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Russia hopes for boost from Olympic hockey turmoil

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MOSCOW (AP) — After a week of turmoil for Olympic hockey, Russia thinks it is poised to be the big winner next February in South Korea.

Its fans have waited more than 25 years for an Olympic gold medal, and its top league wants to fight the NHL for international markets so the absence of NHL players in Pyeongchang could be, well, a golden opportunity.

The Olympics are “the biggest, most significant event in global sports,” Vyacheslav Bykov, who won Olympic gold as a player in 1988 and 1992 and later coached Russia’s national team, told The Associated Press on Friday. “Competing at the Olympics is much more important than the Stanley Cup.”

The Russian hockey system is a tangled web of sports, government and commercial interests, but all see Olympic gold as a national priority. Since Bykov and the post-Soviet Unified Team won gold in Albertville 25 years ago, the best Olympic result for Russia has been a 1-0 loss to the Czechs in the gold medal game in 1998 – the first Olympic tournament with NHL participation. On home ice in Sochi in 2014, Russia lost 3-1 to Finland in the quarterfinals.

The NHL’s announcement Monday that it won’t shut down so its players can travel to Pyeongchang leaves Russia in a uniquely strong position. It is home to the Kontinental Hockey League, widely regarded as the strongest outside North America with talent including former NHL stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Voynov who are playing closer to home. And if some NHL players are allowed to play in the Olympics, Russians including Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals teammates, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov, as well as Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin have all said they plan to participate.

MORE: List of NHL stars’ stances on trying to play at Olympics

That would make Russia a likely favorite even if Canada and the U.S. are able to count on a handful of NHL stars, too.

“They’ve got a huge advantage because they’ve got NHL guys, they’ve got guys that have gone home to play,” said Corey Hirsch, goaltender for Canada’s silver medal-winning team at Lillehammer. “They’re going to have NHL players. But it’s not going to be like we’re going back to the 1980s. … They’ll have some good players, but they’ll have some weaknesses, too.”

Added Steve Duchene, a Canadian who plays for the Colorado Avalanche: “They have some career guys who’ve played in the KHL and put up huge numbers and are used to the big ice. I think Russia would probably the favorite just because of who they have playing over there.”

Less well-known to North American fans are Russian players like Vadim Shipachyov, the top scorer at last year’s world championships, and Evgeny Dadonov, who have both been widely reported in Russian media as considering moves from SKA St. Petersburg to the NHL this summer.

Whether they move could be a litmus test for Russia’s Olympic hopes.

With players potentially facing a choice between NHL contracts and what could be the national team’s first gold medal in a generation, the Russian Hockey Federation is trying to “bring home” stars from North America and stop emerging talent from leaving the KHL, chairman Arkady Rotenberg said Wednesday. If Russians want to go Pyeongchang despite holding valid NHL contracts, Rotenberg vowed to help with their legal costs.

Rotenberg typifies the close links between sports and the government in Russia.

A close friend of Vladimir Putin who became a billionaire in large part due to government contracts, he chairs the RHF board and sits on the KHL board. His nephew, Roman Rotenberg, is vice president of SKA St. Petersburg, the KHL team that signed Datsyuk, Kovalchuk and Voynov using money from state gas company Gazprom.

The KHL relies heavily on payments from Russian state companies and regional governments. With the Kremlin focused on controlling government spending, it has gone through some lean years recently – but KHL teams have a track record of finding money – and salary-cap exemptions – when a top Russian player wants to come home.

“I think all the fans in Russia will be happy if our players, Russian players, will come to the KHL and play here, represent the national team at the Olympics,” Bykov said. “Yes, it’s patriotic, but it’s also each player’s personal decision … It’s not an easy situation for any player.”

Taking a schedule break for the Olympics is a no-brainer for the KHL, which already crafts its season to accommodate not only the world championships but national-team tuneups scattered through the year.

The KHL has been pushing to beat the NHL to the potentially lucrative Asian market, with a team in China since August. If its players become Olympic stars in South Korea while the NHL sits things out, it could help the Russia-based league cement its presence in Asia.

