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Russian whistleblower Yulia Stepanova cleared to compete

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LONDON (AP) — Russian whistleblower Yulia Stepanova was cleared by track and field’s world governing body on Friday to compete as a neutral athlete in the European championships and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

While her participation in next week’s European meet is assured, it remains uncertain whether the IOC will accept the decision for the Olympics.

The IAAF said its doping review board accepted Stepanova’s application to compete as an independent athlete under “exceptional eligibility” rules.

The 800-meter runner provided evidence to the World Anti-Doping Agency of widespread cheating in Russia that led the IAAF to bar the country’s track and field athletes from international competition, including the Rio Games.

Stepanova, who served a two-year doping ban before turning whistleblower, is now living and training in the United States at an undisclosed location.

The IAAF said Stepanova’s petition to compete was granted because she had “made a truly exceptional contribution to the protection and promotion of clean athletes, fair play and the integrity and authenticity of the sport.”

“Ms. Stepanova is now eligible to compete in international competitions as an independent neutral athlete,” the federation said.

The IAAF added that Stepanova’s participation as a neutral athlete “is still subject to acceptance by the organizer of the competition in question, in accordance with the rules of that competition.”

The IAAF also said Friday that more than 80 Russian athletes have applied to compete in Rio under “exceptional eligibility” provisions.

The ruling on Stepanova came in time to compete in next week’s European championships in Amsterdam. Meet organizers welcomed her participation, saying he will be able to compete under the European Athletics flag. The 800-meter heats will be held Wednesday.

“The decision to accept Stepanova’s participation is in accordance with the competition rules of the European Athletics Championships,” the European body said, adding it also recognized her “exceptional contribution” to the anti-doping fight.

Stepanova’s status for the Olympics remains uncertain, however.

The IAAF and the International Olympic Committee have been at odds over how any Russian athletes would be represented if cleared for the games. The IOC says they should compete under the Russian flag, while the IAAF insists they should be under a neutral flag.

The IOC said Friday it had “taken note” of the IAAF announcement, stressing that Stepanova’s eligibility is contingent on acceptance by event organizers.

“As said before, the IOC will carefully study the case of Ms. Stepanova once the IAAF has passed on the file with all the available information as requested by the IOC,” the Olympic body said in a statement. “The IOC also took note that the IAAF received more than 80 applications from other Russian athletes seeking ‘exceptional eligibility’ in international competitions.”

The IOC has said that entry of Russian athletes for the games would be under the control of the Russian Olympic Committee, which is not suspended. That means they would use the Russian flag.

Stepanova was one of the world’s top 800-meter runners before she and her husband Vitaly Stepanov, a drug-testing official, provided evidence to German broadcaster ARD and WADA that doping was systematic in Russian athletics, with officials helping to cover it up.

Russia was banned from all international competition by the IAAF in November after a WADA commission report alleged state-sponsored doping in the country.

The IAAF upheld the ban last month, saying Russia had failed to meet reform conditions. But the IAAF also approved a measure allowing individuals to compete as “neutral athletes” if they can show they have been regularly tested by a reliable agency. Russia’s own anti-doping agency was almost entirely shut down last year after it faced cover-up claims.

The special eligibility measure is aimed largely at Russians who have been based abroad, and few athletes are likely to be considered, though U.S.-based long jumper Daria Klishina, a two-time European indoor champion, is likely to be one.

The deadline to apply is Monday, and a decision on all claims will be made by July 18. The Olympic track and field competition starts on Aug. 12.

Dmitry Shlyakhtin, the head of the suspended Russian track federation, said his organization was “absolutely neutral” on Stepanova’s eligibility, in comments to the Tass news agency. He added the federation supported 68 applications by Russians to the IAAF but “maybe someone filed applications themselves.”

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Ginny Fuchs hopes to emerge from OCD, tearful Olympic experience

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None of the boxers at this week’s U.S. Olympic Trials competed at a prior Olympics, but flyweight Ginny Fuchs remembers the specifics of her one Olympic experience in Rio.

Fuchs, who won the 2016 Olympic trials but failed to clinch a spot at the Games in international qualifiers, was nonetheless named team captain and brought to Rio as a sparring partner.

She had mixed feelings. Watching from the crowd as Claressa Shields repeated as Olympic champion on the final day of the Games was motivating. Fuchs had toyed with turning professional but, after talking to Shields, decided to forge another four years as an amateur for another chance to become an Olympian.

The Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony, two weeks before that Shields final, was too much for Fuchs to bear. She could not stay in the Athletes’ Village nor march with the U.S. delegation at the Maracana.

