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Four thoughts off 2018 World Gymnastics Championships

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Four thoughts off the 2018 World Gymnastics Championships, where Simone Biles scribbled through the record book with medals on every event, including four golds, in her first international meet since the Rio Olympics …

1. Simone Biles, greatest athlete of 2018?
Many top sports countries have Sportsperson of the Year Awards, which usually honor athletes in individual sports. It’s a little different in the U.S., where team sports dominate, and there are multiple marquee year-end honors from the likes of Sports Illustrated and The Associated Press. Those outlets typically choose American athletes, but not always (see Johann Olav Koss and Martina Hingis, for instance).

Voters who take a close look for this year’s awards have a few deserving female candidates. Biles, the 2016 AP Female Athlete of the Year, is of course on that short list, after arguably the greatest meet of her career and the most trying year.

Biles returned to training under a new coach on Nov. 2, 2017, after a 14-month break. She still traveled frequently for sponsors until mid-December and struggled mentally as recently as May, coach Cecile Landi said, according to Olympic Channel.

“She was in the gym for two, three days, she started to feel better,” Landi said of last fall’s training, according to the report. “And then she had to start all over again, and she was like, ‘I tried, I think I need to quit. That’s it. It’s too hard.’ She would quit every three days.”

In January, she came forward as one of hundreds of Larry Nassar survivors. She and many other U.S. gymnasts trained for the major summer and fall meets while USA Gymnastics underwent leadership change after leadership change.

Biles returned to competition in July, then swept the gold medals at nationals for the first time in August. Then in Doha, she led the U.S. women to a sixth straight Olympic or world title, this time by the largest margin of victory under a 12-year-old scoring system. That was the first of her six medals in six events at worlds, a feat not seen in 31 years.

Others who had incredible years? Breanna Stewart, who led the Seattle Storm to the WNBA title and the U.S. to a world title. She was MVP of the WNBA regular season and WNBA Finals and the MVP of the world championship. Not much more one can ask of a basketball player.

There’s Swiss triathlete Daniela Ryf, who overcame jellyfish stings under both armpits minutes before the Kona Ironman World Championship last month. Ryf then shattered her course record by 20 minutes in perfect weather (the men’s course record also fell by nine minutes in Kona). Ryf also won her two other major races this year, taking 12 minutes off her Ironman European Championship course record and earning her fourth Ironman 70.3 world title.

Let’s not forget about the Winter Olympics, where the majority of dominating performances came from women (such as Ester Ledecká, Marit Bjørgen and Chloe Kim).

MORE: 2018 Gym Worlds Results

2. The U.S. women’s rebuilding was a reloading
The first worlds with a team event since the Olympics taught us that the U.S. is more dominant than ever, even with a whole new team aside from Biles. If Biles’ team-final scores are substituted for the U.S.’ fourth athlete from qualifying, the Americans still win by five points over Russia, nearly the margin of victory from 2015 Worlds.

Morgan Hurd confirmed this year that her 2017 breakout (with a world all-around title in Biles’ absence) was no fluke. She earned a medal of every color in Doha. Riley McCusker, after some errors in qualifying, had an uneven bars score in the team final bettered only by Biles of the 23 other gymnasts.

The other two world team competitors, Kara Eaker and Grace McCallum, were third and 11th, respectively, at the 2017 U.S. Junior Championships.

Some of the U.S.’ most promising gymnasts — including Ragan SmithEmma MalabuyoMaile O’Keefe and Gabby Perea— were significantly affected or sidelined altogether by injuries in 2018. Jade Carey, who last year went from not being an elite gymnast to earning two world championships medals, skipped worlds in favor of maximizing her Olympic team chances.

A comeback from any of the other Rio Olympians for Tokyo 2020 would be a daunting exercise.

3. Artur Dalaloyan, from kicked off the team to world’s best gymnast
Not Alexei Nemov. Not Paul Hamm. Not even Kohei Uchimura. None of those Olympic all-around champions accomplished what Dalaloyan did at a world championships — earning five medals in one week (Dalaloyan’s included all-around gold). Nobody had since Vitaly Scherbo in 1991.

The 22-year-old had no high-pressure, global experience before Doha. He was not on the Olympic team. Limited by a broken foot, he competed in one final at 2017 Worlds, finishing last on vault after getting into the event due to another gymnast’s injury.

In fact, Dalaloyan was once kicked off the national team for disciplinary reasons at age 15, according to the International Gymnastics Federation. He missed the Rio team after not taking the sport seriously upon his return to the Russian program.

“When you are 18 or 19 years old, it is difficult to lock yourself in the gym and only train. I wanted to have fun, dance with girls, go for walks, and much more,” Dalaloyan said earlier in 2018, according to the FIG. “I thought, ‘Why limit myself? After all, I’m already in the national team!’ Then I began to notice that the other guys were all progressing, and I was wasting time. When I realized that I really could not get to Rio, I discarded all unnecessary and went to work. It was like something clicked in my head. I really understood a very simple thing: I need gymnastics.”

4. Sam Mikulak changed by medal breakthrough
When Mikulak had his first medal miss at the 2013 World Championships, he said, “You’ve got to learn to lose before you can learn to win.” After Mikulak earned his first individual medal in his sixth Olympic/world champs appearance last week, he sounded like a changed athlete.

“It wasn’t the epitomizing moment that I thought it would be,” he said. “There’s a lot more to life than getting these things.”

Will that change how the 26-year-old approaches the sport? Who knows. In the summer, Mikulak was so invested in earning a medal that he said he couldn’t retire without one. It conjured images of Blaine Wilson pacing and racking during the 2004 Olympic team final. There was still some of that fire in Mikulak as he wore the high-bar bronze Saturday.

“I feel like I finally broke the barrier, and I’m going to go home, and I’m going to want to get more of these,” he said.

He certainly has the talent. Mikulak qualified for five individual finals at worlds, the most by a U.S. man since 1979. He would have earned an all-around medal if not for errors on his last and best event, high bar. He led an otherwise young U.S. men’s team to fourth place, the best it could have hoped for barring collapse from China, Japan or Russia. He did so after being limited at nationals and worlds in 2017 due to his second left Achilles tear in two years.

Next year, Mikulak can break his tie with Wilson with a sixth U.S. all-around title. Then in 2020, he can become the first U.S. male gymnast since Wilson to compete in three Olympics. Maybe, like Wilson, he can finally earn an Olympic medal in his third try.

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MORE: Why Simone Biles can win with two falls

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