China steals men’s gymnastics world title after Russian drama; U.S. 4th

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Russia hoped for its first men’s world team title since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Instead, China is back atop the sport after a three-year hiatus, via the smallest margin of victory in modern gymnastics history.

Russian Nikita Nagornyy‘s error on high bar on Monday’s last routine, muscling out of a handstand, handed the Chinese gold by .049 in the closest Olympic or world men’s or women’s team final since the perfect-10 scoring system was replaced in 2006.

“Almost everyone cried,” Russian Olympian Nikolai Kuksenkov said, according to R-Sport.

Nagornyy said he thought upon dismounting that it was enough for gold. Russia would have prevailed if he repeated his score from last week’s qualifying in Doha.

The 21-year-old Olympian has a tattoo on his ribs that says “salvame y guardame,” which roughly translates to “save and protect me” in Spanish and is a common Russian Orthodox phrase.

China won despite falls from world all-around champion Xiao Ruoteng on its first and last routines. Japan, the reigning Olympic and world champion, took bronze, 1.75 points ahead of the U.S.

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China captured 10 of 11 world team titles from 1994 through 2014 before Japan’s resurgence. China dropped to bronze in Rio but now looks more determined to spoil one of the most important events for the host country at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Russia was in position for a breakthrough title, leading by 1.919 after four rotations. Then Artur Dalaloyan fell off the parallel bars. China busted through the opening, outscoring the Russians by 2.867 on the apparatus.

Japan led at the halfway point but was also done in on bars. Two-time Olympian Yusuke Tanaka came off on the fourth rotation, dropping the Japanese to third place. Eight-time Olympic and world all-around champion Kohei Uchimura is limited by an ankle injury, sitting out floor exercise and vault.

The U.S.’ fourth-place finish was the best it could have hoped for without significant help from China, Japan and Russia. The Americans were fifth at the Rio Olympics and at the last worlds with a team event in 2015. They missed the podium at three straight global championships for the first time since 1997, 1999 and 2000.

“The expectations for us weren’t very high,” two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “Going into it, people didn’t see us on the podium, but I think we showed that we’re a lot closer to being on that podium than people expected us to be. The biggest takeaway for us is get our starts [routine difficulty] up just a little bit more within this group, get a couple of guys healthy that are hurt right now.”

Mikulak, who last week qualified for five of the seven individual finals (most by an American since 1979), fell on the opening rotation on pommel horse, long the U.S.’ nemesis apparatus in team finals. He rallied for the day’s best high bar score — 14.5.

Mikulak qualified third into Wednesday’s all-around final, where the two-time Olympian can earn his first individual Olympic or world medal.

Worlds continue with the women’s team final Tuesday, live at 9 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. The U.S., led by Simone Biles, is an overwhelming favorite to win a sixth straight Olympic or world title.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Adam Jones, five-time MLB All-Star, becomes Olympic eligible

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Should the U.S. qualify for baseball’s Olympic return, a five-time MLB All-Star could be eligible for its roster in Tokyo. And he has interest.

Outfielder Adam Jones signed with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s domestic league, which, unlike MLB, will take an Olympic break next summer to allow players to take part in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years.

Jones, 34, made no mention of Olympic eligibility in a social media post announcing the signing. His Instagram avatar is a photo of him in a Team USA jersey from the World Baseball Classic.

Jones’ agent later said that Jones does have interest in playing for the U.S. in Tokyo, should an American team qualify in the spring.

“To play over in Japan has always been a desire of Adam’s, and the timing worked out that the Olympics happens to be played in Tokyo the first year of his contract,” Jones’ agent wrote in an email. “It wasn’t one of the factors on his decision BUT more of a [sic] addition to the overall package to decide to go.”

Jones called being part of the U.S.’ 2017 WBC title, “probably the best experience of my life so far, especially with sports,” according to The Associated Press. He was one of five players to be on the U.S. team at each of the last two World Baseball Classics.

The U.S. still faces a difficult task to qualify for the Tokyo Games. It lost to Mexico last month in its first of up to three chances at qualifying tournaments, using a roster of mostly double-A and triple-A caliber players.

Major Leaguers are not expected to be made available for qualifying or for the Tokyo Games.

The next two qualifying tournaments will be in late March (an Americas qualifier in Arizona) and early April (a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei). It remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

Jones could become the third player with prior MLB All-Star experience to compete at the Olympics from any nation, joining Australian catcher Dave Nilsson and Canadian pitcher Jason Dickson.

Jones made five All-Star teams during an 11-year stint with the Baltimore Orioles from 2008-18 before playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.

Many players competed at the Olympics before making an MLB All-Star team, including Stephen Strasburg and Jason Giambi.

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Russia boxers to boycott Olympics if sanctions not lifted

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Russian boxers will only take part in the Tokyo Olympics if doping sanctions forcing them to compete as neutral athletes are overturned, the general secretary of the Russian Boxing Federation told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Umar Kremlev said he has spoken with the Olympic boxing team and they “unanimously” rejected the conditions laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency as punishment for manipulating doping data.

The WADA sanctions, announced on Monday, ban the use of the Russian team name, flag or anthem at a range of major sports competitions over the next four years, including next year’s Olympics.

“They said we won’t go without our flag and anthem,” Kremlev said. “We aren’t going for medals, but for that feeling that I brought the highest honor home for my country.”

Separately, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament said Russia could create an alternative to the Olympics.

“This ruling show the clear crisis in international sports institutions. I believe that Russia could host its own games at home,” Valentina Matvienko said in comments reported by the Interfax news agency.

There is a precedent. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union refused to compete in the Olympics and hosted its own Spartakiads — named after the ancient rebel slave Spartacus — with a strong socialist slant. However, the Soviet Union began competing at the Olympics in 1952 and Russians generally take great pride in the country’s Olympic achievements since then.

If the sanctions aren’t overturned, Kremlev said Russian boxers would prefer to turn pro rather than compete at the Olympics.

“A world champion (in professional boxing) is better known than an Olympic champion,” Kremlev said, adding the Russian anthem would be played before pro title fights.

Kremlev said boxers are being asked to shoulder the blame for offenses committed in other sports. He said they would still stay at home even if Russia’s athletes in other sports decided to take part.

“If other sports are guilty and people have breached the WADA code, why are we punished?” he said. “We are for honest sport and against doping. We want our sport to be clean … If someone breaks the rules, we push them out.”

Russia is a major power in amateur and Olympic boxing. It hosted both men’s and women’s world championships this year, finishing at the top of the medals table at the women’s event and second in the men’s championships. The International Olympic Committee has taken direct charge of boxing at the Tokyo Olympics after criticizing chronic financial problems and infighting at the International Boxing Association.

Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov talked up Russia’s chances of overturning the WADA sanctions.

“I think that there is every basis to appeal the decision, because our experts have presented their position, and they have the same database as WADA does,” Kolobkov said in comments reported by state news agency TASS. “There is an answer to every question and the whole process is ahead of us.”

The official decision on whether to dispute the sanctions will be made on Dec. 19 by the Russian anti-doping agency’s supervisory board, but senior figures, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have signaled their preference for taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

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