Taylor Phinney
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U.S. cycling envies Iran, Morocco heading to Olympics

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When riders roll to the start line for the road cycling race on the first official day of the Rio Olympics, more will be wearing Iranian and Moroccan jerseys than those of Team USA.

It’s a thought that causes Jim Miller plenty of anguish.

A bit of embarrassment, too.

Miller is the vice president in charge of the elite teams for USA Cycling, so it’s his job to build the American squad for events such as the Summer Games. And part of building the team is making sure that the most possible riders have qualified to hit the start line.

“It’s a highly unenviable situation to be in,” Miller says grimly.

The two-man U.S. road squad will be announced June 24, and the fact that both riders must also race the time trial makes the selection even more difficult. But the challenge for whomever is picked won’t come until August, when they line up for the start at Copacabana Beach and realize that they only have one teammate while nations such as Italy, Belgium and Spain have five riders apiece.

So, how did the Americans get to such a sorry state?

Bad luck, a convoluted qualification system and some untimely injuries all conspired against Miller and his riders.

The UCI, cycling’s world governing body, doles out 144 start spots based only on results from 2015, rather than a two-year window like some other disciplines. It also puts a premium on World Tour results, then considers the lesser continental rankings of member nations.

So when Tejay van Garderen abandoned the Tour de France due to illness, then the Vuelta a Espana with a broken shoulder, it cost the U.S. dearly. Ditto when Taylor Phinney missed most of the season as he recovered from a devastating injury sustained the previous year.

The top five nations in the World Tour rankings received the maximum of five spots, and the next 10 countries earned four apiece. The U.S. was ranked 18th after the 2015 season.

Further conspiring against the U.S. was the fact that WorldTour riders are unable to earn points in lower-level continental events. So when Joe Dombrowski won the Tour of Utah and performed well at the Tour of California, it did not help the U.S. in the continental rankings – the Americans wound up fifth, and that equated to just two start spots at the Rio Games.

The same as Turkey, Latvia and Lithuania, fewer than Canada and Denmark.

“It’s really frustrating,” Miller said of the entire process. “With five riders we can put together a good team – we put together a great team in London (in 2012) with five guys. We can ride another really good race with five guys. But two guys, it gets really tough.”

The number of riders in the road race is significant because more teammates not only provide more chances of landing on a podium but better chances, too. Teammates can help reel in breakaways, pace each other up grueling climbs and deal with the tactics of rival nations.

With only two American riders, the U.S. will be forced to freelance through the race.

Meanwhile, funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee and private donors alike is often tied to medal capability. And that medal capability is hampered by only having two riders at the start.

“We know we need to get more money into it, but success breeds success,” said USA Cycling chief executive Derek Bouchard-Hall – adding that the opposite tends also to be true.

One thing qualifying two riders for Rio has done is up the ante for those trying to earn a spot.

Even though van Garderen has withdrawn his name from consideration – his wife is pregnant and he does not want to risk contracting the Zika virus – plenty of others are fighting for a spot. Phinney is a likely choice given his time trial ability, but in truth the competition is wide open.

“I kind of had 2016 circled on my calendar years and years and year ago, thinking if I’m going to go to the Olympics, this is the year,” said Brent Bookwalter, a 10-year veteran of the pro ranks.

“I’m 32, on the top of my game. I’m still definitely holding the belief that I can make the team,” he said, “but with only two spots, it’s much more challenging than if we had four or even three.”

Miller makes it clear the U.S. isn’t giving up hopes of landing on the podium in Rio. He thinks there are several riders at his disposal who are capable of surprising the rest of the field.

It’s only a shame that so few of them will have a chance.

“There’s a lot against us,” Miller said. “But as they say, it is what it is.”

MORE: 100 Team USA athletes to watch on road to Rio

Adam Jones, five-time MLB All-Star, becomes Olympic eligible

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Should the U.S. qualify for baseball’s Olympic return, a five-time MLB All-Star could be eligible for its roster in Tokyo. And he has interest.

Outfielder Adam Jones signed with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s domestic league, which, unlike MLB, will take an Olympic break next summer to allow players to take part in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years.

