THE TICKER: U.S. Justice Dept. files against doping distributor; athletes warned on data safety in China; another record for Mikaela Shiffrin!

The latest news, notes and quotes from the worldwide Five-Ring Circus:

≡ SPOTLIGHT ≡

ERIC LIRA, the defendant … provided multiple performance enhancing drugs, including human growth hormone and erythropoietin, to athletes qualifying for and intending to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, in violation of Title 21, United States Code, Sections 2402 & 2403.”

So begins the first charge filed under the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act of 2019, this time in Federal Court in the Southern District of New York, alleging international sports doping and a conspiracy to misbrand performance-enhancing drugs to allow their sale.

The investigating FBI Special Agent, Ryan Serkes, detailed in the complaint that an unnamed individual was “an associate” of two track & field athletes and that in July 2021, entered the home of “Athlete-2″ (a male athlete) in Jacksonville, Florida and “found and photographed packages and vials that appeared to be various performance enhancing drugs” sent by Lira from El Paso, Texas. The drugs included human growth hormone, insulin growth factor and erythropoietin [a.k.a. “EPO”].

He also explained that “Athlete-1″ was found by the Athletics Integrity Unit to have tested positive for human growth hormone on 19 July 2021 and suspended during the Tokyo Olympic Games on 30 July. The mobile phone of “Athlete-1″ was searched upon her return to the U.S. by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and WhatsApp voice messages were found, directing Lira to obtain performance-enhancing drugs for her.

“Athlete-1″ sent a message to Lira on 7 June, saying among other things, “I had a bad race yesterday, Eric. 11.02.” and on 22 June, wrote to Lira, “Hola amigo / Eric my body feel so good / I just ran 10.63 in the 100m on Friday / with a 2.7 wind / I am sooooo happy / Ericccccccc / Whatever you did, is working so well.”

Matching performances to dates shows that “Athlete-1″ is Nigerian sprint and long jump star Blessing Okagbare, who achieved exactly those performances on those dates, and was pulled out of the Olympic 100 m for doping after the heats on 30 July.

The complaint asks for a warrant for the arrest of Lira, which was granted by U.S. Magistrate Sarah Netburn. The maximum term of imprisonment under the Rodchenkov Act is 10 years, and the maximum term of imprisonment for conspiring to violate the misbranding laws is five years. Interestingly, athletes are not subject to the Rodchenkov Act, only those who help them with doping.

British journalist Edmund Willison wrote on Twitter:

● “In August 2021, officers of Customs and Border Protection were able to review some of Okagbare’s phone data. Ultimately it revealed that she had followed the the standard doping blueprint for elite sprinters. This goes back to the days of Balco and beyond.”

“This is that blueprint”

● “Sprinters travel to US training camps in either Florida, Texas or North Carolina (Balco roots). They order banned drugs (HGH, EPO, IGF-1) from some form of anti-ageing doctor. They have the drugs shipped to an address they are not living at, or to a relative living there.”

● “They may or may not ship the drugs under a different name. But crucially the period in which this happens is the athletics off-season from November to February, when they are harder to track down for testing.

“The Okagbare story has many of the same hallmarks.”

≡ THE 5-RING CIRCUS ≡

● XXIV Olympic Winter Games: Beijing 2022 ● The National Olympic Committee for The Netherlands has told its athletes not to bring personal electronic devices with them to Beijing.

The Amsterdam-based newspaper De Volkskrant reported that “The urgent advice to athletes and supporting staff to not bring any personal devices to China was part of a set of measures proposed by the Dutch Olympic Committee (NOCNSF) to deal with any possible interference by Chinese state agents.”

The Dutch NOC made cybersecurity a part of its risk profile for the team going to Beijing, and will have new devices available for team members that will be destroyed when they return home. Olympics sponsor Samsung is expected to provide a free, special-issue mobile phone to all Olympians in Beijing.

The Guardian reported that the British Olympic Association will allow team members to bring their own electronics, “they have been warned against doing so by the BOA because it fears the authorities could install spyware to extract private information or track future activity.” Temporary phones will be made available.

