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28 Russians have Olympic doping bans lifted

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MOSCOW (AP) — Twenty-eight Russian athletes had their Olympic doping bans overturned Thursday, throwing the International Olympic Committee’s policy on the country into turmoil.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling was set to reinstate seven Russian medals from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, including gold in men’s skeleton and men’s 50km cross-country skiing.

“This does not mean that these 28 athletes are declared innocent, but in their case, due to insufficient evidence, the appeals are upheld, the sanctions annulled and their individual results achieved in Sochi are reinstated,” CAS secretary general Matthieu Reeb said in PyeongChang.

The IOC said it had taken note of the CAS decision “with satisfaction on the one hand and disappointment on the other,” adding the decision “may have a serious impact on the future fight against doping.”

The 28 who had their bans lifted could now seek late entry into the PyeongChang Olympics, but the IOC said “not being sanctioned does not automatically confer the privilege of an invitation.”

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko said the government would back further legal action to allow the athletes in Thursday’s decisions to compete in PyeongChang.

“If the IOC does not accept them, then we will support them in cases which could be filed at CAS and other legal instances,” Mutko said in televised comments.

Eleven more Russians were ruled to have been guilty of doping but had lifetime bans imposed by an IOC disciplinary panel two months ago cut to a ban only from the PyeongChang Games, which open next week.

“Vigorous actions in defending rights in court are justified and can be effective and should continue,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We’re glad for our athletes.”

In the urgent verdicts announced Thursday, the two CAS judging panels who heard 39 appeal cases last week in Geneva — and took testimony from Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov — did not give detailed reasons.

“In 28 cases, the evidence collected was found to be insufficient to establish that an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) was committed by the athletes concerned,” the sports court said in a statement.

CAS said it “unanimously found that the evidence put forward by the IOC in relation to this matter did not have the same weight in each individual case.”

The 11 whose appeals were rejected came from men’s bobsled, women’s cross-country skiing and women’s hockey.

They included two-time Sochi bobsled gold medalist Alexander Zubkov. His re-tested samples had abnormal levels of salt, suggesting his tainted urine was swapped in the Sochi testing laboratory with previously stored clean urine, as Rodchenkov said.

Still, the CAS rulings will be seen as a victory for Russia, which has long denied it ran a state-backed doping program.

“It’s a big victory for them and I’m relieved that justice has finally been done,” Philippe Baertsch, a lawyer for the athletes, told The Associated Press. “This confirms what they’ve been saying since Day 1, namely that they are and they’ve always been clean athletes, and that they were wrongly sanctioned without any evidence.”

The IOC has already invited 169 Russians to the PyeongChang Olympics to compete under a neutral flag, but may now be forced to allow in athletes it deems dopers, eight days before the games begin.

“We do hope that the IOC will grant them the right to participate in PyeongChang,” Baertsch said in a telephone interview. “I think that the least the IOC could do is allow them to participate, so we will request that they are allowed to participate, and depending on the answer of the IOC, we will take the measures that are necessary.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the 28 Russians would now seek to compete. Some have already retired from competitive sports.

Rodchenkov’s lawyer, Jim Walden, said the CAS decision would allow doped athletes to escape without punishment.

“(Rodchenkov’s) truth has been verified by forensic evidence, other whistleblowers, and, more recently, recovery of the Moscow lab’s secret database, showing thousands of dirty tests that were covered up,” Walden said in a statement.

“This panel’s unfortunate decision provides a very small measure of punishment for some athletes but a complete ‘get out of jail free card’ for most. Thus, the CAS decision only emboldens cheaters, makes it harder for clean athletes to win, and provides yet another ill-gotten gain for the corrupt Russian doping system generally, and Putin specifically.”

Baertsch said there had been “numerous inconsistencies” in Rodchenkov’s evidence presented to CAS.

Those reinstated from the Sochi Olympics include skeleton gold medalist Alexander Tretiyakov and cross-country ski gold medalist Alexander Legkov.

Russia won’t win back some medals, such as in the men’s four-man bobsled, where two crew members were disqualified and two reinstated. Both of the gold medal-winning two-man bobsled crew remain banned.

