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Will Japan’s Olympic legend return for Tokyo 2020?

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NEW YORK — The Tokyo Olympics are in 790 days. Will Japan’s most dominant Olympian compete?

“She hasn’t decided yet,” a translator said beside wrestler Kaori Icho, who stood in street clothes, some given to her by an American host family, matside at the annual Beat the Streets meet on the edge of the East River on Manhattan last week.

Icho, who turns 34 on June 13, is the only woman to earn an individual gold medal at four Olympics. She has not wrestled in competition since capturing that fourth title in Rio. She has not announced retirement, either.

Icho once held a 13-year winning streak on the mat and owns 10 world championships.

While in New York, Icho did a high school clinic in Brooklyn (one wonders if the students knew they were learning from the greatest of all time), met Olympic and world champion Kyle Snyder (a particular highlight of this trip) and trained with Helen Maroulis before attending the meet as a spectator. In Rio, Maroulis became the first American woman to win an Olympic wrestling title.

Maroulis is familiar with Icho. In 2012, they trained together and drove to a Drake concert in Colorado. They met again in 2014. But last week was different. The most intense training they’ve shared. Their first full practice, said Maroulis, recently cleared from a January concussion.

“I think she’s coming back,” Maroulis said with confidence. Here’s why: “[Icho] busted out the video camera,” Maroulis went on. “Like, hey, can I record practice?

“She feels good. She’s still got it. She’s smaller than she was, obviously, right at the Olympics. She’s amazing. There’s so much to learn from her.”

Icho said through the translator that if she does come back, she would start in the next year rather than leaving it a few months before the Tokyo Games.

She is already the oldest woman to win Olympic wrestling gold (women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, Icho’s first Games). By 2020, she will be older than any men’s wrestling champion since Bulgarian Valentin Yordanov in 1996.

How much a home Olympics influences Icho’s decision is something that she didn’t share. Icho said she might go for a fifth Olympics even if the 2020 Games were not in Japan.

“It’s hard to say,” said Ken Marantz, who has covered sports in Japan for three decades. “She’s kind of a quiet person.”

United World Wrestling shadowed Icho and the more-famous Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida before the Rio Olympics as both trained to go for their fourth gold medals. The international federation made a 20-minute documentary titled, “The Celebrity and the Samurai.”

Yoshida was the celebrity, her face a constant on TV, Icho the samurai, a zen-like warrior. Yoshida would lose in her Rio Olympic final to Maroulis, one day after Icho won her weight class.

“Kaori, she was always more private and less approachable, not in a bad way,” said William May, who has written about international wrestling for 30 years, including for Kyodo News in Tokyo. “She’s always been kind of a mystery to the Japanese.”

Like when she lived in Canada with her sister for months after the 2008 Olympics, skipping a world championships during her peak years.

“It’s not that I don’t like being on TV, but I don’t like my practice time being taken away or to lose time for myself,” Icho said in the 2016 United World Wrestling film.

Something else to consider is that Japan is the world power in women’s wrestling. It might be more difficult for Icho to earn Japan’s one available Olympic spot in the 58kg division than run through the Olympic bracket of the best from the rest of the world.

Japanese women took gold at the 2017 World Championships in both the 55kg and 60kg divisions. Those two women, both several years younger than Icho, must choose to go for the Olympics in the 53kg, 58kg or 63kg divisions.

Maroulis, who now competes at 58kg, wants to face Icho at the Olympics in what she called “a dream” matchup. The American’s dominance the last three years rivals Icho’s heyday — world titles in 2015 and 2017 without surrendering a point, winning the latter title with a torn thumb ligament, and dethroning Yoshida in Rio in between, all three golds at different weights while compiling a 78-1 record before the concussion.

Icho described her recent practice with Maroulis as “very hard.”

“She doesn’t quit,” Icho said through the translator. “She just keeps coming.”

