Javier Fernandez, in final competition, third in men’s field

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The audiences of the world have learnt to change flags rapidly nowadays. Thursday afternoon in Minsk, Belarus, the Russian flag mushroomed from every part of the stands for Maxim Kovtun’s skate, it reappeared again for Alexander Samarin’s, and stayed even longer for Mikhail Kolyada’s. Then it got replaced by the Spanish gold and red banner all over the stands, as Javier Fernandez skated. But in the end, the Russian flag prevailed during the men’s short program at the European Championships.

Kolyada took a strong lead for the gold, as he was the only one of the afternoon to crack the 100-point bar. Samarin is standing second before Saturday’s free program, some 8.51 points behind his Russian teammate. Fernandez is standing in third, a mere 0.14 point behind Samarin.

Results: Men’s short program

Kolyada didn’t let his numerous fans down. His program, set to Muse’s “I Belong to You,” was an instant hit and grabbed the audience’s applause right from the start. Kolyada landed all his elements (a quad toe, triple toe combination, a triple Lutz and a triple Axel) with ease. He has polished his skating and displayed fluid and smooth edges, pure lines, and yet his trademark presence on the ice. Kolyada is so present in each of his steps, fully living the moment in connection with his audience. He amassed 100.48 points for his program, a new season’s best.

“The main difference from previous outings is that now I’m healthy,” Kolyada offered. “It’s definitely easier to skate when you’re healthy. This was a good performance.”

Kolyada won his first small gold medal (awarded after short programs at major competitions) in an ISU event.

“But this day can’t be a special day in my life yet,” he added. “It’s important now not to let out the emotions, I need to keep them for the free.”

Samarin opted for the most difficult content. He opened with a magnificent quad Lutz, triple toe, but tripled his subsequent quad flip attempt. The audience nonetheless gave him a strong ovation at the end, up-to-par with the energy he had displayed throughout. Belarussian and Russian audiences appreciate the energy of competitors more than any other people. Samarin garnered 91.97 points, a new season’s best.

“I wanted to show more,” Samarin offered. “I practiced quad flip and it went well in training, so I thought I could include it, although I was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough experience to include it.

“Well, now I’ll have more experience,” he said, smiling.

Fernandez skated to his charm-routine, Malagueña. He opened with a quad toe, double toe. Rather surprisingly, his subsequent quad Salchow was deemed underrotated by the panel.

“I’ve been away quite a bit this season, but I think that I’m still able to recognize a few things in skating. I saw the landing of my quad Salchow on the ice. I rotated not even half of a straight angle on the ice, so the jump should have been validated, and it was not,” he offered at the post-event press conference.

Fernandez’s component score went slightly above Kolyada’s (46.64 points for the Spaniard, 46.44 points for the Russian), but his total, 91.84 points, meant that he’ll have to fight in the free.

“Oh yes, I’ll fight!” he promised. “In the free, 9 points is nothing. I want to show that I can do more than 91 points.”

The sensation of the day came from French skater Kevin Aymoz, who displayed an exhilarating and crisp program to Bryce Fox’s “Horns.” He captivated the audience and wound up in fourth place, 0.32 point ahead of Kovtun, who missed his opening quad toe.

MORE: How to watch Europeans

As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships 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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WATCH LIVE: U.S. Figure Skating Championships rhythm dance, women’s free skate

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Can Bradie Tennell hold off 14-year-old Alysa Liu? The U.S. Figure Skating Championships crowns its female medalists on Friday, live on NBC Sports.

Action starts with the rhythm dance at 4:30 p.m. ET for NBC Sports Gold subscribers, with NBCSN broadcast coverage joining in at 5. The women start at 7:25 on Gold, with NBC TV coverage starting at 8.

LIVE STREAM: Rhythm dance — Gold | NBCSN | Skate Order
LIVE STREAM: Women’s free skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Tennell topped Thursday’s short program with a clean slate of jumps, plus the highest artistic score.

She bettered Liu in the short program last year, too, but fell in the free skate to take silver. Liu, meanwhile, landed two triple Axels to win by 3.92 points and become the youngest U.S. champion in history.

Another skater to watch is Gracie Gold, the two-time U.S. champion competing at nationals for the first time in three years. Gold, lauded for her return from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety, struggled with jumps in the short and is in 13th place of 18 skaters.

In the rhythm dance, past U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates are expected to begin a duel that should come down to Saturday’s free dance.

Key Skate Times
5:32 p.m. — Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
5:38 — Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
5:44 — Madison Chock/Evan Bates
8:07 — Gracie Gold
10:03 — Karen Chen
10:11 — Amber Glenn
10:27 — Bradie Tennell
10:35 — Mariah Bell
10:43 — Alysa Liu

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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.

Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, who defected, eyes Tokyo Games as German or refugee

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LÜNEN, Germany (AP) — Iran’s only female Olympic medalist said Friday she wants to compete for Germany after defecting from her native country.

Kimia Alizadeh is trying to rebuild her life and career after she announced this month she had left Iran, citing sexism on the part of officials there.

“Even if I do not make it to the Olympics, it does not matter because I have made up my mind,” Alizadeh said at a meeting with journalists at a taekwondo club.

“I am sure that I will be judged by many, but I am just 21 years old and can attend world tournaments and future Olympics. However, I will spare no effort to get the best result at this time as well.”

She added she doesn’t expect ever to compete in Iran again.

Alizadeh was just 18 when she won bronze in taekwondo at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, catapulting her to instant fame at home. Despite Iran’s long history of victories in men’s wrestling and weightlifting, no Iranian woman had ever won a medal before.

However, Alizadeh was frustrated with life in Iran despite her Olympic success. In an Instagram post this month announcing she had left Iran, she accused Iranian officials of sexism and criticized wearing the mandatory hijab headscarf.

Alizadeh hasn’t given up hope of being able to compete at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo. However, getting there would require highly unusual exemptions from the usual rules on nationality switches and qualification, regardless of whether she tries to represent Germany or the International Olympic Committee’s refugee team.

Alizadeh spent time in the Netherlands before heading to Germany this week to meet with taekwondo officials there. The German Taekwondo Union has spoken up in favor of Alizadeh staying in the country in what it calls a first step toward her gaining nationality and becoming eligible to compete for Germany.

“If the German government assists me and I can go through this process as fast as possible, I might be able to make it to the Olympics, too,” she said.

In recent years, many Iranian athletes have left their country, citing government pressure. In September, the former world judo champion Saeed Mollaei moved to Germany after walking off the Iranian team at the world championships in Japan. He said Iranian officials had tried to force him to withdraw so as not to compete against an Israeli opponent.

Alireza Faghani, an Iranian international soccer referee, also left Iran for Australia last year.

Alizadeh said she just wants “a peaceful life,” and she’s not looking back.

“I have a great feeling to have made a decision for my life that would definitely change my future,” she said. “I think it is not even clear enough now and. in the years to come, I will understand what a good decision I made.”

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MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics