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New-look U.S. women’s rugby team on verge of Olympic qualification

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Four years ago, the U.S. women’s rugby team missed its first chance to qualify for the Rio Games by tiebreaker and was forced into an extra continental tournament to earn a place in the sport’s Olympic return.

The Americans are taking care of business early for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

They are ranked third in the world going into the penultimate World Series leg in Canada this weekend. It would be their best finish ever in the series’ seven-year history, after being fifth or sixth each of the last four years (and losing in the Rio Olympic quarterfinals).

The top four in this season’s standings — once it concludes in France next month — become the first Olympic qualifiers along with host Japan.

The U.S., the only nation to finish in the top four in all four legs thus far, will mathematically clinch an Olympic spot this weekend by finishing two places ahead of France, which it did in three of the first four legs.

“This is by far the best situation that the group has found themselves in,” first-year head coach Chris Brown said. “We are excited to hopefully achieve it this weekend, but we’ve also never won a tournament.”

It’s a new position for the program. One perhaps overshadowed by the U.S. men, who like the women were fifth or sixth the previous four years but currently lead their World Series standings.

The U.S. women have a new leader — Olympic coach Richie Walker resigned in August and was replaced by Brown, who had been an assistant for the men’s team. And a new roster. Only three of this season’s 12 primary players were on the Rio Olympic team (six of the U.S. men’s primary players are Olympians).

The oldest is 28. Four of the 12 players in Rio were in their 30s.

“We have the strike power, the playmakers in the middle, the distributors,” Brown said. “We should be building up these next 18 months to be in a space where there’s nothing inside of us to think it’s not highly possible that we’ll have a good opportunity [at an Olympic medal].”

The team does not have a single defining superstar, like Perry Baker for the U.S. men. None of its players rank in the top eight in the World Series in points or tries. Its most written-about player leading into Rio, stalwart and cancer survivor Jillion Potter, has retired.

“The team previously had a lot of strike power individually,” Brown said. “I’m asking them to play a little bit more collectively on the offensive side and playing for each other, rather than just giving the ball to this player or that player.”

The new nucleus is led by converts.

Scoring leader Alev Kelter failed to make the 2014 Winter Olympic hockey team, then switched to rugby after receiving an out-of-the-blue call while snowboarding from the late Ric Suggitt, former U.S. coach. Nicknamed “Chips,” she broke her front tooth at least three times before the Rio Games.

Naya Tapper, a 24-year-old, led the U.S. in tries the last two seasons. Tapper was a high school state championships 100m finalist sprinter before joining the University of North Carolina’s club rugby team.

Cheta Emba and Tapper are the only Americans to appear in all 24 matches this season. Emba played rugby and soccer at Harvard, where she was an all-Ivy League goalie and earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology.

Emba and Nicole Heavirland were the two traveling alternates for the Rio Olympic team. Heavirland has captained the U.S. at every World Series leg the last two seasons after playing in the 15-per-side game at the 2017 World Cup. She originally enlisted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a guard for the basketball team before converting to rugby as a freshman.

“They want to be known as rugby players not individual athletes that are learning to playing this game,” Brown said.

The new coach emphasized two points in his first months in charge — shoring up the team’s self-belief and its defensive strength. He said defensive effectiveness is up 20 percent from last year.

The belief came, too.

It began at the first World Series leg. The Americans were on the verge of an embarrassing bottom-four finish at home in Glendale, Ariz., down 28-0 at the half in their last group match against New Zealand.

Two key, late tries made it a digestible 35-12 defeat. The Americans advanced by one point in the differential tiebreaker with Spain. Then they upset Olympic champion Australia, beating the Aussies for the first time since 2015, and finished second overall.

“They are confident,” Brown said. “There’s a belief they can do a job, make a statement and challenge for that championship.”

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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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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping