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World figure skating champions make Olympic season debuts this week

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Nobody can accuse the last two male figure skating world champions of ducking the competition.

Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernández, training partners who combined to win every global title since 2014, open their Olympic seasons by competing against each other this week.

The Japanese megastar and the Spanish trailblazer headline the Autumn Classic, a lower-level event in Quebec starting Thursday.

The men’s short program is Friday (8:15 p.m. ET) and the free skate Saturday (8 ET). A live stream is here.

Showdowns like this are usually reserved for, at the earliest, the Grand Prix series in late October and November.

Hanyu and Fernández are very familiar with each other, having shared a coach in Canadian Brian Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, since 2012. They train in Toronto.

In that time, Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic title (and the second teen from any nation to do it). He followed it up with world titles later in 2014 and this year.

Fernández achieved unfathomable success for a Spanish skater — world titles in 2015 and 2016, overtaking Hanyu in the free skate both times.

In PyeongChang, Hanyu can become the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1952. Fernández can become the third Spaniard to earn a Winter Olympic medal of any color in any sport, and the first since 1992.

But first they face off in Quebec.

Hanyu is the decided favorite after winning last season’s world title by breaking his own free skate record score. He moved up from fifth after the short program, while Fernández dropped from first after the short to fourth.

However, Hanyu has proven beatable early in the season, losing his first two international events in 2014, then one of his first two in 2015 and 2016.

More pressure is on Fernández, who missed the podium at the two biggest events last season — worlds and the Grand Prix Final. He is 26 years old. Aside from Hanyu, every medalist at worlds and the Grand Prix Final was a teen.

Another world champion makes an international season debut this week — Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva.

She skates at the lower-level Nepela Trophy in Slovakia on Thursday and Saturday. The 17-year-old is on the longest major winning streak in singles skating in 30 years, having not lost since November 2015.

The Nepela field includes the only woman to beat Medvedeva in a senior competition — countrywoman Yelena Radionova. But Radionova faded to fifth at last year’s Russian Championships and is in a battle just to make the Olympic team.

Medvedeva might better be judged against two women who aren’t in Slovakia but won B-level events last week.

Alina Zagitova, 15 and the 2017 World junior champion, won her senior international debut in Italy with 218.46 points. That score would have won silver at last season’s senior worlds.

Marin Honda, 16 and the 2016 World junior champion, won her senior international debut in Salt Lake City with 198.42 points.

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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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