On Thursday, a U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee bulletin advises its athletes and officials to use disposable or rented mobile phones and personal computers while in China to protect personal information and suggests using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Also: “Despite any and all safeguards that are put in place to protect the systems and data that are brought to China, it should be assumed that all data and communications in China can be monitored, compromised or blocked.”

The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China sent a letter on Wednesday to International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach (GER) that included:

“We write to request further information on contracts for the production of uniforms that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has entered into with Anta Sports and Hengyuanxiang Group (HYX Group). We are particularly concerned about Anta’s and HYX Group’s continued use of cotton produced in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). …

“Cotton produced in the XUAR is synonymous with forced labor and the systematic repression that takes place there. The Chinese Communist Party and government have created a system of mass surveillance and internment, forbidden the observance of key tenets of Islam and otherwise restricted individuals’ ability to peacefully practice their religion, forcibly sterilized women and forced them to undergo abortions, and separated children from their families. Forced labor plays an integral role in the genocide taking place against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in the region. …

“Because Anta and HYX Group both continue to use cotton produced in the XUAR, there is a worrisome possibility that IOC personnel or others attending the 2022 Olympic Games will be wearing clothing contaminated by forced labor. In light of these forced labor concerns, we request that the IOC take the following action.

● “Make public a copy of the ‘certificate of origin’ given to the IOC by HYX Group that reportedly confirmed that no forced labor was used in the production of HYX Group products. Social compliance organizations and Canadian, U.K, and U.S. government agencies have warned against relying on audits in the XUAR. What assurances, if any, did the IOC receive that the certificate provided by HYX Group was reliable?

● “Explain publicly the assurances Anta Sports gave the IOC that the products Anta Sports supplied to the IOC were not produced in whole or in part by forced labor. Make any such assurances publicly accessible, and state why the IOC believed such assurances were reliable in a context where social compliance organizations and government agencies have warned against relying on audits.”

No reply from the IOC was posted on its Web site or Twitter account as of 11 a.m. Pacific time today.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that the promised engagement of 300 million people in winter sports ahead of the 2022 Winter Games has been achieved.

“Over 346 million Chinese people have participated in winter sports activities since Beijing’s successful bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics in 2015,” and “[n]early 40 percent participated in winter sports at least once a year, while around 11 percent took part more than three times every year.”

The survey showed “93 percent of the 346 million people engaged in winter sports spontaneously, and over 86 percent took part either for entertainment or physical exercise.”

Now you know.

● Games of the XXXIV Olympiad: Los Angeles 2028 ● Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had his nomination to be the U.S. Ambassador to India approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday and now heads to the full Senate for confirmation.

Garcetti said he did not know when the Senate vote would be held. The next election for Mayor in Los Angeles is this November; if Garcetti is confirmed before his term ends, the City Council President (currently Nury Martinez) would serve as an “acting” Mayor until/unless the City Council appoints an Interim Mayor.

● National Olympic Committees ● The Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) declared its Digital Accelerator Programme a success, as social-media audiences have grown in 197 out of the 206 NOCs worldwide.

ANOC created a 62-page social-media handbook for NOCs and held workshops attended by 382 participants from 172 NOCs and continental associations, all with the aim of improving social-media performance.

ANOC’s Social Media Dashboard is updated monthly with statistics on social-media usage; at the end of December 2021, NOCs had a combined 39.3 million followers, up 37,500 during the month. The followers broke down by platform: 49.7% on Facebook, 19.6% on Twitter, 17.4% on Instagram, 11.8% on Tiktok and 1.6% on YouTube.

The report for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee for December showed 9.5 million followers total, with 43.4% on Facebook, 21.9% on Twitter, 21.1% on Instagram, 11.2% on TikTok and 2.5% on YouTube. The U.S. is by far the leading NOC in social-media contacts in this survey; next best is Brazil (4.7 million total), Great Britain (3.3 million), Canada (2.0 million) and Japan (1.5 million). Please note that the measurements did not include Chinese platform giants such as Weibo, so China’s ranking is quite low, showing only for Facebook.

