HEARD AT HALFTIME: North Korea to skip Tokyo? Japan’s leukemia survivor Ikee makes Tokyo team; 125 years since Athens 1896!

Opening Ceremony of the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens (Photo: Wikipedia)

News, views and noise from the non-stop, worldwide circus of Olympic sport:

Games of the XXXII Olympiad: Tokyo 2020 ● Japan’s Kyodo News Service reported late Monday afternoon that “North Korea will not participate in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics to protect its athletes from the novel coronavirus, according to a North Korean website.”

North Korean athletes had participated in seven straight Games, dating back to 1992 in Barcelona, Spain. Moreover, the country won medals in all of those Games, with notable success in weightlifting, wrestling, boxing and judo.

The decision was seen in Japan as a setback for potential diplomatic discussions:

“North Korea’s decision to sit out the Tokyo Olympics this summer due to COVID-19 fears will likely prolong the diplomatic deadlock with neighboring Japan and South Korea and could delay the resumption of denuclearization talks with the United States.

“The announcement on a website run by North Korea’s sports ministry on Tuesday is a lost opportunity for a breakthrough in Tokyo’s efforts to secure the return of citizens abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s.”

XXIV Olympic Winter Games: Beijing 2022 ● The subject of whether U.S. President Joe Biden approves of U.S. attendance in Beijing came up again at the White House press briefing last Friday (2nd):

“[W]hen can we expect a final determination from the President about the United States participating in the Beijing Olympics, given that he said the Chinese President doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body?”

The response from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was, “Well, I think the U.S. Olympic Committee would play a big role in …” before she was interrupted by the questioner. So, no change from prior comments.

Athletics ● Beyond the 1:04:02 world Half Marathon record for Kenyan star Ruth Chepngetich in Istanbul on Sunday, there were more world-leading marks over the weekend in U.S. meets.

New world leaders in the women’s 100 and 200 m came from American Aleia Hobbs with her 10.99 win at the Battle of the Bayou meet in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and from Shaunae Miller-Uibo (BAH) in the 200 m – 22.03 – at the Pure Athletics Spring Invitational in Clermont, Florida.

U.S. 400 m star Fred Kerley also lowered his lifetime best in the 100 m to 10.03 in winning in Clermont as well.

Anna Cockrell of the U.S. took the world lead in the women’s 400 m hurdles at 55.65, winning at the Florida Relays in Gainesville. American high jump star Vashti Cunningham claimed the women’s world outdoor lead in Chula Vista, California, winning at 1.97 m (6-5 1/2).

A fascinating story by Martin Fritz Huber from last Friday (2nd) on Outsideonline asks: “What Makes a Pro Runner Valuable to a Brand?

The question is asked concerning American marathoner Noah Droody, whose 2:09:09 from last December has him at no. 9 on the all-time U.S. list, right between Meb Keflezighi and Alberto Salazar. From the story:

“In doing so, Droddy delivered for his sponsor, Saucony, by proving, among other things, that their rocket shoe could hold its own against the other rocket shoes on the market. Nonetheless, the brand opted not to renew his contract at the end of 2020. …

“That fact remains that for elite runners who are fortunate enough to get one, a shoe contract is the most dependable way to make a living as a pro. But while in previous eras an athlete’s value might be based primarily on podium finishes or qualification for marquee events like the Olympics, the brave new world of influencer marketing and social media has added another dimension.”

Huber asked Brooks marketing director Matt Weiss about that conflict; for Brooks, performance is still the highest point of interest. And for a brand which wants to show that its goods are world class, a world-class athlete can readily carry that message.

There are others who champion a big social-media following, but the question of how really impactful followers are on Instagram or Twitter continues to be hotly debated. For Droody, there are apparently offers coming. Let’s hope so.

Basketball ● USA Basketball announced that 1996 Olympic gold medalist and 19-year NBA star Grant Hill will become the next Men’s National Team Managing Director.

Hill, 48, will replace Jerry Colangelo, 81, after the Tokyo Olympic tournament concludes. The place of the U.S. men as the dominant team in international basketball owes much to Colangelo; USA Basketball noted:

“Taking control in 2005 of a USA National Team that hadn’t won a major international competition since 2000, Colangelo rebuilt the program from the bottom up. Under Colangelo, the USA men have compiled a remarkable 97-4 overall record and have claimed top honors in six of eight FIBA or FIBA Americas competitions, including Olympic championships in 2008, 2012 and 2016.”

It is not much remembered any more than the 2004 U.S. Olympic men’s team struggled mightily at Athens, going 3-2 in group play and then losing to Argentina, 89-81, in the semifinals. The U.S. won the bronze medal game from Lithuania, 104-96. That 12-member team included 11 NBA players, including Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, but was clearly not ready for international play. Colangelo changed the selection procedures, practice plan and created unbeatable squads for the last three Games which compiled a 24-0 record.

Boxing ● When former Russian Boxing Federation Secretary-General Umar Kremlev was elected as AIBA President and pledged to reinvigorate the federation’s dismal finances, the likely source was focused on … Russia.

