Alina Zagitova wins her Grand Prix opener; Yuzuru Hanyu leads

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Alina Zagitova wasn’t flawless in her Grand Prix season opener, but she didn’t have to be.

The Olympic champion from Russia totaled 215.29 points in Helsinki, winning the event by 17.72 over countrywoman Stanislava Konstantinova. Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto improved from seventh after the short program for bronze, two weeks after her second straight Skate America silver medal.

Zagitova did not fall between two programs, but she singled a jump in Friday’s short and had two under-rotation calls in her free.

“I’m not happy with my short program,” she said through a translator. “The free skating was better, but it still was not ideal.

“It was tough for me to leave behind the short program. I was analyzing for a long time, almost the whole night.”

Her score ranks second among women this Grand Prix season behind Skate America winner Satoko Miyahara of Japan. But Zagitova’s score from her lower-level season debut in September — 238.43 — remains best in the world overall this season by 17 points.

The Helsinki field lacked Zagitova’s top rivals like Miyahara and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, whom the 16-year-old will not face until December.

She had margin for error in her first top-level event since falling three times in the world championships free skate in March and finishing fifth, her only loss in a little more than a year on the senior international level.

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Earlier Saturday, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu moved into position to win his Grand Prix opener for the first time in his nine-year career.

The Japanese megastar was nearly flawless on his jumps, with a slight turnout on the back end of his quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination. The score — 106.69 — is the highest men’s short program in the world this season, knocking off Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno.

“Today was a bit challenging,” said Hanyu, who chose his short-program music, Otoñal, partially as a tribute to Johnny Weir. “I can say I landed [the jumps], but I can’t say perfect.”

Hanyu takes a 13.38-point lead over Czech Michal Brezina into Sunday’s free skate. Hanyu will not face Uno or world champion Nathan Chen this season until December’s Grand Prix Final at the earliest.

Russia swept the pairs’ and ice dance titles among fields with no Olympic or world medalists (aside from team events) or prior Grand Prix event winners.

Natalya Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert erased a .59 deficit from the paris’ short program to beat Italians Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise. They totaled 198.51, distancing the Italians by 12.74.

The Russians’ total ranks them fifth in the world this season, far behind French leaders Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (221.81).

Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin topped both the rhythm dance and free dance for 200.09 points, 3.8 clear of Italians Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri. Americans Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter were third, their first Grand Prix podium.

Stepnova and Bukin rank second in the world this season behind world silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. However, Olympic silver medalists and world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France have yet to debut.

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 HERE 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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USOPC proposes more athletes on board as part of overhaul

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DENVER (AP) — The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is proposing an increase in athlete representation on its board and a recasting of its mission statement to include the job of promoting athletes’ well-being.

These changes are part of a proposal, released Monday, to rewrite the USOPC bylaws.

The rewrite comes 20 days after federal lawmakers — looking for a shake-up in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that has tainted the U.S. Olympic movement — proposed their own drastic overhaul of the law governing the USOPC.

The USOPC portrayed its proposals as merely a first step, and, indeed, the measures lack many of Congress’ more aggressive proposals.

But they would heed athletes’ calls for more representation, by increasing their makeup on the board from 20% to 33%.

They would also change the mission statement to read: “empower Team USA athletes to achieve sustained competitive excellence and well-being,” where previously the well-being part was not mentioned.

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Why a 62-year-old played at the world badminton championships

Mathew Fogarty
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Mathew Fogarty said badminton’s European elite made fun of him for playing professionally at age 59. That was three years ago. Fogarty still competes at the sport’s highest level, taking part in the world championships that began Monday in Basel, Switzerland.

Fogarty, who turns 63 on Oct. 30, is older than any U.S. Olympian in any sport since the St. Louis 1904 Games, according to the OlyMADMen.

“I play because I can, and I’m a doctor, and I think sports is a really important part of people’s health and fitness,” said Fogarty, who has played competitively since age 7, whose full-time job is a psychoanalyst and who is based in the Los Angeles area. “I’ll stop badminton when I can no longer qualify. There’s still opportunity, and I love the sport. I’m going to continue to do the best I can.”