● Aquatics ● SwimSwam.com noted a post on the Olympic Council of Asia site that the 2023 FINA World Aquatics Championships would be held in Doha in November, by far the latest ever, but in line with this year’s FIFA World Cup.

The late date is, of course, due to the high summer temperatures in Qatar; the latest the FINA Worlds have ever been held previously was in mid-September in 1994. How this will work for the athletes will be interesting, as this is the time of the year when the International Swimming League meets are held, and is in conflict with the U.S. collegiate season for swimming, diving and water polo (this affects not only U.S. swimmers, but also those from other countries on U.S. collegiate teams).

The 2022 FINA Worlds are coming up in May in Fukuoka (JPN); more attention to these scheduling issues will no doubt be paid after the conclusion of that event.

● Athletics ● The U.S. men and women led the cumulative scoring in Track & Field News’ authoritative, annual world rankings for 2021, and by a wide margin.

Since 1947, T&FN has ranked the top ten men in the world in each event and began carrying women’s rankings with the 1977 season. The American men scored in 16 of 22 events and scored 226 points overall to 102 for Kenya, 72 for Canada and 60 for Ethiopia.

The U.S. women scored 210 points, way ahead of Jamaica (104), Kenya (96) and Ethiopia (72), with ranked athletes in 18 of 21 events.

Tragedy in Texas as 29-year-old Deon Lendore, a 2012-16-20 Olympian in the 400 m from Trinidad & Tobago, was killed on Monday (10th) in a car crash in Milam County, Texas.

According to NBC News, “Lendore was driving a 2015 Volkswagen Jetta sedan traveling westbound on FM 485 when he ‘crossed over the center stripe and side-swiped a vehicle that was traveling eastbound,’” according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, then went across the centerline again and crashed into another vehicle, head-on. The driver of the other vehicle in he crash was taken to the hospital with significant injuries.

Lendore won an Olympic bronze in 2012 in the 4×400 m relay and a silver on the relay in the 2015 World Championships. He had a best of 44.36 in the 400 m from 2014 and was a volunteer assistant coach at Texas A&M, where he had been a star from 2012-15 and NCAA indoor and outdoor 400 m champion in 2014.

The USA Track & Field Foundation announced the first four awardees of its new Maternity Grant, to Shannon Rowbury, Molly Huddle, Ce’Aira Brown and Elvin Kibet. According to the announcement:

“The new Maternity Grant is intended to provide additional and vital support to mothers during pregnancy and post-partum as they return to training and competition form. This grant is specifically intended for mothers who plan to return to an elite level, and pursue achieving spots in an Olympic Games, World Championship, or other Team USA competition.”

Each will receive $4,000; as to the future, “[g]rants will be determined on a case by case basis when expectant mothers apply at usatffoundation.org.”

● Football ● U.S. Soccer Federation President Cindy Parlow Cone told reporters that believes she is the right choice for the federation in its 5 March vote. She is running against the person she replaced, Carlos Cordeiro. Parlow Cone made her case clearly:

“I truly feel that I’m the right person to continue to lead U.S. Soccer at this time. I think we need to continue to look forward, not backward. We have a lot of stability and momentum moving right now. I’m all in fully. I’m all in to continue to pour my heart and soul into us faster for the next number of years.”

She was briefing reporters on the progress being made toward new collective bargaining agreements with the national men’s and women’s teams, and noted the achievements during her tenure:

“I think over the last two years having our organization through a pandemic, hiring a new senior team, overseeing the largest sponsorship deal in soccer history [Volkswagen], I could go on and on.

“Together with our staff and our board, we’ve made a lot of accomplishments in a very challenging time. I’m hoping that the membership will see what we’ve done. Has it been perfect? It hasn’t been perfect. No, of course not. There’s still a lot of work to do. We have a lot more that we want to accomplish. I would like to have a presidency that’s not constantly battling COVID.”

● Gymnastics ● Japan’s gymnastics superstar, Kohei Uchimura, announced his retirement on Tuesday, concluding a career that included two Olympic All-Around titles in 2012 and 2016 and six All-Around World Championships golds.

