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‘Trouble in paradise’ between Yuzuru Hanyu and Brian Orser? Coach says no

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It looked strange, to say the least.

There was Yuzuru Hanyu, the world’s most acclaimed active figure skater, waiting by himself in the Kiss and Cry to get his scores after a disappointing short program performance at last week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. At that moment in a competition, a coach is almost always at the skater’s side.

Once one of Hanyu’s coaches at his Toronto Cricket Club training base, Ghislain Briand, eventually showed up two days late, there would be a simple explanation for why Hanyu had been alone.

And yet even that would not explain why Hanyu’s primary coach, Brian Orser, had not gone to Italy for the second most important competition of the Japanese superstar’s season.

Was there a rift between the skater and the man who had coached him to two Olympic gold medals, two world titles and four Grand Prix Final titles in the seven seasons since Hanyu came to train under Orser?

“I know it looks like there is trouble in paradise, but there isn’t,” Orser said Tuesday via telephone.

“We have bumps in the relationship like any people who have worked closely with each other for a long time, but I feel pretty confident everything is fine. We were working great together this season, and he was skating very well – over 300 points at both his (regular season) Grand Prix events.”

Orser expected to talk with Hanyu about the situation Wednesday, when the skater was to return to practice at the Cricket Club after finishing a distant second Saturday to Nathan Chen of the United States in the Grand Prix Final. Hanyu had 291.43 points to Chen’s 335.50.

Much to Orser’s dismay and disappointment, the reaction to his absence was, like many things in the social media era, blown far out of proportion by some in Hanyu’s adoring and occasionally verbally belligerent fan base.

“So many fans were very angry at me,” Orser said. “They were blaming me and the Cricket Club for the bad start. By my not being there, it looked like I didn’t care. I wanted to go and was ready to go, but my hands were completely tied.”

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Each skater at the Grand Prix Final was allowed to have just one accredited coach on hand unless the coach, like Russia’s Eteri Tutberidze, had more than one skater in the event.

According to Orser, the Japanese Federation submitted Briand’s name for accreditation sometime after Hanyu won the NHK Trophy in Sapporo Nov. 23. (The deadline was Nov. 28.) Orser said he did not learn that until several days after NHK and did not know why that choice was made.

The official International Skating Union announcement of rules applying to the 2019 Grand Prix Final does not mention replacement of coaches. An ISU spokesperson said that any request for a change in a coach’s accreditation would have had to come from the national federation of the skater.

“I was put in an awkward position,” Orser said.

An email seeking comment from the Japan Skating Federation was not immediately answered.

Both Orser and Briand had been with Hanyu at NHK. Briand is considered a jump maestro, and Hanyu wanted to increase the difficulty of his jump content for the Final.

Even Orser’s absence from Turin might have been less noticeable if a missing passport had not forced Briand to return to Canada after landing in Germany for his connecting flight to Turin. (Briand told the Olympic Channel the passport had been stolen.) He got to Turin Friday.

That meant no one was with Hanyu when official practices began Wednesday and for the short program Thursday. By failing to do a combination in the short program, Hanyu fell nearly 13 points behind, an insurmountable margin unless Chen made one or two big mistakes in the free skate.

Not only did Chen do a brilliant and clean free skate, but Hanyu also made two more costly mistakes.

“Even though I wasn’t there, I was communicating with him,” Orser said. “But I’m sure Yuzu having to put himself on the ice for practices and the short program took something from his energy, both physically and mentally. It created a little extra drama.”

Hanyu said after the free skate that he had focused much of his energy on the two quadruple jumps that opened the program, a loop and Lutz, both of which he executed extremely well. It was the first time in two years – and just the second ever – he had done a quad Lutz in competition. Practicing that jump in 2017 had led to an injury that seriously compromised his preparation for the 2018 Olympics, which he won nevertheless.

“He was taking a little more technically-oriented approach to the Grand Prix Final,” Orser said of Hanyu. “He is very competitive, and he sees what Nathan is doing.”

Both did five quadruple jumps in the free skate. Hanyu had not previously attempted more than four.

Orser said he was aware of Hanyu’s intention to include the quad Lutz but was surprised to see video from Turin of Hanyu practicing a quad Axel, a jump no one has landed in competition. Hanyu fell on two Friday practice attempts of the quad Axel, and one of the falls was hard.

“I wouldn’t have suggested he try the Axel,” Orser said, “But he is on a mission with that jump.”

Orser said he expected to be with Hanyu at the Japanese Championships beginning Dec. 18.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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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.

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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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