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Russian hockey team knows ‘whole country is behind us’

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SOCHI, Russia — The entire Russian men’s hockey team held a press conference Tuesday at the Main Media Center. You’ll forgive the blurriness of the image, but I wanted you to see the set-up, because it was meant to be symbolic. This is a team, the Russians wanted to demonstrate. It wasn’t just a handful of superstars, and some other guys.

In the middle was legendary goalie Vladislav Tretiak, now the president of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia. Vice captain Alex Ovechkin sat to the right of coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who sat to the right of Tretiak. Captain Pavel Datsyuk, along with vice captains Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, were also front and center. The rest were up there for a show of solidarity. It was extremely unlikely they were ever going to talk.

“I think all of us here together decided to appear at this press conference as a team because we want to show we are one team,” said Tretiak via interpreter. “It is a team sport and it is up to the entire team to get the gold, and that is why we are here together to talk to you.”

As expected, the big names got the questions. Occasionally, the Russian press corps and volunteers broke into applause, which is something you don’t see in North America.

“We do believe that as now we are playing on the home turf we will have even more brothers,” Datsyuk said via interpreter. “The whole country is behind us.”

It’s worth mentioning at this point that if you had to pick the two most famous losses in Russian hockey history, you’d probably pick the 1972 Summit Series versus Canada and the 1980 Winter Olympics, where they were shocked by the United States.

Related: Are expectations too high for Russia?

That ’80 Miracle on Ice team has been celebrated as one of the greatest teams — in the truest sense of the word — ever. And Tretiak said today that the underdog Americans taught the Soviets an important lesson about respecting one’s opponent.

As for ’72 , here’s what Canadian hero Paul Henderson once said about the heavily favored Canadian squad that had to pull together and battle back versus the Soviets: “I would say that at the start of that [series], we really weren’t a team, we were a bunch of individuals. But as the series went on, we became a team. And even today, guys that never played a game feel every bit as much a part of the team as guys who played all eight games.”

That kind of bond is what the Russians are hoping to build here in Sochi. The other teams are hoping for that too, of course, but given the number of times the “Not a team player” label has been attached to the likes of Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Radulov, and so many other star Russian players in the modern era, it will be especially interesting to see how this group comes together.

“When we lost to the Canadians [in 2010], it was a big blow to us, a big failure, a big blow to everyone in Russia,” Ovechkin said via interpreter.

On Thursday versus Slovenia, the quest for redemption moves from the dais to the ice.

World champion wrestler from Russia cedes Olympic spot after brawl

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MOSCOW (AP) — A two-time wrestling World champion said Tuesday he is giving up his place at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after a brawl marred a Russian qualifying tournament.

Viktor Lebedev was competing against Ismail Musukayev in a semifinal bout at the Russian nationals on Friday when Musukayev was angered by refereeing calls against him and shoved Lebedev.

Musukayev’s supporters and coaches charged into the ring, prompting a scuffle that was broken up by riot police (video here). Wrestlers from Musukayev’s home region of Dagestan then boycotted the tournament in protest at the standard of refereeing, causing a nationwide scandal.

Lebedev told local news outlet News.Ykt on Tuesday that he is withdrawing from the Olympic team as “a matter of honor” because he feels officials gave him favorable calls in front of his home crowd in the Siberian city of Yakutsk.

“Let’s say I win Olympic gold. I don’t doubt that I could win it,” he said. “Even if I were to climb onto that podium with the gold, I wouldn’t have those emotions. I wouldn’t be especially happy that my dream had come true.”

Lebedev said Musukayev had been wronged but insisted his opponent had been wrong to start the brawl. “You can’t behave that way regardless of how the judging goes for you,” he said.

Lebedev can be replaced on the team by another Russian in the 57kg class, though he was the favorite to go to the Rio Olympics after winning World Championships bronze and European Games gold last year.

Wrestling is traditionally a source of great pride for many of Russia’s ethnic minority groups, including in Lebedev’s Arctic home region of Yakutia and in Dagestan, a province in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus otherwise known for its Islamist insurgency.

Competition for a place on the Russian national team, one of the world’s best, is fierce and in recent years various domestic competitions have been marred by brawls between fans from different regions and ethnic groups.

Earlier this month, a wrestler from Chechnya hit his opponent after the end of the bout and some of his team, including a man with a pistol, rushed into the ring in support.

MORE: Eight Russians positive in 2012 Olympic retests

Zika, Rio’s readiness, new sports on IOC’s meeting agenda

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — With the Opening Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro just over two months away, Olympic leaders have plenty of troubling issues to deal with this week.