He lost in the first round of mixed doubles at worlds on Monday. Fogarty and partner Isabel Zhong, a 27-year-old with an IMBD profile, saw their world championships end in 23 minutes, a 21-9, 21-10 loss to a Ukrainian pair.

That was more competitive than Fogarty’s last two worlds appearances — a 21-6, 21-4 loss with Zhong in 2018 and a 21-2, 21-4 loss with another partner in 2017. Fogarty’s only international match wins in the last two years came via walkover or the one time his singles opponent retired after three points, according to his World Badminton Federation profile. He won an international tournament as recently as 2011 and said his career-high mixed doubles world ranking was 32.

He and Zhong paired because they were part of the same Manhattan Beach Badminton Club, and she wanted to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games, Fogarty said. Zhong did not respond to an interview request.

“I told her I didn’t know if we could do it, but we could try,” Fogarty said. “It’s extremely remote [chances] … slim to nil.”

The top mixed doubles team from the North and South American region is in line to qualify for the Olympics. The leaders in qualifying so far are Canadians ranked 19th in the world. Fogarty and Zhong, though they are the only U.S. mixed doubles team at worlds, are 67th in the world in Olympic qualifying and third among Americans.

The U.S. has never earned an Olympic medal in badminton, which debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Mixed doubles was added starting at Atlanta 1996, but the U.S. has put just one mixed team into an Olympics, getting swept out of pool play in Rio.

Fogarty, who has never played at the Olympics, is able to play at worlds for a few reasons: he can fund his way to international events to accumulate ranking points; the U.S. is historically weak and has a lack of players with professional ambitions; mixed doubles is the least common of the Olympic disciplines.

“Matt takes it seriously,” said Dean Schoppe, a fellow 62-year-old who has known and played with Fogarty for nearly a half-century. Schoppe recently retired from pro badminton himself. “Matt still approaches the matches with the actual idea of winning,”

Schoppe called Fogarty the best American junior player of his generation in the late 1970s.

“Most badminton players retire at about 26 or 27 with their first catastrophic injury, which is usually a torn Achilles,” he said. “There are people who are born [to play], you see it in every sport. Magic Johnson, they have the peripheral vision. They have the balance. They have all the intangibles that other people have to try to learn and can’t.

“He has the gift. He can look at you peripherally and see that you’re leaning. … Fogarty can hold the serve and turn his shoulders and do crap that makes you fall over, and that infuriates.”

Mathew Fogarty
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Fogarty took breaks from the sport for medical school in the 1980s and ’90s. He returned in the late 1990s and kept playing deep into his 40s, 50s and now 60s in part, he said, to challenge corruption within the sport.

Fogarty had legal battles with USA Badminton. He said that past officials broke up his Olympic hopeful partnership with a teenager in men’s doubles to push others toward the 2000 Sydney Games.

“The last thing they wanted was a 42-year-old with an 18-year-old trying to make the Olympics,” Schoppe said.

USA Badminton recently had mass resignations among its board and top officials amid reports of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee threatening decertification.

USA Badminton’s new interim CEO, 1992 and 1996 Olympian Linda French, declined comment on Fogarty’s past issues with the organization because she was not formally involved at the time.

“We’re hopeful to move forward in a positive manner and wish all our athletes continued success,” French said.

Fogarty does not know how much longer he will travel the world, or even the U.S., to play competitively. A 43-year-old told him at a recent event that Fogarty was his inspiration to keep playing.

“The nature of sports is you can’t predict what it’s going to be,” Fogarty said.

Schoppe dismissed a question of whether it’s easier to play badminton at such a ripe age than other physically demanding sports.

“Imagine pulling out James Worthy and say, OK, James you are now starting for Golden State and you’re playing the Lakers tomorrow,” Schoppe said. “You cannot be old in badminton and do well in badminton. It’s nothing like baseball.

“We were the anomaly of anomalies to have success in our 40s. Nobody does.”

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