Ukraine has begun a boycott of international judo events because the Russian team was allowed to compete as Olympic qualification began on Friday.
Judo is one of the few Olympic sports in which Russians can still compete, though they must do so without their flag and are officially representing the International Judo Federation. That goes against the wishes of the International Olympic Committee, which recommends excluding athletes from Russia and its ally Belarus following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Until this week, Russia stayed away from international judo events citing what the IJF termed “logistics and safety” concerns, but it entered 24 athletes in the Grand Slam tournament in Mongolia which started on Friday. That’s the first competition which counts toward qualification for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Ukraine is staying away in protest.
“Everybody who follows world sport a small way understands that Russian athletes are a key part of this country’s aggressive propaganda politics,” Ukrainian Judo Federation president Mykhailo Koshliak wrote in an open letter dated Thursday.
“Speaking of Russia and sport, it is by no means possible to say that ‘sport is out of politics.’ The silence of Russian and Belarusian athletes and coaches supports the war against Ukraine and kills thousands of Ukrainian citizens.”
Koshliak alleged 11 of the Russian team competing in Mongolia were “active representatives of the Russian Armed Forces” and held military ranks. They include Madina Taimazova, who was congratulated by the Russian Defense Ministry in a statement after she won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics last year, with her rank listed as that of warrant officer.
The IJF has argued it is preventing discrimination by allowing the Russians to continue competing and said on Thursday it would punish any athlete who displays “political vindication or unsportsmanlike attitude.”
“The International Judo Federation is against war, against any kind of violence, as well as hate and discrimination,” IJF general director Vlad Marinescu said in a statement. “Sport is not politics, sport is a bridge between different cultures. Our values are the values of sport, where there is no room for politics.”
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!
Over the course of the recent past (and near future), the two of them have encroached upon cherished records, one on distant, snowy mountainsides, often while America sleeps; the other in domestic basketball arenas, occasionally while the Eastern time zone tries to stay awake. They are both international superstars, undeniably, but in a way that requires qualification to avoid false equivalence. LeBron James’s fame (if not his popularity, another issue altogether) is universal; Mikaela Shiffrin’s is vertical. Both are on a microscopic list of the best to perform their respective sports. Ever. But their sports exist in very different realms, and that has shaped the records they might soon own.
Early Tuesday morning in the U.S., Shiffrin won her 83rd career World Cup ski race, a giant slalom in Italy, passing retired fellow U.S. racer Lindsey Vonn for the most career victories by a woman (or American of either gender). That number could grow quickly: Shiffrin will race another giant slalom Wednesday in Italy and two slaloms over the weekend in the Czech Republic. Beyond 83 lies 86, the overall record established by Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden in a career that ended in 1989. Because the Alpine World Championships interrupt the World Cup schedule, Shiffrin can’t mathematically pass Stenmark until late February. But: No hurry. Shiffrin won’t turn 28 until March 13, and told me last month she plans to keep racing at least until the 2026 Olympics.
LeBron enters Tuesday night’s game against the Clippers 223 points shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA career record of 38,387, also established, like Stenmark’s – although with vastly more attention in the U.S. – in the spring of 1989. Basketball is also a punishing sport, and LeBron is 38 years old and hauling around two decades of hard fouls given and taken, but you have to very much like his chances of soon supplanting Kareem, likely sometime before the All-Star break commences on Feb. 15.
The two of them share little: A white woman raised on skis in New England and Colorado and a Black man raised in sneakers in Akron, Ohio. But there is an important commonality to their career paths that has shaped their experiences, and ours. Both were prodigies: LeBron famously appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old high school junior, with the cover line THE CHOSEN ONE, and a prescient story famously written by my late friend and colleague, Grant Wahl. Shiffrin’s future greatness was no less projected, but in a smaller world. From her early teens, her skill was transcendent. In the winter of 2007, Shiffrin was 11 years old and training at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont; one of her instructors was Chip Knight, a three-time Olympic ski racer. “I’m watching her train,” Knight told me in 2014, “and she’s just incredible. She’s doing things, fundamentally, that I was still working on at the end of my professional career.”
This projected greatness is the small slice where their Venn Diagram circles overlap – that and the towering records they are both likely about to hold. Beyond that, much of their existence is defined by the culture and economics of their games. For instance: Shiffrin has earned millions; LeBron earns millions every week. (This is neither an endorsement of professional basketball nor a criticism of professional ski racing: Athletes are paid what the market will bear).
