Tuesday December 29th, 2009

For four years since he won the men's title at the Turin Olympics, Russia's Yevgeny Plushenko has been the wildcard in the men's figure skating equation, talking comeback and keeping out of sight. In October, he returned to the ice to win the Rostelecom Cup with a strong, but flawed, performance in Moscow that suggested he might make a run at another Olympics.

This past weekend, Plushenko confirmed his return and his form, winning the Russian Olympic trials with a world-record score of 271.59 points. The question is still just how much is real and how much is wishful thinking. He says has been practicing a program with options for two quadruple jumps (either a quad-quad or a triple Axel, quad combination) that could vault him to another planet of execution marks, but has yet to pull them off in competition.

Some observers suspect that none of the contenders for the men's crown will need a quad to win. Plushenko landed one quad over the weekend and has only competed twice in Russia, once with exclusively Russian judges. He should also get a favorable shake at the European Championships in Tallinn, Estonia, next month, his last scheduled competition before the Olympics. But what happens when he travels abroad and faces more measured scrutiny from international judges in Vancouver?

What's more, Plushenko confesses that he is still suffering from the lingering knee ailments that led him to retire in the first place. After his victory in October, he told reporters, "I was sleeping late, drinking wine, eating pasta. I was not prepared for anything." Yet, even with all those uncertainties, it is no longer possible to ignore the reigning champion.

An advisory panel recently established by the USOC and chaired by USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean will make a crucial decision in the next few weeks to hire a new CEO who will lead the committee into the next decade. Out of roughly 100 candidates, the group has narrowed its list down to six: Sandy Alderson, the former VP of Major League Baseball; Scott Blackmun, the USOC's acting CEO in 2000; Norm Bellingham, the committee's current COO and a gold medalist in kayaking; Mark Lewis, the President of Jet Sports; Joe Moglia, the TD Ameritrade Chairman and former defensive coordinator at Dartmouth; and Chuck Wielgus, the CEO of USA Swimming.

The U.S. Olympic movement is in tatters. Chicago's bid to land the 2016 Olympics fell on deaf ears this fall in Copenhagen when the IOC voted the capable city out in the first round. It was a sort of punishment for a year of discontent during which the USOC took several steps that offended the IOC.

In March, the committees quibbled openly about the percentage of revenues the USOC receives from domestic television contracts at about the time CEO Jim Scheer, a former Olympic wrestler who had gained credibility, resigned after an internal fight with the USOC's board of directors. With Chairman Peter Ueberroth, a longtime Olympic veteran on his way out, that left the USOC with Larry Probst, the head of EA Sports, as Chairman and Stephanie Streeter as acting CEO. Neither found footing with the IOC brass and both had trouble at home.

In a poll of domestic sports federation leaders, Streeter was given a resounding 40-0 vote of no-confidence. Hers is the position up for consideration now. Over the summer, the USOC went ahead with a decision to announce the formation of an Olympic network despite the objections of the IOC, which noted an existing agreement with Universal Sports, a partner of NBC, that paid more than $2 billion for Olympic broadcast rights. At a time when Streeter and Probst needed to visit with IOC members and the international sports community at large in order to explain themselves and build relationships, they chose to skip certain meetings and leave others early.

There are no U.S. representatives on the IOC's 15-member executive board and no presidents of international sports committees under the Olympic umbrella. It is an astounding fall from grace for a nation that provides the lion's share of revenues to the IOC and is always at or near the top of the Olympic medal count. Given the state of the USOC within the international community, it is critical that the search group opt for a least-objectionable-candidate, someone who can speak the Olympic language without baggage, somebody who comes off as more "Olympian" than "corporate."

Backroom schmoozing and relationship-building determine who wins Olympic bids, who gets elected to international sports presidencies, and which cities are awarded rights to world championships and regional events such as the Pan-Am Games, European championships, Asian Games and so on. U.S. Olympic interests will only be served by someone who has a lifelong commitment to the lifestyle and the Olympic world's quirky metabolism.

Several of the candidates carry potential baggage to their candidacy. Alderson comes from baseball, a sport recently voted out of the Olympic program by the IOC's executive board. Blackmun is a lawyer who worked for Anschutz Entertainment Group after leaving his USOC post the first time. The IOC questions the USOC's revolving-door leadership that seems to change with every season. Blackmun may be seen as another recycled candidate.

The Harvard-educated Bellingham cares deeply about the Olympics, but he was the man who tried to push through the Olympic network at Ueberroth's behest. It didn't go over well at all. If he can get past that, at 45, he would have time to build relationships that could prosper if he stays in the position. Lewis led a joint marketing venture between the USOC and organizers of the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. Those Games were rocked by scandal before the new regime took over. And the Olympic hospitality world has dicey hints of interest conflicts lurking.

