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Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir return to top with Grand Prix Final win

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Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir stamped their comeback to the top of ice dance, nearly five years since their last major title, by winning their first Grand Prix Final in record fashion Saturday.

The 2010 Olympic champions, back this season after a two-year break from competition, knocked off the two-time reigning world champions from France, training partners Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, on French ice in Marseille.

“At the start of the season our goal was really to qualify for this event,” said Virtue, who with Moir earned four Grand Prix Final silver medals before this week’s breakthrough. “After competing at Grand Prix Final five times, it feels nice to finally get the win.”

Virtue and Moir tallied 197.22 points, the highest total ice dance score under a judging system implemented in 2005. The French were 4.11 points behind, followed by U.S. champions Maia and Alex Shibutani in third.

Virtue and Moir completed a perfect fall season in a sport, and a discipline, where a climb back to the top after ceding the throne can be arduous.

Virtue and Moir won the 2010 Olympic title in Vancouver, then swapped world titles with then-training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2011 and 2012 before being supplanted by the Americans on the Olympic stage in Sochi.

Moir kissed the ice after their final performance in Russia, just as he did in Vancouver, but it was not a kiss goodbye to competition. The couple announced their comeback last Feb. 20.

“We probably have one more shot at it [the Olympics], so we have to take advantage of it,” Moir said then, following up his reported May 2015 comments, “We’re not coming back unless it’s to become Olympic champions again.”

Davis and White have not skated since Sochi (yet haven’t retired), but a new power ascended in ice dance the last two seasons.

In 2015, Papadakis and Cizeron became the youngest world champions in 40 years. They repeated last season, impressively, after Papadakis suffered a concussion in a practice fall seven months earlier.

When Virtue and Moir came back, they joined Papadakis and Cizeron’s training base in Montreal.

“I think we have to earn that term to be associated as rivals to Gabriella and Guillaume,” Virtue reportedly said early this season. “We are not quite there yet for sure, but they have taken the ice dance world to an entirely different level in the last few years.”

Virtue and Moir beat Papadakis and Cizeron by nine points at NHK Trophy two weeks ago, with a world-record total, and scored even better in Marseille.

“We just wanted to be in the mix [this season],” Moir said. “The state of ice dance has come up quite a ways. And this is not something that we expected. Now we know that this doesn’t make it easy for us, it makes it a lot harder. … Now we have a huge target on our backs. … Our workload just multiplied by 10.”

Now, Virtue and Moir may be on their way to a rare feat in 2018 — to win an Olympics, see somebody else win an Olympics, and then regain the gold. Across all figure skating disciplines, only Russian pairs Yekaterina Gordeeva and Sergey Grinkov have done this.

After their win in Marseille, Moir was asked about returning to the Grand Prix Final for a seventh time next season.

“There are a couple of other goals we’re looking for other than the longevity award,” he said.

The Grand Prix Final concludes Saturday with the women’s and men’s free skates (schedule here). NBCSN will air coverage Sunday from 8:30-11 p.m. ET.

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Ice Dance Results
GOLD: Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir (CAN) — 197.22
SILVER: Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 192.81
BRONZE: Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 189.60
4. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 181.95
5. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 179.59
6. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 179.32

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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