On Tuesday (6th), AIBA announced Russian state-owned energy giant PJSC Gazprom – and the largest company by revenue in Russia – not as a sponsor, but as “general partner” of the federation. Gazprom had 2019 revenues of more than $120 billion U.S. Said Kremlev:

“AIBA’s financial stability is one of our main goals. That is why the partnership with the largest companies in the world is important for us in order to jointly fulfill the tasks set for the boxing family. Today I am pleased to announce that PJSC Gazprom has become the General Partner of the International Boxing Association. This is a tremendous and extremely significant step for us.”

And of course, “The parties agreed not to disclose the content and commercial terms of the agreement.”

This relationship bears close watching, and even if Gazprom eliminates AIBA’s debt and provides working capital, its near-ownership status (especially as a state-owned entity) may run afoul of the International Olympic Committee’s concerns over the federation’s independence. This may be a masterstroke for Kremlev, or further cause the IOC to consider another solution for boxing besides AIBA, if the sport is to remain in the Games at all.

Football ● In case you missed it, one of the stunners of the year came on 31 March in Duisberg, Germany as the hosts lost to North Macedonia by 2-1 and fell into third place in their World Cup qualifying group.

Germany had not lost a World Cup qualifying match at home since a 5-1 defeat to England in 2001, but it happened with a goal from Eljif Elmas on the 85th minute after Germany’s Ilkay Gundogan had tied it on a penalty shot in the 63rd minute.

The hosts had 69% of the possession during the game and 11 shots to six for North Macedonia, but it was not enough. “This is bitterly disappointing,” said German coach Joachim Loew. “We were not fresh enough, we made mistakes. When we played quickly we were dangerous but we did not find the tools to be really threatening. Overall, it was disappointing to lose like that at home.”

So now what?

Beyond the immediate shock of such a loss, the German squad will have to live with it until September, when it plays Liechtenstein, Armenia and Iceland in the next group of games. At present, after three of 10 games for each country in UEFA Group J, Armenia is 3-0 (9 points), North Macedonia is 2-1 (6) and Germany is 2-1 (6), but trails North Macedonia on goal differential! The group winner qualifies directly to Qatar 2022 and the runner-up will qualify for another round of play-offs.

Oh yes, there will be a re-match with North Macedonia on 11 October, but this time the Germans will be the visitors.

Skiing ● Britain’s Sarah Lewis, who was fired by the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) last October after a long run as its highly-respected Secretary General, announced her candidacy to be the FIS President on Tuesday (6th).

Lewis’s firing was shrouded in secrecy, announced after a FIS Council meeting with no reason given other than “a complete loss of confidence” in her. She was not nominated by the British ski federation – which has its own candidate – but the Belgian federation and after decades of being an ultimate insider, is running essentially as an outsider after receiving many messages of support.

Current FIS President Gian Franco Kasper (SUI) is leaving after 23 years of sometimes controversial governance. Announced candidates include FIS Council member Mats Arjes (SWE), Swiss federation chief Urs Lehmann and Johan Eliasch (SWE), the Head skis chief (nominated by Britain). The vote is scheduled to be held online on 4 June.

Swimming ● One of the feel-good stories of the Tokyo 2020 Games will be the appearance of Japanese star Rikako Ikee, whose remarkable recovery from leukemia landed her on the Olympic team last weekend.

Ikee, 20, won bronze medals in the 50 m and 100 m Fly at the 2016 World 25 m Championships and won six golds at the 2018 Asian Games in the 50/100 m Frees and Flys, plus relays. She was considered a medal contender for Tokyo, but was diagnosed with leukemia in early February 2019.

But just a little more than two years later, she won the 100 m Fly on Sunday at the Japanese championships in Tokyo in 57.77. That’s not fast enough to meet Japan’s super-stringent qualification mark of 57.10 to compete in the individual event, but will qualify Ikee to be part of the women’s Medley Relay.

The Japanese championships continue this week and Ikee could challenge for spots in the 50 m and 100 m Free events.

The Russian Olympic swimming trials are also underway, in Kazan, and if you’re looking forward to more torrid face-offs between reigning women’s Olympic 100 m Breaststroke champ Lilly King of the U.S. and Russian rival Yulia Efimova, half of the match is set.

Efimova, who won 2016 Rio silvers in the 100 and 200 m Breast events, qualified for the Russian 100 m Breast team on Monday, finishing second to 16-year-old prodigy Evgenia Chikunova, 1:06.06-1:07.07.

King, the world leader in the 100 m Breast at 1:05.32 this year, must qualify at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, in which she will be the big favorite in both the women’s 100 m and 200 m Breast events.

Tokyo 2020 and the International Aquatics Federation (FINA) are trying to re-arrange three late-stage qualifying events for the Games in view of the pandemic.

The Tokyo-based FINA Diving World Cup scheduled for 18-23 April, and FINA Artistic Swimming Qualification Tournament for 1-4 May are now shown as “to be confirmed” on the FINA competition calendar, as is the FINA Marathon Swimming Olympic qualifier in Fukuoka from 29-30 May.

