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Marcel Hirscher: World Cup title over Olympic gold

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Think a gold medal is the end-all and be-all for Winter Games athletes?

Well, meet Marcel Hirscher, who can reasonably stake a claim as the very best Alpine ski racer without an Olympic gold to his name.

Hirscher has accomplished just about everything else there is to accomplish in his sport.

Six crystal globes that signify World Cup overall season titles — all in a row, too, and No. 7 is in his sights at the moment. Fifty-two World Cup race wins. Four world championships.

Still, the question the 28-year-old Austrian gets asked over and over these days, with the first race of the PyeongChang Games scheduled for a month from Thursday, is this: Does Hirscher need an Olympic gold medal to validate all of his success?

It truly is the only thing missing from his impressive portfolio.

He scoffs at the implication.

“It won’t change my life,” Hirscher said in a recent interview. “Because if I had a choice between winning another globe or an Olympic gold medal, it is easy for me.”

In other words: The globe would be his choice.

And not much to debate, either, because he, like many other ski racers, considers that emblematic of consistent excellence, sustained over the course of months, through an entire season and through various types of races and mountains.

An Olympic gold, the thinking goes, represents merely success in one event, on one day, and subject to the vagaries of such things as the weather and a particular course setting.

Indeed, Hirscher defined it as “an American mindset” that demands that he needs an Olympic gold to cement his status.

“For me, personally,” he said, “and for the European mindset, no.”

He is certain that his place in the pantheon of skiing greats is already secured, no matter what happens next month in South Korea.

Ask him who his biggest rival is these days, and Hirscher offers a quick answer.

“Myself,” he said.

In the past, Hirscher has come quite close to climbing atop the top step of an Olympic podium.

He earned a silver in the slalom four years ago at the Sochi Games, finishing as the runner-up to countryman Mario Matt.

That is Hirscher’s lone medal, though: He was fourth in the giant slalom in 2014.

At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Hirscher was fourth in the GS and fifth in the slalom.

He didn’t get in his usual block of training to start the season after breaking his left ankle in August when he straddled a slalom gate during practice.

He’s quickly rounded back into form, with seven victories and another trio of top-five finishes. He leads the overall World Cup standings by more than 150 points over Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway.

“I’m just skiing, skiing, skiing, skiing, since I’m able to ski again,” Hirscher said. “More skiing than usual.”

His biggest rivals aren’t all that surprised by his quick return to the top of the sport, even if he did miss a big chunk of training time.

“He always downplays things and wins,” U.S. Olympic champion Ted Ligety said. “You have to take what he says with a grain of salt.”

Hirscher’s the racer whom everyone else studies. He watches his own runs over and over again, looking for ways he can improve. And he studies other racers, too.

“Every good athlete is helping me to improve my skiing,” Hirscher said. “I can find, in every athlete, one good turn or two good turns. I can analyze why those turns were faster than other turns. And sometimes you can find out why athletes are better than other ones.”

On the course, Hirscher is so composed that nothing seems to distract him — not even a falling drone.

During a race in Italy in December 2015, a drone carrying a TV camera crashed to the snow just behind Hirscher as he sped down the mountain.

“He’s mentally strong,” Kristoffersen said.

There was a time when being mentioned in the same sentence as Austrian greats such as Franz Klammer (1976 Olympic downhill gold) or Hermann Maier (1998 super-G and giant slalom golds) used to make Hirscher a bit uncomfortable.

But it’s become part of the territory for someone who wins so often.

A few years ago, Hirscher and Maier filmed a commercial in which they raced around a track in motorized living room chairs.

The race ended in a draw.

Whatever comparisons are made nowadays — and might be made after the PyeongChang Olympics — Hirscher is OK with them. And feels fine about his standing.

“It took years to accept that this is happening,” Hirscher said. “Now I say, ‘OK, it is part of my life,’ and so I’m fine with it.”

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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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