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Grand Prix Final pairs’ preview: Russian revival or China’s run to Beijing?

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It’s been six years since mighty Russia last won a world title in pairs’ figure skating, five years since its last Olympic crown and three since Russians topped a Grand Prix Final podium. And last season, Russia failed to win the European title for the first time in eight years.

“They were kind of left with no one,” after 2014 Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov stepped away, and subsequent teams failed to consistently win at the highest level, said Johnny Weir, NBC Sports analyst and noted aficionado of all things Russia.

That can change leading into the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, perhaps beginning at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. It’s the most exclusive event in skating featuring the world’s top six teams. It’s near the midpoint of the Olympic cycle, prime time for new blood to circulate.

Enter Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy. They are 17 and 19 years old, respectively, and own the world’s highest score this season after sweeping their Grand Prix Series starts. Russia qualified three pairs into the Final, all with an average age in the teens.

They represent what Russia hopes is a new era. Olympics and world championships came and went with Germans, Canadians and Chinese relegating the likes of Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov to silver or bronze medals.

“So [Russia] were left with these junior teams who aren’t always reliable,” Weir said. “When you’re a junior skater, you’re still finding your legs and learning how to compete at a high level. You aren’t always as reliable as a seasoned veteran. What I think is so exciting about the young teams coming up is that they’ve all shown they can carry the torch for Russia. It’s an exciting place for Russia to be, especially not far away from the next Olympic Games.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Yuzuru Hanyu | Alysa Liu
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Boikova and Kozlovskiy could become the youngest pairs’ champions in Grand Prix Final history, and the youngest at any global competition of this caliber since the legendary Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergey Grinkov at the 1987 World Championships.

Weir likes Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, who went undefeated on the junior circuit last season and won their senior Grand Prix debut in November.

“They have a nice, powerful way of performing, very St. Petersburg, if I can put it that way and people will understand,” he said. “There’s a very big difference, artistically, between Moscow school of skating and St. Petersburg school of skating. That power and that presence is definitely evident.”

Standing in their way are Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, undefeated since taking silver at the PyeongChang Olympics despite missing the 2018 Grand Prix season due to Sui’s stress fracture in her right foot.

Sui and Han also swept their Grand Prix starts with a higher average score than Boikova and Kozlovskiy. Weir and fellow NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said they are the favorites this week.

“Sui and Han are in a class of their own,” Lipinski said. “They set themselves apart in their consistency and their maturity. Going up against these youngsters, I think it’s clear that the chemistry they’ve developed over the years together and that the confidence they have in their skating is superior to anyone else in the field. Obviously, people can be competitive with them at the final, but they would have to have major errors.

“Clearly, they have one goal, and that’s to win Beijing [2022 Olympics], which I think they’re on the road to.”

But the sheer depth of Russian pairs’ could win out by the Winter Games. Russia qualified the top four pairs into each of the last two Junior Grand Prix Finals, plus earned every medal at the last two junior worlds.

“Russia could technically be looking at [2022 Olympic] sweeps in ladies and, possibly, pairs, should these junior teams that have just come up continue to develop,” Weir said.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years, though Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier became the first Americans to earn medals in both of their Grand Prix starts since 2015.

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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Sun Yang defends failure to take drug test

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MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) — One of China’s biggest Olympic stars fought Friday for his right to compete at the Tokyo Games during a rare public hearing that turned combative at times, as champion swimmer Sun Yang defended his refusal to complete a doping test last year.

During a 10-hour session marred at times by translation problems, Sun maintained that inspectors drawing blood and urine samples failed to have proper identification papers.

The interpretation issues in both English and Chinese brought a halt to the landmark Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hearing several times, frustrating lawyers for both sides during Sun’s opening cross-examination. Sun’s mother later took the stand, at one point admonishing lawyers, “I haven’t finished yet.”

One lawyer said he could not tell if Sun was being evasive or if it was simply a case of misunderstood translation.

The case stems from the three-time Olympic champion’s refusal to cooperate with three anti-doping officials during a random test that became a confrontation in the early morning hours at his home in China in September 2018.

“During inspection, I realized they don’t have any authorized papers to prove their identification,” Sun testified Friday.

A World Anti-Doping Agency expert disputed Sun’s account, saying the inspectors’ credentials were in order.

A tribunal appointed by the swimming world body FINA initially gave Sun only a caution, but WADA appealed the case to CAS. Its judges are not expected to hand down a verdict until next year. If the ruling goes against him, Sun could be banned from the 2020 Olympics.

The 6-foot, 7-inch Sun became a star in China as the country’s first man to win an Olympic title in swimming. He won the 400m and 1500m freestyles at the 2012 London Olympics. He added gold in the 200m in Rio.

The 27-year-old Sun, who also has 11 world championships, has been a polarizing figure in the sport.

