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Russian Olympians adapt to life in a neutral uniform

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Nadezhda Sergeeva’s bobsled training outfit says a lot about what life will be like for an “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”

There is an old, anonymous black race suit with tape over several logos. Underneath, a white T-shirt with a simple message — “I Don’t Do Doping.”

As punishment for doping offenses at the 2014 Sochi Games, the International Olympic Committee has forced Russian athletes competing in Pyeongchang to do so as OARs in neutral uniforms and with no national insignia.

Sergeeva told The Associated Press that she isn’t training with her doping-themed shirt as a protest, but because her usual Russia uniform would break the new IOC rules. Wearing the shirt — sold by a popular Russian sportswear brand — is just a way to keep warm, she said.

“There just wasn’t enough time (to get a neutral uniform),” Sergeeva said at Wednesday’s training session. “To start with, we had a lot of equipment intended for us with the flag, a really big assortment, but we weren’t issued it.”

For Friday’s opening ceremony, Russia will march under the Olympic flag in red and gray tracksuits with an “Olympic Athlete from Russia” emblem.

To get to the Olympics, Sergeeva had to pass an IOC vetting process, with athletes’ names checked against data of possible past Russian drug use and cover-ups. Dozens of Russians weren’t invited by the IOC, including some top bobsledders, but Sergeeva said athletes from the United States and Canada have warmed to her because she was approved.

“I don’t know why, but they’ve started talking to us more than ever before. I feel it. Maybe it’s a sign to them that we’re clean,” she said. “There’s a lot of people coming up and saying ‘we’re happy you’re here.'”

As a result of the IOC ruling, a 168-person not quite-Russian team, still one of the biggest in Pyeongchang, will wear hastily redesigned or repurposed uniforms. When the IOC decision came in December, it was too late to make new team bags for everyone, so many have traveled with electrical tape over the word “Russia” on their luggage.

Russian athletes have flown to South Korea in small groups, not the traditional “Olympic flight” on Aeroflot which usually sees teams depart as a unit and with much pageantry. Most national teams have a flag-raising ceremony when they arrive at the Olympic Village. None is scheduled for Russia because officially it isn’t competing.

The only Russians to turn up with some swagger are the men’s hockey team, the favorite for gold since the NHL is not participating.

The hockey players were greeted at the airport Tuesday by crowd of about 50 Russians and South Koreans waving flags and singing patriotic songs. A week earlier, the players attended a reception for athletes with President Vladimir Putin, the only OARs there wearing Russian uniforms instead of the IOC-approved neutral tracksuits in red and gray.

They then handed Putin a signed jersey emblazoned with the slogan “Russia is in my heart.” But in Pyeongchang, patriotic displays could land Russian athletes in trouble.

The IOC ruling bans them from defiant statements on social media, or flying the flag in the Olympic Village. Maxim Andrianov, another Russian bobsledder, said he doesn’t even have a flag inside his room “in case it’s visible from outside.”

If Russian athletes win gold, they can’t celebrate by taking a Russian flag from a fan. On the podium, they’ll stand under the Olympic flag as the Olympic anthem plays.

Breaking the rules could mean the IOC scraps its plan for Russia to march under its own flag at the closing ceremony on Feb. 25 — a symbolic return to the Olympic movement after nearly three months.

Officially, the Russian Olympic Committee is suspended and the OARs are just a collection of individual athletes invited by the IOC. In practice, they’re one of the biggest teams in Pyeongchang, with an ROC vice president as team leader and a fully staffed media office. IOC deputy director general Pere Miro said Tuesday running a team of this size “cannot be done without full cooperation of the Russian Olympic Committee.”

The team of 168 could swell yet further.

Forty-five Russian athletes refused invites by the IOC have launched a late barrage of appeals to sports arbiters and Swiss courts. The IOC argues it has new evidence which casts doubt on their claims to be clean — even in the cases of athletes whose bans for doping in Sochi were overturned — but hasn’t revealed any details of individual cases.

Successful appeals would be a blow to the IOC, which would have to accept athletes it deems suspicious. They could even result in other Russians being sent home. When top Russians in sports like figure skating and hockey were refused, others took their places on the team, and could lose out if the first choices are reinstated.

Besides a few Russian fans making the journey to South Korea, another group is waiting for the OARs — the drug testers.

“It’s just the height of rudeness,” women’s hockey coach Alexei Chistyakov told Russian state TV on Monday after drug testers interrupted his team’s first training session in Pyeongchang. “They’re ruining everything for us.”

