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Weak Brazilian ties get some athletes into Rio Games

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SAO PAULO (AP) — Rugby player Isadora Cerullo never lived in Brazil. Fencer Ghislain Perrier speaks very little Portuguese. Golfer Miriam Nagl played abroad most of her life.

They’ll still be parading under the host nation’s flag at the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Games come Aug. 5.

Cerullo, Perrier and Nagl are among several athletes who will be fulfilling their Olympic dream because of Brazil’s shortage of athletes in sports it automatically qualified for as host. Without an Olympic tradition to fall back on, the country was left to rapidly recruit an international band of athletes for events such as field hockey, golf, rowing, wrestling and rugby.

Their ties, in many cases, are weak. Some have lived away for most of their lives but were born in Brazil. Some were born abroad but have Brazilian parents or grandparents. Some had almost no links to the country but were hired by local federations and became naturalized.

“I would have very slim chances of participating in the Olympics if I hadn’t made the switch to play for Brazil,” said Nagl, a Brazilian-born golfer who left the country when she was 8 years old and had always played for Germany. “When this idea came up and I realized that I had a chance to make it to Rio, I started dreaming about being at the Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremony.”

The 35-year-old Nagl, who plays in the Ladies European Tour and is No. 445 in the women’s world rankings, said she hadn’t given much thought about representing her native country until being contacted by golf officials after Rio was awarded the games.

“By making the switch, I gave myself a chance to be in the Olympics, but I also thought about how this could be good for Brazil, about how I could become a good ambassador and help the game develop,” she said.

Brazil had only two foreign athletes in its delegation at the 2012 London Games – American basketball player Larry Taylor and Chinese table-tennis player Gui Lin. Now about 20 “international” athletes will be taking advantage of the many extra spots available for the home nation in Rio.

Rugby is one of the sports in which Brazil lacks tradition but will compete anyway. Hoping to put on a good show in front of the home fans, the local federation launched a worldwide campaign – entitled “Brazilian Rugby Players Wanted” – to attract athletes playing abroad.

A few who responded to the campaign will be in Rio, including American-born Cerullo, who has Brazilian parents but had never visited the country until after contacting Brazilian rugby officials. Two Brazilian brothers who lived in France also made it to the team, as well a Brazilian-born athlete who lived and played in Argentina. England-born Juliano Fiori and France-born Laurent Bourda-Couhet, who has a Brazilian mother, will also play.

Brazil’s fencing team earned eight additional spots as hosts and included three international players for the games. Among them are Perrier, who was born in Brazil but left the country as a baby after being adopted by a French family, and Italian-born Nathalie Moellhausen, who competed for Italy at the 2012 London Games but chose to be with the hosts in Rio to fulfill the wish of her Brazilian grandmother.

“I don’t have many connections to Brazil,” admitted Perrier, who has lived and trained in France most of his life. “I spent vacation in Brazil a few times, but I know only a few people there.”

The fencing team will also have Marta Baeza, who was born in Brazil but had been competing for Spain, and reserve team member Katherine Miller, who was born in the United States.

Another foreigner, Hungary’s Emese Takacs, tried to make the team but she was dropped after her citizenship was contested in court by a Brazilian athlete who had been left out of the squad. Takacs was accused of faking her marriage in Brazil to become naturalized.

“She had the legal documents but we always suspected it was a fraud,” the Brazilian who had lost her spot, Amanda Simeao, told local media. “She was married to a Brazilian but had a boyfriend in Hungary.”

Takacs denied wrongdoing but lost her battles in court.

Another controversial case was water polo goalkeeper Slobodan Soro, a Serbian whose naturalization process was approved just before the games. He and center Josip Vrlic of Croatia were hired to play for Brazil despite not having direct connections to the country. They were among five foreign-born players picked to play for the Brazilian team by Croat coach Ratko Rudic, the gold medalist with Croatia at the London Games.

The others were Spain’s Adria Delgado, who has a Brazilian father; Italian-born Paulo Salemi, son of a Brazilian mother; and Cuban Ives Gonzalez, who is married to a Brazilian. The team also has Brazilian-born Felipe Perrone, who used to play for the Spanish national team before joining the hosts for the Rio Games.

“They have been playing for Brazilian clubs for some time, this is not something that just happened,” said Ricardo Cabral, who is in charge of Brazil’s water polo team. “We created an Olympic project to help the sport develop and make Brazil more competitive. Because of the Olympics in Rio, there is more investment available and we want to take advantage of that to give the sport more visibility.”