In Rio, Australian rival Mack Horton called him a drug cheat as anger built over a three-month ban for his positive test in 2014 that some considered too lenient. The ban was initially kept secret by Chinese authorities and FINA, which some accused of appearing to protect one of its biggest names in a key market.

Sun provoked more anger among rivals by winning two world titles in July while the CAS appeal was pending. Medalists Horton and Brit Duncan Scott refused to stand on the podium with him in Gwangju, South Korea.

The translation problems at Friday’s hearing began almost from the start, and it was unclear at times how much of the testimony and questions were understood, with both judges and lawyers expressing frustration.

At one point, Sun’s Geneva-based lawyer, Ian Meakin, apologized for asking his client leading questions, saying: “The translation was so bad.”

The translation was so poor that “you couldn’t tell if (Sun) was monumentally evasive or couldn’t understand the questions,” said Richard Young, a lawyer for WADA.

When the hearing resumed after a break, judging panel president Franco Frattini also apologized for its poor quality.

The court noted that Sun’s team selected the translators, who were replaced at a lunch break by a WADA staff member. Lawyers were told an accurate transcript of the morning sessions would later be provided to all parties.

Sun detailed how he and his entourage had doubted the qualifications of the officials conducting the doping test at his home.

“How are you able to trust them?” said Sun, whose personal doctor had been summoned to the scene.

A security guard, under instructions from Sun’s mother, used a hammer to smash a box containing a vial of his blood during the late-night dispute after the swimmer questioned the collection team’s credentials.

Sun said he was not respected by the officials, including a chaperone he said asked to take his photograph.

“This is really ridiculous,” Sun said in translated comments.

Although Sun and his entourage were criticized for their conduct, the first FINA tribunal panel said the sample mission was void and invalid because anti-doping protocol was not followed. Technically, Sun was judged to be not properly notified of needing to give samples.

WADA has asked for a ban of between two and eight years, saying Sun voluntarily refused to submit to give samples.

“That is pretty sensational,” Young, the WADA lawyer, said of the hammer-smashing incident. “But he was nailed on a tampering violation before any of that happened.”

If WADA’s appeal is upheld, Sun risks a longer sanction that could bar him from the Tokyo Games because it would be his second offense. The first offense brought the three-month ban imposed by Chinese authorities in 2014, after Sun tested positive for a banned stimulant.

That initial ban was quickly addressed by Sun and his legal team on Friday. He said it was a prescribed medication for a heart issue because he sometimes fainted after training.

Lawyers for WADA repeatedly asked if Sun had learned in his long career of the serious consequences for refusing to give a sample. He repeatedly answered that the lead anti-doping official had not warned him specifically.

Sun’s anti-doping history was detailed, with 180 samples given at competitions and during training from 2012-18. A total of 60 were organized by the Sweden-based firm IDTM, which sent the collection team to Sun’s home in 2018.

CAS judge Philippe Sands pressed Sun about whether IDTM staff had shown different kinds of documents of authorization on the 59 previous occasions he gave samples without problems.

Friday’s hearing, the first open to the media and public observers since 1999, played out inside a ballroom annex set among lakeside hotel gardens in the upscale Swiss resort of Montreux. Next door stood the concert halls of the city’s famed jazz festival.

Amid concerns over witness intimidation, the three anti-doping officials who visited Sun’s home testified earlier and did not attend Friday’s session, which was watched by more than 100 accredited observers in the room and streamed live on the CAS website.

The hearing ended with Sun surprising his own legal team by waving his arms and calling another translator from the public seats to better articulate his closing statement.

“Who is this guy?” asked an incredulous Judge Frattini, a former Italian foreign minister. “It is not up to you to appear before the court.”

“There are some rules,” he said.

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Sun Yang should get lengthy ban if he loses doping hearing, WADA says

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The World Anti-Doping Agency wants China’s star swimmer Sun Yang banned for up to eight years for alleged doping rules violations.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport said Tuesday ahead of a rare appeal hearing in open court on Friday that WADA requests a ban of two to eight years. Sun served a three-month ban in 2014 for a positive test.

If WADA wins, the three-time Olympic freestyle champion will miss the Tokyo Games.

WADA has challenged world swimming body FINA’s ruling to merely warn Sun after a disputed attempt by sample collectors to take blood and urine from him at his home in China in September 2018. The late-night confrontation lasted from 11 p.m. to beyond 3:30 a.m.

The day-long hearing will examine why a secure box storing a glass vial of blood came to be destroyed by Sun’s entourage, who questioned the sample team’s authority. A FINA tribunal panel agreed the officials lacked proper credentials to make the sample collection valid.

WADA believes Sun broke anti-doping rules by refusing to submit to a sample collection.

All sides agreed to Sun’s request to hold a first CAS appeal in public for 20 years.

A verdict is unlikely until early next year.

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