Something else will happen – and has been happening – as Shiffrin and LeBron reach and surpass their records (*presumably). The NBA, according to commissioner Adam Silver, is preparing a ceremony to accompany James’s record, and Kareem is expected to be in attendance. It will be a big moment, especially for the increasingly distant generation (mine) that witnessed all or most of Kareem’s career, and consumed a seemingly endless succession of majestic sky hooks, one of most inventive and original moves in the history of the game, and arguably the single most productive.
But neither the ceremony nor the achievement will be used to prove LeBron’s greatness. To be sure, LeBron is a polarizing persona both as a modern-day performer and historical figure. (Aside: Three years ago I did a talk at a maximum security correctional facility; during the Q&A, an inmate allowed that Jordan was the best player in history, but who is No. 2? “LeBron?” I offered. I was booed and catcalled. Their consensus was Kobe Bryant, but LeBron was not a popular alternative). Nevertheless: LeBron has won NBA titles with three different teams (only Robert Horry, John Salley and Danny Green have done likewise, and none carried the load that LeBron did on those teams). His combination of size, speed and power was unmatched, and remains rare. He is generous with his money and his time. He did once say, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” and the shrillness – however harmless – of that declaration has stuck. He will never be viewed as benevolently as Steph Curry.
But his place in NBA and cultural history is secure, if not unanimous. The points are just a punctuation.
Meanwhile, Shiffrin’s steady overtaking of Vonn and Stenmark has been cast as proof of her excellence – the cake itself, not just the icing. Content – from both Team Shiffrin and media — describing Shiffrin’s recent wins, and non-wins (some of which have been excellent performances despite not being victories) has breathlessly tried to explain the power of what Shiffrin is accomplishing. And you know what? That’s fine. Alpine ski racing has a modest audience compared to the big U.S. professional sports, and Shiffrin’s record pursuit can potentially grow that audience, and Shiffrin’s brand. All good. On the other hand, when you’re explaining to a sports fan why a record is meaningful, you’ve already lost some of the fight. Passing Kareem needs no framing; nor does Alex Ovechkin’s pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s career goals record.
It comes down to this: LeBron’s record is a coronation, and Shiffrin’s, at least in part, is a validation. That’s not fair, it just is. But Shiffrin deserves better.
But this is often the plight of the Olympic sport, where athletes, coaches and publicists spend endless megabytes convincing the public and media that 20 feet is a very good pole vault from Mondo Duplantis or that even though Katie Ledecky appears to win easily, it’s not easy, or hey, you try doing a flip on the balance beam. In these sports, success mandates context, and context subsumes purity. Athletic performance is best on its own merits, absent explanation. Greatness that speaks for itself.
Shiffrin participates in a very difficult and perilous sport, in which changing conditions – melting snow, encroaching shadows, a gust of wind – make consistency especially difficult. Yet she was for a long time, stunningly consistent: At the end of the 2019 season, just past her 24th birthday, she had 60 World Cup wins and seemed likely to obliterate all the career records in short order. Life intervened: Shiffrin lost her grandmother and her father four months apart; Covid happened. She climbed back, and at one point this year – a few days after she told me, “In one way, I know I’ll win another World Cup race, but I also know you can’t be certain” – won five in a row in three different disciplines, which is preposterous. (There I go framing the achievement again, lessening its raw power).
Shiffrin was a prodigy who quickly made good on her promise – she had more World Cups than any U.S. woman other than Vonn by the age of 21 – and burnout was widely predicted. In late 2017 for an SI story previewing the 2018 Olympics, one of Shiffrin’s former coaches, Brandon Dyksterhouse, told me, ‘”Mikaela is doing a huge volume of training, at least two times any other skier in the world, the majority of it on injected surfaces with ultra-aggressive equipment, unforgiving skis and boots. The wear and tear is phenomenal. You look at the women’s ranks: Lindsey [Vonn] has been rebuilt multiple times. Lara Gut (Switzerland) has been rebuilt. Anna Veith (nee: Fenninger, Austria), has been rebuilt. It’s not a question of if you will get injured, it’s a question of when. Mikaela has defied the odds to this point, and you wonder when or if it will catch up to her.’’ More than five years later, Shiffrin has still not had a major surgical injury; it has not caught up to her. She has fulfilled her promise, and then fulfilled some more.