Now 33, Uchimura had suffered from injuries over the past few years, ending his ability to compete at the highest level. He finishes with seven Olympic medals (3-4-0) from 2008-12-16 and a sensational 21 World Championships medals (10-6-5), including A-A titles in 2009-10-11-13-14-15. He also won individual apparatus golds in the Worlds on floor (2011), Parallel Bars (2013) and Horizontal Bar (2015).

He qualified to compete in Tokyo last summer, but only in the Horizontal Bar and did not qualify for the final.

● Modern Pentathlon ● The Associated Press reported that German Olympic pentathlete Annika Schleu and coach Kim Raisner will not be prosecuted for animal cruelty in exchange for making an agreed amount to a charitable organization.

The agreement with prosecutors in Potsdam came after the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM) agreed to drop horse riding from its five-event program; it is on a search for a replacement event.

Schleu lost her chance at a medal in Tokyo after the horse she was given, Saint Boy, failed to cooperate in the jumping event; the horse was struck by Raisner in a vain attempt to get it to work with Schleu, but was not injured.

● Skiing ● U.S. Ski & Snowboard announced it has raised $17 million of its targeted $20 million endowment for the Bob Beattie Athlete Travel Fund and has begun the final $3 million fund-raising leg.

Named for the federation’s famed first alpine coach, who began in 1961 and passed away in 2018, the concept is to create an endowment which will provide about $1 million per year in direct-to-athlete travel expenses support. The announcement explained:

“The fund was created to specifically close the gap on funding of athlete travel costs to training camps, and domestic and international competitions. While in the past most of those expenses were covered by the team, in recent years a gap in funding created scenarios where athletes were paying $25,000 or more just to travel with the team.”

The announcement further noted “The Bob Beattie Athlete Travel Fund is unique in the sports world – no other national governing body has an endowment that provides financial support specifically for its athletes’ travel needs.” Sounds like an idea that other federations might like to take up.

≡ SCOREBOARD ≡

● Alpine Skiing ● If you were concerned that American skiing superstar Mikaela Shiffrin might not be in top form in Beijing, coming off a bout with Covid … forget it.

Tuesday’s special Slalom in Schladming (AUT) saw Shiffrin come from behind after standing only fifth after the first run. She tore through the second run in 46.96, fastest in the field, and turned the tables on reigning World Cup champ Petra Vlhova (SVK) who had already won five of the six Slaloms contested this season.

The leader after the first run, Vlhova was only fifth-fastest on the second and finished behind Shiffrin, 1:32.66-1:32.81. German Lana Duerr was third in 1:33.59.

The win was Shiffrin’s 73rd overall and 47th in Slalom, the most ever by one skier in a specific discipline. She had been tied with Swedish legend Ingemark Stenmark, who had 46 Giant Slalom wins from 1975-87.

The women’s World Cup has four more stops before Beijing, but all featuring either the Downhill (3), Super-G (3) or Giant Slalom (1).

≡ THE LAST WORD ≡

When Steve Bornstein, the former President of ESPN and a prime mover in the creation of NFL Network, speaks, it’s worth listening. In a year-end interview On CNBC.com, Bornstein – now with Genius Sports – talked about the future of “content consumption.” Just consider these three highlights:

● “[W]e’re going from one to many broadcasting models … we’re going to customize feeds. I don’t know if it’s going to be a one-to-one feed or one-to-many, but I think that’s essentially how it’s going to begin. We’re going to customize your video experience to stuff that you’re most interested in.”

● “The next generation of sports consumers are going to be multiscreen individuals. That, to me, is where it’s all going. What we have to do at Genius is make those experiences enhanced.”

● “What do [fans] want? How do they want to manipulate this data to make it a more engaging, fulfilling, fun experience?”

Every sports federation, whether national or international, must consider this. And if you think it’s impossible, consider his view of the long-criticized-as-irrelevant WNBA:

“[W]hat they’ve proven about the WNBA is that people care about it. That was very important – just because people play the game, it doesn’t mean [viewers] care about it. But they’ve developed the personalities, always had the talent, and now telling stories that people are engaged with. That’s what touches people, and it makes sports popular.”

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