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Russia-U.S. hockey gave Games a massive spark

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SOCHI, Russia – On Russian television, in the hours after a thrilling, beautiful and strange hockey game, they showed the Fyodor Tyutin goal that did not count. Tyutin takes a hard wrist shot from the blue line. The puck smacks into a high part of the net. The Russians celebrate. Then they show it again. Shot. Net. Celebrate. Again. Now from a different angle. Now from the first angle. Shot. Net. Celebrate.

And again.

Now, they show the referee go into the booth to review. He puts on a headset. Quick, one more shot of Tyutin scoring. Shot. Net. Celebrate. Back to the referee. He steps out of the booth. He waves off the goal. Now a shot of Russian President Vladimir Putin looking displeased. Now the goal again.

And all the while they are talking – commentators, analysts, a former Russian Olympian. They speak Russian words rapidly, forcefully, emotionally. There is no translator around. There is none needed. It’s clear what they are saying.

They are saying that Russia got cheated.

VIDEO: A Russian-language broadcast of the game

Back home in America, Saturday’s United States-Russia hockey game might have been the moment when these Sochi Olympics took flight. Up to now these have been a disjointed American Olympics. There have been wonderful moments – Sage Kotsenburg taking slopestyle gold on a trick he’d never tried, Julia Mancuso winning a medal at her third straight Olympics, Noelle Pikus-Pace completing her impossible journey with a silver and so on.

There have been numerous disappointments. All of it has felt sporadic and uneven. The Olympics needed a centerpiece.

Then came this magnificent hockey game between the U.S. and Russia in front of a wild crowd here and big early morning crowd back in the States. There was nothing too big at stake except for every emotion and nuance that has marked the turbulent relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Russia scored first on a lightning-strike goal from their hockey genius Pavel Datsyuk. The U.S. answered when defenseman Cam Fowler stuffed home a shot from right in front of the net.

Team USA took the lead on a perfectly set up power play goal from Joe Pavelski early in the third. Russia tied it three minutes later on more breathtaking stuff from Datsyuk. “It was like, they scored, we scored, they scored, we scored,” American T.J. Oshie would say.

WATCH FULL REPLAY OF USA-RUSSIA MEN’S HOCKEY HERE

And all of it was played at such a breathtakingly high level, with so much speed and force and will, that people felt compelled to go on Twitter and gush, “Isn’t Olympic hockey amazing?” The Russians – particularly the Datsyuk line – created beautiful chances. American goalie Jonathan Quick made several unthinkable saves. Time and again, the Russians would create beautiful geometric setups for star Alex Ovechkin to unleash his lethal slap shot. Time and again, American defenders would jump in front of the screaming puck. “Takes tremendous courage,” American coach Dan Bylsma said, happily speaking the obvious.

Shortly before the end of the third period, Tyutin scored the goal that wasn’t a goal. He was standing in back left corner of the zone, and he wristed a shot that Quick lost in traffic. The puck sailed over Quick’s left shoulder, clearly went in the net, and then bounced out. The Russian celebration was on, the Bolshoy Ice Dome a wall of sound.

The officials never really explained to the crowd why the goal was disallowed – even Bylsma would say he was never given the reason. The goal was disallowed because the American net was slightly – SLIGHTLY – off its moorings, having been crashed into by Jonathan Quick himself. That can be enough to disallow the goal. But, as we will see, it’s not that simple.

The disallowed goal did not set off anger, at least at first. There was no official protest, no obvious fury even in the stands. Instead, it set off a massive wave of confusion. Nobody seemed to know what had just happened. Some thought the officials had ruled the puck never went in the net. Some thought there must have been some sort of technical ruling.

The fury would come out later.

RELATED: Russian players think Quick intentionally dislodged goal

The amazing game went into overtime, and then it went into a shootout. Most hockey purists despise shootouts, and they are right. It’s a gimmicky way to end great games; not unlike ending the World Series with a home run derby or an NBA finals with a three-point shootout or a chess world championship match with a quick game of checkers.

But, it’s hard not to admit: While a shootout may be cheat entertainment, it is entertaining. The best goal scorers go one-on-one with the goalie. That means every single play ends one of three ways: With a brilliant goal, a brilliant save, or a titanic blunder. The Olympic shootout adds another element – in the Olympics, if the score is still tied after the first three players on each team go, then the shootout continues until there’s a winner. And a team can send the same person out again and again and again endlessly.