There’s little doubt that Shiffrin’s American profile was damaged by her performance at the Beijing Olympics, where she skied out in slalom, giant slalom, and the slalom portion of the combined, and did not win any medals. Ski afficionados will explain that the months-long grind of the World Cup is the true test of greatness, and that would not be wrong. But the U.S. is a Big Event nation, and therefore an Olympic nation. Shiffrin knows it, too. When we spoke in December, she said this about the 2026 Olympics ahead: “Cortina is a place that I love. I’d like to experience an Olympics there.” Pause. “And of course if I’m racing, I’m going to want to be a medal contender, and there’s all that goes along with that.” All that goes along with that. Despite efforts to cushion her Olympic experience for her, she understands her world – and ours – better than we imagined. (Also, Shiffrin won a combined three Olympic medals — two gold — at the 2014 and ’18 Games; the only American woman with more is Julia Mancuso, who won four).
This combination of factors – ski racing’s low profile in the U.S., American fans’ obsession with major sports, Shiffrin’s quiet Olympics – left her playing catch up with respect in a year that might have otherwise cemented her place in skiing history with several years left ahead. It’s unfortunate. In reality, the truth is simple: Shiffrin is one of best ski racers in history (not going to mention any farm animals here, that’s just too tired and reductive), and there is a very good chance that soon she will have won more World Cup races – each like a playoff game in another sport — than any skier in history. That is a towering legacy of dominance over time.
The numbers attained and ahead – 83, 86, 87 – should be celebrated vigorously. But they tell us a story we should already know.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.
Bradie Tennell was ready. Her bags were packed for an early October trip to the Japan Open, an event that had would have symbolic resonance for her. It was to bring a traumatic part of her life full circle toward its end.
Tennell would be returning to figure skating competition in the same country where she had last competed 20 months earlier, at the 2021 World Team Trophy, before a right foot injury that frustratingly defied diagnosis. The two-time U.S. champion had missed an entire competitive season, missed a chance at going to a second Olympics, missed the part of her identity that was Bradie Tennell the athlete.
It was the day before she was to leave for Japan. Tennell was practicing at her new training base in Nice, France, where she moved last September from her home in suburban Chicago (before her injury, she had been training in Colorado Springs). She was hoping such a dramatic change could bring renewed energy to her oft-delayed comeback.
Tennell had been training well, regularly doing clean program run-throughs in practice. She had been able to work her way back slowly and deliberately, with a schedule that allowed her to be patient.
And then, in her words, “something weird” happened on the landing of a triple toe loop jump. And now she had pain in her left foot, and the trip to Japan was off, as was a planned trip to Hungary for the Budapest Trophy a week after the Japan Open, as was … another season?
FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.
“It was like, `You’ve got to be kidding me,’’’ Tennell said via telephone. “It was like all the work I had done was going to be wasted.”
Doctors found nothing broken and prescribed rest until the pain went away. That rest lasted the remainder of October. She went to the rink for therapy but could not skate.
“I was miserable,” she said. “I have had enough rest and free time in the past year. I didn’t need any more.”
Especially since the schedule began to get less forgiving. She needed to compete at Great Britain’s Grand Prix in mid-November to earn a bye to the 2023 U.S. Championships.
When she got to England, Tennell knew she wasn’t ready. And her performances in both programs showed it, resulting in her lowest scores since fall 2015.
“That was scarier than skating at the Olympics,” she said. “I had never felt that way in a competition. I stepped on the ice for the short (program), and I could see my hands shaking. I was almost hyperventilating. I knew I needed to calm down, and I didn’t know how because for the first time in my life, I couldn’t rely on training I had done.
“It was a really surreal experience. Of all the times I pictured my comeback in my head, I never once saw it going like that, except in my nightmares.”
Benoit Richaud, her choreographer since 2017 and one of her coaches since last summer, immediately helped Tennell put the experience into perspective after she finished an equally nightmarish free program.
“You’ve already won,” he told her. “You’ve made it back.”