“We were hoping for justice, and it has prevailed,” said Elena Nikitina, who won a bronze medal in skeleton in Sochi ahead of American Katie Uhlaender. “It’s a matter of my life, what I do, and when you’re accused like that it’s very unpleasant and everything falls apart for you.

“We’re going to hope that we still make it to these Olympic Games.”

Uhlaender, who was in line to be upgraded to Sochi bronze, said she was “heartbroken” by Thursday’s news.

“The integrity of sport is on the line, and I’m looking to the leaders of a movement to do something to save it,” Uhlaender said.

The IOC last year banned 43 Russians for doping offenses at the Sochi Olympics, ruling they had been part of a scheme to dope.

Rodchenkov, the director of the laboratory which handled samples for the Sochi Games, said he gave cocktails of banned steroids to athletes and swapped tainted samples for clean urine on orders from Russian state sports officials.

The Russian government vehemently denies ever supporting doping.

Three more appeals, all involving retired biathlon competitors, will be heard later.

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Red Gerard parts with gold medal (briefly) as he returns to slopestyle

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Red Gerard‘s gold medal is damaged. His desire to compete remains in tact.

“The gold medal is, honestly, not doing too good,” Gerard said in a recent interview in New York City.

The 18-year-old snowboarder then unfurled the medal from his pocket and pointed to an adorning clip.

“It took a little beating,” he said. “It broke. We’re going to get it fixed.”

Like many Rio Olympic medalists, Gerard said he planned to send his medal off for repairs. It is a historic one.

Nine months ago, the sixth of seven kids from a Colorado snowboarding family became the first American to take gold in PyeongChang. He became the youngest Olympic snowboarding champion and the youngest individual male U.S. Winter Olympic champion. Eighteen family members made their own headlines, partying at the bottom of the slopestyle course.

Gerard was an underdog in South Korea, not just in stature (not quite 5 and a half feet), but by his previous results. He had not made a podium at the X Games or U.S. Open. His two top-level wins came in California and Utah events without the top Canadians and Norwegians in the field.

Really, it was reminiscent of friend Sage Kotsenburg, whose second slopestyle win in nine years came at the event’s Olympic debut in Sochi. Kotsenburg entered seven contests in his follow-up season, according to World Snowboarding, then faded out of competition to focus on making snowboard films, ultimately announcing retirement at age 23 in 2017.

While Gerard also enjoys filming, he plans to carve a different path.

“I love doing contests,” he said, “and I love the exhilaration that you get from them.”

Gerard already competed in New Zealand in September, placing 21st in a big air event. His season begins in earnest in December with the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colo., then the X Games in January, world championships in Park City in February, plus the U.S. Open in Vail.

Maybe one of those days will be like the Olympics. Gerard credited his PyeongChang success to the course suiting him. He chose off-path features on the rail and jump sections that others ignored, not winning solely on the back of big tricks.

“Every contest, there’s a different person that wins, for the most part,” he said. “I’m super psyched that it just so happened for me, it was the Olympics.”

Minutes after winning in PyeongChang, Gerard said he didn’t know about 2022. He only knew that he wanted to do snowboard filming.

“I 100 percent want to go into 2022,” he said last month. “Definitely that’s on my list. But also filming is one step ahead for me right now. Filming is always something I’ve had a passion for. That’s my goal for next year, then after that I’ll go back to contests and focus more on that.”

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Ashley Wagner on competitive future, role as coach, and upcoming shows

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When Ashley Wagner finished the 2018 season, she made a promise to herself that she would live a little bit more of life. She moved across the country, from Los Angeles to Boston, and while she’s still on the ice every day skating and participating in a slate of upcoming shows, she’s now added to her resume as a coach.

We caught up with the three-time national champion and World silver medalist. (Questions and answers lightly edited for clarity.)

How did you get involved in the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation show, Scott Hamilton & Friends

I have actually performed in Scott’s show a couple of times but it’s always during the Grand Prix season, so I haven’t been able to skate in it for the past few years because I needed to focus on my training. It was one of those things where I feel like he heard that I was taking the Grand Prix season off and he reached out to me and asked if I wanted to take part. It was such an easy yes. It’s a really great show. He does a fantastic job at putting together the golden era of figure skating shows. This is how figure skating shows are meant to be. You always know that you’re going to be skating in something that is quality.

