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Germany looks set to sweep Olympic luge golds again

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There’s some sort of mystical power when it comes to Germany and luge.

Germany has more sliding tracks than any other nation, plus always seems to be ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to technology and any other innovation that can be used to get a sled down the ice faster than anyone else.

Nowhere has that dominance been on display than the Olympics.

Six nations own Olympic gold medals in luge.

Germany, East Germany and West Germany combined for 31 Olympic luge titles, while the rest of the world has 13. Italy has seven, Austria five and the Soviet Union won one.

“We’re always under pressure,” German doubles star Sascha Benecken said. “But the pressure we put on ourselves is much tougher.”

USA Luge made great strides in recent years, and comes into these Olympics bolstered by Erin Hamlin’s bronze medal at the Sochi Games four years ago.

The doubles team of Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman could be in the medal mix as well, and male sliders Tucker West and Chris Mazdzer have had plenty of finishes that show they can compete with anyone.

Austria, Italy, Canada and Latvia should also contend for medals.

The wild card would be the lugers from Russia, some of whom have results that suggest they would be medal contenders — if permitted to compete.

Russia will not have a team at these Olympics because of the doping fallout from the Sochi Games, though some athletes from that nation will be allowed to be in PyeongChang under the Olympic flag.

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Here’s some of what to know going into luge in PyeongChang:

MEDAL FAVORITES
In men’s luge, Germany, where Felix Loch is going for a third straight win. In women’s luge, Germany, where Natalie Geisenberger will seek repeat gold. In doubles luge, Germany again. And in the team relay, let’s say Germany. Put it this way: If any other national anthem gets played to commemorate a gold medalist after a luge race in PyeongChang, it’s going to be called an upset.

BEST RIVALRY
There was a time not long ago, where the best rivalry in the sport probably was the every-race-weekend battle between Geisenberger and Tatjana Huefner. From the same country, they were coached separately and had distinctly different styles. Their relationship seems to be nowhere near as frosty now, but the rivalry will be real again in South Korea.

RISING STARS
Summer Britcher is in her second Olympics. Emily Sweeney her first, but neither is new to the world stage. Both Americans could be in the medal hunt if they avoid a big mistake. If allowed to compete, Russia’s Roman Repilov might be the newcomer to watch on the men’s side. Only 21, he’s already won a World Cup overall title. Fairly or unfairly, because of Russia’s history, there’s no shortage of skepticism about his rapid rise.

NEW ERA
For the first time since 1984, the Olympic men’s luge medalists will not include either Germany’s Georg Hackl or Italy’s Armin Zoeggeler. Hackl won silver in 1988, gold in 1992, 1994 and 1998, then silver again in 2002. Zoeggeler won bronze in 1994, silver in 1998, gold in 2002 and 2006, bronze in 2010 and finished third in 2014 (though that will eventually be upgraded to silver because Albert Demchenko’s medal was stripped as part of the Russia doping scandal). Hackl and Zoeggeler now are coaches for their respective nations.

RULE CHANGES
The only difference in Olympic competition from World Cup racing is in men’s and women’s singles, where the event is four runs over two days instead of the customary two-heat, one-day format. Doubles is still a two-run, one-day race, and the team relay format also is unchanged from the World Cup norm.

DON’T MISS
Hamlin, a four-time Olympian, is retiring after these Olympics, following two decades of sliding.

OLYMPIAN EFFORT
Aileen Frisch used to compete for Germany and retired a couple years ago, but is now back with an unusual story. She’s likely to compete in these Olympics for South Korea. The host nation, which doesn’t have a storied luge history, offered her a passport with hopes of bolstering its sliding profile. Frisch trained for several weeks after sustaining a foot and leg injury earlier this season.

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MORE: Full U.S. Olympic luge team

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