That is how the United States met T.J. Oshie on Saturday. Oshie in his real life is a forward for the St. Louis Blues, but on Saturday played the role of American superhero. Five straight times, the United States sent him out there to either win the game or keep the overtime going. The United States has a lot of great goal scorers. Bylsma never seemed to consider any of them but Oshie.

Oshie has a distinctive shootout style. While most players take the puck and go in something of a straight line – building up some speed to make the goalie feel threatened – Oshie at first skates slowly and aimlessly, as if he’s looking for someone to ask for the next couples skate. He winds around, and winds around; the mission seems to be to make the goalie move first. He does this with hypnotic grace.

Here’s how Oshie’s five key shootout shots went.

VIDEO: Watch all of T.J. Oshie’s shootout goals

No. 1: With a chance to win the game, he slowly moved in on Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, made a sudden move to his left that left the net wide open. He flicked his shot over the goal for a miss. “Even when he didn’t score,” Bylsma would say, “it looked like he would.”

No. 2: With Oshie needing to make the shot to keep the Americans in the game, he glided in – so slowly he did not seem to moving his legs – and he waited for Bobrovsky to make his move. Bobrovsky did. Oshie slid the puck through his legs.

No. 3: Again he needed a goal to keep the game alive, and this time he came in very close to the goalie, pulled some kind of shoulder and elbow fake that made Bobrovsky go down, and then he flipped the puck over him for the goal.

No. 4: This time for the win, Oshie again thoroughly faked out Bobrovsky and seemed to have scored when suddenly – perhaps even luckily – Bobrovsky’s stick connected with the puck, deflecting it over the net.

No. 5: The game-winner, one more slow approach, one more time waiting for Bobrovsky to make the first move, one more shot through the legs. And the Americans had won. They raced on the ice to celebrate.

And so an astonishing game ended. Only, no. It didn’t end. It still hasn’t ended. It won’t end for a long time. Almost immediately after the game, there was word that Russian defenseman Slava Voynov, who played with Quick for the Los Angeles Kings, told Russian reporters that Quick has a habit of dislodging nets when attackers are buzzing around. “I play with him,” Voynov said. “I know that’s his style.”

Quick’s response: “I didn’t know until after I saw – I turned around and saw the net was off. It was a lucky break.”

That “lucky break” theme didn’t really play in Russia. For one thing, nobody seemed sure the net being slightly off its moorings should have mattered. In the National Hockey League, the goal almost certainly would have been allowed because the net’s slight misplacement had no bearing on the goal itself.

Then Ovechkin pointed out that even if the net was off its moorings, it was clearly knocked off by the Americans. So there should have been a penalty called on Quick. The Russian head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said the officials had made a mistake but pleaded, “What can I do?”

VIDEO: Al Michaels, Doc Emrick discuss game’s impact

And then came the media types – one asked why an American, Brad Meier, was one of the officials – and then came Russian television to show the goal over and over (they just showed it AGAIN) along with Putin’s reproachful look. And these Russian Olympics have a full-on sports controversy.

The Russian goal, I suspect, should have counted. Here in Russia, where there’s soul-crushing pressure on the hockey team to win gold, that no-goal probably will be remembered forever, much in the same way that in America we always remember the final three seconds of the 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball game, when the Soviets were given repeated chances to win and, eventually, did.

But this one IS different. That Olympic basketball game was for gold. There were no second chances for the American team (who refused their silver medals). This, on the other hand, was just the second game for both teams; the game really wasn’t for much more than pride and maybe a little placement down the Olympic road.

The point is, instead of ending Russia’s quest, it just made the quest more compelling. A second meeting between Russia and the U.S. might explode the entire sports world. Yes, in Russia and in the United States, as my kids like to say, the Olympics are so on.

Yulia Stepanova, doping whistleblower, appeals her Olympic ban

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - JULY 06:  Yuliya Stepanova looks on after finishing last in the Womens 800m heats during day one of the 23rd European Athletics Championships at Olympic Stadium on July 6, 2016 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images for European Athletics )
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Whistleblower Yulia Stepanova‘s hopes of competing in the Summer Olympics are all but over. Her fight to expose doping and corruption is not.

“It’s OK to lose a good fight,” Stepanova’s husband, Vitaly Stepanov, told The Associated Press on Monday.

