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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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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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