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Hope Solo downplays problems in Brazil, complains of U.S. media

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BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — Hope Solo is blaming the American media for spreading fear about the Zika virus and other problems ahead of the Rio Games.

Hoping to lead the U.S. to its fourth straight gold medal, Solo had expressed her own concerns before the Olympics.

“We haven’t made it to Rio yet and I have no idea what to expect in Rio, but it’s been beautiful here,” Solo said ahead of Wednesday’s opener against New Zealand, to be played in the same city where the U.S. men upset England in the 1950 World Cup.

“It’s a little bit unfortunate because I think the American media has been really tough on people of Brazil,” Solo said. “I feel a little bit bad because when you come here you learn for yourself. I think that we’ve been very hard on the local people.”

The Americans are trying to win a title for the second straight year following last year’s triumph in the Women’s World Cup. Solo, in her third Olympics, said it seemed problems in Brazil were being blown out of proportion by media in the U.S.

“You look back in 2004 in Greece, and the same thing there, bad publicity surrounding the games, and China as well,” said the 35-year-old from Richland, Washington. “I don’t know why, but we like to sensationalize everything and scare people and then … when the games go on, everything goes on as planned, ends up being a beautiful tournament. And I expect no less here.”

Solo said she expects “everything to be fine” by the time the team gets to Rio despite the widespread concerns related to the games, including Zika, water pollution, security and shoddy construction.

Solo said she came to Brazil well prepared, especially against Zika.

“I actually spoke to three different infectious disease doctors and specialists,” she explained. “I spoke to them on the phone with my husband as well, and we got to a point where we asked enough questions. We prepared ourselves as best as possible and we got to a level of being as comfortable as we possibly can be.

“I’m wearing mosquito repellent just in case, I know the odds are very small but you can never be too safe,” she added. “I’m at a point in my life that I just want to be safe.”

Before traveling to Brazil, Solo posted on Twitter a few photos showing her concerns about Zika, including one of her wearing a hat with mosquito netting that covered her entire head and neck. The image prompted criticism against her in Brazil and caused her to apologize when she arrived in the country.

“I heard that there were some negative responses here in Brazil,” she said. “I never would want to offend the host country. In fact, I’m cheering for Team USA, but besides Team USA, I’m going to be cheering for the host country. I’m very grateful for them for hosting the tournament. Honestly, everybody around here has been so just nice and genuine and it feels very warming to be here.”

Solo has been trying to avoid a trial on misdemeanor domestic violence charges after a 2014 incident at her sister’s home, when the goalkeeper was accused of being intoxicated and assaulting her sister and 17-year-old nephew. Solo said she was a victim in the altercation. Two months ago, an appeals court in Washington state rejected Solo’s request to avoid trial.

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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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