Dirk Nowitzki, Germany suffer heartbreaking loss in bid to KO Spain from Olympic qualifying

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Dirk Nowitzki and Germany nearly eliminated two-time reigning Olympic silver medalist Spain from Olympic men’s basketball qualifying, falling 77-76 at EuroBasket in Berlin on Thursday.

The Germans rallied from deficits of 13 points with 6:37 left and seven points with 56 seconds left of the group-play game that ended up being an elimination game.

The winner would advance to the European Olympic qualifying tournament round of 16. The loser would not only be done at EuroBasket, but also not finish in third through seventh place overall, which is necessary for an automatic berth in the global, last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament in July.

The top two at EuroBasket earn spots in the 12-team 2016 Olympic basketball tournament.

Down 77-74 on Thursday, Germany and Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroeder was fouled while shooting a three-pointer with three seconds left. He made the first two free throws but missed the third that would have likely sent the game to overtime.

The loss is widely viewed as Dirk Nowitzki‘s final international game, though Germany could be awarded one of three wild-card places in the global, last-chance tournament in July by FIBA.

Preference for those wild-card places is expected to be given to higher-placing teams in continental Olympic qualifiers, though. Germany’s finish outside the top 16 in EuroBasket will not help its case, if it makes one.

This asterisk is why a Spain loss to Germany might not have derailed its Olympic hopes entirely, and why reigning Olympic bronze medalist Russia may also get a second chance to qualify for Rio after it was eliminated in EuroBasket group play.

Nowitzki, 37, led Germany at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, where it failed to reach the quarterfinals in its only Olympic appearance since 1992. Nowitzki memorably shaved the Olympic rings into the side of his hair before the Games and carried the German flag in the Opening Ceremony.

After the game, Nowitzki was given a standing ovation by the Berlin arena crowd (video here).

Spain survived and advanced without four of its star NBA players — Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Serge Ibaka and Jose Calderon — all sitting out EuroBasket for various reasons but who could return for the Rio Olympics. Its only stalwart on the EuroBasket roster is Pau Gasol.

Spain’s road to Olympic qualification at EuroBasket will not get easier. It is in the same half of the knockout bracket as undefeated France, whose roster includes NBA players Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw and Rudy Gobert.

Spain and France could meet in the semifinals next Thursday with the winner receiving an Olympic berth and the loser forced to the global, last-chance qualifying tournament in July.

France beat Spain 65-52 in the 2014 FIBA World Cup quarterfinals, a tournament won by the U.S. to clinch the first Rio 2016 Olympic berth. Brazil, Australia and Nigeria have since been added to the Olympic field, with two more teams to join them from FIBA Americas on Friday.

The other half of the EuroBasket round of 16 bracket includes reigning World silver medalist Serbia and Lithuania, a traditional power that finished fourth at Worlds in 2014.

EuroBasket schedule and standings are available here.

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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