of the investigation was on the period from 2009 through 2019. McLaren said he heard allegations of misconduct dating back as far as the 1980s, but chose to prioritize more recent matters with stronger evidence.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed McLaren’s findings.

“Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take,” it said in a statement.

Some allegations regarding doping misconduct around the 2019 world championships in Thailand and involving athletes from Moldova were passed to the International Testing Agency, which is still investigating.

McLaren, a Canadian law professor, was WADA’s lead investigator for Russian doping and has judged cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Weightlifting’s reputation under Ajan had already been hit by dozens of steroid doping cases revealed in retests of samples from the Olympics since 2008.

Since he left office in April, the IWF has begun moving its headquarters from Ajan’s home country of Hungary to the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based.

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Gwendolyn Berry gets apology from USOPC CEO after reprimand for podium gesture

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Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized to her Wednesday “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” after Berry was put on probation last August for one year after raising her fist at the end of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,” Hirshland said in a statement. “I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”

Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sent August letters of reprimand by Hirshland, along with each receiving probation, after each made a podium gesture at Pan Ams in Peru.

This week, Berry tweeted that she wanted a public apology from Hirshland. That tweet came after Hirshland sent a letter to U.S. athletes on Monday night, condemning “systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States.”

Then on Wednesday night, Berry said she had a “really productive” 40-minute phone call with Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel and other USATF officials.

“I didn’t necessarily ask for [an apology] from [Hirshland],” Berry said Thursday. Berry said she lost two-thirds of her income after Pan Ams, that sponsors dropped her in connection to the raised fist fallout.

“We came to some good conclusions,” Berry said of the group call. “The most important thing were figuring out ways to move forward. [Hirshland] was aware of things that she did and how she made me feel about the situation, and I was happy that I was able to express to her my grievances and she was able to express to me how she felt as well about the situation.”

Berry said her probation, which is believed to still be in effect, wasn’t discussed. She made a point to say that USATF has always been on her side.

“The conversation was more for awareness purposes, and we’ll probably have more conversations this week,” said Berry.

Berry also plans to participate in a U.S. athlete town hall Friday.

“First and foremost, we should and we will discuss how people are just feeling and how people are holding up because athletes in general, because of the pandemic and because of everything that’s been going on, I know a lot of people are in distress, they’re sad, they’re confused,” she said. “I think that’ll be the main point of the discussion. Just to make sure everybody’s OK. Just to see how everybody’s holding on.”

On Aug. 10, Berry raised her fist at the end of the national anthem after winning the Pan American Games title.

The next morning, Berry said the gesture, which drew memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games, wasn’t meant to be a big message, but it quickly became a national story.

“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said then. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Berry said then that the motivation behind her gesture included the challenges overcome of changing coaches and moving from Oxford, Miss., where her family resides, to Houston.

“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” she said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”

Berry also said that weekend, according to USA Today, that she was standing for “extreme injustice.”

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry said, according to that report. “It’s too important to not say something. Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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