Viktor Ahn
AP

Russian Olympic, world champion athletes barred from PyeongChang

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MOSCOW (AP) — Several of Russia’s top medal hopes for the PyeongChang Olympics, including six-time short track speed skating gold medalist Viktor Ahn, have been barred from the Games amid the country’s ongoing doping scandal, sparking renewed talk of a boycott.

Already depleted by doping bans and forced to compete under a neutral flag, Russia now faces an Olympics without some of its top skiers, figure skaters and sliders after they failed to pass International Olympic Committee vetting.

The exclusions have stirred renewed talk of a boycott, something athletes and officials ruled out last month when the IOC formally banned the Russian team, instead allowing “Olympic Athletes from Russia” under the Olympic flag.

“There was an attempt to take the Russian athletes’ flag, anthem, to push Russia toward a boycott … And now this is the second attempt, tyranny, an attempt to drive a wedge between athletes who had managed to keep their good name,” Mikhail Degtyarev, chairman of the Russian parliament’s sports committee, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

“I’m not personally a supporter of a boycott. I consider it counterproductive, but we need to defend our honor.”

The Russian Figure Skating Federation also said the IOC was trying to provoke Russia into a boycott.

The federation said it was “deeply disappointed in this baseless IOC decision which is reminiscent of a provocation with the aim of forcing Russian athletes by any means possible to decline to participate in the games.”

However, officials from Russia’s luge and curling federations spoke out against a possible boycott.

Besides Ahn, the Russian Olympic Committee said Tuesday that cross-country skier Sergei Ustyugov and biathlete Anton Shipulin had been left out of an IOC pool of eligible athletes.

Other officials said that two-time figure skating medalist Ksenia Stolbova and several other speedskaters were excluded.

ROC senior vice president Stanislav Pozdnyakov said in a statement that he discovered the absences during negotiations with IOC officials on Monday and has asked the Olympic body to explain why they were not included.

Pozdnyakov said Ahn, Ustyugov and Shipulin “have never been involved in any doping cases and all of the many samples they have given during their careers testify that they are clean athletes. Regardless, their names are currently missing from the list of potential participants in the games.”

The IOC said it would not comment on individual cases, and has not spelled out the criteria used to refuse invitations to the athletes named Tuesday in Russia.

Ahn, a short-track speedskater, won three gold medals for South Korea at the 2006 Olympics as Ahn Hyun-soo before switching allegiance to Russia in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, where he won three more.

The Russian Figure Skating Federation said in a statement that Stolbova, who won team gold and pairs silver in 2014, was excluded, as well as ice dancer Ivan Bukin, the son of 1988 Olympic gold medalist Andrei Bukin.

The head of the Russian Skating Union, Alexei Kravtsov, told the RIA Novosti state news agency that numerous other speedskaters had been barred.

They include world champions Pavel Kulizhnikov and Denis Yuskov, both of whom have previously served bans for failed doping tests, as well as Ruslan Zakharov, who won an Olympic short track relay gold medal in Sochi,

Five hockey players have also been barred, including former NHL players Sergei Plotnikov, Valeri Nichushkin and Anton Belov.

The Russian Hockey Federation submitted a list of more than 40 players it wished to choose from for its 25-man Olympic team. The federation named most of its superstars in the KHL — like Ilya KovalchukPavel Datsyuk and Slava Voynov — but left off three-time Olympian defenseman Andrei Markov.

Russian news agencies reported that the IOC still considers all members of the Russian Alpine skiing, freestyle skiing and curling teams to be eligible.

As punishment for what it termed a sophisticated doping program at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the IOC has forced all Russians competing in PyeongChang to do so as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” under the Olympic flag, rather than as an official Russian team.

Russian athletes must be vetted by an IOC commission, which will examine their history of drug testing and links to past doping, before they are invited to the games.

On Friday, the IOC said it had cut an initial list of 500 Russian athletes down to a pool of 389, but didn’t give any names. Russian officials have expressed hope they could field a team of 200 athletes. That’s below the number that competed for Russia in 2014, but above its total from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow is waiting for the IOC to clarify the situation.