“I remember watching the Opening Ceremony at the place I was at with everybody,” she said. “I couldn’t watch. It was hard for me to watch. I went back to my room, cried and went to bed.”

Fuchs is favored to win the 51kg/112-pound division this week at Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Lake Charles, La., with finals streaming live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday (4-7 p.m. ET). It’s one of five women’s Olympic weight classes, up from three in 2012 and 2016, the first two editions of the Games for female boxers.

No boxer can clinch an Olympic spot this week, but failing to make a final would all but end Tokyo hopes.

Fuchs’ toughest opponent in this Olympic cycle — which included an undefeated 2017 and a 2018 World bronze medal among more than 130 fights — may be herself. Fuchs has been open about struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It started in fifth grade.

“I can remember the first time I was on the school bus, and I was looking at the ground and looking at everybody’s backpacks on the floor,” said Fuchs, a 31-year-old from the Houston area. “And an instant thought came in mind, like, Oh my god. Everybody’s backpack is getting contaminated by this dirty floor on the bus.”

She cited a more recent example: spending up to 40 minutes washing her hands searching for that “perfect clean feeling.” Fuchs found boxing via a boyfriend after she was kicked off the LSU cross-country running team as a freshman walk-on for damaging school property in a prank.

She said the disorder hit her hardest this year. In January, she was driving to a Walmart three times a day to buy cleaning supplies, according to The New York Times.

She underwent intensive therapy and skipped October’s world championships, where she could have established herself as a clear Olympic gold-medal favorite.

“I still am going to probably do therapy for the rest of my life,” Fuchs said. “Maybe not as intense as I’m doing it right now, but it’s almost like training for boxing.

“You’ve got to keep training to keep winning in boxing. So I’ve got to keep training my OCD thoughts and how to handle and manage it. … Boxing is giving me hope almost. Like OK, outside the ring and in my room and the bathroom, I feel like [OCD] controls me and feel trapped. But I have this environment in this space in the gym, in the boxing ring, where I can be myself. And not let it attack me in a way where I can still enjoy life and not be trapped.”

Should Fuchs make the final of her division in Lake Charles, she will advance to a January camp and tournament, after which the U.S. roster for Olympic qualifying will be named.

If selected, Fuchs would head to a North and South American Olympic qualifying event in early spring in Buenos Aires to clinch the spot she could not secure four years ago. If necessary, she could get a second chance at a global qualifier in May in Paris.

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Yulia Efimova has lawyer ready if Russia ban affects her

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Yulia Efimova, the Russian swimmer who earned two Rio Olympic silver medals after initially being excluded from the Games for serving a prior doping ban, is bracing for another legal fight after the latest sanctions against her nation.

On Monday, Russia was banned from the 2020 and 2022 Olympics and the next four years of world championships in Olympic sports due to more recent anti-doping violations. However, its athletes can still compete as neutrals, if meeting specific anti-doping criteria, similar to how they did at the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Efimova was initially barred from the Rio Olympics under an IOC mandate that any Russian who previously served a doping ban would be ineligible due to the country’s anti-doping violations at that time.

Efimova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled that IOC stipulation unenforceable. She went on to earn 100m and 200m breaststroke silver medals and develop a rivalry with American Lilly King, who said Efimova should not have been eligible.

It’s unclear from Monday’s ruling whether Efimova will be allowed to compete as a neutral, should Russia accept the sanctions or any appeal to CAS by the nation be denied.

“I will behave in a similar way,” to 2016, Efimova said, according to RT.com. “I have already hired a lawyer. There is a rule that a person can’t be punished twice for the same offense. If you violate a driving code or instigated a brawl you will not be punished twice for that. I hope it will work, but I cannot be sure of [a positive outcome].

“Right after my race at the Rio Games, I said that this doping controversy was not over, it was just the beginning, and we would have problems in the future. It was quite clear. And with every new year the situation is only getting worse and worse.”

Efimova, 27 and the two-time reigning world 200m breast champion, was banned 16 months between 2013 and 2015 after testing positive for a steroid. A FINA panel ruled that Efimova was not intentionally trying to cheat but was negligent in failing to read the label of a GNC store supplement.

“Yes, long ago I made a doping violation,” Efimova said this week, according to RT. “But there are a great number of U.S. and European athletes who have a similar situation regarding doping, and they are competing without any restrictions. If you want to introduce those regulations, they must be equally applied to all athletes, not only Russian competitors.”

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