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Olympics notes

COVID-19 again wreaking havoc with international figure skating schedule

The Russians were poised to dominate the Grand Prix final in Osaka, led by 15-year-old Kamila Valieva.Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

Once again the coronavirus has turned the international figure skating season upside down.

The cancellation of this coming week’s Grand Prix final in Osaka due to Japan’s closing its borders to foreigners because of the Omicron variant follows the previous shifting of the Cup of China from Chongqing to Turin and the Four Continents Championship from Tianjin to Tallinn, Estonia.

That follows last year’s scrubbing of Skate Canada, the Internationaux de France, the Grand Prix final slated for Beijing, and the Four Continents scheduled for Sydney. If skating has been discombobulated, it’s likely because its schedule perennially is the most global of all of the winter sports with more events in Asia.

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What COVID-19 has done is prompt competitions to be switched to Europe. Since Tallinn already is hosting the continental championships in January it made sense to move the Four Continents there, even if none of the those four continents includes Europe.

While the Grand Prix final still may be held at season’s end, that seems impractical and duplicative, what with the Olympics in February and the world championships in France in late March.

The Russians were poised to dominate in Osaka. Their women claimed five of the six entries, led by 15-year-old Kamila Valieva and 17-year-old Anna Shcherbakova. The Motherland also qualified four pairs, one man (Mikhail Kolyada), and a dance couple. The Americans would have sent three men — Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou, and Jason Brown — plus dance couples Madison Hubbell-Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock-Evan Bates.

Shiffrin’s record chase

Mikaela Shiffrin, who equaled Ingemar Stenmark’s World Cup skiing record of 46 career victories in one discipline by winning her fifth straight Killington slalom crown last weekend, will have to wait a while to break it since the next race in that event isn’t until Dec. 29 in Lienz, Austria.

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After that, Shiffrin’s next career milestone will be passing Lindsey Vonn as the American woman with the most total victories (82). Shiffrin, who has 71, likely won’t do it this season unless she loads up on speed races. But time is on her side.

Stenmark, the all-time leader with 86 triumphs (all in technical races), competed for 16 seasons and Vonn for 18. The 26-year-old Shiffrin is only in her 11th.

Frigid conditions

How cold was it Sunday of the World Cup cross-country skiing’s opening weekend in Ruka, Finland, which is north of the Arctic Circle? So cold (minus-5 degrees in the stadium) that the entire Norwegian men’s team, not usually mistaken for fragile fauna, refused to race in the 15-kilometer pursuit and let the Russians own the podium.

Their countrywomen did race, however, and finished first and third with Therese Johaug and Heidi Weng in a race that was delayed twice. Rosie Brennan was the top US competitor, in fifth.

Challenging course

Zhangjiakou is one of the three main sites for the upcoming Winter Games.WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

Like most of the Olympic venues in Beijing the snowboardcross track at Secret Garden in Zhangjiakou will present unusual challenges.

“The course is an interesting combination of both gliding skills and power,” observed US coach Peter Foley. “So it takes a really well-rounded and incredibly strong snowboarder to do well here.”

Nick Baumgartner finished third on virtually the same layout as the Olympic course, which was a good omen for the US males, who were shut out of the SBX medals in PyeongChang for the first time at the Games.

Done for the season

With World Cup seasons in most Olympic sports just underway, short-track speedskating’s already has ended.

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Kristen Santos of Fairfield, Conn. was the top US performer, finishing second overall in the 1,000 meters and fourth in the 1,500. The Americans qualified three women for the Games in the 500 and 1,000 and two in the 1,500, plus the relay.

The men, who don’t figure to be anywhere near the podium in Beijing, qualified one entry in the 500 and two in the 1,000 and 1,500, but no relay.

Looking to qualify

Ashley Farquharson, who has two top-12 finishes in the first two World Cup luge races, has a leg up on qualifying for the US Olympic team, which is based on three placement tiers. She already has satisfied the Tier B requirements with two top-13 finishes. Summer Britcher, who was sixth at last season’s world championships, needs a top-five Cup finish to earn a spot.

Mushy conditions at last weekend’s stop in Sochi — rain, 55 degrees, and 80 percent humidity — didn’t help. The lugers are there again this weekend since the events scheduled for Whistler, British Columbia, and Lake Placid were shifted to Russia because of COVID entry bans.

That was a blow to Emily Sweeney of Suffield, Conn., who’s bidding for a return trip to the Games. But since she’s serving in the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, Defense Department rules prohibit her from competing in Russia.

Three-way tie

For the first time in World Cup skeleton history there was a triple tie in the men’s race in Innsbruck last weekend with China’s Geng Wenqiang, Great Britain’s Matt Weston, and Germany’s Christopher Grotheer deadlocking for first in a sport where times are clocked to the hundredth of a second. It was China’s first Cup title and the first for the British since 2008. The Americans, who finished 20th and 27th, were happy just to make it to the starting line after Austin Florian and John Daly tested positive for COVID-19. Florian was cleared the day before the race and Daly just 20 minutes in advance . . . Turning 100 last month was George “Doc” Nagobads, who was the US men’s hockey team’s physician at five Olympics, most notably the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980. The Latvian-born Nagobads, who suggested to coach Herb Brooks that he name Mike Eruzione as captain for his leadership skills, was the man with the stopwatch on the bench during the victory over the Soviet Union, counting down the 40-second shifts that kept the Americans fresh during the final minutes.

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(Material from Olympic committees, sports federations, interviews, websites, and wire services was used in this report.)