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Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron look to new Olympic cycle

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GRENOBLE, France — France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron withdrew from NHK Trophy three weeks ago because of Cizeron’s back injury, but the ice dancers won Internationaux de France by 16.4 points. They won’t take part in the Grand Prix Final, since they participated in only one Grand Prix, but they kindly accepted to sit with NBCSports.com/figure-skating to explain where they were standing, as the first half of the season is now coming to an end.

Will missing the Grand Prix Final this year be a big change for you?

Cizeron: Oh yes! It’s not the way we had planned the start of our season. We started to work on our programs much later than usual, but we wanted to do the whole season anyhow, including the Grand Prix. But health had to come first. We will try to make the best of it, as it will allow us to work more.

Papadakis: Coming to Grenoble, we were eager to launch our season, after all we’ve seen in the first five Grand Prix. There are lots of interesting features in this season’s new programs, and watching them made us feel that we really wanted to go out there and do our own part!

Cizeron: Our first competition this season was like a “reset,” as it were opening the first page of a new adventure.

Papadakis: Four years ago, we didn’t start with an Olympic medal hope. Then we realized it was possible. Last season was nerve-wracking and exhausting. As we wanted to start for another quadrennial, we needed renewed strength, both physically and mentally. So, we have taken more vacation than we had in many years, we really needed to rest. If you want to spend four more years with the same level of energy, then you need to refuel it.

You seem to have changed many things this year.

Papadakis: I hope we’ve changed! (She laughs). We may not notice it ourselves, at least in a conscious way. But these last years, especially these last two, have brought us a lot of maturity and surely a different way of looking at things.

Cizeron: This year we’ve worked just as much as before, but we’ve changed our approach. We want to experiment and try new things, and we try not to put too much pressure on ourselves. The last two seasons were so intense.

Do you think it’s possible to create under pressure?

Papadakis: It’s true, that’s more difficult. Pressure is coming from the others, but it’s also the one you put yourself on your shoulders. Pressure is helpful, though, as it makes you go faster.

Cizeron: Fortunately, we feel the pressure as competitions are approaching, or when we are being filmed. But the rest of the time we are more relaxed – and more patient, too!

Papadakis: Our approach now is not to deal with what we’re going to do next: it’s about what we are doing now, what we are currently creating. It’s the fact that we are creating something. Then you don’t think of anything else.

Cizeron: I would say that we are less and less stressed or, rather, that our stress is quite different now. The choices we make now are more deliberate than they were.

We try to enrich ourselves by developing new collaborations, as well as our physical and artistic capacities, at their best. We have the same energy to create, develop, learn, engage ourselves into different directions. We are meeting new people. That motivates us and helps us discovering beautiful new things. That’s how we will make our sport evolve.

Papadakis: Otherwise we would be completely expired! (She laughs) We also ask ourselves why we’re doing this. We sure want to win the medals, but the medals would not be enough. What makes us vibrate? What kind of skating do we want, what kind of performance, what kind of choreography? We also want to fully enjoy the journey.

Do you mean that you wouldn’t start all over if it were only to win an Olympic gold medal?

Papadakis: Of course not! We’ll fight for the Olympic gold medal for sure, and winning one would be super. But the hope of winning alone wouldn’t make it worthwhile to start all over.

Your rhythm dance was quite special; usually tango can be quite stiff and formal. Yours is completely fluid. How do you make passion so fluid?

Papadakis: Thank you, that’s a compliment for us. Fluid is the way we like to skate. We enjoy choreography when it allows to glide free and keep that freedom into our programs. This is the reason why we chose these pieces. They inspired us for this reason. Tango speaks for itself, it is a universal language. It calls for passion.

We have our own way to skate, for sure, and we’re not going to leave it. We like to take a lot of speed and then skate slower. That gives us the feeling that we fly. It’s much more agreeable for us to skate this way, so we’re always trying to keep that same feeling.

Cizeron: We created this program with Christopher Dean (1984 Olympic Gold and 1994 Bronze medalist with Jayne Torvill), and it was very fun and productive as always, as he always comes up with creative ideas.

Your free dance is quite different from the ones you’ve performed these last years. How do you maintain the balance between changing and staying yourselves?

Cizeron: That’s always difficult. On the one hand, there is what people are expecting from us. On the other hand, there is what we would like. This is always a matter of compromising in both directions, in order to find something which is going to both please people and inspire us at the same time. We try to show other aspects of skating, of choreography, of energy: but we can’t do things that wouldn’t look like us. I think we have met the challenge this year.

That’s why also we’ve changed our choreographic process. We’ve worked with Stéphane Lambiel last July (the 2005 and 2006 World gold medalist from Switzerland has become a respected coach and choreographer, as well as a coveted performer throughout the world), and he has provided us with lots of new material. It’s been very inspiring. Marie-France Dubreuil, who coaches us (alongside with Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer), has put all the pieces we had created with Stéphane together.

By working with different people, you get a new wealth of creation and innovation. There are many surprises in this program, elements we had never done before. We’ve also changed significantly the style of our music. The piano had become our trademark: now the base of our free dance is the guitar, and that modifies significantly the energy within our bodies. We’ve tried to deliver it as best as we could, but it’s only the premises of what it will become through the season.

And yet, that doesn’t change our personality.

Papadakis: This year’s program is more down-to-earth. It tells a story with two precise people, an encounter between two individuals who are destined to live something together, possibly two lovers. They evolve across one another, rather than looking after the same ideal together. That’s also new for us.

Cizeron: We even have lyrics in our music this time!

You sometimes give the feeling that your approach is an intellectual one. Is this something deliberate?

Cizeron: In fact, we don’t have an intellectual approach. Our approach is more physical and deeply felt. If we do intellectualize our skating, it’s because we will have analyzed what we’ve been doing in just intuitive a way. Our skating is always something deliberate, with a clear intention. But a lot comes from the feelings and the impressions we get. We just try to make programs that move people.

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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Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

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His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

MORE: Russia track and field faces expulsion if it misses deadline

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Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

Noah Lyles
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Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

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