Jones, 34, made no mention of Olympic eligibility in a social media post announcing the signing. His Instagram avatar is a photo of him in a Team USA jersey from the World Baseball Classic.

Jones’ agent later said that Jones does have interest in playing for the U.S. in Tokyo, should an American team qualify in the spring.

“To play over in Japan has always been a desire of Adam’s, and the timing worked out that the Olympics happens to be played in Tokyo the first year of his contract,” Jones’ agent wrote in an email. “It wasn’t one of the factors on his decision BUT more of a [sic] addition to the overall package to decide to go.”

Jones called being part of the U.S.’ 2017 WBC title, “probably the best experience of my life so far, especially with sports,” according to The Associated Press. He was one of five players to be on the U.S. team at each of the last two World Baseball Classics.

The U.S. still faces a difficult task to qualify for the Tokyo Games. It lost to Mexico last month in its first of up to three chances at qualifying tournaments, using a roster of mostly double-A and triple-A caliber players.

Major Leaguers are not expected to be made available for qualifying or for the Tokyo Games.

The next two qualifying tournaments will be in late March (an Americas qualifier in Arizona) and early April (a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei). It remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

Jones could become the third player with prior MLB All-Star experience to compete at the Olympics from any nation, joining Australian catcher Dave Nilsson and Canadian pitcher Jason Dickson.

Jones made five All-Star teams during an 11-year stint with the Baltimore Orioles from 2008-18 before playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.

Many players competed at the Olympics before making an MLB All-Star team, including Stephen Strasburg and Jason Giambi.

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Russia boxers to boycott Olympics if sanctions not lifted

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Russian boxers will only take part in the Tokyo Olympics if doping sanctions forcing them to compete as neutral athletes are overturned, the general secretary of the Russian Boxing Federation told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Umar Kremlev said he has spoken with the Olympic boxing team and they “unanimously” rejected the conditions laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency as punishment for manipulating doping data.

The WADA sanctions, announced on Monday, ban the use of the Russian team name, flag or anthem at a range of major sports competitions over the next four years, including next year’s Olympics.

“They said we won’t go without our flag and anthem,” Kremlev said. “We aren’t going for medals, but for that feeling that I brought the highest honor home for my country.”

Separately, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament said Russia could create an alternative to the Olympics.

“This ruling show the clear crisis in international sports institutions. I believe that Russia could host its own games at home,” Valentina Matvienko said in comments reported by the Interfax news agency.

There is a precedent. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union refused to compete in the Olympics and hosted its own Spartakiads — named after the ancient rebel slave Spartacus — with a strong socialist slant. However, the Soviet Union began competing at the Olympics in 1952 and Russians generally take great pride in the country’s Olympic achievements since then.

If the sanctions aren’t overturned, Kremlev said Russian boxers would prefer to turn pro rather than compete at the Olympics.

“A world champion (in professional boxing) is better known than an Olympic champion,” Kremlev said, adding the Russian anthem would be played before pro title fights.

Kremlev said boxers are being asked to shoulder the blame for offenses committed in other sports. He said they would still stay at home even if Russia’s athletes in other sports decided to take part.

“If other sports are guilty and people have breached the WADA code, why are we punished?” he said. “We are for honest sport and against doping. We want our sport to be clean … If someone breaks the rules, we push them out.”

Russia is a major power in amateur and Olympic boxing. It hosted both men’s and women’s world championships this year, finishing at the top of the medals table at the women’s event and second in the men’s championships. The International Olympic Committee has taken direct charge of boxing at the Tokyo Olympics after criticizing chronic financial problems and infighting at the International Boxing Association.

Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov talked up Russia’s chances of overturning the WADA sanctions.

“I think that there is every basis to appeal the decision, because our experts have presented their position, and they have the same database as WADA does,” Kolobkov said in comments reported by state news agency TASS. “There is an answer to every question and the whole process is ahead of us.”

The official decision on whether to dispute the sanctions will be made on Dec. 19 by the Russian anti-doping agency’s supervisory board, but senior figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have signaled their preference for taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

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