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Alexis Pinturault wins World Cup opener; Americans just miss podium

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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — Widely regarded a main candidate to succeed retired Marcel Hirscher as World Cup overall champion, Alexis Pinturault passed his first test with flying colors on Sunday.

He beat teammate Mathieu Faivre to lead a French one-two finish in the World Cup season-opening giant slalom in spring-like, sunny conditions on the Rettenbach mountain glacier.

Pinturault held a slim lead of two-hundredths of a second over Faivre after the opening run but extended the margin to 0.54 in the final leg. It was the 12th time that Pinturault led a race after the first leg, and the ninth time he held on to the advantage to win the race.

“Everything is working really well, I have a good team around me,” Pinturault said. “That’s something that brings me a lot of self-confidence.”

Zan Kranjec of Slovenia came 0.63 behind in third, followed by American duo Tommy Ford and Ted Ligety, who trailed by 0.70 and 1.09, respectively.

Ford, with his best career World Cup finish, and Ligety, with his best since January 2018, came close to ending the U.S. men’s program’s longest World Cup podium drought in two decades. The American men had zero World Cup podiums last season for the first time since 1997-98.

Lucas Braathen of Norway posted the fastest second run to climb from 23rd to sixth, 1.10 behind Pinturault, while Swiss prospect Marco Odermatt dropped from third to 13th after coming wide on a left turn halfway down his final run.

Pinturault finished runner-up to Hirscher in the overall standings last season, making him one of the favorites to take over from the record eight-time champion from Austria as winner of the sport’s biggest prize.

“It’s not so easy for us that Marcel isn’t there anymore,” Pinturault said. “We have a lot of pressure, more than before. Usually all the pressure was on Marcel. But this is a wonderful start for me.”

Pinturault also won the traditional first GS of the season in the Austrian Alps when it was last held in 2016. The race was canceled due to bad weather in the past two years.

Sunday’s win was Pinturault’s 24th career victory, and 12th in giant slalom. He also won Olympic bronze in the discipline in 2018.

“This was the first event of the new season, you had to get used to racing again,” said Pinturault, adding it was “cool, a super start” for the French team to place 1-2.

The result came as a surprise for Faivre, who said before the race that his start in Soelden had been doubtful after back problems affected his pre-season training.

“It was a tough summer because of the injury. We didn’t really know how long it would take for me to heal,” Faivre said. “But training the last two weeks went very well. I had a lot of fun.”

While France led with the top-two spots, the U.S. ski team had an excellent start to the season as well with Ford and Ligety’s achievements backed up by Ryan Cochran-Siegle finishing in 11th.

Ford improved one spot from his previous best — a fifth place in Alta Badia, Italy, last season — on a hill where he had never scored World Cup points before.

“I am feeling strong. My first run was just solid skiing, real safe. The second run I definitely trusted it more and let it go. Psyched with this personal best,” said Ford, who posted a photo from the race on his Instagram account and wrote: “Nice way to score points for the first time in Sölden.”

In sharp contrast to Pinturault, another favorite in the post-Hirscher era struggled in the opening race.

GS world champion Henrik Kristoffersen failed to find his rhythm in the opening run and finished eight-tenth behind Pinturault, before he almost skied out in the final run, losing control of his inside ski in a wide left turn. The Norwegian ended up more than two seconds off the lead in 18th.

“It was a classic mistake that cost me,” Kristoffersen said. “But it’s only the first race of the season.”

The anticipated season-long duel between Pinturault and Kristoffersen will go into its next round at a slalom in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 24.

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World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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U.S. women’s soccer team begins Olympic qualifying, which should rest on one match

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The U.S. women’s soccer team has never been in danger in Olympic qualifying, but that doesn’t change this fact: It must win on Feb. 7 to reach the Tokyo Games.

The CONCACAF tournament begins Tuesday in Houston, where the world champion Americans face world No. 72 Haiti. The last two group games are against No. 68 Panama on Friday and No. 37 Costa Rica on Feb. 3. The top two nations from the group advance to Feb. 7 semifinals.

The U.S. roster, with 18 of its 20 players coming from the 2019 World Cup team, is here.

Since CONCACAF qualifies two nations to the Olympics, the semifinals are the deciding games.

Should the U.S. win its group, it would face the runner-up from the other group in a winner-goes-to-Tokyo match. The other group (world ranking):

Canada (8)
Mexico (37)
Jamaica (53)
St. Kitts and Nevis (127)

Chaos could result in the unlikely event that either the U.S. or Canada finishes second in its group, and the two North American powers play a semifinal.

The U.S. is undefeated in Olympic qualifying history, since the tournament format began in 2004 — 15-0 with a goal differential of 88-1. The lone goal allowed came in a group-stage match in 2008, when the U.S. was already assured a spot in the semifinals.

Still, the U.S. knows the feeling of one poor outing in an important match. In 2010, it lost to Mexico in a winner-to-the-World Cup match. The U.S. was forced to win a last-chance, home-and-home playoff against a UEFA team — Italy — for the last spot in the World Cup.

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