The Zika virus, unfinished venues and political chaos in Brazil. A flood of positive drug tests from the past two Summer Games. Fresh accusations of state-sponsored doping in Russia. Vote-buying allegations involving Tokyo’s winning 2020 bid.

All these challenges and more will be on the table when the International Olympic Committee executive board holds a three-day meeting starting Wednesday in Lausanne. It’s the last meeting before the IOC gathers in Rio on the eve of South America’s first Olympics.

The policy-making board will also name the team of Olympic refugee athletes for Rio, consider the proposed five additional sports for the Tokyo Games, review the bidding for the 2024 Olympics and nominate several new IOC members.

“I can’t recall an executive board meeting with so many issues on the agenda,” IOC vice president Craig Reedie told The Associated Press. “There is a whole range of difficult issues facing the Olympic movement, led by Rio.”

A look at what’s keeping the IOC busy:

RIO: READY OR NOT?

Rio organizing committee president Carlos Nuzman will give his latest update Thursday on preparations for the Games, which open Aug. 5. The buildup has been dogged by political, economic and public health crises.

Last week, a group of 150 scientists suggested the Olympics should be postponed or moved because of the outbreak of Zika, which has been linked to severe birth defects. But the World Health Organization said there was “no public health justification” for scrapping the Games, and Olympic officials have repeatedly said they will go ahead.

Some leading athletes have expressed concerns about going to Rio. Spanish NBA star Pau Gasol said Monday he may skip the Games because of the Zika threat and that other Spanish athletes were also considering staying away.

Meanwhile, Dilma Rousseff has been suspended as Brazil’s president pending a Senate impeachment trial, with Michel Temer taking over as acting president. A final vote on removing Rousseff could come on Aug. 2 — three days before the opening of the Games.

Brazil is dealing with its worst economic recession since the 1930s, leading to the slashing of Olympic budgets.

Some sports venues are behind schedule. UCI President Brian Cookson said he remains “very, very concerned” about delays to the velodrome, and the city said Monday it is changing contractors to take over the construction. ITF President David Haggerty said “an awful lot of work” is needed to get the tennis venue ready for the Games.

Water pollution remains a concern for Olympic sailing, rowing and open-water swimming events. Crime is a worry: Three Spanish sailors were recently robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight while training in Rio.

DOPING, DOPING, DOPING

Reedie, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, will deliver a report that will include an update on the agency’s independent probe into allegations by Moscow’s former drug-testing lab director, Grigory Rodchenkov, that he operated a state-backed doping scheme for Russian athletes that involved switching tainted urine samples for clean ones during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

Russia’s track and field athletes remain suspended from global competition, with the IAAF to decide on June 17 whether to keep or lift the ban for the Rio Games.

The IOC has recorded 55 positive results in retests of Olympic doping samples — 32 from the 2008 Beijing Games and 23 from the 2012 London Games. The tests were designed to catch cheats who might compete in Rio. More positives are expected.

The Russian Olympic Committee said 14 of its athletes from Beijing and eight from London tested positive. The IOC is retesting the “B” samples before announcing sanctions and medal reallocations.

NEW SPORTS

The IOC board will examine the proposed addition of baseball-softball, surfing, skateboarding, karate and sports climbing for the Tokyo Games. The sports, which would add 18 events and 474 athletes, were recommended for inclusion last year by Tokyo organizers.

While some officials have expressed concern over whether skateboarding has a unified governing body, the board is likely to recommend the five sports for inclusion as a package, which will go to a vote of the full IOC at its session in Rio before the Games.

TROUBLE IN TOKYO

After controversies over the main stadium, venue changes and the Olympic emblem, Japanese organizers are now embroiled in a corruption probe.

Leaders of the Tokyo bid acknowledged making payments, before and after the 2013 vote, totaling about $2 million to a Singapore company linked to Papa Massata Diack, son of former IAAF President Lamine Diack. The younger Diack is the subject of an Interpol wanted notice. Lamine Diack, a former IOC member, has been accused by French prosecutors of taking more than $1 million in bribes to cover up Russian doping cases.

Japanese Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda, who headed Tokyo’s bid, said the payments were for legitimate consultancy work. The committee has opened an investigation; the IOC says it remains a civil party to the French probe.

REFUGEE TEAM

On Friday, Bach will announce some feel-good news — the names of the refugee athletes who will compete as a team under the Olympic flag in Rio. A total of 43 refugees were originally considered for the team, including a teenage female swimmer from Syria, long-distance runners from central and western Africa, and judo and taekwondo competitors from Congo, Iran and Iraq.

While Bach initially said he expected the final list to comprise between five and 10 athletes, officials say the number could reach 12 to 15.

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