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U.S. women advance to World Cup; Chinese hurdler returns to form

It took far more sweat than expected, but the U.S. women's soccer team, perennially a threat to win world and Olympic titles, finally secured the 16th and final position for the 2011 World Cup in Germany. With a 1-0 victory over Italy in Bridgeview, Ill. last weekend, the U.S. team won the two-game series against the Italians by a 2-0 aggregate score. The U.S. also defeated Italy, 1-0, in Padova on Nov. 20. Alex Morgan connected in the first game; Amy Rodriguez scored the lone U.S. goal on Saturday; and Nicole Barnhart was flawless in the U.S. net throughout both games. The World Cup will take place from June 26 to July 17, when the U.S. women will face North Korea, Colombia and Sweden in the qualification round.

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The soccer scandal involving FIFA officials bounced into the IOC's lap this week when the committee confirmed that Cameroon's Issa Hayatou, a FIFA vice president and IOC member since 2001, was among those being targeted for investigation. The scandal intensified recently thanks to a BBC report that alleged a number of FIFA officials accepted bribes through bank accounts in Liechtenstein from ISL, the now-defunct marketing firm that oversaw World Cup rights. While FIFA has been trying to wash its hands of the scandal, noting that the alleged incidents took place 10 years ago, the new-look IOC has been less dismissive, welcoming scrutiny that would have been unthinkable 15 or 20 years ago. Hayatou claims he accepted money from ISL in 1995, not for personal gain, but rather to use towards a 40th anniversary celebration for the Confederation of African Football, an organization he runs as its president.

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Liu Xiang is back. The soft-spoken athlete, who became a hurdling star before injuries did him in at the Beijing Games, captured gold at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China last week. The native son finished in 13.09 seconds, a time surpassed in 2010 only by David Oliver of the U.S. and Olympic champ Dayron Robles of Cuba. The win marked the third gold in the event at the Asian Games for Liu, who won the Olympic crown in Athens and had become the face of China's Olympic hopes four years later. It was his first international title since he won the world indoor championship in Valencia, Spain early in 2008. In Beijing, he tried to run on a badly injured leg and could not get through the qualifying round. He told reporters after his race last week that he was optimistic about his prospects for London.

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Back on course in a post-Olympic year, Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller turned in middling results as the World Cup ski season visited North America this past weekend. Vonn placed eighth on Sunday in the Winternational slalom in Aspen, Colo. Marie Pietilae-Holmner of Sweden finished first. A day earlier, Vonn skied off course in the giant slalom and made peace with an early-season DNF. Julia Mancuso, the top U.S. skier, finished eighth in the event, which she won at the 2006 Olympics.

In Lake Louise, Alberta, Miller paced the U.S. men by finishing eighth in the downhill and 12th in the Super G. Switzerland's Tobias Gruenenfelder took the Super G, and Austrian Michael Walchofer, a three-time World-Cup champ, won the downhill.

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On familiar ice, Steven Holcomb piloted the U.S. four-man bobsled team to victory over the weekend on the same Whistler, British Columbia track that propelled him to Olympic gold last February. Holcomb, 29, won the event with Olympic teammates Justin Olsen and Curt Tomasevicz, and he also welcomed new crew member Steve Langton, who replaced Steve Mesler. A pair of German sleds finished second and third.

On the women's side, Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming claimed a silver medal behind Germany's Sandra Kiriasis and Stephanie Schneider. Rohbock and Fleming entered the 2010 Olympics with high hopes, but settled for sixth place in Whistler.

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Erin Hamlin, the reigning world champ in ladies luge, began her World Cup season by winning bronze on the 1964 and 1976 Olympic track in Innsbruck, Austria. Familiar faces took the top two spots, as Germany's Tatyana Huefner out-slid teammate Natalie Geissenberger for gold.

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With the ISU Grand Prix figure skating season now complete, the fields were finalized last weekend for the Grand Prix final next month in Beijing. As expected Meryl Davis and Charlie White were the top qualified ice dance team with wins in both of their competitions this season. France's Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat were also 2-for-2 on the six-event circuit. Still, with six berths available in each of the four disciplines, U.S. skaters suffered a series of near misses. The U.S. dance teams of Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein finished seventh and eighth respectively. U.S. men could not have had worse luck chasing the top six, as Jeremy Abbott, Brandon Mroz and Adam Rippon finished seventh, eighth and ninth. Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy paced the pairs, as the top U.S. duet of Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin took eighth. The U.S. did qualify two women, Alissa Czisny and Rachael Flatt, for the final, though Mirai Nigasu and Ashley Wagner took spots eight and nine. Japan's Miki Ando, the only woman to win two Grand Prix singles events this season, was the top seed.

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Seven cities have submitted bids to host joint U.S. Olympic trials in wrestling and weightlifting on April 20 and 21. Columbus, Ohio; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Greensboro, N.C.; Hampton, Va.; Iowa City, Iowa; Oklahoma City, Okla.; and Pontiac, Mich. are in the running to host the joint trials. The list will be reduced to either three or four by the end of the year. The host will be named on Jan. 17.

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