Vladimir Putin allows Russians to compete at Pyeongchang Olympics

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t boycott the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Putin said Wednesday his government will allow Russians to compete as neutral athletes at the upcoming Winter Games in South Korea.

The International Olympic Committee banned the Russian team as punishment for doping violations at the Sochi Olympics. The IOC, however, plans to invite individual Russians to compete under the Olympic Flag.

“Without any doubt we will not declare any kind of blockade,” Putin said in televised remarks after launching his re-election campaign at an automobile factory. “We will not block our Olympians from taking part, if any of them wish to take part as individuals.

“They have been preparing for these competitions for their whole careers, and for them it’s very important.”

Putin said Russia still did not accept accusations that it ran a state-backed doping system around the Sochi Olympics, and called the IOC ruling unfair “collective punishment.”

Russian athletes, coaches and politicians have lined up to condemn the IOC ruling, but most say it’s better to accept it and compete.

Russian IOC member Yelena Isinbayeva, a two-time Olympic pole vault champion, came out against a boycott.

“I’d like to tell all Russian athletes preparing for the Olympics in Pyeongchang not to get disappointed in any case and definitely not to do anything stupid like a boycott,” Isinbayeva told state TV. “It’s clearly not worth it.”

She said the IOC choice of “Olympic Athletes from Russia” as the official designation, instead of a more neutral tag, decided the issue for her.

Some Russian sports officials have been criticized for not doing enough to prevent the ban, with senior lawmakers and sports figures calling for them to be fired.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said blaming officials was not a priority and that “protecting the interests of our athletes” was more important.

Under particular pressure is Vitaly Mutko.

He was Russia’s sports minister during the Sochi Olympics, when the IOC ruled drug-test samples were tampered with as part of a doping scheme. Mutko is now a deputy prime minister and in charge of the country’s preparations for next year’s soccer World Cup.

He was barred from the Olympics for life by the IOC on Tuesday.

“(Mutko) took the country into such a nightmare,” figure skating coach Tatyana Tarasova said, according to R-Sport, accusing him of not doing enough to protect Russian athletes from accusations of doping. “I’m sorry for the people who have suffered because of his incompetence.”

The Kremlin vehemently denied running a state-sponsored doping program. State media on Wednesday dismissed the ban as part of a plot to hurt Russia.

Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the Russian parliament’s upper house, said the ruling is “clearly part of the West’s policy to restrain Russia.”

But he also insisted that local sports officials are to blame and “ought to bear personal responsibility” for letting it happen.

Vladimir Poletayev, deputy chairman of the committee on procedures at the Federation Council, went even further.

“All our sports officials, including the Russian Olympic Committee, ought to be personally accountable for the ban on Russia and ought to step down,” Poletayev said, according to RIA Novosti.

Also Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport said it registered appeals by 22 Russian athletes against their disqualifications from the Sochi Olympics for doping.

CAS said the athletes have requested verdicts before the Pyeongchang Games open Feb. 9. The appeals relate to earlier bans against individual athletes, not the ruling on the Russian team.

The IOC is now working on “operational guidelines” that will oversee enforcing restrictions on Russian participation in Pyeongchang.

These include approving a manufacturer and a design of team uniforms, and what Russian symbols, such as national flags, fans will be allowed to use in Olympic venues.

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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.

The U.S. Olympic team will be announced Jan. 1. The national-team roster is at 25 players (22 skaters, three goalies), but the Olympic roster is 23 (20 skaters, three goalies).

“Can’t live in the past, can’t live in the future, so tonight we were worried about this game,” U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said, according to the Canadian Press. “We weren’t looking ahead to February.”

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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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