Behind the scenes at Grand Prix France: Day 1

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Grenoble to cover Internationaux de France, the sixth and final Grand Prix event in the series before the Grand Prix Final. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the first day.

 

Soupe du Jour

Take the best and freshest vegetable on the market. Of course, you should use some pure spring water coming directly from the Alps. The best recipes request that you start early in the morning and boil those vegetable as gently as possible, not to lose their vitamins and nutritional power. Hopefully there won’t be any tomatoes (thrown to the skaters), but maybe we’ll find some iceberg lettuce along the way (although the ice is carefully wiped every hour or so). To add some taste, we can trust skaters to provide enough spice to it. These daily columns will bring you behind-the-scenes stories from the Internationaux de France, which are due to start Friday. They should be fabulous, as those two days will give away the last spots for the first Grand Prix Final of the Olympic quadrennial. Welcome to Grenoble, and thank you for joining!

Welcome to the French Alps!

Grenoble is hosting the Internationaux de France, the French leg of this season’s Grand Prix, for the second time. The city holds a specific place in itself, as it hosted the Winter Olympics in 1968. “Yesterday during our team meeting,” Team USA team leader Ann Barr said, “I played a message from Peggy Fleming to the team. Peggy is a good friend of mine, and she graciously accepted to record it for them.”

“I want you to know that Grenoble is a special place for me. This year marks the 50th anniversary of winning my Olympic gold medal in Grenoble. I hope it will be a special place for you also,” the Grande Dame of American skating concluded. Thank you, Peggy, and a big hello from “your” golden city! “Everyone was very inspired by her message!” Barr added. For sure!

Skating is a dangerous sport

“Where can you get your press accreditation?” journalists ask security when reaching the ice rink in Grenoble. “You’ll have to walk around the building and find the accreditation room on the other side,” they explain. “You can’t miss it, really, you’ll see a big sign stating ‘The Wolf’s Throat’” (or “La Gueule du Loup,” in French). Would skating be like throwing yourself into the wolf’s throat? Beware, skaters and journalists… Rest reassured, however, dear skating fans, “The Wolf’s Throat” is the name of the rink restaurant.

Warming up can be quite an event as well!

Skaters have access to the second rink of the Grenoble rink, on the side of the main rink where the competition is to be held, to warm up before their practice or competition sessions. The ice of the practice rink has been covered by plastic tiles for skaters to run and stretch. Thursday morning, just before the first practice session was due to take place, Russia’s Dmitri Aliev and Israel’s Daniel Samohin were already launching double Axels up in the air – skateless, just like ballet dancers. Canada’s Nicolas Nadeau even launched a back-flip right there, just to entertain himself and his coach, Yvan Desjardins, who exploded in laughter. Nadeau is coming to France for the first time. “The French should love him,” Desjardins said: “He’s such a showman!”

Nathan’s early Christmas

Nathan Chen is undoubtedly one of the main favorites in Grenoble. As he was jogging around the practice rink in Grenoble, he suddenly faced a Christmas scenery that was laid there. Chen didn’t hesitate a second and climbed its stairs, running across an igloo, a Christmas tree, a couple of deer, a polar bear and a wooden hut. Santa Claus however didn’t show up from there with any golden toy for him. Not yet, at least!

Chen’s dual career

Nathan Chen is not only the current World Champion, he is also a bright student, currently enrolled at Yale University. He managed to fit the Grand Prix into his heavy schedule… Thanks to the calendar of the event!

“Right now, it’s Thanksgiving break at the University,” he explained, “so I was able to fit this in,” he kindly explained just before the men’s draw. Still, Chen brought some homework (or, rather, “rinkwork”!), however, to Grenoble.

“My final exams are in two weeks. My Spanish final is next Tuesday, and I have a paper due next week. I brought my textbooks here. It’s a lot of new experiences!” He concluded smilingly. Don’t expect many interviews from Chen: as soon as his skating time is over, his university time takes over.

An American pair trio

It was a long time since Team USA last sent three of its best pairs to one Grand Prix event. It was due to be this year, however, as Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, were registered to take the ice in Grenoble. Unfortunately, Denney and Frazier couldn’t make it to Grenoble.

“They got injured just ten days ago,” John Zimmerman, who coaches them in Florida, explained. A big hello for them, however, the French audience will miss them!

An American in Paris

In a matter of two seasons, John Zimmerman and his team have managed to position their school in Florida as a premier location for French figure skating. In Grenoble, Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana are coaching Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, who won their European and World medals under their tutelage (a bronze both at the 2017 Europeans and 2018 Worlds) and are strong favorites here, after their clear-cut victory at Skate Canada. They are also coaching French hope Kevin Aymoz and Maé-Bérénice Méité, the current French National Champion. “I have seen how much Vanessa and Morgan have improved in just a couple of seasons,” Méité explained, “and I wanted to join a real coaching team. I just found that in Florida.”

“It’s good for the group to have them all,” Zimmerman emphasized. “I’m happy to collaborate to make them feel confident, which will make them express themselves. But now we need to deliver!” he added in a smile.

Cheaper tickets for bigger volumes

The initiative needs to be promoted. “We have strongly dropped the ticket price of the event,” Gérard Balthazard, who heads the Grenoble skating club, explained. “It’s quite significant, actually: tickets are twice as cheap as last year! (they run from 5 to 30 Euros, or $6 to $36). We decided such a move together with the French Federation. But we should have quite a good surprise in terms of capacity. You know, you have to adapt to your market. It has been years since Grenoble hosted major skating events. The local audience has lost the habit of coming to the rink, and we need to change that. Also, the French leg of the Grand Prix has changed names, from the Eric Bompard Trophy to the Internationaux de France. So we need to install a brand new image and new habits in people’s minds.”

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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MORE: Grand Prix France TV/Stream schedule

Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Elena Fanchini, an Italian Alpine skier whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini, the 2005 World downhill silver medalist at age 19, passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in the combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her World Cup win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won her world downhill silver medal in Italy in 2005, exactly one month after her World Cup debut, an astonishing breakout.

Ten months later, she won a World Cup downhill in Canada with “Ciao Mamma” scribbled on face tape to guard against 1-degree temperatures. She was 20. Nobody younger than 21 has won a World Cup downhill since. Her second and final World Cup win, also a downhill, came more than nine years later.

In between her two World Cup wins, Fanchini raced at three Olympics with a best finish of 12th in the downhill in 2014. She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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