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Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 4

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the event’s fourth day.

Zagitova’s teddy bear

If there would be a world record for teddy bears, Alina Zagitova would have won Friday night in Minsk. Among the hundreds of gifts that poured from the stands, a huge “Carmen”-red bear made its way to the ice. Two ice sweepers, at most a third its size, had to take one of its arms each and pulled it over the ice to the other side of the ice rink.

“I’ve not seen it yet; I just saw something red,” Zagitova commented later [she must have been the only one person in the rink not to see it!]. “I’ll take it home of course, but I’m running out of space!”

“Alina and I communicated a lot together, before the award ceremony but also the doping control. We really had fun with that big red bear!” Sofia Samodurova detailed Saturday morning.

MORE: Samodurova surpasses Zagitova for gold at Europeans

Girls move a teddy bear from the ice after Russia’s Alina Zagitova performs in the ladies free skating at the ISU European figure skating championships in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Ciprès can finally sleep

“I didn’t sleep very well before the free program, because of the jetlag,” newly-minted European pairs’ gold medalist Morgan Cipres admitted after the duo’s historic victory in Minsk.

“When you don’t sleep, the problem is that you think a lot. The experience we had last year, when we dropped from first to fourth, came back again and again. The night after we won, however, I went back to the Internet and watched some of our skating programs of the past. For the first time, I even dared watching the program we had skated in Moscow last year. After I watched it, I could finally go back to sleep.”

The nightmare is finally over!

Success and ubiquity

“It’s not easy to have the Europeans being held at the same time as U.S. Nationals!” Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron’s coach, Romain Haguenauer, said half-smilingly. Probably one of the most successful ice dance schools in the world at the present time, the Montreal school had to set a specific organization for these two simultaneous major championships.

“At U.S. Nationals we have three major teams, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Here we have six teams from various nationalities. In both cases you can’t do with less than two coaches. So Marie-France [Dubreuil] and I are here, while Patrice [Lauzon] and another coach are in Detroit. But that’s sure quite good for the school!” Haguenauer concluded.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue one step closer to title defense in Detroit

Medal grace

Slavic countries are known for their rich and colored costumes. The three Belarussian ladies carrying the medals, wearing a big brown crown and exquisite embroidered dresses and plastrons, exemplify the wealth of the Belarussian culture.

“It takes about half an hour for us to dress up,” one explained. Half an hour to get ready to present the medals of one’s life, and the centuries of Belarussian culture to the elite of skating.

Green is red

The “green room,” where the leaders are being scrutinized by TV cameras as they are waiting for their competitors’ marks, has been revived in Minsk. Except the green zone is decorated is red, the colors of Minsk. And the room is now open to the end of the mixed zone. Alina Zagitova and Viveca Lindfors were in the green zone as Sofia Samodurova was skating her exhilarating performance and Alexia Paganini fought for a podium finish. Both unlaced their skates and put them back cautiously and slowly. Zagitova dove her head down as the final ranking was posted. Virpi Horttana, Lindfors’s coach, rushed to hug her pupil as Paganini’s marks came up. Lindfors had just won a bronze medal, seven years after Kiira Korpi had won her last European medal for Finland in 2012!

TV… Or skating stars?

During resurfacing breaks, two long lines of spectators usually form in the Minsk Arena: one is going upward, toward Tatiana Tarasova’s TV booth. The other is going downward toward Elena Chaykovskaya. Both are respected coaches.

“But don’t believe that people want an autograph because of the many skating stars they produced,” a noted Russian journalist explained. “Both Chaykovskaya and Tarasova take part in TV shows, like The Ice Age and Skating with the Stars, which Ilya Averbukh [the 2002 Olympic silver medalist] produces. Tarasova is the main judge, so she is highly respected!”

Lambiel’s fan club

Brian Joubert was alongside France’s Laurine Lecavelier as she skated her free program. Friday, he went to the rink wearing a flashy jacket with tiger-like orange sleeves, quite reminiscent to Stéphane Lambiel’s own costume on the Olympic ice of Turin, back in 2006.

“Yeah, that’s it!” Joubert commented: “I’m a big fan!”

I’m sure Lambiel would like to know that his fan base keeps expanding!

First steps

“This is the first time we skate together in such a huge arena,” Louis Thauron, the French ice dancer, said as he and new partner Adelina Galyavieva left the ice after their Rhythm dance Friday afternoon. Galyavieva and Thauron partnered at the end of the season last year.

“Can you imagine? I’m just 1.58 meters [5 feet, 3 inches], and I’m here in the middle of the ice with 15,000 people above my head?” Galyavieva exclaimed. “We are alone in the middle and we have to do the show, it just can’t be described. You feel it when silence greets you before your music starts. And it’s just so overwhelming as your music starts!” Thauron added. “We heard the audience cheer in the step sequence and that gave me so much energy, that it motivated me to give back even more!” He concluded enthusiastically.

MORE: Behind the scenes on Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 at the European Championships

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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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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MORE: Overhaul would give Congress power to fire USOPC board

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

Mathew Fogarty
Courtesy 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
Badmintonphoto/BWF

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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