Bode Miller, Ted Ligety lead World Alpine Skiing Championships men’s preview

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Bode Miller and Ted Ligety hope to put injury-hindered World Cup seasons behind them and perform like they’ve done so many times at major competitions. At the World Championships in Vail/Beaver Creek, Colo., it might be their last chance to do so together.

Miller and Ligety, owners of a combined 18 Olympic and Worlds medals, lead the U.S. men into the biggest event of the Alpine skiing season over the next two weeks.

Miller, 37 and a six-time Olympic medalist, hasn’t competed this season due to Nov. 17 back surgery. He’s optimistic of racing the next two weeks, beginning Wednesday, but U.S. head coach Sasha Rearick said Sunday that a decision on Miller’s participation hadn’t been made yet.

Ligety, who won three gold medals at the last World Championships in 2013, is off to his slowest start to a season in six years. He’s skiing through pain, with four screws inserted into one of his hands Nov. 22.

In 2013, Ligety became the first man in 45 years to win at least three golds at a single World Championships — claiming his precious giant slalom, the super-G and the super combined.

“The head in the clouds goal would be repeating that, but I don’t know if that’s the realistic goal,” Ligety said on Universal Sports last week. “Winning the giant slalom is the biggest goal. Hopefully I can piece together another medal or two.”

Miller, should he race, and Ligety will face strong competition from World Cup overall leader Marcel Hirscher of Austria, downhill and super-G leader Kjetil Jansrud of Norway and the possible return of Jansrud’s countryman, eight-time Worlds medalist Aksel Lund Svindal.

Here’s the schedule (all ET):

Wednesday, Feb. 4 — Super-G, 1 p.m. (NBCSN, Live Extra at 12:55)
Saturday, Feb. 7 — Downhill, 1 p.m. (NBC, Live Extra at 2:30)
Sunday, Feb. 8 — Super Combined Downhill, noon (Universal Sports)
Sunday, Feb. 8 — Super Combined Slalom, 4:15 p.m. (NBCSN, Live Extra at 5)
Friday, Feb. 13 — Giant Slalom Run 1, 12:15 p.m. (Universal Sports at noon)
Friday, Feb. 13 — Giant Slalom Run 2, 4:15 p.m. (NBCSN, Live Extra at 4)
Sunday, Feb. 15 — Slalom Run 1, 12:15 p.m. (Universal Sports at noon)
Sunday, Feb. 15 — Slalom Run 2, 4:30 p.m. (NBC, Live Extra)

Full broadcast schedule

Here are five skiers to watch:

Bode Miller
Possible events: Downhill, Super-G, Super Combined
2015 World Cup: No races (injury)
2014 Olympics: Bronze in super-G; sixth in super combined; eighth in downhill; 20th in giant slalom
2013 World Championships: Did not compete (injury)

Miller, already the oldest Olympic Alpine medalist, hopes to become the second-oldest man to win a World Championships medal. It’s a tall ask.

Miller has only taken part in downhill training runs this season due to his recuperating back. But he showed he can contend, as sixth-fastest in a training run in Kitzbuehel, Austria, two weeks ago.

He told The New York Times he won’t race the giant slalom and is unlikely for the super combined. That leaves two races — the downhill and super-G — for Miller to win his first Worlds medal since 2005, when he swept the downhill and super-G in Bormio, Italy.

Miller said in April that this season would likely be his last before retiring, according to the New York Times.

Video: Miller is ‘Grandpa Bode’ in Audi commercial

source:
Ted Ligety had four screws put into his hand in November. (Ted Ligety’s social media)

Ted Ligety
Possible events: Super-G, Giant Slalom, Slalom, Super Combined
2015 World Cup: One win, three podiums in 18 races; second in giant slalom standings
2014 Olympics: Gold in giant slalom; 12th in super combined; 14th in super-G; DNF in slalom
2013 World Championships: Gold in super-G, giant slalom, super combined; DNF in slalom

Ligety was wise to downplay thoughts of repeating his 2013 World Championships triple. While he has a home-course advantage, Ligety hasn’t finished in the top 10 of any super-G this season and did not finish the only super combined.

He’s no sure thing in the giant slalom, either. Top rival Marcel Hirscher has won four of the five giant slaloms this season and is likely to keep Ligety from a third straight World Cup season title in his prized event. However, the only time Ligety beat Hirscher in a giant slalom this season came at Beaver Creek on Dec. 7.

Ligety is looking to become the third man to win three straight World titles in the same event (Ingemar Stenmark, Kjetil Andre Aamodt) and the first to do it in giant slalom.

Marcel Hirscher
Possible events: Giant Slalom, Slalom, Super Combined
2015 World Cup: Six wins, 11 podiums in 16 races; overall and giant slalom leader
2014 Olympics: Silver in slalom; fourth in giant slalom
2013 World Championships: Gold in slalom; silver in giant slalom

Hirscher is likely to become the first man to win four straight World Cup overall titles this season, which is remarkable for three reasons. He’s just 25 years old. He doesn’t ski downhill and rarely super-G. He owns just one gold medal from the Olympics and World Championships.

Hirscher can bolster his big-event reputation by performing well as Austria’s biggest star these next two weeks. He’s known more for slalom, but it appears he has less competition in giant slalom (Hirscher and Ligety have won the last eight World Cup giant slaloms).

In slalom, Hirscher trails German Felix Neureuther in the season standings, and the last four World Cup slaloms have been won by four different men, none of whom are Hirscher.

Kjetil Jansrud
Possible events: Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, Super Combined
2015 World Cup: Five wins in 17 races; downhill and super-G standings leader
2014 Olympics: Gold in super-G; bronze in downhill; fourth in super combined; DNF in giant slalom
2013 World Championships: DNF in super-G (injured)

Just like Lindsey Vonn, the Norwegian Jansrud came back from a major knee surgery suffered in the 2013 World Championships super-G and now leads the World Cup downhill and super-G standings.

Jansrud’s crash in Schladming was not as brutal as Vonn’s. Unlike Vonn, he skied at the Olympics and won the super-G gold medal, plus downhill bronze. He must be the downhill and super-G favorite this week. Jansrud won the World Cup downhill in Beaver Creek on Dec. 5 and finished second in the super-G the next day.

Jansrud’s path at Worlds could be impeded by countryman Aksel Lund Svindal, the reigning World champion in the downhill hoping to make his season debut after rupturing an Achilles tendon playing soccer in October.

One more U.S. speed racer
Possible events: Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, Super Combined
2015 World Cup: Travis Ganong, Steven Nyman won downhills
2014 Olympics: Andrew Weibrecht won super-G silver
2013 World Championships: No notable finishes

It’s been 10 years since an American man other than Miller or Ligety won a World Championships medal. Their teammates have an opportunity to break that streak on home snow the next two weeks.

Ganong, 26, showed the most promise last season when he finished fifth in the Olympic downhill and made his first World Cup podium two weeks later. Ganong won his first World Cup race Dec. 28, a downhill in Santa Caterina, Italy.

Nyman, 32, won a World Cup race on Dec. 19 for the first time in more than two years. He’s the top American in the World Cup downhill standings, fourth place, and the man behind Fantasy Ski Racer.

Then there’s Weibrecht, 28, who owns as many Olympic medals as Lindsey Vonn (two) but has never made a World Cup podium. However, Weibrecht did notch his first World Cup top-five in a super-G in Kitzbuehel two weeks ago.

World Championships women’s preview

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