“We have seen those deplorable reports in the media,” Peskov said. “We deeply regret if such decisions have indeed been taken. But we hope the situation will clear up because we do have contacts with the IOC. We hope those contacts will help clarify the situation around the aforementioned prominent athletes.”

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MORE: IOC creates pool of Russians eligible for PyeongChang Olympics

Viktor Ahn (Short Track Speed Skating)
Eight Olympic medals
Six Olympic gold medals
Most decorated male athlete at Sochi Olympics (three golds, one bronze)

Anton Shipulin (Biathlon)
Top four in World Cup standings each of the last four seasons

Sergei Ustyugov (Cross-Country Skiing)
Five medals at 2017 World Championships
Second in 2016-17 World Cup overall standings
2017 Tour de Ski champion

Ksenia Stolbova (Figure Skating)
2014 Olympic, World silver medalist

Pavel Kulizhnikov (Speed Skating)
2016 World champion, 500m and 1000m

Denis Yuskov (Speed Skating)
2017-18 World Cup leader, 1500m
2016 World champion, 1500m

Jason Brown’s big chance at NHK Trophy; preview, schedule

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For the third time in four years, Jason Brown has a great shot to qualify for the six-skater Grand Prix Final, the most exclusive event in figure skating.

He can clinch a Grand Prix Final berth for the first time this week at NHK Trophy in Japan, live on the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

The Grand Prix Final, held every December, takes the top six men from the fall Grand Prix series, where skaters can compete twice and then are ranked by combined results.

Usually, a skater must make the podium in both qualifiers to reach the Grand Prix Final.

Grand Prix Final berths are most important in the Olympic season for Americans. U.S. Figure Skating will name the three-man Olympic team after the U.S. Championships in January. The picks will be based on not only nationals results but also recent domestic and international performances.

In 2014, Brown was the youngest U.S. Olympic male singles skater since 1976. Later that year, Brown missed the Grand Prix Final by .16 of a point. He took silver at his first qualifier but stumbled to fifth at his second event.

Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu eked out that last 2014 Grand Prix Final spot over Brown by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy. Hanyu and Brown will go head-to-head this week at NHK with Grand Prix Final berths again at stake.

In 2015, Brown would have made the Grand Prix Final with a runner-up finish at NHK Trophy. But he withdrew before the event with a back injury.

Then last season, Brown would have made the Grand Prix Final by placing third at NHK. But he was seventh, slowed by right leg soreness that eventually developed into a stress fracture.

Brown’s Grand Prix Final fate will mostly or fully be decided at NHK again this week. He was second at Skate Canada last month. That means Brown will almost surely qualify for the Grand Prix Final if he’s second again this week.

He could even make it with a fourth- or fifth-place finish, depending on how the rest of the Grand Prix season plays out.

Brown is definitely a podium favorite this week.

Besides Hanyu and Brown, only one other man at NHK ranked in the top 12 in the world last season — 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, competing at the top international level for the first time in 11 months due to a broken foot.

NHK Trophy broadcast schedule (all times Eastern)
Friday (Short Programs)
Pairs — 12:30 a.m.
Women — 2 a.m.
Men — 5 a.m.
Ice Dance — 11 p.m.

Saturday (Free Skates)
Pairs — 12:30 a.m.
Women — 3 a.m.
Men — 5:30 a.m.
Ice Dance — 10 p.m.

NBC will air a recap show Saturday at at 1:30 p.m.

Men
Hanyu thrives in front of home fans. He’s going for a three-peat at NHK, where he shattered Patrick Chan‘s world record score two years ago and routed an up-and-coming Nathan Chen in 2016.

Hanyu was beaten by two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and Chen at his first two events this season, but he always gets off to slow starts. Nobody in this week’s field is an Olympic medal favorite. Hanyu won’t see them again until the Grand Prix Final next month.

The real intrigue is between Brown and Rippon, the next two strongest men in the field. A clutch performance from Brown to all but qualify for the Grand Prix Final could really boost his credentials to U.S. Figure Skating’s Olympic selection committee.

Rippon did qualify for last year’s Grand Prix Final before breaking his foot. If he outscores Brown at NHK, the 27-year-old will go into Skate America in two weeks looking to qualify for the Final again.

After Chen, the race for the last two U.S. Olympic men’s spots appears to be among Brown, Rippon, Vincent Zhou and Max Aaron. NHK is a chance for Brown and Rippon to further make their cases.

Women
The competition here also appears to be for silver and bronze. Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, the biggest Olympic gold-medal favorite across all figure skating events, goes for her 11th win in 12 career top-level senior international events.

Carolina Kostner is the second-ranked woman this Grand Prix season. Satoko Miyahara ranked No. 2 last fall. They’re both in this week’s field. Kostner, 30, can pretty much wrap up her first Grand Prix Final berth in six years with a podium.

Miyahara is competing for the first time since December due to a fractured hip. Once the biggest threat to Medvedeva, Miyahara is now in a fight to make the two-woman Japanese Olympic team.

Mariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu are also on the Olympic bubble. The third- and fourth-place finishers from last season’s nationals were sixth and ninth at their Grand Prix openers last month. This might be the last time we see them before the U.S. Championships.

Pairs
World champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are big favorites for a second win in as many weeks. They posted the best score in the world this season — by nearly seven points — at home in Beijing last weekend.

Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov were a distant second in the Grand Prix opener last month. Another runner-up here will likely be enough to reach the Grand Prix Final for the first time since winning it in 2015.

Americans Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim return to the Grand Prix after missing all of last fall due to her life-threatening abdominal condition. It won’t take much for the Knierims to strengthen their hold atop U.S. pairs given what we’ve seen from the others so far this fall. The U.S. has one pairs spot for PyeongChang.

Ice Dance
Tessa Virtue 
and Scott Moir are undefeated in their comeback after sitting out the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, but they are not the top-ranked couple in the world going into their second Grand Prix this season.

That’s because world silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France snatched the world record last week.

The two couples won’t face off until the Grand Prix Final next month, but no doubt Virtue and Moir are competing against that score (200.43) at NHK.

Meanwhile, U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue bid for a third straight trip to the Grand Prix Final. They need a runner-up here to keep that hope alive.

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Grand Prix figure skating: Five pairs to watch

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Five pairs teams to watch this fall as the Grand Prix season starts this week …

Sui Wenjing/Han Cong
China
2017 World champions
Grand Prix Starts: China, Japan

At 22 and 25, they are the new generation of Chinese pairs following the breakthrough early 2000s success of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo and Pang Qing and Tong Jian. Missed most of last season due to Sui’s right ankle and left foot surgeries the previous spring. No worry, they upgraded world silver medals in 2015 and 2016 by posting the highest short-program score since the Sochi Olympics and a personal-best free skate score by six points for the world title.

Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot
Germany
2017 World silver medalists
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, U.S.

Savchenko won five world titles and two Olympic bronze medals with Robin Szolkowy but needed a new parter when Szolkowy retired in 2014. Enter Massot, a Frenchman who was cleared to compete with Savchenko for Germany in October 2015. They, too, overcame injury last year (Savchenko’s torn ankle ligament) for silver at their two biggest events — Europeans and worlds.

Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov
Russia
2017 World bronze medalists
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, France

The present and future of Russian pairs. Tarasova, 22, and Morozov, 24, won the two biggest events before worlds last season — the Grand Prix Final and Europeans. At worlds, Tarasova sliced her leg on Morozov’s skate in a practice accident hours before short program. With 10 stitches, they went on win their first world medal.

Grand Prix Capsules: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance | TV Schedule

Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford
Canada
2015, 2016 World champions
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, U.S.

Attempted last season to become the first pair in nearly 40 years to win three straight world titles. But they struggled as the campaign went on, notably on a throw triple Axel they eventually dropped from their arsenal, culminating in a seventh-place showing at worlds.

Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov
Russia
2014 Olympic silver medalists
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

Maybe the biggest wild card in all of figure skating. They looked primed for greatness after taking silver in Sochi — at ages 22 and 23, behind Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov (who are uncertain to defend their Olympic title). But injuries struck both skaters. Their season debut last year came at the Russian Championships in late December, where they upset Tarasova and Morozov. But they fell to fourth at Europeans and fifth at worlds, where they were 13th in the short program.

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