Moglia brings no Olympic experience whatsoever to the table and would have a hard time saying hello to people in that world; Wielgus would seem to be a safe pick, an agreeable guy who would play well abroad, although his experience is focused on one sport, albeit a major one.

USOC leaders have come (and gone) from the corporate world before. The reigns of Norm Blake and Lloyd Ward didn't last. The new leader must be someone with the Olympic DNA that Bellingham and Wielgus can bring to the backrooms and not just to the boardrooms in order to right the USOC's wayward ship.

In a wildly inconsistent season that has ranged from DNFs to sizeable victories, add an injury scare to the Jekyll and Hyde campaign of World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn. Last weekend, she crashed midway through a run of a World Cup giant slalom in Lienz, Austria, recovering to ski to the bottom of the course with her left arm in a sling. She was diagnosed with a bad bone bruise near the wrist, but no fractures or damage to tendons or ligaments. Vonn's injury also called into question the recent trend in course preparation to prepare (i.e. ice) the courses more heavily, increasing speed and peril at the same time. Vonn said she was in considerable pain in the hospital, but was also cleared by doctors to ski as soon as she was able.

For the most part, the Olympic freestyle trials that took place last week in Steamboat Springs, Co. were weighted competitions designed to generate buzz around winner-take-all moments that could play well on TV. With only one berth up for grabs and remaining places determined by cumulative results, there were few surprises. Lacy Schnoor was the one athlete who may not have made it to Vancouver without a victory. Schnoor and Jeret "Speedy" Peterson earned spots on the team in the aerials trial. Officials actually announced that favorite Emily Cook was the winner of the women's event, but later recalculated scores because she balked at her second jump. Schnoor landed a full-full (two backflips and two twists) and a lay-full on her two jumps. She has always been comfortable in the air. As a ninth-grader at Crescent View Middle School, she was fooling around on the trampoline when the USOC's School to Sport program came to visit. Schnoor drew an invitation to an aerials camp at Utah Olympic Park.

The sport's bumpy nature seems fitting for Peterson, a 2006 Olympian who knocked off teammate Ryan St. Onge to earn the berth. Peterson's trademark jump is the Hurricane or the Quint, a single jump with five twists. At the Turin Games, he placed seventh after he put his hand down on the snow. Soon after, he was asked to leave the Olympic village early after he punched a friend in the face during an argument outside a bar. A year earlier, he shared a house in Park City with a friend who had battled drugs and alcohol. Peterson watched in horror as the friend shot himself. Hopefully, Vancouver will balance out those hard knocks with more positive developments.

Is it possible that the U.S. squad with the greatest depth might be the Nordic combined team? This is a sport in which the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal, yet the team entered the Olympic trials in Steamboat Springs with two individual world champions, Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong. But with an Olympic berths up for grabs, it was Johnny Spillane, the 2003 world champ, who rallied past both in the cross-country phase to qualify for Vancouver.

Spillane was certainly overlooked after a pair of offseason meniscus surgeries, but made up nine seconds on his hometown course to capture the spot. Pain has never fazed the 29-year old, who won his world title despite racing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Lodwick and Demong, second and third in Steamboat, will surely be in Vancouver, leaving the U.S. with an excellent chance to win the team event after a seventh-place finish in 2006. The rest of the roster will be selected on Jan. 19.

Blizzard-like conditions couldn't stop favorites Patrick Deneen and Hannah Kearney from earning berths on the Olympic moguls team. Both freestyle skiers nailed back layouts on the course. Deneen, the reigning world champion, also hit a trademark cork 7 while the oft-injured Kearney, the 2005 world champ, stuck a helicopter, a full twisting rotation, on one jump. Deneen, 22, was virtually reared on snow: born on Christmas, placed on skis before his first birthday and home-schooled through high school while his father ran a ski resort in Washington state. He had never won a World Cup title when he captured the worlds last season.

Despite not playing in the NHL this season, Peter Forsberg will be heading back to the Olympics as a member of Sweden's hockey team. Head coach Bengt Gustafsson added Forsberg to a roster that includes NHL stars such as Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom, Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson, Vancouver's Henrik and Daniel Sedin, and the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist, the team's likely starting goaltender. Forsberg scored the gold-medal-winner for Sweden during a shootout at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, but his aggressive style of play has caused him numerous injuries during his career, especially his knees and feet. Forsberg has been playing for MoDo of the Swedish Elite League.

Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov also named his Olympic roster last week. The squad includes Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin of Washington, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar of the Penguins, Pavel Datsyuk of the Red Wings, Ilya Kovalchuk of the Thrashers and Evgeni Nabakov of the Sharks. Ottawa's Alex Kovalev was the most notable surprise omission from the team.

Team USA will be announced after the Winter Classic game in Fenway Park between the Bruins and Flyers on New Year's Day.

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