Simone Biles wins first meet since Rio Olympics with fall

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The jitters were obvious and unmistakable. A step out of bounds on floor exercise. A hop back on vault. An uncharacteristic slip off the uneven bars.

Simone Biles needed them. Maybe deep down, the Olympic gymnastics champion wanted them too, if only to help her figure out whether she was truly mentally ready to return to the sport she’s dominated for a half-decade.

The answer came before her balance beam set during the U.S. Classic on Saturday night when Biles found herself in second place heading into the final rotation after a sloppy uneven bars set.

Needing to score at least a 14.0 to avoid losing a meet for the first time in five years, Biles wasn’t focused on the pressure of living up to her own remarkable legacy. She was too busy being mad. And here’s the thing: she kind of liked it.

“I guess in that moment, I enjoyed being (ticked) off, yeah,” Biles said with a laugh.

It showed. Displaying the form that helped her make history at the 2016 Summer Games, the 21-year-old drilled a 15.2 to post an all-around score of 58.700, more than a point ahead of Riley McCusker and more than two points clear of reigning world champion Morgan Hurd.

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The unbeaten streak is still alive. So is the gap between Biles and the rest of the world. Even after a 711-day layoff. Even after switching coaches. Even after growing up a bit. In the sport she’s come to define, there remains Biles and everyone else.

The proof came over the course of two hours when she posted the highest scores on vault (15.4), floor exercise (14.75, beam (15.2) and all-around in the world in 2018.

“There’s still a lot to work on — work on the nerves, work on the consistency, work on the landings — but for this point, at this time in the year, I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Biles said.

Or at the very least, a place no one else on the planet can get to at the moment. The scary part may be how many points Biles left out there. She won by 1.2 points even with major deductions on three events.

“It’s great to see that she still has it inside of her,” said Laurent Landi, who serves as Biles’ co-coach along with his wife, Cecile. “Now she needs to build on this and to take all the positives out of it.”

Biles admitted even she was curious how she’d respond in her return to competition following a two-year break following her staggering haul in Rio de Janeiro, when she tied an Olympic record by collecting five medals — four of them gold — that cemented her status as one of the best gymnasts ever. All before her 20th birthday.

She spent a year basking in the afterglow, enjoying — but not overindulging in — her newfound fame. She hit all the usual post-Olympic notes, doing some reality TV, publishing a book and traveling. She became more comfortable in her own skin, moved into an apartment and got a boyfriend.

There was never any really set timetable on when she might return, but she took her first tentative steps in her comeback late last summer. Things got serious when she hired the Landis as her new coaches last fall, intent not to simply recapture the form that captivated the 2016 Olympics but to push herself and her sport forward.

Things came together quickly. So quickly Biles entered all four events in Columbus and said matter-of-factly on Friday that she believes she’s already ahead of where she was when she starred in Rio.

Yet all that confidence couldn’t provide a true sense of calm. The adrenaline got to her more than once. It’s why she sailed out of bounds on her first tumbling pass on floor and couldn’t quite rein in her Cheng vault.

“It’s kind of hard to hold back,” Biles said.

And in the end, she didn’t.

She stressed uneven bars is where she’s made the biggest strides under Landi, hoping to turn her weakest event into a strength. Her right foot caught, however, early in her routine and she hopped down to the mat before receiving a brief pep talk from Landi. She popped back up and finished without so much as a wobble but her 13.50 put her behind McCusker heading to balance beam.

Despite her anger, she also found a sense of calm as all the old familiar feelings came back.

It’s not unusual for her to go last. It’s not unusual for her to know exactly what score she needs to win. It’s not unusual for her to deliver. These are — as the hashtag that resurfaced on Twitter reminded those who may have forgotten — #SimoneThings.

And it’s just the beginning. The 2020 Olympics are still two years off. Biles sent a message to the rest of the world in her return that she’s not coming back to the field. It’s up to everyone else to catch her.

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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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