MORE: Rio Olympics schedule highlights, daily events to watch

USA Gymnastics settles sex abuse lawsuit

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — USA Gymnastics has reached a confidential settlement in a Georgia lawsuit that spurred a newspaper investigation into the organization’s practices for reporting child abuse.

A former gymnast filed the lawsuit against USA Gymnastics in 2013, alleging that the organization that trains Olympians received at least four warnings about coach William McCabe, who videotaped her in various states of undress.

The lawsuit revealed that USA Gymnastics wouldn’t forward child sex abuse allegations to authorities unless they were in writing and signed by a victim or a victim’s parent.

A judge in Effingham County, Georgia, dismissed the lawsuit on April 12, according to court records. USA Gymnastics admits no wrongdoing or liability in the settlement, said W. Brian Cornwell of Cornwell & Stevens LLP, the gymnast’s lawyer.

Both parties have declined to comment on the settlement.

“We want to make it clear that the settlement does not prevent the former gymnast from speaking publicly about her experiences,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement Thursday.

McCabe pleaded guilty in Georgia in 2006 to federal charges of sexual exploitation of children and making false statements. He’s serving a 30-year prison sentence.

The suit sparked The Indianapolis Star’s investigation of USA Gymnastics, which exposed abuse by Larry Nassar, a former Michigan State University sports doctor, and spurred the resignations of the organization’s president and board.

Nassar, 54, pleaded guilty to molesting patients and possessing child pornography. He was sentenced this year to prison terms that will keep him locked up for life after roughly 200 women gave statements against him in two courtrooms over 10 days.

USA Gymnastics faces additional lawsuits from women who say Nassar sexually abused them. The suits allege the organization was negligent, fraudulent and intentionally inflicted emotional distress by failing to warn or protect athletes from Nassar’s abuse. The organization has denied the allegations and wants the lawsuits dismissed.

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Max Aaron retires from figure skating

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Max Aaron, a national champion and Skate America winner, has retired from competitive figure skating.

Aaron, 26, ends his career as the only Skate America men’s winner not to compete in an Olympics. He is one of three U.S. men’s champions in the last 55 years not to compete in an Olympics, along with Ryan Bradley and Rudy Galindo.

“Of course, becoming an Olympian, or having an Olympic medal would have been great to say, ride off on my white horse, but having the ability to say that I have no regrets in my entire career of figure skating, for me that is my gold medal,” Aaron said Thursday night.

Aaron, a former top USA Hockey developmental player, also figure skated growing up to help with his skating skills as one of the smaller players on his team.

He stopped playing hockey at 16 due to a broken vertebra but continued full-time with figure skating. By 2012, Aaron considered quitting figure skating after placing eighth at nationals (one year after being U.S. junior champion) and being told he wasn’t artistic enough.

But Aaron kept with it and completed a remarkable bounce back the next year, winning the U.S. title and setting himself up as a favorite to make the 2014 Olympic team.

But Aaron ended up third at the 2014 U.S. Championships. The two Sochi Olympic spots went to Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown.

Aaron continued, becoming the first U.S. man to win Skate America in six years in 2015 and topping the short program at the 2016 U.S. Championships before ultimately finishing second to Adam Rippon.

Aaron plummeted to ninth at the 2017 U.S. Championships, coming back from offseason hernia surgery, but returned to the Olympic team radar last fall with a personal-best free skate at Cup of China, including three landed quadruple jumps. He went into the 2018 U.S. Championships ranking third among American men for the season.

But Aaron was again ninth at nationals, missing the Olympic team. He was called on to compete at last month’s world championships as the third alternate after Rippon, Ross Miner and Brown all passed.

Aaron had stopped skating and instead was training for a triathlon. He went to worlds in Milan on two weeks of training and finished 11th, a result that helped the U.S. keep three men’s spots for 2019 Worlds. Nathan Chen won the world title, but Vincent Zhou was 14th. The U.S. needed its second man to be 12th or better to go along with Chen’s first place to ensure three spots next year. Aaron reportedly said at worlds that it may have been his last competition.

Aaron said he’s started a job with Merrill Lynch.

“It’s really been a great ride. I have no regrets,” he said. “That’s one thing that I always told myself, in sport, in life, I want to have no regrets, and I can honestly say, with the help from my coaches and friends, that I have no regrets in the sport.”

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