Winning last year’s World Cup didn’t earn the United States women’s soccer team an automatic Olympic ticket as a global title does in most sports.
The champs still have to reach the finals of the regional qualifying tournament, which begins Tuesday in Houston. That shouldn’t be a problem for the hosts, who haven’t lost to a hemispheric rival in a decade and who outscored their rivals, 23-0, last time.
The Americans, who have every starter back from the Cup squad except for pregnant Alex Morgan, face Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica in their round-robin group. Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, and Saint Kitts and Nevis comprise the other.
The US males, who’ve missed three of the last four Games, have a decidedly more difficult road in their March tourney in Mexico. They’re grouped with the hosts, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. If they make it to the semifinals the Yanks likely will meet Honduras, which knocked them out in Utah four years ago.
Ins and outs
Of the other 14 available Olympic berths in eight team sports for Tokyo, the US has nailed down nine — men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, rugby sevens, and water polo, and women’s softball.
Despite their worst-ever placement (seventh) at last year’s World Cup, the men’s basketball team still got a spot as the second Americas finisher behind Argentina. Still up for grabs is baseball, where the Americans missed their first shot in November by losing to Mexico in extra innings in the Premier12 tournament in Tokyo. They still have two more chances, by winning the Americas tournament in Arizona in March or the last-chance qualifier in Taiwan in April.
Missing out were the four handball and field hockey teams. The women’s field hockey squad, which finished fifth last time, failed to qualify for the first time since 2004 after losing to India, which the US shut out in Rio.
Ruling on Russia
Whatever the Court of Arbitration for Sport decides to do about Russia’s appeal of its four-year ban by the World Anti-Doping Agency for its brazen manipulation of doping samples, the International Olympic Committee hopes that its ruling will be both “watertight” and not open to misinterpretation.
After the last-minute messiness in Rio, where more than 100 Russian athletes were banned from competing on the eve of the opening ceremonies, IOC president Thomas Bach wants to avoid “real, total confusion” in Tokyo.
WADA’s edict would allow only Russian athletes who’ve never tested positive or had their data tampered with to compete and only as individuals, without their country’s name on their uniforms and no flags or anthems during ceremonies. Since CAS may not take up the case until spring, the IOC is worried that the Russians may drag out the process until after the Games.
Making a statement
With symbolic statements by athletes on awards stands on the rise, the IOC has clarified what will and won’t be allowed at the Games, drawing a distinction between “demonstrations” and “expressing views.”
Banned on the field of play, during medal presentations, and the opening and closing ceremonies and inside the Olympic Village are raising a fist, making a hand gesture, taking a knee, wearing an armband, carrying a sign, or standing apart from a fellow medalist on the podium. Allowed are political statements during press conferences or interviews in the press center, mixed zones, team meetings, or on social media.
The issue arose after US fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry made podium gestures at last summer’s Pan American Games and two rivals pointedly avoided Chinese swimmer (and suspected doper) Sun Yang on the podium at the world championships.
Rio buildings unsafe
As foretold by skeptics who predicted a menagerie of unmaintained “white elephant” venues after the Rio Games, a Brazilian judge has banned major events from being held inside the Olympic Park in Barra until the buildings’ safety can be certified.
The park, where basketball, swimming, gymnastics, cycling, and tennis were staged, was declared by justice Eugenio Araujo to be “progressively battered by the lack of care” and “ready for tragedies.”
No Raisman in Tokyo
No surprise that Aly Raisman announced recently that she won’t try to make the US gymnastics team for Tokyo.
The two-time captain, who’ll be 26 in May, hasn’t competed since the Rio Games and would have faced an uphill task to make her third squad. This time there’ll only be four roster spots plus a specialist’s berth that likely will go to Jade Carey.
At last year’s world championships, Simone Biles and teenage star Sunisa Lee finished 1-2 in floor exercise, which was Raisman’s specialty. That team, which breezed to the title, was so strong that Morgan Hurd, a 2018 all-around medalist, couldn’t make it.
Odds and ends
The recent election of David Haggerty, head of the international tennis federation, again gives the US three IOC members, along with vice president Anita DeFrantz and athlete representative Kikkan Randall. Only four other countries (Canada, China, France, and Switzerland) have that many . . . Lynn native Rashida Ellis, who cruised through last month’s Olympic women’s trials, was named the federation’s Boxer of the Year. The 24-year-old Ellis, the reigning lightweight world bronze medalist, can earn her Tokyo ticket by finishing among the top three at the Americas qualifying tournament in March in Buenos Aires . . . With Sam Querrey opting out of playing in Tokyo and John Isner leaning against the idea, two of the top four ranked US tennis players could be missing from the men’s singles draw. Their absence would leave Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka, both Olympic rookies, as the top two, assuming that the pecking order doesn’t change by the June 8 deadline. “I would be fine if tennis wasn’t even in the Olympics,” says Querrey, who last played in 2008. “A lot of my friends don’t even know that tennis is in the Olympics.” . . . What makes equestrian different from other sports on the Olympic program? If your horse can’t compete you don’t, either. When Vermont native Laura Graves concluded that Verdades, her 18-year-old mount, wouldn’t be up to another go at the Games, she retired him (“with both a heavy heart and a grateful mind”) and withdrew herself from consideration for the team. “He fulfilled dreams that I never knew I had,” said Graves, who won a bronze in team dressage with Verdades in Rio and is the top-ranked US rider this year.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from Olympic committees, sports federations, interviews and wire services was used in this report.