Are U.S. and Canada on golden collision course in hockey?

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No matter how many times they say it – and they’ve said it plenty in the past few days – members of the United States women’s hockey team will have a tough time arguing there are more gold-medal contenders than two when their Olympic tournament starts Saturday in Sochi.

But here’s star forward Amanda Kessel trying to argue it anyway: “It’s not only Canada that we have to beat.”

And here’s coach Katey Stone: “It’s an eight-team tournament as far as we’re concerned. We’ve got a game on Saturday against Finland, and we’re not looking past that. The last game we didn’t win was against Finland in the Four Nations Cup, and there’s not a player in that locker room that doesn’t remember that.”

True, the U.S. did lose to Finland in November, thanks to a 58-save performance by Golden Gophers goalie Noora Raty. However, there’s a reason most news stories included the word “stunned” to describe what the Finns did to their opponents in that 3-1 victory.

It sure didn’t look like “an eight-team tournament” on Tuesday when the U.S. scrimmaged with Germany. They didn’t keep an official score, but roughly speaking, it was a lot for the U.S. to not much, if any, for the overmatched Germans, who appeared beyond exhausted by the end of it. Even a first-time hockey observer would have noticed the enormous discrepancy in talent and execution.

In international women’s hockey, it’s the U.S., Canada, then everyone else. Should one of those teams from the “everyone else” category beat one of the big two here in Sochi, something fairly extraordinary has happened.

Given the hierarchy in women’s hockey, it’s no surprise the pair of powerhouses has developed a fierce rivalry. In December, the two sides had a much-publicized line brawl in Grand Forks. And that wasn’t their first punch-up in the last few years either.

VIDEO: Julie Chu explains why the U.S.-Canada rivalry is so good

Kessel – the younger sister of Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel — isn’t expecting any of that in the Olympics, though.

“I don’t think you’ll see any fighting here,” she said. “I think people know what’s at stake, and it’s important to stay out of the box.”

Stone, on the other hand, didn’t completely count out the possibility, if that’s the way Canada wants to play.

“That was a controlled response in North Dakota, and our kids are going to try to control as many situations as they can on the ice,” Stone said. “So we’re going to play our game, but we’re prepared to play any game we have to play.”

Fisticuffs aside, Canada has won the last three Olympic gold medals, including the last one four years ago in Vancouver, where the hosts came away with a 2-0 victory in the final game.

For U.S. captain Meghan Duggan, that’s a big part of the motivation this time around.

“When you come up short, it doesn’t feel good,” said Duggan.

“I know for those of us that have been on teams in the past that have been unsuccessful against Canada, that burns in your heart every single day. How we prepare ourselves this year, how we train, everything we’ve done on the ice, off the ice, is in preparation to come out of this tournament with a gold medal.”

Kessel concurred: “We’re here to win gold and nothing else.”

The U.S. and Canada are guaranteed at least one meeting, a preliminary round match-up on Wednesday, Feb. 12.

After that, it’s likely both teams will receive a bye to separate semi-final games on Feb. 17.

The gold-medal game would then loom next, on Feb. 20.

7 more Kenyan athletes banned for doping

Emily Chebet
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Two-time cross-country world champion Emily Chebet was among seven Kenyan athletes banned for doping Friday, another indication that the country has a serious problem of cheating among its famed distance runners.

Chebet, the cross-country world champion in 2010 and 2013, was banned for four years after testing positive for the diuretic and masking agent furosemide, the Kenyan athletics federation said.

The list of sanctions announced by Athletics Kenya included bans for the two runners that failed doping tests at the world championships in Beijing in August. Joyce Zakary and Koki Manunga, who were provisionally suspended at the worlds, also received four-year bans for furosemide.

There has been a recent spike in doping cases in Kenya and more than 40 athletes have now failed tests since 2012. Kenyan track officials are under scrutiny after allegations of doping cover-ups, and separate accusations of embezzlement of money at the national federation.

This week, a group of athletes stormed the federation headquarters in Nairobi demanding the resignation of top officials over the doping scandals and corruption allegations.

Along with her two cross-country world titles, the 29-year-old Chebet was a bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Her ban was backdated to July 17 and she will be unable to compete until July 16, 2019.

The doping cases of Zakary, a 400-meter runner, and Manunga, a 400-meter hurdler, undermined Kenya’s impressive display at this year’s worlds, where the country tied with Jamaica for the most gold medals with seven. They failed targeted tests carried out by world athletics body the IAAF in Beijing, enhancing suspicions that doping in Kenya is widespread.

Zakary set a national record of 50.71 seconds at the worlds before her failed test. The two were banned until Aug. 24, 2019.

The other four athletes banned on Friday were Agnes Jepkosgei, Bernard Mwendia, Judy Jesire Kimuge and Lilian Moraa Marita.

