Kikkan Randall

Kikkan Randall leads cross-country skiing season storylines

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In 2002, Kikkan Randall, 19, debuted at the Salt Lake City Olympics and finished 60th.

Later at the Games, she watched Sarah Hughes, 16, place 59 spots higher in figure skating. Randall felt sorry for Hughes. Here’s why:

“[Hughes] had reached the pinnacle of her sport so early and knowing that I would have 10 years or more to look forward to doing that,” Randall recalled one year ago, according to USA Today.

She just about proved prophetic.

“My goal is to medal in 2010,” Randall told the newspaper in 2002. “In this sport, you cannot have quick success. You’ve got to put in the time, and you usually peak when you are close to 30.”

Randall, an Alaskan who won a high school bodybuilding contest, did not win a medal at her third Olympics in 2010. She and Caitlin Compton took sixth in the team sprint.

It marked the best finish by U.S. women’s cross-country skiers in Olympic history, but Bill Koch remained the only American to win an Olympic medal in the sport (1976 silver).

Randall will turn 31 on New Year’s Eve. She seems to be peaking, and she is predicted to win a medal in Sochi following consistent World Cup and breakthrough World Championships success.

“I remember being at my first Olympics at Salt Lake … and dreaming about the skier I wanted to become to eventually compete for the first-ever Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing,” she said in October. “It really feels like the blink of an eye.”

Randall spent the last decade ascending in sprint skiing. She’s the two-time reigning World Cup leader in the discipline, clinching last season’s title by edging Norwegian all-around superstar Marit Bjoergen by .07 of a second in her 100th career World Cup start.

She teamed with Jessie Diggins to make history at the World Championships in February, winning the team sprint and the first world title by American cross-country skiers, men or women.

Randall also won a 2009 World Championships silver medal, individually, but the recent surge in U.S. depth means she (and all of U.S. cross-country skiing) have more chances at breaking the Olympic medal drought.

“We’re in contention [in relays] for the first time in my Games experience,” Randall told the International Ski Federation (FIS).

This season’s World Cup results will be an early indicator of potential Sochi success. Watch for Randall’s individual performances against Olympic champions Bjoergen and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Norwegian Maiken Caspersen Falla.

Sweden, Finland and Norway are the top competition in the team sprint.

Here’s this season’s cross-country skiing World Cup/Olympic schedule:

Kuusamo, Finland — Nov. 29-Dec. 1
Lillehammer, Norway — Dec. 7-8
Davos, Switzerland — Dec. 14-15
Asiago, Italy — Dec. 21-22
Oberhof, Germany — Dec. 28-29 (Tour de Ski)
Lenzerheide, Switzerland — Dec. 31-Jan. 1 (Tour de Ski)
Cortina-Toblach, Italy — Jan. 3 (Tour de Ski)
Val di Fiemme, Italy — Jan. 4-5 (Tour de Ski)
Nove Mesto, Czech Republic — Jan. 11-12
Szklarska Poreba, Poland — Jan. 18-19
Toblach, Italy — Feb. 1-2
Olympics — Feb. 8-23
Lahti, Finland — March 1-2
Drammen, Norway — March 6
Oslo, Norway — March 8-9
Falun, Sweden — March 14-16 (World Cup Final)

2. Who will make the U.S. Olympic Team?

The U.S. will base its Olympic Team selections off World Cup results and FIS Points standings through the Nove Mesto World Cup stop.

Currently, it is one of eight nations to qualify the maximum quota of 20 Olympians, a sign of progress after the U.S. sent 11 cross-country skiers to the 2010 Olympics.

The quota standings will change over the next two months, and the U.S. won’t necessarily fill every quota spot it receives.

A nation may have no more than 12 Olympians for one gender and four skiers per Olympic event.

The top U.S. women’s cross-country skiers last season were Randall (third in the overall World Cup), Liz Stephen (20th overall), Holly Brooks (35th), Diggins (36th) and Ida Sargent (39th).

The top men last season were Andy Newell (29th overall, fifth sprint), Noah Hoffman (48th overall), Kris Freeman (75th) and Simi Hamilton (91st).

All but Diggins, Sargent and Hoffman were on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.

3. Norway’s domination

No nation owns more Olympic cross-country skiing medals than Norway, which has 96 and will likely win its 100th Olympic cross-country medal come February.

The world’s best male and female skiers are both Norwegian — Bjoergen and Petter Northug.

Bjoergen, 33, won three gold medals at the 2010 Olympics. She finished fourth in the 2012-13 World Cup overall standings despite missing the entire Tour de Ski after being hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat. She came back to win four golds and one silver at the World Championships.

Bjoergen is three career Olympic medals behind the most decorated female Winter Olympian of all time, retired Soviet cross-country skier Raisa Smetanina, who won 10.

Northug, 27, is the reigning Olympic and world champion in the grueling 50km and the reigning World Cup overall champion. One of his biggest rivals, Swiss Dario Cologna, could miss the rest of 2013 recovering from ankle surgery.

Still, there is concern about Northug. His best finish in three events in a pre-World Cup stop in Norway last week was 10th, and he took 63rd in one race.

Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess a unique U.S. Olympic hopeful

Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping