Russia wins first men’s gymnastics world team title since Soviet breakup

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STUTTGART, Germany — Russia earned its first world men’s gymnastics team title since the breakup of the Soviet Union, while the U.S. just missed the podium to extend its longest global medal drought this millennium.

Russia overtook China, the top men’s gymnastics nation of the last 20 years, on the final rotation and ended up winning by a comfortable .997. Japan took bronze, followed by the U.S. and Great Britain in a repeat of places three through five from 2018.

The Chinese led by 1.394 points going to the last rotation on high bar, but Sun Wei fell on the first routine. Russia seized the opening, moving ahead by .506 after its first of three gymnasts performed.

A year ago, a mistake from Russian leader Nikita Nagornyy on the very last routine on high bar handed China the title by .049, the smallest winning margin in an Olympic men’s or women’s team final since the perfect-10 scoring system was replaced in 2006. On Wednesday, Nagornyy closed it out with a stuck high bar finale.

Russia’s last Olympic title came in 1996, when it boasted the likes of future Olympic all-around champion Alexei Nemov and future world all-around champion Nikolai Kryukov. Its last world title came in 1991, when its roster included Nastia Liukin‘s father, Valeri, and Vitaly Scherbo, a Belarusian who went on to win six golds at the 1992 Olympics.

Here, Russia has similar star power: Nagornyy, who qualified first into Friday’s all-around, and the defending all-around champion Artur Dalaloyan.

“For a whole year I couldn’t sleep soundly because I didn’t have that medal. A year ago we let it go with our errors when we were competing with the Chinese,” Dalaloyan said, according to an Associated Press translation, after embracing the Chinese team, including Sun, who was in tears and hiding his face in his jacket.

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The U.S. extended its longest span without an Olympic or world team medal since a 17-year break from the 1984 Olympics to 2001 World Championships. The Americans’ last medal was a bronze in 2014.

The Americans were not expected to make the podium after struggling to a seventh-place finish in qualifying. Russia, China and Japan have been in a class of their own in this Olympic cycle.

The U.S. had no falls in a team final for the first time since 2015 but were still a considerable 3.581 points out of bronze.

“We performed to our expectations,” two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak said. “We didn’t really think we had the start value [degree of difficulty] to get into that medal podium spot.”

The U.S. must hope to benefit from the change from a five-person team to a four-person team in Tokyo.

It relies largely on Mikulak, who has the ability to challenge the world’s best when he hits. His all-around score Wednesday — 86.931 — would have placed second in the qualification round.

Mikulak fell four times in qualifying, scored 81.598, and thought he would miss Friday’s 24-man all-around final. He stopped watching the final nations compete and began playing Roomscape on his computer. Teammate Akash Modi informed him that he made the final in the last spot on a tiebreaker. Scores reset for finals.

“I was sweating real hard,” he said. “The gym gods were looking out for me.”

The other U.S. men — Yul Moldauer, Trevor HowardShane Wiskus and Modi — have no Olympic experience and a fraction of Mikulak’s accolades.

If as few as two Americans can step up in difficulty and consistency in the next 10 months, the U.S. could return to the medal-challenging status it had in the last four Olympic cycles.

“It will be difficult for us to jump up enough to be in that same realm,” U.S. head coach Mark Williams said. “We have to sort of rely on some other teams to have problems, which isn’t a great strategy, but it’s also better than feeling like you don’t get to the finals.”

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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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