Intellectually, she knew Richaud was right. She had longed to be back in competition while last season went on without her, and now she had done that. Sure, she wanted to skate better, but Tennell had accomplished her main goal despite finishing a last-place 12th: she had earned the bye to nationals, at which Tennell begins her pursuit of a third U.S. title with the short program Thursday night in San Jose, California.
Tennell reminded herself of that as, with no energy left going into her final jumping pass in England, she ground through the last 45 seconds of the free skate.
“I was like, `You just have to finish this. You have the rest of the season to improve. We’re starting at the bottom of the ladder. This is the first step,’’’ Tennell said.
Emotionally, it was harder to accept, even as her skating did improve at her next two events, Grand Prix Finland and Golden Spin of Zagreb.
A post shared by Bradie Tennell (@bradietennell)
“There’s two voices in my head,” she said. “I am trying to be kinder to myself and acknowledge smaller victories, because I didn’t know if I would have this chance. But then there is the relentless competitor in me.
“It’s like the two sides are at war. On one hand, I’m incredibly proud to be back again. On the other, the competitive side of me is like, `It’s never enough; you can do better.’”
The original right foot problem had made it nearly impossible for her to do Lutz and flip jumps, which require picking into the ice on the right foot. She has brought them back slowly.
At Golden Spin, two of her three triple Lutzes were clean. She has yet to do a competitive triple flip this season but insists she will have one at nationals.
“Now that I’ve had some training time, I’m feeling pretty good going into nationals,” she said. “I think people will be surprised with what I’m capable of.”
To the question of whether she is looking at a high enough placement to get her on the four continents Championships and/or world championships teams, Tennell replied unhesitatingly, “Absolutely.” (A top-three finish would put her in the best position for those spots.)
Between the left foot problem and the travel for three competitions in three different countries in just four weeks, Tennell had not been able to train consistently at her French home base between late September and mid-December. She since has had more than a month of good training there and another week in Norwood, Massachusetts, where she arrived Jan. 15 to deal with most of the jet lag before going on to California on Monday.
“Knowing what I am capable of is what drives me,” she said. “But I’m not trying to get back to where I was before, not this big, dramatic, `She’s finally back to the Bradie we know.’’’
The Bradie we knew was the quiet, reticent person who stunningly went from an unnoticed ninth at the 2017 U.S. Championships to top of the podium in 2018, and then won a team bronze medal at the PyeongChang Olympics. She made the top three in her last four appearances at nationals, also winning in 2021.
The Bradie who turns 25 next Tuesday has morphed into a more worldly, more insightful, more open person, one who can find strength in the vulnerability of revealing her struggles, hoping someone else who is struggling might gain by hearing Tennell describe how she has dealt with them.
“I’m a different person than I was before this big injury,” she said. “You can’t go through something as traumatic as that and come out the same. It doesn’t affect just your sports life. It really affects you as a person.
“I’m going to take this new perspective and new maturity I feel I have and let it shine through in my skating.”
In her months away from the ice, Tennell necessarily thought about what her future would look like if she could not recover to compete again. First would be getting all her general education credits from McHenry County College near her home in Illinois and then transferring to a four-year school. Ultimately, she wants to coach. Nothing startling in any of that.
When it was clear she would have a competitive future, Tennell, once a homebody, surprisingly chose a different path forward by moving to the south of France, where she knew no one except her coaches and could not speak more than a few words of its language.
She lives with a host family, whose 15-year-old daughter, also a skater, helps her with French. Tennell has some French workbooks but relies mainly on Duolingo for lessons and likes the results, no matter how people chuckle when she tells them she is learning from the app.
A post shared by Bradie Tennell (@bradietennell)
“I feel so privileged to be able to have this experience of immersing myself in a different culture,” she said. Tennell has enjoyed poking into the different neighborhoods of Nice. She has become amazed by French cheese, its assortment so great former French President Charles de Gaulle famously joked, “How can anyone govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?” (It was actually a gross underestimate on his part, as the total is well over 1,000.) She is dazzled by pastry shops with confections that are works of art.
While she has unreservedly committed to continuing through the 2026 Olympic season, Tennell did pause over the question of whether she would base herself in France through then.
She replied with the English version of an old Yiddish proverb, “Man plans, and God laughs.”
“I picked up that expression last year,” she said of the adage. “It’s part of my vernacular now.”
She needed no translation app to understand what those words mean. Sadly or not, experience had taught her well.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!