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Russian table tennis trio take deep breath reaching Rio

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - With Russia caught in the grip of a doping scandal, just getting to the Rio Olympics was a victory of sorts for the country's table tennis players Polina Mikhailova, Maria Dolgikh and Alexander Shibaev.

Their paddles packed and plane tickets booked, the trio were left holding their breath while the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) considered their cases, finally clearing them to compete on Wednesday just hours before they were due to take off.

"It was in Moscow, the next morning we had a flight, we were thinking we wouldn’t get confirmation until we get into the plane," said Mikhailova at the team’s first training session in Rio on Saturday. "Then we were given confirmation from the ITTF.

"Of course we could breathe normally after this."

While many athletes have withdrawn from the Olympics over concerns about the mosquito-borne Zika virus linked to birth defects in newborn babies and possible neurological problems in adults, Russian athletes have been pleading their cases to various international federations in a desperate bid just to get to Rio.

In the wake of the McLaren report that uncovered more evidence of widespread state-sponsored doping in Russia, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) left it up to each sport's federation to decide on the fate of Russian athletes.

By getting to Rio the Russians have already secured their first victory and will try to beat the odds again as they prepare to take on table tennis super power China and target a medal.

"I think it is possible to win against everybody," said Shibaev. "It is (a knockout format) and anything is possible."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Rio de Janeiro. Editing by Toby Davis)

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