British triathletes finish together
Jae C. Hong / AP

Double disqualification caps bizarre Tokyo triathlon

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Talk about costly celebrations.

British triathletes Jess Learmonth and Georgia Taylor-Brown had clinched a 1-2 finish Thursday morning in Tokyo in a test event preceding next year’s Olympics that, for some athletes, doubled as an Olympic qualification race. Overjoyed, they clasped hands and crossed the finish line together.

By the letter of the law, they can’t do that. Specifically, International Triathlon Union competition rule 2.11.f, which concludes with the fateful phrase, “athletes who finish in a contrived tie situation, where no effort to separate their finish times has been made will be DSQ.”

“DSQ,” of course, stands for “disqualified,” and the British triathletes did indeed lose their places.

The finish could have lent itself to all sorts of conspiracy theories under different circumstances. With Learmonth and Taylor-Brown disqualified, teammate Vicky Holland moved up from fifth to third. Under British Triathlon’s selection criteria, a medalist in Thursday’s race would automatically qualify for the 2020 Olympics if that athlete had also finished on the podium in a race earlier this year in Yokohama or the 2016 Olympics. The USA’s Katie Zaferes, Summer Rappaport and Taylor Spivey swept the Yokohama race without linking hands, but Holland took bronze in 2016, making her the only British athlete eligible to qualify directly for the 2020 Games on Thursday.

However, British Triathlon ruled before the race that it would not count for Olympic qualification because organizers shortened the running phase from 10 kilometers to 5km because of excessive heat. Organizers almost had to cut the swimming phase in half to 750 meters because the water temperature was 30.3 degrees Celsius (86.5 Fahrenheit), barely under the ITU’s limit of 30.9 (87.6) degrees.

British Triathlon’s selection document reads: “The above automatic nominations will not apply if, in the opinion of the Panel, the results of either race (and in the case of returning Rio medallists, the Test Event only) are/is significantly impacted by: i. a large-scale racing incident (such as a crash); OR ii. environmental conditions/exceptional circumstances which result in substantial alteration to the race format.”

The “Test Event” in question is Thursday’s race in Tokyo, and it also had a crash that took out Zaferes, the top-ranked triathlete in the world who was very much in contention until the accident. The crash may not have been deemed sufficient for British Triathlon to disregard the results, but the “substantial alteration” was.

So in the end, the chain of events didn’t affect qualification for the British team, though the unfortunate 1-2 finishers missed out on prize money. Taylor-Brown was gracious about the incident on Twitter, saying, “we promise not to do that again.” Many British triathlon fans on Twitter were less polite.

Nor did the reshuffling affect the U.S. qualification — Rappaport crossed the finish line seventh and was bumped up to fifth. Under USA Triathlon criteria, if no U.S. athlete is on the podium, the highest-placed finisher in the top eight will qualify, so Rappaport qualified with or without the disqualification, and Spivey’s bump from 10th to eighth was irrelevant.

READ: Rappaport qualifies for 2020 Olympics

Both British Triathlon and USA Triathlon will have selection dilemmas in the future. The British team will be selected entirely by the federation’s discretion out of a stacked roster in which four women are in the top seven of the ITU’s Olympic qualification rankings: Taylor-Brown third, Holland fourth, Learmonth fifth and Non Stanford seventh.

The other three in the top seven are American: Zaferes first, Spivey second and Rappaport sixth. One more U.S. triathlete can claim an automatic qualifying spot by finishing on the podium in another race next spring in Yokohama.

The USA, like Britain, is virtually assured of earning three spots in the 2020 Olympics.

When all the decisions were finalized, the winner was Bermuda’s Flora Duffy, who was competing in her first race after missing a year with a foot injury.

Learmonth finished the swim phase in first, with Zaferes and Rappaport in pursuit. The bike phase settled into a lead pack of roughly 10 riders until Zaferes collided with teammate Kirsten Kasper. Kasper was able to resume the race and rejoined a chase pack, but Zaferes withdrew. The lead group was eventually whittled to six, including Spivey, Duffy, Italy’s Alice Betto, Brazil’s Vittoria Lopes and the British duo that would later cross the finish line together.

Duffy and Betto crossed the finish line behind the disqualified duo to claim first and second, while Holland made up a gap of nearly two minutes to pass Lopes and Spivey. Rappaport rode in the same chase pack as Holland and passed Spivey as well.

Olympic berths are also on the line Friday morning in Tokyo (Thursday evening in the USA) in the men’s race.

Heat isn’t unusual for Tokyo in the summer. Takeo Hirata, a professor of sports sciences working with the 2020 Olympic organizers, recently shared some heat-mitigating ideas in The Japan Times, including specially coated road surfaces.

Triathlete collapses in heat
Mexico’s Cecilia Perez collapses after competing in a women’s triathlon test event in Tokyo. Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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