Mikaela Shiffrin
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Winter Olympic sports season produced pain, farewells, stories to track for 2022

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With the Winter Olympic sports season ending prematurely, a sport-by-sport look at what we learned to take into the 2020-21 season, the last full season before the next Winter Games. Figure skating will be covered in a forthcoming piece …

Mikaela Shiffrin endured an athlete’s gamut
Shiffrin finished her most challenging season yet by achieving an otherwise simple goal: making a few good turns on her skis. That was three weeks ago in training in Are, Sweden, about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

“It was probably the biggest, most successful day that I’ve had so far, maybe in my career,” Shiffrin said, according to The New York Times.

Shiffrin’s father, Jeff, died suddenly on Feb. 2. She took a month-plus break from the World Cup circuit. Shiffrin decided in early March to return for what would be the revised final races of the season in Sweden. After landing and practicing, those races were called off.

Shiffrin entered the season looking to become the second woman to win four straight World Cup overall titles, joining 1970s Austrian legend Annemarie Moser-Pröll. She was on track through January, scattering six race victories among struggles with confidence, choking up in at least one Austrian TV interview. During her break, she went from leading the standings by 370 points to trailing Italian Federica Brignone by 153 points.

Next season, Shiffrin will pass recently retired Austrian Marcel Hirscher for third on the all-time wins list with a pair of victories. If she continues her recent winning percentage, she will near Lindsey Vonn‘s female record of 82 around the 2022 Olympics. She will also be racing, for the first time next season and for the rest of her career, with the memory of her dad.

“It has been therapeutic to be on the mountain, maybe even healing,” she said earlier this month. “I’ve found training to be a place where I can feel closer to my dad, yet it provides enough of a distraction so that feeling of closeness can be separated from the pain.”

Men’s Alpine Skiing: Surprise successor to Hirscher
The first season post-Hirscher, who bagged the previous eight overall titles. The primary thoughts at the outset were 1) It’s time for France’s Alexis Pinturault, second the previous season, to ascend with his talent spanning slalom to super-G. 2) It’s time for Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, Hirscher’s fiercest rival in slalom and giant slalom, to benefit the most from Hirscher’s absence and win his first title. 3) It’s time for the renaissance of the downhill racer, perhaps Italian Dominik Paris, to take hold of the overall.

All three of those men showed early flashes. But Pinturault lacked consistency. Kristoffersen ceded points to emerging rivals in slalom. Paris suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a January training crash.

Enter Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. Kilde, 27, came into the season with a previous best finish of seventh in the overall. He left it as the champion, passing Pinturault in what turned out to be the final race on March 7. Kilde, from a Norwegian village west of Oslo that world chess champion Magnus Carlsen once called home, claimed the overall despite recording just one race victory. But he also had five runners-up and finished in the top 10 of all but three of his starts from Dec. 1 through the end of the season.

Kilde’s results were inconsistent over the previous seasons. He has no Olympic or senior world championships medals. The next winter, with a world championships, will be key to pinning down his Olympic chances.

On the American front, giant slalom specialist Tommy Ford ended a near-three-year U.S. men’s victory drought, its longest in two decades. Another giant slalom star, 35-year-old, two-time Olympic champion Ted Ligety, has not publicly said if he will continue racing after he finished 12th in the GS standings with a top result of fifth in the season opener.

Biathlon: A legend retires; an American surprises
Frenchman Martin Fourcade was the biggest name to retire from winter sports this season. His surprise announcement came on the eve of the final race of the season. Fourcade, a 31-year-old with seven Olympic medals, was a force for nearly a decade: seven straight World Cup overall titles from 2012-18, 28 world championships medals, including 13 golds, and five gold medals between the last two Olympics.

His absence clears the way for Norwegian Johannes Thingnes Bø, who began emerging as a 20-year-old in 2013 and repeated as World Cup overall champion this year. At 26, he may be en route to a Fourcade-like career.

The top two female biathletes at the PyeongChang Olympics — German Laura Dahlmeier and Slovakian Anastasiya Kuzmina — retired before the start of the season. That helped open the door for American veteran Susan Dunklee to earn a second career surprise silver medal at the world championships. She is the only American woman to earn an individual world medal. The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon for either gender. Dunklee, 34, was one of four biathletes in the field of 101 to shoot clean over 10 attempts on a windy day in Italy.

Overall, the new leading woman is Italian Dorothea Wierer, who has her own clothing line in addition to the last two World Cup overall crowns. The 29-year-old’s best individual Olympic finish between 2014 and 2018 was sixth. An female biathlete has never won an individual Olympic medal, though Karin Oberhofer is in line to be upgraded to bronze in a 2014 event due to a Russian’s doping.

