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U.S. Olympic luge team finalized with nail-biting result

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Tucker West left no doubt, clinching his second U.S. Olympic luge berth with a World Cup podium Friday. Two of his countrymen, meanwhile, are going to PyeongChang by a fraction of a second.

The doubles team of Justin Krewson and Andrew Sherk made the Olympics by six hundredths of a second in Lake Placid, N.Y. That meant Jake Hyrns and Anthony Espinoza missed the Olympic team by six hundredths of a second.

The race for the last doubles spot was the most exciting as the U.S. luge team was finalized at the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic site in the last 24 hours.

Krewson and Sherk, first-time Olympians, are part of this full U.S. luge team for PyeongChang:

Erin Hamlin (qualified last month)
Summer Britcher
Emily Sweeney
Tucker West
Chris Mazdzer
Taylor Morris
Matt Mortensen/Jayson Terdiman
Justin Krewson
/Andrew Sherk

The full list of U.S. athletes qualified for PyeongChang across all sports is here.

All of those 10 lugers competed in Sochi save Sweeney, Morris and Krewson and Sherk.

Krewson, 21, and Sherk, 25, were essentially in a race-off Friday with Hyrns and Espinoza, both 24, for the second and final doubles berth behind Mortensen and Terdiman.

Hyrns and Espinoza had the edge by .012 after the first of two runs but slowed negligibly in the second run.

Krewson and Sherk sped up in the second run to steal the Olympic berth with a sixth-place finish overall, matching their best result since teaming in 2015 (Sherk previously slid with Hyrns).

Mortensen and Terdiman were fifth in Friday’s race won by Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, the Germans who captured the last seven World Cup doubles races dating to last season (non-sprint). Full results are here.

Mortensen and Terdiman, who raced in Sochi with different partners, made three World Cup podiums last season and finished third in the season standings.

A U.S. doubles team hasn’t won a World Cup race in 12 years or an Olympic medal since 2002.

Later Friday, West went into the last Olympic qualifying race knowing his PyeongChang berth was nearly sewn up. It would have taken an incredible finish from two other Americans to bump him off the Olympic team.

No matter, West set the track record in his first run and ended up third overall (losing his track record to Russian winner Roman Repilov in the second run).

But no U.S. man has made a World Cup podium on a non-North American track since February 2016.

The World Cup stopped at the PyeongChang Olympic venue last February, where the top American was Mazdzer in 12th. That did not boost hopes for the first U.S. Olympic men’s singles luge medal this February.

Morris, who missed the 2014 Olympic team by one spot, made the Olympics with a fifth-place finish Friday. Mazdzer was eighth.

The women’s team has been the U.S.’ strongest in recent seasons and heads to PyeongChang with multiple medal hopes.

It is led by Hamlin, the Sochi bronze medalist who was the first luger to make the Olympic team last month. Britcher and Sweeney each clinched berths before the final qualifying race Saturday.

Britcher went to Sochi as a surprise U.S. Olympian — youngest on the women’s luge team at age 19 — on her first season on the World Cup circuit.

Britcher finished 15th in Sochi, third out of three U.S. women, after upsetting 2010 Olympian Julia Clukey for the last spot on the team.

Since, she has won three World Cups and made the podium in four others. Britcher at one point led the World Cup standings early in the 2015-16 season.

Britcher’s consistency this season helped her qualify for the Olympics without having to sweat it out in Lake Placid like the doubles teams and some of the men.

Ditto for Sweeney, who won a World Cup sprint race (a non-Olympic event) in Winterberg last month.

The Olympic favorites are Germans Natalie Geisenberger and Tatjana Huefner, the last two gold medalists.

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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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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping