Branden Grace
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Branden Grace is fourth golfer to skip Olympics due to Zika

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Branden Grace withdrew from the Olympics on Friday, becoming the fourth golfer to cite the Zika virus as a reason not to play in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

At No. 11 in the world, Grace, a two-time winner this year, is the highest-ranked South African golfer.

“After serious consideration, it is with regret that I have decided to withdraw myself from the Olympic competition due to the risk posed by the Zika virus,” Grace said in a statement. “Although it was a huge goal of mine to represent my country in the Olympics, we are getting married in November and hoping to start a family in the near future, so I must put the health of my family first.”

Brazil has been the hardest hit of the approximately 60 countries that have reported an outbreak of Zika, the mosquito-borne virus linked to severe birth defects and possible neurological problems in adults.

The announcement comes two days after Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, the No. 4 player with worldwide appeal among golf’s growing list of young stars, said he won’t be part of golf’s return to the Olympics because of Zika. McIlroy also is engaged and said he plans to start a family soon.

Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel said three weeks ago that Zika was behind his decision to withdraw. Schwartzel said he and his wife plan to have more children and that he would play if he were single or if the Olympics were held elsewhere.

Marc Leishman of Australia also cited Zika because his wife’s immune system has not fully recovered from nearly dying last year of toxic shock syndrome.

Others who withdrew — Adam Scott of Australia, Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, Vijay Singh of Fiji and Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland — did not specifically cite Zika. McDowell, who was next in line to replace McIlroy, said his wife is expecting their second child about two weeks after the Olympics and he had no plans to be out of the country in the weeks leading up to the birth.

Golf is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 1904. It already is set for the Tokyo Games in 2020, though the IOC will vote next year to determine whether the sport should be a permanent addition to the program.

Still to be determined is whether Jason Day, the No. 1 player in the world, decides to play.

Day began to hedge three weeks ago when he mentioned his wife wanted more children and said he was wary about going and needed to make a smart choice. Earlier this week at a preview day for the PGA Championship, he said he respected McIlroy’s decision.

“It’s a tough one going from trying to represent your country and trying to win a gold medal, but also understanding that it’s a life decision that you have to make,” he said.

Grace’s decision is a blow to South Africa because its best three players — Grace at No. 11, Oosthuizen at No. 14 and Schwartzel at No. 23 — all have pulled out. Next in line would be Jaco Van Zyl and Brandon Stone, who won the South African Open at the start of the year but has yet to play in a major.

Grace said he wishes the South African teams well and apologized to fans for withdrawing.

“It would have been a huge honor to represent my country, so I really hope to be able to qualify again in four years’ time,” he said.

MORE: Tiger Woods wishes Olympic golf tournament had ‘more quality’ field

World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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U.S. women’s soccer team begins Olympic qualifying, which should rest on one match

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The U.S. women’s soccer team has never been in danger in Olympic qualifying, but that doesn’t change this fact: It must win on Feb. 7 to reach the Tokyo Games.

The CONCACAF tournament begins Tuesday in Houston, where the world champion Americans face world No. 72 Haiti. The last two group games are against No. 68 Panama on Friday and No. 37 Costa Rica on Feb. 3. The top two nations from the group advance to Feb. 7 semifinals.

The U.S. roster, with 18 of its 20 players coming from the 2019 World Cup team, is here.

Since CONCACAF qualifies two nations to the Olympics, the semifinals are the deciding games.

Should the U.S. win its group, it would face the runner-up from the other group in a winner-goes-to-Tokyo match. The other group (world ranking):

Canada (8)
Mexico (37)
Jamaica (53)
St. Kitts and Nevis (127)

Chaos could result in the unlikely event that either the U.S. or Canada finishes second in its group, and the two North American powers play a semifinal.

The U.S. is undefeated in Olympic qualifying history, since the tournament format began in 2004 — 15-0 with a goal differential of 88-1 (not counting matches played once they’ve already clinched qualification). The lone goal allowed came in a group-stage match in 2008, when the U.S. was already assured a spot in the semifinals.

Still, the U.S. knows the feeling of one poor outing in an important match. In 2010, it lost to Mexico in a winner-to-the-World Cup match. The U.S. was forced to win a last-chance, home-and-home playoff against a UEFA team — Italy — for the last spot in the World Cup.

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