Bobsled/Luge/Skeleton: A pregnancy, nationality switch and the U.S.’ one world title
Women’s bobsled brought the biggest U.S. news among the sliding sports. Two months before the season, triple Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor announced her pregnancy.

Nine days later, Canada’s two-time Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries was released to start competing for the U.S. after a harassment complaint against a coach. Humphries, married to a former U.S. bobsledder, went on to capture her third world title in what ended up being the only world championship for any U.S. athlete in the abbreviated winter sports season. There are no skiing world championships in even years, and figure skating worlds were canceled due to the coronavirus.

Germany and Russia combined to win the rest of the bobsled, luge and skeleton world titles. Most notably, Francesco Friedrich won a sixth straight two-man bobsled world title. After two-time Olympic champion Natalie Geisenberger announced she would miss the season due to pregnancy, Germany failed to win an individual men’s or women’s event at luge worlds for the first time since 1993.

Freestyle Skiing: Gus Kenworthy’s switch; moguls perfection
Perhaps the biggest news of the season came off the mountain: Kenworthy, the two-time U.S. Olympian and silver medalist, announced a switch to his birth nation of Great Britain for a 2022 Olympic run. Kenworthy cited honoring his mom, who is British, and taking “a path of less resistance” to qualifying rather than enduring a series of U.S. qualifiers in slopestyle and halfpipe as he went through in 2014 and 2018. Kenworthy has noted a goal of winning his first X Games title. He should get another three chances in Aspen next January as big air is added to the Olympic program in 2022.

Elsewhere in freestyle skiing, nobody had a better season than French mogulist Perrine Laffont. Laffont, who in PyeongChang became the youngest Olympic freestyle skiing champion ever at 19, swept all six World Cups (excluding dual moguls) to nearly double her career total. She has a ways to go to match the excellence of Canadian moguls star Mikaël Kingsbury, who earned his ninth straight World Cup overall title.

Nordic Skiing: Therese Johaug dominates after missing Olympics over lip cream
The Norwegian Johaug notched 20 World Cup victories this season, 17 more than anybody else. Johaug, 31, was banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after testing positive for a steroid found in a cream given to her by a team doctor to treat sunburned lips. Johaug won two overall titles before the ban, and now she is dominating like never before and since the retirement of all-time Olympic medal leader and countrywoman Marit Bjørgen. Johaug is at 73 career World Cup wins, trailing only Bjørgen (114) on the career list for either gender.

Early in the season, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen became the first U.S. woman to wear the World Cup leader’s yellow bib, extending a recent run of milestones for the program that included its first Olympic title in the PyeongChang team sprint. Four different U.S. women made individual podiums, but none won for the first time since 2015.

Norway also scored big in ski jumping — Olympic champion Maren Lundby, 25, earned her third straight World Cup title — and Nordic combined — Jarl Magnus Riiber, 22, repeated as World Cup champion by extending his run to 23 wins in his last 27 World Cup starts in all events. Before Riiber, Norway, the all-time Winter Olympic medals leader, had not produced a Nordic combined World Cup champion in 20 years.

Snowboarding: U.S. shut out of X Games halfpipe medals in stars’ absence
Shaun White and Chloe Kim both took the season off. That made it less of a surprise when no U.S. man or woman earned a halfpipe medal at the X Games in Aspen, Colo., the first time that happened for either gender. Both White and Kim have said they plan to return — White, after ditching an Olympic skateboarding bid, at some point for a 2022 Olympic run and Kim, after freshman classes at Princeton, next season.

Two-time Olympic champion Jamie Anderson came back from a hard fall at the 2019 X Games to notch her sixth slopestyle title. Red Gerard, the surprise PyeongChang slopestyle champ, made his first X Games podium with a third-place finish.

Speed Skating: Big-name retirements, Dutch extend reign
The long-track speed skating season was bookended by retirements from decorated Americans Shani Davis and Heather Bergsma, neither of whom had competed since the PyeongChang Olympics. The U.S. hosted worlds at the 2002 Olympic oval in Utah, where Joey Mantia‘s 1500m bronze on the final day kept the U.S. streak alive of a medal at every worlds this millennium. The powerful Dutch were vulnerable to start the championships but finished with a flurry to top the standings again.

Short track worlds were canceled due to the coronavirus. In the World Cup season, Dutchwoman Suzanne Schulting and Korean Park Ji-Won topped the overall rankings. Schulting, 22, did so for a second straight year to back up her PyeongChang Olympic 1000m title. Park, 23, continued his ascension in the deep Korean program after ranking third overall behind two countrymen a year ago and not competing on the World Cup the two seasons before that.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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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