Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds

Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir preview World Championships women’s, ice dance events

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For the first time since 1981, the World Figure Skating Championships include zero women’s singles skaters who previously won an Olympic or World Championships individual medal.

Three new medalists will stand on the podium in Shanghai, China, on Saturday. Really, the competition is between two countries. And in the end, one nation may sweep the podium for the first time since 1991.

“It’s definitely a possibility,” NBC Olympics figure skating analyst Johnny Weir said.

“It’s a very strong possibility,” said Weir’s cohort, 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski.

Weir and Lipinski agree that Russians Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and Yelena Radionova are likely to go one-two.

RELATED: World Championships schedule | Men’s/Pairs preview

Tuktamysheva, 18, placed 10th at the 2013 World Championships but fell flat at the following season’s Russian Championships, finishing 10th among her countrywomen and missing the Sochi Olympic team by a mile.

But Tuktamysheva, a pupil of venerable coach Alexei Mishin, is in the midst of one of the greatest bounce-back seasons in the sport’s history.

She’s won seven international competitions, including her two biggest — the Grand Prix Final in December and the European Championships in January — and has shown she’s capable of landing a triple Axel. No other elite woman can boast that.

“My bets are on Tuktamysheva,” Lipinski said. “She’s found that secret potion that works for competition this year. She’s been on a roll.”

Radionova, a wispy 16-year-old, relegated Tuktamysheva to silver at Skate America in October and the Russian Championships in December.

She came into this season with perhaps the most promise of any skater, as the two-time reigning World junior champion.

“She’s right on [Tuktamysheva’s] tail,” Lipinski said. “If Liza makes any mistakes, Yelena brings so much consistency. There still could be a good fight between the both of them.”

The third Russian is less reliable. That’s Anna Pogorilaya, who finished fourth at the 2014 World Championships and won Skate Canada in November.

But Japan’s Rika Hongo topped her at a competition in Moscow later in November, and American Ashley Wagner kept Pogorilaya off the podium at the Grand Prix Final in December.

“On a good day, [Pogorilaya] can outjump the best in the world,” Weir said. “Her jumps are a bit more aesthetically pleasing than the other two Russians.”

Tuktamysheva, Radionova and Pogorilaya hope to give Russia a women’s podium sweep, a feat seen once before at a Worlds. In 1991, Americans Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan shared the podium in Munich, where unprepared organizers reportedly did not have three U.S. flags ready for the medal ceremony.

In Shanghai, a U.S. trio is out to spoil the sweep and win the first American women’s medal at a Worlds or Olympics since 2006.

“The momentum is with Ashley,” Weir said.

Wagner, 23, feels more confident going into this competition than any of her four previous World Championships or the Sochi Olympics.

RELATED: Wagner aims higher than Worlds medal

She kept Russia from a podium sweep at the Grand Prix Final in December, jumping from last place out of six after the short program to earn bronze. A month later, Wagner won her third U.S. title, breaking scoring records and taking the crown back from Gracie Gold.

At this time last year, Gold was the top U.S. hope going into Worlds (and she finished fifth, best of the Americans). But now she’s a question mark after missing the podium at her most recent event in February (without Wagner or Russians in the field).

“I watch her in practice, and I am amazed by her, the way that she can throw these triple-triples [jump combinations],” Lipinski said. “I’m always so baffled and confused that when she steps on the ice [in competition], the impression we get of her is she’s either going to fall apart, or she’s going to nail it.”

RELATED: Gold hopeful of turning turbulent season around

The third American is Polina Edmunds, who was the youngest U.S. competitor across all sports in Sochi. She struggled through the fall Grand Prix season and finished fourth at the U.S. Championships in January.

But the 16-year-old put it all together at the Four Continents Championships in Seoul in February, notching the biggest victory of her young senior career.

“Polina should be aiming for the podium, although I think stylistically she’s a little bit weaker than a lot of the top skaters at the moment,” Weir said. “So I think another year of development, and she will be one of the girls fighting for the podium next year.”

RELATED: Edmunds hopes reputation doesn’t impact Worlds

In ice dance, two U.S. couples are fighting for the podium. Neither is Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the Olympic champions who took this season off from competition and may not return.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who were eighth in Sochi and fifth at the 2014 Worlds, could win gold in Shanghai. They led Canadian rivals Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje after the Four Continents short program in February, but squandered it in the free dance and finished second.

“It really could be a toss-up,” Lipinski said. “Chock and Bates, they have so many differences, but at the same time they are like one. I feel that Charlie and Meryl have that, they skated as one, but they each looked different, had a different vibe going on, that it was interesting to watch.”

Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani are the only members of the 16-skater U.S. team in Shanghai who own World Championships medals. The 2011 bronze medalists also finished third at Four Continents, but that competition did not include any European couples.

Enter the reigning World champions, Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte. But they were beaten at the European Championships in January by France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

Mao Asada still unsure of figure skating future

Adam Jones, five-time MLB All-Star, becomes Olympic eligible

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Should the U.S. qualify for baseball’s Olympic return, a five-time MLB All-Star could be eligible for its roster in Tokyo. And he has interest.

Outfielder Adam Jones signed with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s domestic league, which, unlike MLB, will take an Olympic break next summer to allow players to take part in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years.

Jones, 34, made no mention of Olympic eligibility in a social media post announcing the signing. His Instagram avatar is a photo of him in a Team USA jersey from the World Baseball Classic.

Jones’ agent later said that Jones does have interest in playing for the U.S. in Tokyo, should an American team qualify in the spring.

“To play over in Japan has always been a desire of Adam’s, and the timing worked out that the Olympics happens to be played in Tokyo the first year of his contract,” Jones’ agent wrote in an email. “It wasn’t one of the factors on his decision BUT more of a [sic] addition to the overall package to decide to go.”

Jones called being part of the U.S.’ 2017 WBC title, “probably the best experience of my life so far, especially with sports,” according to The Associated Press. He was one of five players to be on the U.S. team at each of the last two World Baseball Classics.

The U.S. still faces a difficult task to qualify for the Tokyo Games. It lost to Mexico last month in its first of up to three chances at qualifying tournaments, using a roster of mostly double-A and triple-A caliber players.

Major Leaguers are not expected to be made available for qualifying or for the Tokyo Games.

The next two qualifying tournaments will be in late March (an Americas qualifier in Arizona) and early April (a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei). It remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

Jones could become the third player with prior MLB All-Star experience to compete at the Olympics from any nation, joining Australian catcher Dave Nilsson and Canadian pitcher Jason Dickson.

Jones made five All-Star teams during an 11-year stint with the Baltimore Orioles from 2008-18 before playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.

Many players competed at the Olympics before making an MLB All-Star team, including Stephen Strasburg and Jason Giambi.

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Russia boxers to boycott Olympics if sanctions not lifted

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Russian boxers will only take part in the Tokyo Olympics if doping sanctions forcing them to compete as neutral athletes are overturned, the general secretary of the Russian Boxing Federation told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Umar Kremlev said he has spoken with the Olympic boxing team and they “unanimously” rejected the conditions laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency as punishment for manipulating doping data.

The WADA sanctions, announced on Monday, ban the use of the Russian team name, flag or anthem at a range of major sports competitions over the next four years, including next year’s Olympics.

“They said we won’t go without our flag and anthem,” Kremlev said. “We aren’t going for medals, but for that feeling that I brought the highest honor home for my country.”

Separately, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament said Russia could create an alternative to the Olympics.

“This ruling show the clear crisis in international sports institutions. I believe that Russia could host its own games at home,” Valentina Matvienko said in comments reported by the Interfax news agency.

There is a precedent. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union refused to compete in the Olympics and hosted its own Spartakiads — named after the ancient rebel slave Spartacus — with a strong socialist slant. However, the Soviet Union began competing at the Olympics in 1952 and Russians generally take great pride in the country’s Olympic achievements since then.

If the sanctions aren’t overturned, Kremlev said Russian boxers would prefer to turn pro rather than compete at the Olympics.

“A world champion (in professional boxing) is better known than an Olympic champion,” Kremlev said, adding the Russian anthem would be played before pro title fights.

Kremlev said boxers are being asked to shoulder the blame for offenses committed in other sports. He said they would still stay at home even if Russia’s athletes in other sports decided to take part.

“If other sports are guilty and people have breached the WADA code, why are we punished?” he said. “We are for honest sport and against doping. We want our sport to be clean … If someone breaks the rules, we push them out.”

Russia is a major power in amateur and Olympic boxing. It hosted both men’s and women’s world championships this year, finishing at the top of the medals table at the women’s event and second in the men’s championships. The International Olympic Committee has taken direct charge of boxing at the Tokyo Olympics after criticizing chronic financial problems and infighting at the International Boxing Association.

Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov talked up Russia’s chances of overturning the WADA sanctions.

“I think that there is every basis to appeal the decision, because our experts have presented their position, and they have the same database as WADA does,” Kolobkov said in comments reported by state news agency TASS. “There is an answer to every question and the whole process is ahead of us.”

The official decision on whether to dispute the sanctions will be made on Dec. 19 by the Russian anti-doping agency’s supervisory board, but senior figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have signaled their preference for taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

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