For Sergeeva, there’s a silver lining to her neutral uniform. She hopes it finally marks the end of what she sees as a years-long plot by Russia’s foes.

“It has to end some time,” she said. “Maybe it was done specially for this Olympics, and then they will calm down.”

Geraint Thomas attacks, takes Tour de France lead ahead of Chris Froome

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British Olympic track cycling champion Geraint Thomas grabbed the Tour de France lead, attacking with three and a half miles to win a summit finish on Stage 11 on Wednesday.

Thomas now leads a Team Sky one-two in the overall standings, 85 seconds ahead of four-time Tour winner Chris Froome, as the three-week Grand Tour passed the halfway mark.

Thomas continues to say he’s riding in support of Froome — who could tie the record of five Tour titles — rather than to win cycling’s biggest event himself.

“Froome is the [Team Sky] leader here, so there’s no pressure on me,” Thomas said Tuesday, according to Cyclingnews.com. “It’s a bonus for me to be up there, and hopefully I can be there for as long as possible.”

The Tour continues Thursday with stage 12 to Alpe d’Huez, live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold (full broadcast schedule here).

The 109-mile stage features three beyond-category climbs — Col de la Madeleine, Croix-de-Fer and the iconic Alpe d’Huez finish after 21 switchbacks to close out the Tour’s three days in the Alps. The overall standings are sure to change.

Greg Van Avermaet, the Rio Olympic road race champion, went into Wednesday with the yellow jersey and a 2:22 lead, which he had tripled on the first mountain day Tuesday.

But Van Avermaet, who predicted he would lose the yellow jersey before stages Tuesday and Wednesday, cracked on the second of three major climbs Wednesday. He finished in a group 22 minutes after Thomas.

Van Avermaet is a super one-day racer but not a strong climber.

Thomas showed his climbing prowess, finishing 20 seconds ahead of 2017 Giro d’Italia champion Tom Dumoulin and Froome.

“It’s unreal,” Thomas said. “I didn’t expect it at all.”

Thomas dons the yellow jersey for a second straight Tour. The 2008 and 2012 Olympic track cycling gold medalist won the opening time trial in 2017 and wore the maillot jaune four days before Froome took over en route to his fourth title in Paris.

There was talk before and during this year’s Tour that Thomas could challenge Froome as Sky’s team leader, even though Froome has won the last three Grand Tours.

But Thomas and Sky have played that down.

“Whatever happens now is bonus,” Thomas said. “Froomey’s won six Grand Tours. He knows how to race over three weeks. For me, it’s an unknown. … As long as one of us wins, that’s the main thing.”

Dumoulin moved into third overall, 1:44 behind Thomas and 19 seconds back of Froome.

The other top contenders — 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet — finished 59 seconds behind Thomas on Wednesday.

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Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics add 7 new events

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Seven new events were added to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic program:

Women’s monobobsled
Short track mixed team relay
Ski jumping mixed team event
Freestyle skiing big air (men and women)
Aerials mixed team event
Snowboard cross mixed team event

The additions bring the Winter Olympic total number of events to 109, an all-time high and nearly double the amount of events at the 1992 Winter Games.

The number of women’s hockey teams will increase from eight to 10 in 2022, but the overall number of athletes is expected to be fewer than the 2,933 in PyeongChang. The International Olympic Committee said athlete quotas will decrease in some sports, but no events have been contracted. Alpine skiing’s super combined events are still under review as to whether they will remain in the Olympic program.

The IOC said the Winter Olympics will have its highest-ever gender balance in 2022, rising from 41 percent female athletes to more than 45 percent.

The IOC had a “long discussion” about adding a women’s event in Nordic combined, the only sport without a women’s event in the Winter Games, IOC sports director Kit McConnell said.

“Nordic combined, and women’s in particular, still need to be developed further in terms of universality [the number of countries with Olympic-level athletes], in terms of the level of the athletes,” McConnell said.

The IOC also weighed whether to add a four-woman bobsled event rather than women’s monobobsled. The Games have two-man and two-woman events and a four-man event.

McConnell said the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation was “very supportive” of monobob, in part because it is already on the Youth Olympic program.

“Woman’s four-man bob costs three or four times of monobob,” McConnell said. “We felt there would be more universality in the women’s monobob. We really didn’t see more than a handful of countries really developing women’s four-man programs because of the costs involved.”

Beijing will mark the third straight Winter Olympics to add mixed-gender events. In 2014, mixed relays in biathlon and luge debuted, as well as the figure skating team event. In PyeongChang, a mixed Alpine skiing team event and mixed doubles curling debuted.

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