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USADA survey: U.S. athletes feel pressure of win-at-all-costs culture

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A majority of U.S. athletes responding to an anti-doping survey said they feel pressure from higher-ups to win medals, and the spotlight shines only on those who pile up victories.

Though athletes have often cited the win-at-all-costs culture as a reason they cheat, only a slim number of those surveyed said they would be tempted to take performance-enhancing drugs.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency received responses from 886 athletes in a wide-ranging survey, released Tuesday, that gauged their feelings about a number of issues regarding performance-enhancing drugs.

Sixty-five percent agreed when asked if the U.S. Olympic Committee and individual sports federations pressured elite athletes to win medals; 61 percent agreed with the statement: “When I am failing people are less interested in me.”

Travis Tygart, the CEO of USADA, said he wasn’t surprised at the high percentage of athletes who feel they’re part of a “win-at-all-costs” culture.

“It is exactly what we hear from athletes about why they chose to dope when they have, and why we must change this culture if we hope to fully return the playing field to clean athletes,” he said.

But when asked if they would be tempted to use PEDs under a variety of circumstances, including if their coach recommended it, no more than 9 percent of the athletes responded “yes” to any of the scenarios.

USADA billed this as the largest survey of its kind. It was sent last year to 2,000 athletes in the U.S. testing pool. It got the most responses (149) from track and field.

Only 7 percent of the respondents said they had been tested more than 50 times over their career — an interesting figure during a summer in which Serena Williams has suggested she’s discriminated against because she gets tested more than most tennis players.

The plurality, 36 percent, said they’d been tested between once and five times. Authorities commonly increase the number of tests for high-ranked players and players coming off long layoffs.

When asked how other anti-doping programs compare to USADA, 34 percent said they were less effective or not effective, while 49 percent replied “I don’t know” — a high number in an era in which Olympic sports have been bombarded by a stream of reports about Russian doping. Thirty-five percent disagreed with the notion that their international competitors were adequately tested when compared to themselves.

“Certainly, the Russian state-sponsoring doping scheme showed that there are major international players not running an effective anti-doping program, but actually running a “dope to win” program,” Tygart said.

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Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.