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The ripple effects of banning Russia from 2018 Olympics

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MOSCOW (AP) — When the International Olympic Committee board prepares to vote Tuesday on whether to ban Russia from February’s Winter Olympics, its members will decide the fate of numerous medals yet to be won.

If there’s a blanket ban on Russia for its doping offenses at the 2014 Olympics — or restrictions that prompt Russia to boycott the 2018 Games — it could mean the end of compelling storylines and a slide into irrelevance for the men’s hockey tournament.

Gracenote Sports, which forecasts a “virtual medal table” based on recent results, predicts Russia will win 21 medals, six of them gold, if it competes in Pyeongchang.

That puts Russia eighth on predicted gold medals, or joint fifth on total medals. If Russia is banned, opportunities open up for many other countries.

Here is a look at more possible consequences.

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HOCKEY IN JEOPARDY

The men’s hockey tournament at the next Winter Olympics is already the first without the NHL’s participation since 1994, but banning Russia could diminish it even further.

The Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League is widely considered the world’s second-strongest league, and it’s threatening to withdraw all its players from the Olympics if Russia is banned.

Russia would otherwise be the gold medal favorite thanks to ex-NHL players like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, who now play in the KHL.

The U.S., Canada and other countries also plan to use KHL players, so losing them could deal a heavy blow to the audience figures of a tournament that’s already struggling to attract attention.

The International Ice Hockey Federation called Tuesday for “full participation of all clean Russian athletes,” saying that punishing Russia too harshly would put “the health of ice hockey at risk.”

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BACKLASH

A Russia ban could also cause a backlash against athletes perceived to benefit.

Gabriela Koukalova of the Czech Republic, one of the biggest names in biathlon, called for a ban on Russia on her Facebook page last week, only to be deluged with hundreds of insults in English and Russian.

Alongside sexist putdowns, some suggested Koukalova — who is in line to pick up a relay bronze from 2014 due to a Russian disqualification — wouldn’t be safe if she competes in Russia again.

The issue of Russian doping has caused rifts between athletes, too.

During February’s world biathlon championships, French athlete Martin Fourcade walked off the podium when the Russian mixed relay team — which included an athlete newly returned from a doping ban — was awarded its medals.

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AHN’S RETURN

One of Pyeongchang’s most compelling storylines depends on Russia taking part.

Viktor Ahn was a star speedskater for South Korea under the name Ahn Hyun-soo, winning three Olympic gold medals, but his career seemed finished when he failed to make the team for Vancouver in 2010.

Ahn then stunned skating fans by switching to Russia and winning three more gold medals in Sochi.

His return home to South Korea in a Russian uniform for the Pyeongchang Olympics is hotly anticipated.

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NORDIC OPPORTUNITIES

With no Russians, the Nordic events would be shaken up.

Cross-country skier Sergei Ustyugov won two gold and three silver medals at February’s world championships in a compelling rivalry with Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby.

If he’s absent from Pyeongchang, that opens up opportunities for the Norwegians, plus countries like Finland, Italy and Canada.

The United States is hunting its first ever women’s cross-country medal, an easier task if Russia isn’t there.

The absence of Russia’s top biathlete, Anton Shipulin, would help Germany and France’s medal chances.

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YOUNG STARS BARRED

A blanket ban for offenses from 2014 inevitably hits athletes who weren’t part of any doping system.

There’s been no suggestion of any wrongdoing by reigning two-time world figure skating champion Evgenia Medvedeva — not least because she was just 14 years old in February 2014.

Medvedeva’s teammate Alina Zagitova, also a medal contender for Pyeongchang, was just 11 during Sochi.

Sports like figure skating and curling have seen some accusations of wrongdoing by athletes around the time of the Sochi Olympics, but no cases have resulted in bans.

The only figure skater so far to have faced an IOC disciplinary panel, 2014 gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova, was cleared.

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OTHER OPTIONS

The IOC has never before imposed a blanket ban for doping and refused to do so for last year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Instead, the IOC passed the decision to the various sports federations, resulting in Russia being kicked out of track and field — except for one athlete — and weightlifting, but allowing Russia to field full teams in many sports.

The Winter Olympics are different, not least because the most serious allegations against Russian officials relate to its hosting of the last Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.