Icho re-emerged in Japanese headlines in recent months as a tragic figure. A reported history of verbal harassment and threats from a Japanese Wrestling Federation director who resigned.

The biggest Japanese athlete story at the Tokyo Games would be if two-way baseball star Shohei Ohtani suited up, Marantz said. But Ohtani is on a Los Angeles Angels contract until 2024, which would keep him out of the Games unless MLB reverses its stance and releases players for the Olympics.

After that, perhaps Kohei Uchimura, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic all-around champion gymnast expected to compete in fewer events in the last years of his career. (Icho said that if she could pick anybody to light the Olympic cauldron, not including wrestlers, it would be Uchimura.)

Or the Japanese men’s 4x100m relay team that took silver in Rio and bronze at the 2017 Worlds. Or a rising group of table tennis players challenging the rival Chinese.

Swimming, gymnastics and judo are more popular sports in Japan than wrestling, Marantz said. But the nation would be pulling for Icho’s pursuit of individual gold in five Olympics, something no man or woman from any nation in any sport has done.

“Icho does not care one bit for records,” Tim Foley, who followed Icho for the 2016 film and escorted her in New York, said before the Rio Games. 

“Of course [Icho] wants to win, but it’s less important than wrestling a perfect match,” May said. That’s one thing she hasn’t done.

“I think she likes the challenge,” Marantz said. “Any tournaments that I went to that she won, which was all the ones she was in, she never, ever said she wrestled good.”

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MORE: Helen Maroulis wrestled in the dark with concussion

Yevgenia Medvedeva leads after short program at Autumn Classic

Yevgenia Medvedeva
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Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva leads after Thursday’s short program at her season opener, the Autumn Classic International. In her first competition since moving to Toronto to train under Brian Orser, Medvedeva scored 70.89 points.

Olympic team event bronze medalist Bradie Tennell sits in second place heading into Friday’s free skate with 69.26 points. Tennell, the reigning U.S. national champion, was joined by countrywoman Starr Andrews in Ontario. Andrews scored 56.70 points and finished fifth in the short program.

France’s Mae Berenice Meite rounds out the top three with 58.23 points.

Earlier on Thursday, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres from France scored 73.81 points to build their lead over the pairs’ field. Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro from Canada were second with 64.73 points, followed by the two American teams: Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (61.91) and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson (50.25), who competed internationally as new partners for the first time.

Competition at the Autumn Classic continues this weekend. Friday features the rhythm dance, men’s short program, and the pairs’ and ladies’ free skates. Saturday concludes competition with the free dance and men’s free skate. The event will stream live on Skate Canada’s Dailymotion page.

Elsewhere in the world of figure skating this weekend, Rika Kihira took the ladies’ short program at the Nepela Trophy in Bratislava. The reigning world junior champion attempted her triple Axel to open her “Clair de Lune” program but fell and was awarded -5 Grades of Execution across the board. She tallied 70.79 points and leads Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva by just 0.8 points. Russian Stanislava Konstantinova is third with 65.03 points.

Russian men lead the field after the short program in Bratislava. Mikhail Kolyada scored 96.82 points while Sergei Voronov earned 81.77 points. Japan’s Keiji Tanaka currently sits third with 77.53 points.

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc have a three-point lead on the pairs’ field after the short program with 65.68 points. Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay, the other Americans in the field, are third with 59.60 points in their first competition of the season.

Competition continues at the Nepela Trophy this weekend with the rhythm dance and pairs’ free skate on Friday and the ladies’ free skate, free dance, and men’s free skate on Saturday.

MORE: Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova delays season opener by one week

Despite protests, Russias anti-doping agency reinstated

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The World Anti-Doping Agency declared Russia’s scandal-ridden drug-fighting operation back in business Thursday, a decision designed to bring a close to one of sports’ most notorious doping scandals but one bitterly disputed by hundreds of athletes and described as “treachery” by the lawyer for the man who exposed the corruption.

