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U.S. softball opens world champs with Olympic return on its mind

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Monica Abbott threw the final U.S. pitch at the last Olympic softball game, nearly 10 years ago.

Over the next 10 days, Abbott can help the U.S. softball team return to the Olympics by winning the world championship to secure the first available spot in the six-nation Tokyo 2020 tournament (not counting automatically qualified host nation Japan).

Softball returns to the Games after 12 years out of the Olympic program. It is not assured to remain in the Games for Paris 2024 and beyond, but what’s at stake the next two weeks makes this tournament arguably the biggest in the sport’s history aside from an Olympics.

“This world championship is more important than when I played,” said U.S. assistant coach Laura Berg, the only American to play all four previous Olympic softball tournaments from 1996 through 2008, earning three golds and one silver.

Berg noted that fewer nations are in the 2020 Olympic field (six) than at previous Olympics (eight) and that only the world champion crowned Aug. 12 in Chiba, Japan, qualifies for Tokyo 2020. (If Japan wins, then the runner-up qualifies.) For 2008, the top four nations from the 2006 Worlds made the Olympic field.

Continental tournaments in 2019 will round out the Olympic field, but nobody wants to wait another year for a last-chance qualifier. Some may see worlds as the beginning of the Olympic run-up. Not Berg. Not the Americans.

“These players have had it in their minds ever since softball got back in,” on Aug. 3, 2016, Berg said.

Baseball and softball were cut from the Olympic program by an IOC members vote in 2005, the first sports axed from the Olympics since polo in 1936. A total of 105 IOC members were eligible to vote “yay” or “nay” on all Olympic sports. A majority was needed to remain in the Games.

Baseball went down 54-50. Softball was 52-52. One member abstained from each vote — American Jim Easton, who cited conflict of interest as he owned Easton Sports, best known for making baseball and softball bats. Had Easton voted for softball, it would still be in the Olympics. Had anybody switched in favor of softball, it would still be in the Olympics.

Critics said softball wasn’t global enough. Not popular in Europe. That the U.S. dominated. With the Olympic program capped at 28 sports at the time, cutting two sports would allow for two new ones to be added. That didn’t happen for 2012, but golf and rugby got onto the 2016 Olympic program.

Softball’s backers — led by longtime International Softball Federation president Don Porter — experienced further heartbreak when the IOC voted it down again in 2006 and 2009 (losing to rugby and golf for the Rio Games).

In 2013, baseball and softball proposed a joint bid with one sport opening for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics. It lost a vote against wrestling and squash, with wrestling keeping its place in the Games after reforms. Wrestling: 49 votes. Baseball-softball: 24 votes. Squash: 22 votes.

“It’s almost like taking a bullet over and over and over again,” Abbott said.

Softball and other sports received new life for the 2020 Olympics when the IOC in December 2014 approved Agenda 2020, which included a provision that an Olympic host city could propose sports to be added for its edition of the Games, starting with Tokyo 2020.

Baseball and softball are among the most popular sports in Japan. Tokyo organizers submitted baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing in 2015. The IOC approved their inclusion for 2020, two days before the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“There was a sense of joy, happiness and also relief,” said Abbott, who watched the presentation and vote on a smartphone stream in an airport and on board a Southwest flight. “Yes, finally, they gave us a chance. … Tears of relief. Tears of joy. And tears of oh my gosh, we did it.”

Abbott was the youngest player on the 2008 Olympic team at age 23, coming off a record-shattering career at Tennessee. She beat Japan in the 2008 Olympic semifinals, then a day later relieved Cat Osterman in the gold-medal game won by the Japanese.

“Afterwards there was this sense that the last [Olympics] pitch was thrown,” said Abbott, the only Olympian on the world championship roster and the oldest player by nearly five years. “No. 1, we didn’t win, we didn’t do what we needed to do, but a sense of sadness and grief because that was going to be it.”