They have appealed to the International Olympic Committee to reverse its decision, handed down Sunday, that denies Stepanova a chance at competing in the Rio Games, which begin Aug. 5. The decision, the Stepanovs claim, is based on incorrect information, including the IOC’s framing of Stepanova’s decision to become a whistleblower as a too-little-too-late desperation play made after the Russian team had cast her aside.

It’s a conclusion that both the World Anti-Doping Agency and track’s governing body, the IAAF, disagree with; both recommended Stepanova be allowed to compete in Rio.

But Stepanov said he received several signals that the IOC would not go along, beginning with a general lack of interest from the key decision makers. He said that during the push for Olympic eligibility, he spoke with two separate IOC officials for a total of 90 minutes.

“I think what the IOC didn’t do is spend enough time to understand how big the problem is in Russia and how much covering up is happening in Russian sports,” he said.

Stepanova was the 800-meter runner who was entrenched in the Russian doping system but later came forward with details about the cheating. That triggered investigations that led to the banning of the Russian track team from the Olympics. After receiving more information about Russian sports as a whole, the IOC opted against a ban of the entire Russian team.

Part of that decision included a ruling that any Russian with a previous doping ban would not be allowed in Rio. That includes Stepanova, though the legality of that ruling is in question: In 2011, the Court of Arbitration for Sport invalidated the IOC’s Rule 45, which called for Olympic bans for any athlete who’d served more than a six-month doping penalty. CAS said it amounted to double jeopardy.

It was one of several facets from the decision handed down Sunday that indicated the difficulty the IOC had in finding the right balance between, as president Thomas Bach called it, “individual justice and collective responsibility.” There also were political concerns; a Russian official addressed the IOC executive board and told members not to cave into geopolitical pressure.

While Russia largely welcomed the decision, it was roundly criticized by those in the anti-doping world. The move to ban Stepanova was widely viewed as the worst part of the judgment.

“The decision to refuse her entry in to the Games is incomprehensible and will undoubtedly deter whistleblowers in the future from coming forward,” said Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Stepanov said his wife got a bout of the stomach flu on Sunday – making a bad day that much worse.

She was training for the Olympics, knowing that if she made it, she would not compete for a medal, the way she had in the past.

“Her goal is to participate,” Stepanov said. “In my view, she deserved to be an Olympian a lot more than when she was a doped athlete.”

But the odds are against her.

Stepanov said there is no money to fund an appeal to CAS, which would have the last say on her possible ban.

“Sunday was a day to cry a little, to get disappointed,” Stepanov said. “But today’s Monday. We feel we’re trying to fight for the right thing, so we wake up and start fighting again.”

MORE: Russian whistleblower denied bid to compete in Rio Olympics

Gabby Douglas ‘a very strong possibility’ for all-around, Martha Karolyi says

Gabby Douglas
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Gabby Douglas has “a very strong possibility” to get a chance to defend her Olympic all-around title in Rio, U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said Monday.

“Gabby’s preparation is in a very, very good direction, and I foresee that she can be in the all-around, but we’re not taking this decision as of now yet,” Karolyi said.

The U.S. will put no more than three women from its five-woman team in the all-around in qualifying. The top two Americans in qualifying will advance to the all-around final, the most prestigious individual competition in the sport.

“We have a tentative lineup, but that’s absolutely tentative and we would not reveal that lineup at the moment yet, because most likely there will be changes as time goes,” said Karolyi, adding that the lineup won’t be finalized until next week.

Simone Biles is considered a lock to be one of the all-arounders in qualifying. Who joins her is unclear.

Douglas and Aly Raisman were tapped at the 2015 World Championships, with Biles and Douglas topping Raisman in qualifying and then going one-two in the all-around final.

However, both Raisman and first-year senior Laurie Hernandez finished higher than Douglas in the all-around at the P&G Championships and the Olympic Trials in the last month.

Karolyi said that Douglas, who fell off the balance beam on both nights at the Olympic Trials, has improved at a pre-Olympic training camp. Karolyi also said that Douglas would not perform the difficult Amanar vault in Rio, which carries five tenths more in start value than the vault Douglas used at the Olympic Trials.

Biles and Raisman both perform the Amanar. If Biles, Douglas and Raisman do the all-around in qualifying, Douglas will go in with a start-value disadvantage in the chase to grab two available final spots.

In 2012, Douglas, Raisman and Jordyn Wieber all did the all-around in qualifying, with the 2011 World all-around champion Wieber finishing third out of the Americans (and fourth overall), missing the all-around final.

MORE: USA Gymnastics agrees to buy Karolyi Ranch