On a 9-2 vote, the executive committee took the advice of the agency’s compliance review panel and declared RUSADA as having satisfied conditions of reinstatement that were gradually softened over the summer.

In most tangible ways, the decision doesn’t change much: RUSADA has been up and running for a while, bringing one of the world’s largest testing programs back on line with the help of officials from Britain and elsewhere. And Russia’s Olympic committee was brought back into the fold after the Pyeongchang Olympics, where athletes who could prove they were clean were able to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”

But RUSADA’s reinstatement now clears the country to again bid for major international events — although soccer’s World Cup was held there this summer despite that restriction.

It also clears a major hurdle for Russia’s track team to be declared compliant by that sport’s international governing body, one of the few to take a strong, consistent stand against doping.

Perhaps most importantly, hundreds of athletes and dozens of world anti-doping leaders see it as a stinging rebuke to the ideal of fair play.

“WADA’s decision to reinstate Russia represents the greatest treachery against clean athletes in Olympic history,” said Jim Walden, the attorney for Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Moscow lab director who exposed much of the Russian scheme.

WADA had been telegraphing the move since Sept. 14, when it released the recommendation of its compliance review committee. Olympic champion Beckie Scott resigned from that committee afterward.

“I’m profoundly disappointed,” Scott said to Canadian broadcaster CBC after the decision. “I feel this was an opportunity for WADA, and they have dealt a devastating blow to clean sport. I’m quite dismayed.”

Even in Russia, where the news was welcomed, it came with a sense that there’s still work to be done.

“These questions will always follow us,” said RUSADA CEO Yuri Ganus, whose appointment to the job was part of the housecleaning at the agency that WADA demanded. “These aren’t the kind of skeletons which can lie unnoticed in the closet. These are the skeletons which will be banging on the closet door all the time.”

The two biggest roadblocks to RUSADA’s reinstatement involved the country accepting findings from a report by investigator Richard McLaren that concluded the government had engineered the doping scandal to win medals at the Sochi Olympics. It also involved Russia agreeing to hand over a trove of data and samples that could be used to corroborate potential doping violations that stemmed from the cheating.

Over a summer’s worth of correspondence between WADA leaders and Russia’s sports minister about how to bridge the gap, a pattern emerged of WADA backing down from its initial requirements and, at one point, essentially asking Russia what it would be willing to say in a letter designed to satisfy the WADA review committee.

“We think that a small addition to the letter, if acceptable to you, could ensure that the letter is well received … and that a positive recommendation is provided,” WADA CEO Olivier Niggli wrote to sports minister Pavel Kolobkov in May in a letter obtained by BBC Sport .

In the end, Russia agreed to accept findings of an IOC-commissioned report that put less onus on the Russian government for the scheme, a move that Rodchenkov said earlier this week was done “for the pure purpose of protecting their top-level apparatchiks who destroyed the Olympic Games in Sochi.”

Russia also agreed to hand over the samples and data by Dec. 31. If it does not, RUSADA will again be declared noncompliant.

“Without this pragmatic approach, we would continue with the impasse and the laboratory data could have remained out of our reach indefinitely,” WADA president Craig Reedie said after Thursday’s executive committee meeting in Seychelles.

Critics said reinstating RUSADA before obtaining the data only amounts to accepting another promise from a country that hasn’t kept many over the five-year course of the scandal.

Travis Tygart, the CEO for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, called the decision “bewildering and inexplicable,” and urged a full revamping of WADA; Reedie also serves as a member of the IOC, which is one of the many conflicts of interest that bother critics of the agency.

“Let’s be clear: Absolutely nothing will be off the table for how we, the anti-doping community, begin the work of reforming WADA,” Tygart said.

Reedie said “WADA understands that this decision will not please everybody.”

“Clean athletes were denied places at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as other major events, and others were cheated of medals,” he said. “It is entirely understandable that they should be wary about the supposed rehabilitation of offenders.”