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Carolina Kostner closing in on elusive Olympic medal

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SOCHI, Russia – Four years ago, Carolina Kostner left the Vancouver ice after her free skate with her head clutched between her arms, barely able to stand after delivering what she herself might tell you was the worst performance of her life.

Thursday night in Sochi she could win an Olympic medal.

At 27, the Italian delivered a stirring performance Wednesday in the short program of the ladies’ singles event, skating to “Ave Maria” and equaling the music with her beauty across the ice.

“After Vancouver I thought that was it,” said Kostner, who sits in third place, less than a point from first. “I thought I would stop skating. I thought that was my end.”

One of the oldest skaters still competing on the international level, Kostner performed with the kind of steadied grace that only a veteran can possess. Long known as a soft and emotive skater, Kostner was her vintage self and poised in delivery.”

“I wanted to skate because I love it,” she said of why she decided to continue after Vancouver. “The hard times make you understand what you really want and I’m really glad that I continued and honored to have experienced everything that I have in the past years.”

After placing ninth at the Torino Games, Kostner plummeted to 16th in Vancouver, but chose to skate on, winning the World Championships in 2012 and tacking on two more European and National Championship titles.

She skated after Yulia Lipnitskaya Wednesday night at the Sochi Games in an arena that was meant to be bursting with applause for the 15-year-old. Yet, after a surprising fall from the Russian, Carolina began to crickets, moving with building heart.

Skating in a sparkling, layered white and silver dress, Kostner came through in the exact opposite way that she fell apart in Vancouver, moving the audience with her fluid performance.

“Stunning,” said two-time Olympian Johnny Weir, a commentator for NBC Sports.

“So long we have been thinking of Carolina as the artist,” added 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, also a NBC Sports commentator, “but her technique; she took everything down a grade and then built it back up these last four years. That was the whole package. ”

It’s a far cry from where she was days after Vancouver.

“I just believed that that was my limit,” Kostner remembered. “But something just told me that it’s not about the result, it’s about the personal experience, that is what is most important.”

Kostner didn’t have a convincing season. After failing to advance to the Grand Prix Final, she skipped the Italian Nationals and set about re-tooling both her programs, changing them with the Olympics in mind.

“When I was in my beginning position, I was scared out of my mind,” Kostner said, smiling. “I don’t know, it just came together. Skating isn’t about the medals or the results. I love what I do. It’s much more fun to win, but you cannot every time.”

If anything, Kostner only hopes for a performance better than what she put out in Vancouver four years ago. What’s the best way she can approach her Sochi free skate?

“To not think about it,” she said.

IOC creates 3-person panel to have final say on Russian participation

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 30: IOC President Thomas Bach during the IOC Executive Board Meeting on July 30, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A three-person International Olympic Committee panel will make a final ruling on which individual Russian athletes are allowed to compete in the Rio de Janeiro Games.

The IOC’s ruling executive board, meeting Saturday for the final time before the opening of the games next Friday, said the panel will decide on the entry of Russian athletes whose names have been forwarded to compete by their international sports federations and approved by an independent arbitrator.

“This panel will decide whether to accept or reject that final proposal,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “We want to make it absolutely clear that we are the ones making the final call.”

The move comes amid a doping scandal that has led to the exclusion of more than 100 Russian athletes connected to state-sponsored cheating. More than 250 Russian athletes have been cleared to compete by the federations.

The panel will have to make its ruling before the opening ceremony, just six days away.

“We’re working on a very, very tight timeline,” Adams said. “It has to be finished by Friday at the very latest.”

The panel will consist of three executive board members: Turkey’s Ugur Erdener, chairman of the IOC medical commission; Germany’s Claudia Bokel, head of the athletes’ commission; and Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., a vice president of the modern pentathlon federation.

Adams said the panel will review every athlete cleared by the federations, but would not reopen the cases of those who have been barred. An arbitrator from the Court of Arbitration for Sport will make an initial ruling before the final decision goes to the IOC panel.

“This review board panel will look at every single decision, every single athlete, to make sure the IOC is happy with the decision that’s been taken,” Adams said. “It’s very important that the IOC makes the final decision based on independent advice.”

Saturday’s meeting came less than a week after the IOC board decided not to ban Russia’s entire team from the games because of state-sponsored doping. Rejecting calls by more than a dozen anti-doping agencies for a complete ban on Russia, the IOC left it to the federations to vet which athletes could compete or not.

The Russians banned so far include the 67 track and field athletes barred as a whole by the IAAF, and more than 30 others rejected under new IOC eligibility criteria. Russia’s eight-member weightlifting team was kicked out of the games on Friday for what the international federation called “extremely shocking” doping results that brought the sport into “disrepute.”

The IOC has been roundly criticized by anti-doping bodies, athletes groups and Western media for not imposing a total ban on Russia. Pressure for the full sanction followed a World Anti-Doping Agency report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren that accused Russia’s sports ministry of overseeing a vast doping conspiracy involving the country’s summer and winter sports athletes.

IOC President Thomas Bach has defended the decision as one that protects individual athletes who have not been implicated in doping.

Rio’s preparations, meanwhile, remain clouded on several fronts, including budget cuts, water pollution, slow ticket sales, and concerns over crime and the Zika virus. The games come with the suspended president awaiting an impeachment trial and the country gripped by a severe recession.

But Bach and the IOC board remained upbeat following a final progress report by organizing committee chief Carlos Nuzman, including details of the opening ceremony at the Maracana stadium.

“We can’t reveal any secrets but the organizing committee tell us that the ceremony will have Brazilian soul and enchant the world,” Adams said.

Bach gave the organizers a final pep talk ahead of the first games in South America.

“He thinks it’s going to be a great games,” Adams said. “He made that very, very clear. He gave a very rousing thank you to the team and said, ‘Now you must concentrate on delivery, delivery, delivery.”

Also Saturday, the IOC board granted full recognition to the International Ski Mountaineering Federation. It had received provisional recognition in 2014. Saturday’s decision marks another step toward potential future inclusion in the Winter Games.

MORE: Doping investigator ‘inundated with requests’ for more info on Russians

Bryan brothers pull out of Olympics, won’t defend gold medal

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04:  (L-R) Silver medalist Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, gold medalist Mike Bryan and Bob Bryan of the United States and bronze medalist Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet of France pose on the podium during the medal ceremony after the Men's Doubles Tennis final match on Day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on August 4, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Bob and Mike Bryan have pulled out of the Rio Games, less than a week before they were to begin defending their men’s doubles Olympic gold medal.

The Americans made the announcement on their Facebook page, citing their “family’s health,” but not specifically concerns with the Zika virus, which has caused many other tennis players and golfers to withdraw.

“After countless hours of deliberation Mike and I have decided to forego the Rio Olympics. Though we’d love to compete again, as husbands and fathers, our family’s health is now our top priority,” they wrote.

The 38-year-old identical twin brothers are the second-ranked men’s pair in the world. The U.S. Tennis Association is looking into replacements, according to the Associated Press.

The Bryan brothers defeated Michael Llodra and France Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France for gold four years ago in London. At the 2008 Beijing Games, they fell to Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland in the semifinals before knocking off Llodra and Arnaud Clement for bronze.

The Bryans were the No. 1 seed in both 2008 and ’12.

After winning gold in London, Bob and Mike went on to collect titles at the next four Grand Slams (2012 U.S. Open, 2013 Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon). The brothers have won a record total of 16 Grand Slam titles together.

MORE: Tomas Berdych joins growing list of tennis players skipping Rio