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Nate Ebner seeks Super Bowl title months after Olympic rugby

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Super Bowl Sunday is an unofficial holiday in the United States. But members of the U.S. rugby sevens team have long had Super Bowl Monday circled on their calendars.

That is because they will be playing in a tournament in Sydney, where Super Bowl LI will kick off at 10:30 a.m. local time on Monday. They have a flight home to catch that morning, but are hoping to watch the beginning of the football game at the airport to support New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner, who played for the U.S. Olympic rugby team in Rio.

“Nate has a work ethic like no other, and I think that fits with the Patriots’ culture and philosophy,” Olympic teammate Zack Test said. “To transition from football to rugby and back to football takes such a special amount of focus and dedication.”

Ebner had the best season of his five-year NFL career in 2016, leading the league in special-team tackles and being named second-team NFL All-Pro. In an October interview with NBC Olympics, Ebner credited his rugby cardiovascular training for his success on the football field.

“It was pretty easy to get back in the swing of things,” he said.

Ebner is hoping to become the first athlete to play in the NFL, compete at a Summer Olympics and then win a Super Bowl title. Michael Carter won Super Bowl XIX with the San Francisco 49ers five months after claiming the 1984 Olympic shot put silver medal, but he had yet to make his NFL debut when he competed at the Los Angeles Games.

After suffering a concussion during the AFC Championship, Ebner has returned to practice to prepare to face the Atlanta Falcons. He spoke to reporters Monday night at the Super Bowl Opening Night media day, and discussed what it would mean to play Olympic rugby and win his second Super Bowl within a year.

“Obviously with the year that I’m having it would be like the absolute icing on the cake,” Ebner said, according to MassLive.com. “Regardless of all that, it’s so special just to be here.”

Ebner keeps in touch with rugby teammates by checking scores and participating in group texts. The U.S. squad has struggled with injuries this season, sitting in 11th place through three legs of the World Series after finishing sixth last season. Ebner can relate to adversity, playing for a Patriots squad that was without suspended quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of the season.

“When things don’t go your way on day one, it doesn’t mean pack up and go home,” Ebner said recently to USA Rugby. “There’s a lot of opportunity to get better versus some of the best competition in the world. To miss that opportunity and not play as best you can on day two or three, you’re wasting it. It says a lot about the guys.”

Ebner has not ruled out trying to make the 2020 Olympic team. His rugby teammates have jokingly encouraged him to return to the pitch, but this week they are letting him focus on the Falcons.

“Playing with him in the Olympics, now seeing him play in the Super Bowl … he’s going back-to-back with lifetime dreams,” Olympic teammate Carlin Isles said.

MORE: Nate Ebner on transition from Olympic rugby back to NFL

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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