Marcel Hirscher retires atop Alpine skiing rather than chase record

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If Marcel Hirscher read the newspapers before his Olympic debut in 2010, he may have seen a front-page headline, “Das Debakel,” after none of his older Austrian teammates finished in the top 10 of the Vancouver Winter Games super-G.

“Failure No. 1, 2, 3, 4,” captioned photos of each of the skiers.

Hirscher, then 20 and the youngest Austrian male Olympic Alpiner in 18 years, started the giant slalom days later and finished fourth. He missed a medal by eight hundredths of a second. No Austrian man made an Alpine podium at an Olympics for the first time since 1936, but Hirscher was a glimmer of a hope.

Over the next decade, Hirscher put together one of the standout resumes in the sport’s history: a record eight World Cup overall titles (consecutive), world titles in the slalom, giant slalom and super combined and, under mounting pressure in PyeongChang, his first two Olympic gold medals.

They would be his last Olympics, too. Hirscher revealed his retirement on Austrian primetime TV on Wednesday, news pegged by media for nearly a week since the press conference was announced.

“It’s not a major surprise anymore,” Hirscher said in front of eight crystal globes signifying those eight overall titles, noting he decided in late August. “The last two weeks have seen a lot of turbulence, but I feel very clearly and there were many reasons. … I’m at the pinnacle. My body is a bit tired after 12 years. It’s a very decisive argument. And the fact, of course, that I wanted to leave as a champion.”

At 30, he goes out on top of the sport. Hirscher is coming off yet another World Cup overall title, plus season titles in the slalom and giant slalom. He won nine races last season (only Mikaela Shiffrin won more) to up his career World Cup victories total to 67.

“I always wanted to quit at a moment where I knew I could still win races,” he said, noting wanting to retire while still healthy. “Even in 2013 [after winning his first world championship], I felt it’s as good a day to stop as any. It doesn’t get any better, but then I carried on.”

The World Cup wins record of 86, held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark, is well-known to U.S. ski fans. Lindsey Vonn risked her long-term health to pursue the mark before calling it quits last season with 82 wins, four years older than Hirscher.

Hirscher, a technical specialist with an injury history much shorter than the speed racer Vonn, had averaged nine wins per season over the last five years. Had he kept up something close to that pace, he would have passed Stenmark well before the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

Instead, he made a decision rare in sport: He walked away during his peak, passing up the chance to become the greatest of all time (by that statistical measure, though some may argue the eight overall crowns make a strong argument). It’s not that surprising. For years, Hirscher hinted at early retirement.

He left his future up in the air after each World Cup season, but the assumption was always that he would continue. Who leaves the sport in their 20s without major injury or a dip in results?

But Hirscher, whose father ran a ski school and whose mother was a ski instructor, was never one for the frenzy around Austrian racers.

“The only thing I can do next season is [lose],” Hirscher, who equated his celebrity in Austria to that of Tom Brady in the U.S., said going into the 2018 Olympic season. “Because if I’m finishing second, in the Austrian press it would be a disaster. It is hard to manage with this pressure.”

He relished eating a cheeseburger unnoticed in Aspen, Colo. In offseasons, he preferred dirt-biking, motocross, whitewater kayaking and rock climbing. Now he is married with a 10-month-old son.

“I simply believe that I was extremely lucky to have the knees as a professional athlete after so many years I can go home without having any after-effects,” he said Wednesday. “It was always important to catch the moment where I thought, I want to play football with my little boy, climb the mountains or do things I couldn’t if I had any serious injury.”

Hirscher, who was the slalom favorite in Sochi but took silver, finished his Olympic career by delivering big time in PyeongChang.

He won his first event, the combined, by posting the fastest slalom run by 1.02 seconds. Five days later, he won his second race, the giant slalom, by 1.27 seconds (greater than the margin separating second from ninth). Hirscher, who had always expressed content without an Olympic gold medal, said all the pressure had gone away now that he had two.

“Win so many races, so many world championship titles, all the time, always the same question, where is the Olympic gold medal?” he said in PyeongChang. “Now it is finally here. If you have a perfect career, you need this one Olympic gold medal.”

Asked to name his successors, Hirscher noted slalom and giant slalom rivals Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway and Alexis Pinturault of France.

“Maybe it can be someone, an athlete we have never heard of before,” he said. “If I think back to the beginning of myself, nobody was expecting that I’m going to win the overall World Cup. Not so early, no so fast, not so often.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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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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