Vladimir Putin allows Russians to compete at Pyeongchang Olympics

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t boycott the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Putin said Wednesday his government will allow Russians to compete as neutral athletes at the upcoming Winter Games in South Korea.

The International Olympic Committee banned the Russian team as punishment for doping violations at the Sochi Olympics. The IOC, however, plans to invite individual Russians to compete under the Olympic Flag.

“Without any doubt we will not declare any kind of blockade,” Putin said in televised remarks after launching his re-election campaign at an automobile factory. “We will not block our Olympians from taking part, if any of them wish to take part as individuals.

“They have been preparing for these competitions for their whole careers, and for them it’s very important.”

Putin said Russia still did not accept accusations that it ran a state-backed doping system around the Sochi Olympics, and called the IOC ruling unfair “collective punishment.”

Russian athletes, coaches and politicians have lined up to condemn the IOC ruling, but most say it’s better to accept it and compete.

Russian IOC member Yelena Isinbayeva, a two-time Olympic pole vault champion, came out against a boycott.

“I’d like to tell all Russian athletes preparing for the Olympics in Pyeongchang not to get disappointed in any case and definitely not to do anything stupid like a boycott,” Isinbayeva told state TV. “It’s clearly not worth it.”

She said the IOC choice of “Olympic Athletes from Russia” as the official designation, instead of a more neutral tag, decided the issue for her.

Some Russian sports officials have been criticized for not doing enough to prevent the ban, with senior lawmakers and sports figures calling for them to be fired.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said blaming officials was not a priority and that “protecting the interests of our athletes” was more important.

Under particular pressure is Vitaly Mutko.

He was Russia’s sports minister during the Sochi Olympics, when the IOC ruled drug-test samples were tampered with as part of a doping scheme. Mutko is now a deputy prime minister and in charge of the country’s preparations for next year’s soccer World Cup.

He was barred from the Olympics for life by the IOC on Tuesday.

“(Mutko) took the country into such a nightmare,” figure skating coach Tatyana Tarasova said, according to R-Sport, accusing him of not doing enough to protect Russian athletes from accusations of doping. “I’m sorry for the people who have suffered because of his incompetence.”

The Kremlin vehemently denied running a state-sponsored doping program. State media on Wednesday dismissed the ban as part of a plot to hurt Russia.

Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the Russian parliament’s upper house, said the ruling is “clearly part of the West’s policy to restrain Russia.”

But he also insisted that local sports officials are to blame and “ought to bear personal responsibility” for letting it happen.

Vladimir Poletayev, deputy chairman of the committee on procedures at the Federation Council, went even further.

“All our sports officials, including the Russian Olympic Committee, ought to be personally accountable for the ban on Russia and ought to step down,” Poletayev said, according to RIA Novosti.

Also Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport said it registered appeals by 22 Russian athletes against their disqualifications from the Sochi Olympics for doping.

CAS said the athletes have requested verdicts before the Pyeongchang Games open Feb. 9. The appeals relate to earlier bans against individual athletes, not the ruling on the Russian team.

The IOC is now working on “operational guidelines” that will oversee enforcing restrictions on Russian participation in Pyeongchang.

These include approving a manufacturer and a design of team uniforms, and what Russian symbols, such as national flags, fans will be allowed to use in Olympic venues.

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Salwa Eid Naser, world 400m champion, provisionally banned

Salwa Eid Naser
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Salwa Eid Naser, the world 400m champion of Bahrain, was provisionally suspended for missing three drug tests in a 12-month span.

“I’ve never been a cheat. I will never be,” Naser, 22, said in an Instagram live video. “I only missed three drug tests, which is normal. It happens. It can happen to anybody. I don’t want people to get confused in all this because I would never cheat.”

Naser said “the missed tests” came before last autumn’s world championships, where she ran the third-fastest time in history (48.14 seconds) and the fastest in 34 years.

“This year I have not been drug tested,” she said. “We are still talking about the ones of last season before the world championships.”

The Athletics Integrity Unit, which handles doping cases for track and field, did not announce whether Naser’s gold medal could be stripped.

“Hopefully, it’ll get resolved because I don’t really like the image, but it has happened,” she said. “It’s going to be fine. It’s very hard to have this little stain on my name.”

Naser, the 2017 World silver medalist, upset Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas for the world title in Doha on Oct. 3.

The only women who have run faster than Naser, who was born Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu in Nigeria to a Nigerian mother who sprinted and a Bahraini father, were dubious — East German Marita Koch (47.60) and Czechoslovakia’s Jarmila Kratochvilova (47.99).

“I would never take performance-enhancing drugs,” Naser said. “I believe in talent, and I know I have the talent.”

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When Laurie Hernandez winked at the Olympics

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Blink, and you may have missed one of the social-media-sensation moments of the Rio Olympics.

Laurie Hernandez, then 16, was the youngest woman on the U.S. Olympic team across all sports. She was about to start arguably the most important floor exercise routine of her life.

So, she winked.

“The amazing thing about the Olympics is that you feel so many different emotions in the span of a few days, and they are all intense,” she wrote in her 2017 book, “I Got This,” a nod to what she told herself before her balance beam routine earlier that night. “So it was nice to have at least one totally playful moment.”

The U.S., on its fourth and final rotation, already had the team gold all but locked up. Knowing she was nervous, Hernandez’s teammates confirmed to her that they were a few points ahead.

Then Hernandez heard the beep, and it was time to go. She was in the view of an out-of-bounds judge at the Rio Olympic Arena.

“Well, I looked straight at her and suddenly felt this surge of confidence to wink,” she wrote. “Later, a woman came up to me while I was watching Simone [Biles] and Aly [Raisman] compete in their all-around finals and she said, ‘Wow, I just want you to know that when you winked at the judge, it really worked.’ I didn’t know how to respond, so I just said, ‘Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say.’ That’s when she told me she was the out-of-bounds judge! All I could say was ‘Oh my goodness.'”

Hernandez, a New Jersey native, finished the Olympics with a team gold and balance beam silver.

She took more than two years off before making a comeback in earnest last year, announcing she planned to return to competition this spring under new coaches in California. Now that’s on hold given the coronavirus pandemic, which pushed the Tokyo Olympics to 2021.

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