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Sex and scandals mar U.S. Olympic preparations

January 13, 2006 12:00 IST

Sex, alcohol and doping scandals coupled with a simmering controversy involving figure skating queen Michelle Kwan are sapping much-needed momentum from U.S. athletes in the run-up to the Winter Olympics.

With the Turin Games less than a month away, the American public are transfixed by the strife and largely ignoring the competitions that decide who will make the trip to Italy.

In the middle ring of the circus is the 25-year-old Kwan, America's sentimental favourite who is desperately clinging to her dream of winning an Olympic gold medal.

Also making headlines are skeleton coach Tim Nardiello, who is accused of sexually harassing at least two female sliders, and skeleton racer Zack Lund, the overall World Cup points leader suspended for doping.

Alpine skiing champion Bode Miller, no stranger to controversy, rankled his coaches by saying on television that partying meant he had sometimes been "in really tough shape" at the start of races.

The pre-Olympic woes have made even the most staid U.S. newspapers write more about the scandals than the competition.

The U.S. national figure skating championships are being held this week in St. Louis without Kwan, a nine-times champion, who must petition her way on to the Olympic team.

Generally, the top three finishers in the nationals earn a berth on the Olympic squad but Kwan has been battling a groin injury and is unable to compete in St. Louis.

Normally, it would not be particularly contentious to include her in the squad but Kwan has skated very little over the last three years and has performed only once with skating's complex new scoring system.

OVERALL RECORD

Kwan's fate is now in the hands of the 36-member international committee of U.S. figure skating, who will make their decision after the nationals.

"It's really up to the committee to choose who they believe will be the best three skaters in America," Kwan told a conference call. "I feel that I am one of the three best skaters in America."

Most observers believe Kwan will get the nod based on her overall record.

Alissa Czisny is one of the skaters who could be left behind if Kwan gains a spot on the team.

"I think most of us, myself especially, need to focus on our own skating," the 18-year-old college student told a news conference. "There's nothing we can do. The decision is not up to us, obviously.

"The best thing I can do is go out and skate my best and see what happens after that."

While acknowledging that Kwan "has done so much for the sport," Czisny conceded: "I'm guessing they'll give her a spot on the Olympic team."

The U.S. skeleton program has been reeling from the developments surrounding Nardiello and Lund.

The 45-year-old Nardiello denies the harassment allegations but his chances of going to Turin remain cloudy.

He was suspended from coaching by the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF) on December 31 pending an investigation and a New York court this week refused to reinstate him.

MILLER APOLOGISES

Lund, 26, tested positive for anti-baldness drug Propecia, which can act as a masking agent.

"It's on the banned list -- no question he screwed up," USBSF president Jim Shea Sr., told the New York Times.

Mercurial skier Miller appears to have acknowledged his mistake, apologising for saying on television: "There have been times when I've been in really tough shape at the top of the course. It's like driving drunk, only there are no rules about it in ski racing."

On Thursday, the overall World Cup champion told a news conference in Wengen, Switzerland: "Obviously the message which came through is not something which I would like to promote."

The U.S. Olympic Committee would like nothing more than to stay clear of any more problems before the Games, which begin on February 10.

However, the decision involving Kwan is likely to create another firestorm of controversy.

If she makes the team, some will say she deprived a more deserving skater of the chance for Olympic gold. If she does not, some will say that as a five-times world champion she should have been given a final chance to climb the top step of the Olympic podium.

When Nancy Kerrigan was injured in 1994 during an attack in practice, she was given a pass right through to the Olympic team.

A 13-year-old skater nailed four triple jumps to finished second but was bumped from the Lillehammer Olympics by Kerrigan. That skater was Michelle Kwan.

"It is sort of ironic that the last person bumped off the team was me in 1994," said Kwan. "But they do have a rule for special circumstances."

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