The IOC has already banned 25 individual Russians for doping in Sochi. Even if the Russian team competes, those 25 won’t be there unless they can overturn those bans on appeal.

Besides a blanket ban, the IOC could also force Russians to compete as neutrals, without their flag or anthem.

Neutral status has been used before when a country is under United Nations sanctions — like Yugoslavia in 1992 during the conflict there — or last year when Kuwait was suspended by the IOC due to government interference in sports. The Kuwaitis were officially known as “Independent Olympic Athletes.”

A similar approach was used for Russia at this year’s world track championships, but it often seemed to draw extra attention to the Russians who competed. As “neutral” high jumper Ilya Ivanyuk said, “everyone knows where we’re from.”

Russian authorities fiercely oppose neutral status as a symbolic humiliation but have stopped short of saying they would boycott the Olympics if it came to pass. For many of Russia’s critics, taking away the flag does nothing to remove questionable Russian competitors.

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MORE: Yevgenia Medvedeva to speak at IOC meeting on Russia, reports say

Canada in control of hockey rivalry going into Olympics

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Four years ago, the U.S. women’s hockey team rode a four-game winning streak over rival Canada into the Olympics, then lost both games in Sochi, including a gut-wrenching overtime final.

This time, Canada goes into the Winter Games having won four straight.

The Canadians beat the Americans 2-1 in overtime in Edmonton on Sunday night, taking their pre-Olympic series 5-3 overall.

“I don’t think it was our best performance,” Canada coach Laura Schuler said. “There’s still more work to do.”

The Canadians were led by their stalwarts — captain Marie-Philip Poulin scored in regulation, Sochi gold medalist Jennifer Wakefield scored 26 seconds into overtime and longtime goalie Shannon Szabados stopped 34 of 35 shots.

Hilary Knight netted the U.S. goal, with Maddie Rooney making 24 saves.

“The goal for us is to be hitting on all cylinders in February,” U.S. coach Robb Stauber said.

The U.S. appeared to be in that kind of form until about two weeks ago.

Before this losing streak, the U.S. had a 12-4 record against Canada since the start of 2015, including taking the last three world championship finals.

At one point, the U.S. won six straight games over a 12-month stretch, its longest streak over Canada since it famously won eight straight going into the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics then lost the gold-medal game.

Canada also beat the U.S. in their last four meetings before the 2006 Olympics and five straight going into the 2010 Olympics.

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MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

Yuzuru Hanyu to miss Japan Figure Skating Championships

Yuzuru Hanyu
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Yuzuru Hanyu, the reigning Olympic and world figure skating champion, will miss his national championships this week due to ankle and knee injuries suffered in a Nov. 9 practice fall, according to Japanese media citing the Japan Skating Federation.

Hanyu can (and very likely will) be named to Japan’s three-man Olympic team despite missing nationals.

Hanyu has reportedly been off the ice for more than one month since the fall.

“It is an important selection competition, and the Olympics are a big goal, so with that in mind we would like to think things through together,” Japan Skating Federation director Yoshiko Kobayashi said last week, according to Kyodo News.

Hanyu, who turned 23 on Dec. 7, fell on a quadruple Lutz attempted and then favored his right ankle in a Nov. 9 practice at a Grand Prix event (video here).

He skated the run-through for his free skate, although he elected not to do any more jumps.

“I have been told by the doctor that I need 10 days of complete rest,” Hanyu said in a statement on Nov. 12, according to Kyodo. “Following that, it will take three to four weeks to return and get back to where I was.”

Hanyu and world silver medalist Shoma Uno are favored to lead Japan’s Olympic men’s figure skating team. The third spot is likely to go to Takahito Mura or Keiji Tanaka.

Hanyu competed twice this season.

He posted a world-record short program score in his debut at a small September event in Canada, but struggled to fifth place in the free skate and finished second overall behind two-time world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.

He then finished second to U.S. champion Nathan Chen at the first Grand Prix event of the season in Moscow in October.

Chen is the only undefeated male singles skater this season.

Hanyu won four straight national titles before missing last season’s event with the flu.

He was still named to Japan’s team for worlds, where he won his second title in four years.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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