Abbott said her pitching career was saved by the opportunity to move to Japan after the Beijing Games and play in its professional league for a team sponsored by Toyota.

She’s now on her 10th season in the world’s most competitive league. She also suits up in the National Pro Fastpitch League in the U.S. (famously signing the league’s first $1 million contract with the Conroe (Texas) Scrap Yard Dawgs in 2016, spread over six years).

She skipped worlds in 2012, 2014 and 2016 in favor of playing in the NPF and promoting softball in the U.S.

The U.S. and Japan met in each of the last six world championship finals dating to 2002. If that’s the case next week, then the U.S. will clinch an Olympic berth before the first pitch of the gold-medal game.

“She’s got a chip on her shoulder,” Berg said of Abbott. “She wants to be the one with the ball in her hands in the gold-medal game in 2020.”

MORE: 49-year-old Olympic champion plays first event in 10 years

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Asbel Kiprop, Olympic 1500m champ, banned four years

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Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic 1500m champion and a three-time world champ, was banned four years after testing positive for EPO in November 2017, according to track and field’s doping watchdog organization.

The ban is backdated to Feb. 3, 2018, when the 29-year-old was provisionally suspended after the failed test.

Kiprop repeatedly denied doping since last May, when he first acknowledged the positive test. Most recently, a 3,000-word defense from his lawyer was posted on Kiprop’s Facebook page.

Kiprop’s defenses included saying he was a victim of extortion and that he was offered “a reward” of becoming an anti-doping ambassador if he admitted guilt. The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), the IAAF’s independent organization to monitor doping and corruption, denied the latter last May.

A disciplinary panel dismissed six defenses from exonerating him, including the possibility his sample was spiked, in handing out the four-year ban.

Kiprop, the pre-eminent 1500m runner of the last decade, can appeal the ban.

At 19, he finished second in the Beijing Olympic 1500m but was upgraded to gold a year later after Bahrain’s Rashid Ramzi failed a drug test. He is the youngest Olympic 1500m medalist of all time, according to the OlyMADMen.

Kiprop went on to earn three straight world titles in the 1500m in 2011, 2013 and 2015, matching the feats of retired legends Noureddine Morceli and Hicham El Guerrouj.

He struggled in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, finishing last in the London final with a hamstring injury and sixth in the Rio final won by American rival Matthew Centrowitz.

Kiprop has targeted El Guerrouj’s world record of 3:26:00, missing the mark by .69 of a second in 2015.

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Maggie Nichols is second woman in 20 years to repeat as NCAA all-around champ

Maggie Nichols
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Oklahoma junior and world champion gymnast Maggie Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years, returning from a heel injury to compete on all four events for the first time since January on Friday.

Nichols, a Rio Olympic hopeful before being beset by a torn meniscus in 2016, joined 2004 Olympic silver medalist Courtney Kupets as the only women to win back-to-back NCAA all-arounds in the 2000s.

A junior, Nichols can next year join Jenny Hansen as the only women to three-peat in NCAA history.

Oklahoma goes for a third team title in four years on Saturday night against UCLA (featuring Olympic champions Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross), LSU and Denver.

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NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships Individual Results
All-Around
1. Maggie Nichols (Oklahoma) — 39.7125
2. Lexy Ramler (Minnesota) — 39.6625
2. Kyla Ross (UCLA) — 39.6625
4. Sarah Finnegan (LSU) — 39.65
5. Kennedi Edney (LSU) — 39.6

Vault
1. Kennedi Edney (LSU) — 9.95
1. Derrian Gobourne (Auburn)
1. Maggie Nichols (Oklahoma)
1. Kyla Ross (UCLA)

Uneven Bars
1. Sarah Finnegan (LSU) — 9.95

Balance Beam
1. Natalie Wojcik (Michigan) — 9.95

Floor Exercise
1. Alicia Boren (Florida) — 9.95
1. Lynnzee Brown (Denver)
1. Brenna Dowell (Oklahoma)
1. Kyla Ross (UCLA)