A water polo test event scheduled for this week has also been postponed.

Amid a rise in coronavirus infections, Japan has adopted strict entry regulations which are affecting many businesses, as well as events scheduled as Olympic qualifiers and test events. A message on the FINA Web site indicates that further details on these events are expected next week.

Australian swimming star Mack Horton, who famously refused to stand on the podium during the awards ceremony for the men’s 400 m Freestyle during the 2019 FINA World Championships as a protest against perceived doper Yang Sun (CHN), said he would do so again in a similar situation in Tokyo.

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph in Australia, Horton told reporter Julian Linden:

“I did it because I didn’t want to regret not doing it or not saying something; so yeah, I would do something again.”

There was substantial reaction against Horton, especially from Chinese fans, but this died down after Sun was given an eight-year-ban in February 2020 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for a doping-control incident in September 2018. The verdict was thrown out for possible bias on the part of one arbitrator and will re-heard with a new panel beginning on 24 May. Said Horton:

“It was obviously pretty brutal for a bit and it goes on. But you adapt. Everyone’s got used to it and we’ve obviously got a fair bit of support as well.”

The coronavirus has struck the U.S. Olympic Trials in swimming; USA Swimming announced today:

“In an effort to deliver the safest competition possible and to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19, the venue seating map has been reconfigured, reducing daily session attendance capacity to approximately 50%. Given the June 2020 Trials had already sold tickets in excess of 90% of capacity, there will be a complete refund of tickets and re-sale beginning Friday, April 16. …

“Seats will be sold in physically distanced pods of two (2), four (4), or six (6) seats. Fans may purchase up to six (6) tickets for each session and tickets will be sold on a first-come first-serve basis.”

The CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska is the site for the Trials, which is being held in two sections: from 4-7 June for lower-ranked swimmers to qualify for the main Trials, from 13-20 June.

Wrestling ● London Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs fell short of his goal of a second Olympic title in Tokyo, losing in a taut 74 kg Olympic Team Trials final to 79 kg World Champion Kyle Dake, 3-0 and 3-2 on Saturday. Ever the epitome of class and grace, Burroughs, now 32, tweeted the morning after:

“This road has been long and difficult. I’m gonna take some time away to reflect and rebuild. This isn’t the end for me. Thanks to everyone for their support. Congratulations to all this year’s Olympians.”

Twice an Olympic medalist and a four-time World Champion, if he never wrestles again, Burroughs stands as one of America’s greatest wrestlers.

Congratulations to USA Wrestling for its successful Olympic Team Trials over the weekend in Ft. Worth, Texas. Not only did the U.S. select a powerful team for Tokyo, it also set a high standard for getting its message out in a continuing pandemic.

The bouts were televised on NBCSN, NBC’s digital channels or Peacock, but traditional, on-site media access was not available. So USA Wrestling got busy and provided a full suite of media support services, maximizing remote access, information and support:

● Live results and scoring, plus brackets, were available via TrackWrestling.com for every match on all mats. No questions about who is doing what, where and when, in real time. Superb.

● Post-match interviews were made available to off-site media on two Zoom feeds, from the Challenge Tournament semifinals on Friday and the championship matches on Saturday. All of these interviews were recorded and made available on USA Wrestling’s YouTube channel, and available via Dropbox for further use, so that no one missed anything.

● Photography of all matches was available on a complimentary basis from Tony Rotundo via his site WrestlersAreWarriors.com. Downloads for editorial use were available to media via a password.

● USA Wrestling sent summary results of each session to media by e-mail, and also included a pre-finals distribution with short biographies of all 36 finalists. Excellent.

● The federation was in overdrive with coverage on its own Web site, including a special page on the Trials specifically, plus coverage on its social-media platforms. The stories on this page also included quotes from many of the finalists on Saturday.

In addition to the world-class wrestling, the performance of USA Wrestling Director of Communications Gary Abbott and his team was outstanding and to be commended for its scope and follow-through in difficult circumstances. Well done!

At the BuZZer ● Tuesday (6th) marks the 125th anniversary of the opening of the first Olympic Games of the modern era, in Athens, Greece.

The brainchild of France’s Pierre de Coubertin became reality with the opening ceremony, and the Games had 176 competitors – all men – from 13 countries, competing in 43 events in nine sports. There was also competition on the first day, in track & field; per Olympedia:

“The first event of the modern Olympics was the first heat of the 100 metres, won by American Frank Lane, a student at Princeton. But the first championship decided was that of the triple jump, won by James Connolly, a Harvard student, who left the Cambridge school to compete in the Olympics. He became the first known Olympic champion since Varasdates of Armenia had won the boxing in 369 CE.”

Connolly took the triple jump at 13.71 m (44-11 3/4) and the other final on the first day was the discus, won by American Bob Garrett with a world record of 29.15 m (95-7).

The closing ceremony was on 15 April.

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