The KHL has tried to take advantage of NHL missteps in the past, particularly by attracting star players to come to Russia during the last lockout, but its attempts to expand outside the former Soviet Union have often become entangled in financial problems or lack of interest from local fans.

For many in Russia, though, the NHL-KHL intrigue is far less important than the Olympics.

“It’s the top of the pyramid,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko told state news agency TASS. “No business interests, no loss of earnings – though you can discuss those things – should restrict your opportunity to show what you can do at the Olympics.”

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MORE: With no NHL, Olympic hockey nations turn to Plan B

Christian Coleman breaks world indoor 60m record (video)

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Christian Coleman is the fastest man of all time — indoors.

The 21-year-old U.S. sprinter broke the world indoor 60m record by clocking 6.37 seconds at his first meet of 2018 in South Carolina on Friday night.

Maurice Greene, the 2000 Olympic 100m champion, held the previous record of 6.39, which he clocked in 1998 and 2001.

The record must still go through ratification procedures, which requires a drug test at the meet.

The 60m is the indoor equivalent of the outdoor 100m. They are the shortest sprints contested at their respective world championships.

Coleman, a 4x100m prelim relay runner at the Rio Olympics, has blossomed into arguably the early 2020 Olympic 100m favorite.

He most memorably clocked a 40-yard dash of 4.12 seconds last spring, which is one tenth faster than the NFL Combine record.

Then in August, Coleman took 100m silver behind Justin Gatlin at the world outdoor championships, beating Usain Bolt in the Jamaican’s final individual race.

There are no world outdoor championships this year, but Coleman could go for the world indoor 60m title in Birmingham, Great Britain, in March.

Coleman’s mark is the first men’s world record in an event contested at a world championships since Wayde van Niekerk broke Michael Johnson‘s 400m world record at the Rio Olympics.

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IOC creates pool of Russians eligible for PyeongChang Olympics

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The International Olympic Committee said Friday it has created a pool of 389 Russians who are eligible to compete under a neutral flag at next month’s Winter Olympics amid the country’s doping scandal.

An IOC panel whittled down an initial list of 500 to create what the IOC calls “a pool of clean athletes.”

That could potentially make it possible for Russia to meet its target of fielding around 200 athletes in PyeongChang — slightly fewer than in Sochi in 2014, but more than in Vancouver in 2010.

It wasn’t immediately clear why 111 other Russians were rejected by the IOC.

The IOC didn’t list the athletes who were accepted or rejected but said it hadn’t included any of the 46 the IOC previously banned for doping at the Sochi Olympics.

Valerie Fourneyron, the former French Sports Minister leading the invitation process, said the pool also left out any Russians who had been suspended in the past for doping offenses.

“This means that a number of Russian athletes will not be on the list,” she said. “Our work was not about numbers, but to ensure that only clean athletes would be on the list.”

That would appear to rule out potential Russian medal contenders like former NHL hockey player Anton Belov and world champion speed skater Pavel Kulizhnikov, both of whom served bans in the past but have since resumed competing.

“More than 80 percent of the athletes in this pool did not compete at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014,” the IOC said in a statement. “This shows that this is a new generation of Russian athletes.”

The IOC will use the pool list to issue invitations to Russian athletes to compete in PyeongChang, after checking their record of drug testing and retesting some samples they gave previously.

The IOC also said it recommended barring 51 coaches and 10 medical staff “associated with athletes who have been sanctioned” for Sochi doping.

The IOC has allowed the Russian Olympic Committee to select its preferred athletes despite being suspended by the IOC last month over drug use and an elaborate cover-up at the Sochi Olympics, including swapping dirty samples for clean urine.

Russian sports officials say they simply want to give the IOC recommendations to ensure that top athletes aren’t accidentally left out in favor of reserves.

The Russians will officially be known as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” and they will wear gray and red uniforms that don’t feature any Russian logos.

If they win gold medals, the Olympic flag will be flown and the Olympic anthem played.

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