Gracie Gold, Evgenia Medvedeva, Satoko Miyahara
AP

Russia, U.S. women on proving ground at World Figure Skating Championships

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BOSTON — The question isn’t so much who will win the World title, but will she have the staying power to defend it and last through the 2018 Olympics?

A new Russian teen is favored to take the biggest prize in figure skating for a third straight year.

Yevgenia Medvedeva, a 16-year-old from Moscow, can become the first singles skater to win a senior World title one year after winning the World Junior crown and the youngest female World champ since Tara Lipinski in 1997.

Lipinski believes Medvedeva has the skills to avoid the fates of 2014 Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who both failed to make Russia’s three-woman team for this week and may never return to this highest stage.

“The first thing you usually say when someone comes onto the scene, doing triple-triples [jump combinations], is whether their spins need work, their overall skating skills need work, their performance quality needs work or they need polishing in general,” Lipinski said. “[Medvedeva] stepped onto the scene as a senior [skater this season]. She improved so rapidly that she is polished. And she has a unique style that is iconic to her.”

Medvedeva swept all six programs in arguably the three most competitive events so far this season — the Grand Prix Final, Russian Championships and European Championships.

In her weakest of the three, the European Championships, her biggest rival and countrywoman Yelena Radionova skated clean. Medvedeva fell in her free skate and still prevailed by 5.46 points.

Russian women could go one-two at Worlds for the first time ever, but Japan and the U.S. have the talent to break them up.

Satoko Miyahara, an 18-year-old who is shy of 5 feet, took silver last year and won the Four Continents Championships in February with a personal-best score just .54 shy of Medvedeva’s total from the European Championships in January.

Mao Asada, 25, is the only woman in the field with a World title (she has three), an individual Olympic medal and a triple Axel. But she’s been inconsistent after taking last season off.

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Then there are the Americans. Ashley WagnerGracie Gold and Mirai Nagasu have all skated top-three programs at previous Worlds, but never back-to-back times to get on the podium.

Just last year, Gold and Wagner placed second and third in the Worlds free skate — after disastrous eighth- and 11th-place short programs. They finished fourth and fifth overall, extending the U.S. women’s medal drought to 10 years, the longest in the Winter Olympic era.

They’ve built more roller coasters this season.

Wagner totaled a personal best to win Skate Canada in October, then was last out of six skaters in December’s Grand Prix Final short program before a personal-best free skate moved her up to fourth.

Gold outscored Medvedeva and Miyahara in the Skate America free skate, then put up a personal-best short program at Trophée Bompard in her next event. But the wheels came off at the Grand Prix Final and Four Continents (fifth both times) with her second U.S. title sandwiched in between.

Nagasu, a late replacement for the injured Polina Edmunds, was an afterthought going into this season after her 10th-place finish at the 2015 U.S. Championships (with a knee injury).

Yet she came up with the goods at Four Continents with a personal-best total score for silver and is at Worlds for the first time since 2010, when she bettered Yuna Kim and Asada in the short program at age 16 but finished seventh overall.

Lipinski and Weir believe a U.S. woman will finish on the podium this week. Which one is the question.

“Gracie, skating clean, skating lights out, adding the emotion, selling a program,” Lipinski said. “A medal is not just a maybe, it should be.”

Here are Lipinski and Weir’s medal predictions from last week:

Lipinski
Gold: Medvedeva (RUS)
Silver: Radionova (RUS)
Bronze: Gold or Wagner (USA)

Weir
Gold: Medvedeva (RUS)
Silver: Radionova (RUS)
Bronze: Gold or Wagner (USA)

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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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