Michael Phelps, Kosuke Hagino

Kosuke Hagino: I’m trying to become like Michael Phelps

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Michael Phelps was the world’s greatest swimmer for much of this century. Ryan Lochte, too, has held that crown. There is little doubt that the title now belongs to Japan’s Kosuke Hagino.

And Hagino, who just turned 20 and is short of 6 feet, has his sights set pretty high.

“Michael Phelps is my role model, and I’m trying to become like him,” Hagino told Agence France-Presse after winning the 200m freestyle at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, on Sunday. “I want to catch up with Phelps someday. But I have to put up the results, and this is a big step. First I will try to win as many medals as I can at these Games.”

Hagino backed it up, winning the 200m individual medley and leading Japan to 4x200m freestyle gold on Monday, giving him three gold medals in two days against the top swimmers from China, Japan and South Korea, among other Asian nations.

In the 200m free, Hagino beat the reigning Swimming World Swimmer of the Year, China’s Sun Yang, and South Korea’s biggest star, Park Tae-hwan, who won 2008 and 2012 Olympic silver in the event.

Hagino won silver in the 200m free at the Pan Pacific Championships in August, over the likes of Lochte. He swam .85 faster at the Asian Games than at Pan Pacs for the second-fastest time in the world this year.

Hagino’s winning time in the 200m IM, a better event for him, was the fastest in the world this year by .68. Remember, Hagino beat Phelps in the 200m IM at Pan Pacs by .02.

“My purpose was to do my best, however I believe Michael Phelps is not in the best condition right now,” Hagino said after beating the on-a-comeback Phelps that night, according to the Gold Coast Bulletin in Australia.

Phelps is nine years older than Hagino, who seems to be getting faster and faster. Hagino keeps bettering his personal best in the 200m IM, but he is still more than one second off Lochte’s world record.

“The gap [with Lochte] is slowly closing,” Hagino told the Japan News before the Asian Games.

Hagino’s split in the 4x200m free relay on Monday was 1:44.97. That’s .6 faster than anybody’s split from the same race at Pan Pacs, including Lochte and Phelps.

Hagino is also the reigning World champion in the 400m IM, with the fastest time in the world this year by more than one second.

He is the world’s greatest swimmer in the 200m free, 200m IM and 400m IM, three of the five individual events Phelps won at the Beijing Olympics.

He also won bronze in Incheon in the 100m backstroke and silver at 2013 Worlds in the 400m free.

Perhaps the most anticipated race of Hagino’s season may come Tuesday. He is entered in the 400m free with Sun, the reigning World and Olympic champion in the event, as well as Park, the 2008 Olympic champion. However, Sun has come down with an injury that forced him out of the 4x200m free relay Monday.

“I have three [individual] events left, and I want to win them all,” Hagino said Monday, according to Agence France-Presse, “I want to leave everything out there.”

Hagino, who shares a first name with Japan’s greatest swimmer ever, breaststroke legend Kosuke Kitajima, faces a problem if he wants to pull off a Phelps-like schedule at the Olympics.

The 400m IM and 400m free are typically on the same day at the Games, the opening day. At Pan Pacs, he won silver in the 400m free and then finished last in the 200m backstroke final on the same night. Still, Hagino swam six individual events at the 2013 World Championships with these results — two silvers, three fifths, one seventh.

Hagino began swimming before he turned 1 but “could only do one or two push-ups as a sixth grader.” according to the Japan News. “He also failed to excel at sports involving a ball.”

In 2012, Hagino won bronze in the 400m IM in London, relegating Phelps to fourth place. That was the first time Phelps finished off the podium at an Olympics since 2000.

“It’s been fun being able to watch him,” Phelps told The New York Times at Pan Pacs. “He’s definitely a very well-rounded swimmer.”

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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