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Oleg Verniaiev: I can beat Kohei Uchimura

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MONTREAL — Those 100 seconds in Rio had to be agonizing for Oleg Verniaiev.

The Ukrainian gymnast, after taking a critical step on his high bar dismount, waited and waited as judges tabulated his score for the final event of the Olympic all-around last year.

The crowd could have chewed nails wondering if Verniaiev would end Kohei Uchimura‘s seven-year reign atop the sport.

Turns out, Verniaiev wasn’t as optimistic.

“I knew that I will be the second [place], but still I had hope,” Verniaiev remembered in an interview Monday, via translator. “I was hoping.”

When Verniaiev’s score came up, Uchimura’s mom fainted in the stands.

Uchimura, who trailed Verniaiev by .901 going into the final rotation, outscored the leader by a full point. The Nagasaki native won by .099 to become the first gymnast to repeat as Olympic all-around champion in 44 years.

A year later, Verniaiev gets another shot at Uchimura at the world championships at the 1976 Olympic Stadium.

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Verniaiev was shaky in qualifying Monday. Out of bounds on floor exercise. A gigantic hop on his high bar landing.

Verniaiev didn’t even have the top qualifying score in his group. Cuban Manrique Larduet, the 2015 World silver medalist, was 1.268 points better.

“In principle, I thought that it could be worse,” said Verniaiev, who wished he had more competitions this season before worlds to work into peak shape. “But at the end of the day it’s not that bad.”

Verniaiev also said that he was better prepared for the Rio Olympics (and in better form) than any other competition in his life.

Still, he’s not ceding anything to Uchimura, who goes through qualifying Monday night ahead of Thursday’s final.

Uchimura, 28, is trying to become the oldest Olympic or world all-around champion in more than 50 years.

“If I accomplish my program so that my coach says everything is ideal, I know that I can beat him,” Verniaiev said. “If I will make mistakes, then it’s life.”

In Rio, Verniaiev could have joined some who cried foul over the scoring. Instead, he praised Uchimura in the post-event press conference, calling him the Michael Phelps of gymnastics.

The Ukrainian began doing gymnastics in kindergarten, sent to the sport by his parents as an outlet for overwhelming energy.

It wasn’t always easy in Ukraine. As recently as a month before 2015 Worlds, national team members didn’t have proper equipment to train floor exercise.

Verniaiev, who turned 23 on Friday, seemingly has plenty more opportunities for all-around gold. But few against the aging Uchimura, who may give up the all-around before the Tokyo Olympics to focus on one or two individual events.

Given that, how much would it mean for Verniaiev to end Uchimura’s reign in Montreal?

“To win this gold medal means, to me, to become a legend,” he said. “Kohei, of course, is a legend. There are not many such gymnasts in the world, but I’ll try to do something and be the first one.”

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Iran banned from judo for instructing athlete to withdraw rather than face Israel opponent

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Iran has been banned from international judo for instructing one of its athletes to withdraw from August’s world championships rather than face an Israeli judoka.

The International Judo Federation said Iran authorities instructing Saeid Mollaei to withdraw rather than face Israeli judoka Sagi Muki was “a serious breach and gross violation” of its code of ethics and the Olympic Charter.

IJF spokesman Vlad Marinescu said any ban won’t apply to the Tokyo Olympics. That’s because it’s the Iranian Olympic Committee, not the Iranian Judo Federation, which formally enters the Olympic team.

“We have been informed by IJF that they will launch a proper procedure giving all concerned parties the right to be heard,” an International Olympic Committee spokesperson said. “Should the issue become an Olympic issue we will take the result of this procedure into consideration.”

An IJF disciplinary commission said it “has a strong reason to believe that the Iran Judo Federation will continue or repeatedly engage in misconduct” given its history of similar actions with its athletes potentially facing Israelis.

Mollaei, a 2018 World champion, said he was afraid to return to Iran after disobeying those orders at worlds. He competed anyway but lost one round before a potential final with Muki.

“I want to compete wherever I can,” Mollaei said in a statement from the IJF. “I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.

“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid.”

The IJF said it would help Mollaei prepare for next year’s Olympics, also in Tokyo. If Iran refuses to enter him, one option could be the International Olympic Committee-backed team of refugee athletes.

Iranian sports teams have for several decades had a policy of not competing against Israelis, which the country does not recognize. The IJF has said Iranians have thrown matches and used “questionable injuries” to avoid competing against Israelis.

Mollaei’s case came four months after judo officials hailed a breakthrough in relations with Iran, publishing a letter signed by Salehi Amiri pledging to “fully respect the Olympic charter and its non-discrimination principle.”

Back in August, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar accused the IJF of trying to “create problems” with Mollaei, the IRNA news agency reported. He said Iran will send a protest letter to the IOC.

Iranian team manager Majid Zareian also criticized the IJF, saying “everything was set in advance to put Mollaei against a participant from (Israel).”

“They did not allow me to be present next to my athlete in exercise salon,” Zareian said. “After the competitions they changed hotel of Mollaei without my permission, against the regulations.”

He denied reports Iranian authorities had put pressure on Mollaei.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Jacarra Winchester, after foe bites her, wins first wrestling world title

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Jacarra Winchester missed the Rio Olympic wrestling trials after tearing her knee playing soccer. She missed a medal at the 2018 World Championships after a semifinal-winning takedown was reversed.

There was no denying her on Wednesday.

Winchester, who picked up wrestling a decade ago as a high school junior, became the first American to earn a medal at the worlds in Kazakhstan this week. And it was gold.

She came back to beat Japanese Nanami Irie 5-3 in the final of the 55kg division, a weight class that is not on the Olympic program. Winchester must move to 53kg or 57kg next year.

But for now she can celebrate quite a journey. At 26, she’s one of the older wrestlers to become a first-time world champion. She believed she had what it took last year, when a reversed call kept her from the final and she subsequently lost a bronze-medal match.

Winchester, who has problems sleeping, said she replayed the end of that semifinal in her head ever since.

“There’s no reason why I should have gotten beat,” she said Wednesday. “Clearly I have what I need on the mat. I just need to change my mindset. … Just knowing you’re the best, pushing yourself and not letting anything get to me.”

That helped in Tuesday’s semifinals, where Winchester said her Turkish opponent bit her, pulled her hair and twisted her fingers. Winchester, who grew up in the Oakland, Calif., area, said that when she started wrestling she had no Olympic goals.

“I had a mindset of I’m not a quitter,” she said.

Earlier Wednesday, Adeline Gray reached Thursday’s 76kg final, where she will try to become the first American to earn five world titles.

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