Alexander Zubkov, Vladimir Putin, Thomas Bach
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Vladimir Putin spokesman calls Russia doping allegations ‘turncoat’s libel’

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Two Olympic gold medalists from Russia denied doping Friday, a day after they were named in a newspaper report detailing state-sponsored cheating at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Bobsled champion Alexander Zubkov and cross-country skier Alexander Legkov were among the athletes accused in a New York Times article of doping by the former head of the Russian national drug-testing laboratory.

“What’s written now in this article is baseless libel,” Zubkov told Russian state TV, adding that he regularly gave doping samples in his career.

“I’m a person who has worked for many years in sport, competed at the Olympics, and I know how much responsibility each athlete bears when they compete at such a high level.”

The article also brought a strong response from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s spokesman denounced the allegations as “a turncoat’s libel.”

Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Russian lab now living in Los Angeles, told the Times that he was given a spreadsheet of doping athletes by the Sports Ministry ahead of the games. It allegedly bore the names of 15 athletes who later won medals, including Zubkov and Legkov.

The spreadsheet was not published and The Associated Press could not verify it.

Rodchenkov said he then switched out tainted urine samples for clean ones at the doping lab used for the games in Sochi, with help from people he believed to be officers of the Russian security services.

Legkov defended his “honest medals” and said Rodchenkov, who resigned as lab director last year following separate allegations that he covered up doping in track and field, was not a credible source.

“I don’t understand why a person like this should be believed, trusted or anything else,” Legkov said in televised comments.

Zubkov and Legkov are two of Russia’s most prominent winter sports athletes.

Zubkov carried the Russian flag at the Opening Ceremony for the Sochi Olympics and won gold in the two-man and four-man bobsled events at the age of 39, becoming one of the oldest pilots to win an Olympic event.

Legkov won gold in the men’s 50km cross-country mass start on the last day of the Games and was given his gold medal at the Closing Ceremony.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin rejects the accusations that the Russian government oversaw a state-sponsored doping program and subsequent cover-up.

“It just seems like, you know, some kind of a turncoat’s libel,” Peskov said, without mentioning Rodchenkov by name. “I wouldn’t put trust in such unfounded claims.”

The government continues to back Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, Peskov added.

The World Anti-Doping Agency is set to investigate Rodchenkov’s allegations, and Rodchenkov himself has volunteered to identify which samples he tampered with.

The International Olympic Committee on Thursday said that the “allegations are very detailed and very worrying and we ask the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate immediately.”

The IOC said, based on the result of the WADA inquiry, that it “will not hesitate to act with its usual policy of zero tolerance for doping and defending the clean athletes.”

MORE: Russia track, anti-doping changes ‘just fake’ so far, whistleblower says

Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose so far Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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