Jepkosgei was banned for four years for testing positive for the anabolic steroid metabolite norandrosterone. Mwendia was given a two-year ban for norandrosterone. Kimuge was banned two years for the norandrolone and Marita two years for the blood-booster EPO.

A World Anti-Doping Agency panel that recently reported on a systematic program of doping cover-ups in Russia said that Kenya also has a serious doping problem. That has spurred speculation that, like Russia, Kenya could face a blanket ban from international competition.

The IAAF has opened investigations into allegations that track officials in Kenya were involved in covering up positive doping tests. In a separate investigation, the IAAF is also looking at accusations of corruption against top officials at Athletics Kenya after they were questioned by Kenyan police over the alleged embezzlement of around $700,000 of the federation’s money.

One of the officials accused, AK Vice President David Okeyo, is a member of the IAAF’s decision-making council. The athletes protesting at Athletics Kenya this week demanded that Okeyo and AK President Isaiah Kiplagat step down.

IAAF clears Paula Radcliffe, defends its blood testing program

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(AP) — The IAAF cleared marathon world record-holder Paula Radcliffe of doping allegations on Friday and rejected claims that it failed to act on hundreds of suspicious blood tests, saying the accusations lacked “any scientific or legal basis.”

Track and field’s governing body issued a 38-page response to allegations by British and German media outlets that it had ignored and tolerated rampant blood doping in the sport.

“The IAAF is not complacent about doping in its sport,” the federation said. “It will continue to use every tool at its disposal to fight doping and protect clean athletes.”

The statement was released a few days before IAAF President Sebastian Coe faces a British parliamentary hearing into the doping allegations made by The Sunday Times newspaper and German broadcaster ARD.

Already reeling from revelations of government-backed doping in Russia and criminal corruption charges against former president Lamine Diack, the International Association of Athletics Federations said it had a duty to set the record straight on the blood doping issue.

“The IAAF cannot sit idly by while public confidence in its willingness to protect the integrity of its sport is undermined by allegations of inaction/incompetence that are based on bad scientific and legal argument,” it said.

The IAAF singled out the case of Radcliffe, saying the three-time London Marathon winner was publicly accused of doping “based on the gross misinterpretation of raw and incomplete data.”

Elevated blood value readings in some of Radcliffe’s tests had “clearly plausible” explanations that were “entirely innocent,” the IAAF said.

“Any competent scientist would immediately conclude that they should be disregarded,” the statement added.

The IAAF said it followed up by testing Radcliffe’s urine and blood samples for EPO and blood transfusions, and all the results came back negative.

“Obviously there’s been damage done to my reputation, and to the reputation of the sport, and that’s why I took the stand I did against this,” Radcliffe said Friday after the release of the IAAF statement. “Yes, it was only me being singled out but there are a lot of other innocent, clean athletes who have or may produce an atypical value at some point.

“That’s precisely why it has to be kept so confidential until an expert that’s properly qualified looks at it and assesses it.”

Britain’s national anti-doping agency said it also reviewed Radcliffe’s test results and agreed there was no case against her.

“The data does not provide any evidence that any anti-doping rule violation proceedings should be brought,” the UK Anti-Doping Agency said.

Radcliffe, who retired from competition this year, was publicly implicated during a British Parliamentary hearing in August into the doping allegations leveled by the British and German media.

She acknowledged that her blood-testing data may have shown “fluctuations” but insisted there were no “abnormalities” and experts had concluded she had done nothing wrong.

Radcliffe set the world record when she ran 2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds in winning the 2003 London Marathon. She also won the New York Marathon three times (2004, `07 and `08) and the Chicago Marathon in 2002. Radcliffe competed in four Olympics but never won a medal.

The Sunday Times and ARD examined the results of 12,000 blood tests involving 5,000 athletes from a leaked IAAF database covering 2001 to 2012 and concluded there was evidence of widespread cheating.

The reports said that 146 medals — including 55 golds — in disciplines ranging from the 800 meters to the marathon at the Olympics and world championships were won by athletes who have recorded suspicious tests. The Sunday Times also claimed the London Marathon was won seven times over a 12-year period by athletes who recorded suspicious tests.

The IAAF said Friday that its biological passport program — which monitors athletes’ blood profiles over time for evidence of doping — began in 2009 and that all screenings done before then could not be used as proof of doping.

“No charge could ever be brought based on the pre-2009 tests,” the statement said.

The IAAF said it would respond separately to allegations made in a report by a World Anti-Doping Agency commission this month that IAAF officials swept aside up to eight blood doping cases in 2012, allowing athletes to compete at the London Olympics when they should have been suspended.

MORE: Russia vows to follow all WADA recommendations on doping