The last time I spoke to Scott, he said that even though he says this every year, this show is gonna be the best ever.

I mean, yeah, ‘cause I’m skating in it! [laughing] No, it’s gonna be great. I’m really excited. He passed along my music to me and he sent me an email. He’s like, I heard this song and I thought it was just made for you right away. It’s nice to know that he goes through all of the music selections and really caters it to his show. I think that’s a detail that makes this show so much different than anything else. The music is selected for each athlete so you know that’s it’s a cohesive show. It should be great. We have a couple Olympic medalists. This is the best show you’re gonna see, no joke.

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Working on something new today!🎵🎶

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What’s different about skating to live music compared to a track?

Live music is a lot harder to skate to because you can have an artist up on the stage and maybe they’re feeling a note and you’re in a spiral. All of a sudden you’re like, okay you need to end this note! You’re singing it a lot longer than I’m used to! There are a lot more variables.

It’s like watching skating live versus watching it on TV. When you’re in the arena and the skater is in front of you, you can feel the emotion and the energy that they’re putting out in a performance. I think that skating to live music, you get that same kind of sense. You really get to experience all of the heart that a performer is putting into their music. And that combined with live skating I think it just makes for such a magical recipe. You just really get to experience skating, and experience the music.

How’s life in Boston?

I love it here! This was the best decision that I could’ve made. I’m so happy here. I promised myself after 2018 that I was going to give myself the opportunity to live a little bit of life. I’m still on the ice and skating every single day. But this city just has so much to offer and I feel like I’m really getting to experience a lot more than I was able to in LA. I’m so happy here.

Have you caught yourself adopting any of your coach Rafael Arutunian’s mannerisms when you’re coaching?

Raf is such a loud coach, and he gets away with it because he’s a big Russian man. But as soon as I raise my voice I look ridiculous. It’s been a balance, because it’s a different level of skating here than I’m used to. I’m used to professional, high-level skating and coming here it’s a bunch of kids who are on their way up. Which is really exciting, but it’s definitely been an adjustment for me just to kind of reel back a little bit and not turn into Rafael.

It’s a different phase in their careers.

Exactly. They’re not quite at the level where I can just scream at them to skate a long program. Because they’re 12 years old and I can’t scream at kids.

And they have parents.

And parents! I have to deal with parents. That’s the scariest part of figure skating. I haven’t had to deal with parents since I was 18. That’s been a big change for me.

You did some commentary work for NHK Trophy in Japan. How was that?

It was so much fun and also terrifying. The first event that I covered was the pairs’ short program, so it was definitely a sink or swim moment. I think pairs skating is like the moon. I don’t understand it. It’s so different from anything that I do in my skating life. It was terrifying. I spent the first warm up in a blackout. And then finally was like, ‘okay, I can do this!’ I’m really glad that I got to see what it’s like on the other side. It’s way harder than it sounds.

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Adulting with Andrea

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Did you have a lot of homework?

I did. It was tough because I didn’t really know what I was walking into. I was working with Andrea Joyce so it was like how communication was gonna go, what her role was going to be, what I was responsible for. Once I experienced that I knew how to prepare myself a lot more.

You already mentioned you’re taking the Grand Prix season off. Can you say anything else about your competitive future?

Right now, to be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what I want to do. Watching the ladies’ event [at NHK Trophy] in Japan, it was one of those situations where definitely maybe take a step back and think, okay, in order to even be competitive on the scene right now, you need to be throwing out technically perfect programs with two triple-triples, and if you’re not even thinking about a triple Axel, then maybe you should step aside.

It’s one of those things where sometimes it’s best to just take a step back and let skating progress the way it’s going to. I watched Carolina Kostner and what she was able to do toward the later part of her career and I really admire that. I think that there’s something to be said about coming out and putting out quality and still being able to perform that doesn’t entirely write off someone who’s not trying the technically most difficult program. But it’s a lot of work. It’s one of those things where I have to start considering whether or not it’s worth it.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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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