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Rio Paralympic attendance surpasses some Olympic crowd sizes

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Three weeks ago, organizers and event fans were worried that the 2016 Paralympics would not be well-attended. But when Sao Paulo resident Marco Fumis arrived at a lively Olympic Park on Saturday, he was blown away with what he saw.

“I’m positively surprised by this,” said Fumis. “We are really emotional people, and I think we realized how important it is for not only the Olympics but the Paralympics. A lot of us are here to better understand how these athletes do what they do, so we’re here to support.”

The fan support is significant. The 170,000 tickets sold for events at Olympic Park on Saturday, surpassed the one-day total for some days at recent Olympics.

“It was a really, really cool environment because usually we have like five people in the stands and now we have an entire gym,” U.S women’s sitting volleyball player Heather Erickson said after her team swept Iran 3-0.

On Sunday, 46,000 tickets were sold at Olympic Stadium, the track and field venue separate from Olympic Park, according to the International Paralympic Committee.

“Everybody wanted to talk about `What about London?”‘ IPC spokesman Craig Spence said, referring to the 2012 London Paralympics, for which a record 2.7 million tickets were sold. “But (Saturday) surpassed it for me.”

A last-minute campaign that originated in Great Britain, called #FillTheSeats and supported by donors such as Coldplay, Prince Harry and U.S. Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, boosted sales for tickets given to Brazilian children.

Brazilians can buy tickets for as low as 10 reais (about $3) and pay for them on a four-month plan (2.5 reais per month), Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada said.

“We have a lot of things that are hard for us, the sports brings us feelings of hope,” said Sofia Borges, a Rio 2016 volunteer and Sao Paulo native. “It brings hope to families and kids, and it’s also nice to see other sports than soccer.”

Total ticket sales now sit at 1,863,000, the second-highest Paralympic Games total ever, behind London. Spence admitted that the expectations were low but he said he’s overjoyed at how well the games have come together.

“We’ve got full venues, the athletes are loving it and the performance levels are what we expected,” Spence said. “We said coming in this would be the best Paralympic Games in terms of athletic performance and they’re clearly proving so.”

Indeed, coming into Sunday, 89 world records had been broken.

While Brazilians cheer hardest for Brazilian athletes, others have noticed the emotion that the fans have brought to the games.

“I think that we gain energy off of the crowd,” U.S. women’s sitting volleyball coach Bill Hamiter said. “It doesn’t matter how many people, we were just gaining energy off of them.”

Andrada described a scene that he felt embodied the spirit of the fans. When the Algerian women’s sitting volleyball team was a no-show in its first match against the U.S. on Friday, officials invited children onto the court to play. The crowd stayed to cheer on the children.

“They could have gone, there weren’t any high-ranking athletes playing; only children,” said Andrada. “But 8,000 people decided to stay and cheer on the kids as they learned the sport.”

The IPC will continue to try raise the profile of para sports between Paralympics. Brazil will host the 2017 Parapan American Youth Games, at a new facility in Sao Paulo. Construction for the Rio 2016 museum will be underway soon, and the IPC is producing a Paralympic Rio 2016 film.

As for current media, 154 countries are broadcasting the games worldwide, a 39-country upgrade from 2012, according to the IPC.

While these are record numbers, Sao Paulo resident Cristina Fumis, who attended events at Olympic Park over the weekend, said she believes that the media exposure can be better.

“The announcement for the opening ceremony was not on the front page, only a small section in the back,” said Fumis of how a Sao Paulo newspaper covered the Paralympics opening ceremony. “I think the media is powerful in the way that it can change the mindset of the population.”

While Spence is excited about ticket sales greatly exceeding expectations, he knows that preparation is key for maximizing potential.

“We’ve sold about 1.5 million tickets in the last three weeks, and that’s because we did a real big push on tickets,” said Spence. “Had we done this push a lot earlier, I know we could have sold out these games.”

MORE: Rio Paralympics broadcast schedule

Ghana Olympic skeleton slider’s helmet: rabbit escapes lion

Ron Leblanc
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It’s called The Rabbit Theory.

That’s what Akwasi Frimpong, Ghana’s first Olympic skeleton slider, calls his new helmet.

The one that he will wear in PyeongChang as the second athlete from his nation to compete at a Winter Games.

Frimpong, 31, tells an incredible story.

He said he was raised by his grandmother Minka in a one-room home with nine other children before joining his mom in the Netherlands at age 8 as an illegal immigrant and eventually moving to Utah.

Frimpong’s full story is here.

Frimpong’s life — before he converted from sprinting to bobsled to skeleton — was chronicled in a 2010 Dutch documentary tilted “Theorie van het Konjin” (translation: The Rabbit Theory).

“My former sprint coach Sammy Monsels talks about the analogy of a rabbit in a cage, ready to escape from a lion,” Frimpong said in an email Monday. “I am that rabbit, and I have escaped the lions [of my past]. I am no longer being eaten by all the things around my life.”

The helmet that he will wear sliding head-first down an icy chute in South Korea in three weeks draws attention to it.

The design is of a lion’s head with mouth agape and a pair of rabbits coming out. Plus the colors of the Ghanaian flag.

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MORE: Jamaica qualifies first Olympic women’s bobsled team

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USA Gymnastics leaders resign as more victims speak

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — USA Gymnastics announced the resignations of three key leaders Monday while more women and girls told a judge about being sexually assaulted at the hands of a sports doctor who spent years with Olympic gymnasts and other female athletes.

The resignations of chairman Paul Parilla, vice chairman Jay Binder and treasurer Bitsy Kelley were announced in Indianapolis while a judge in Lansing heard a fifth day of statements from women and girls who said they were molested by Larry Nassar.

“We support their decisions to resign at this time,” said Kerry Perry, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, which is the national governing body for gymnastics. “We believe this step will allow us to more effectively move forward in implementing change within our organization.”

The board positions are volunteer and unpaid, but the resignations add to the months of turmoil. Steve Penny quit as president last March after critics said USA Gymnastics failed to protect gymnasts from abusive coaches and Nassar.

“New board leadership is necessary because the current leaders have been focused on establishing that they did nothing wrong,” USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said in a statement Monday. “USA Gymnastics needs to focus on supporting the brave survivors.”

USA Gymnastics last week said it was ending its long relationship with the Karolyi Ranch, the Huntsville, Texas, home of former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi and her husband, Bela. Some Olympians said they were assaulted there by Nassar.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, Nassar’s sentencing hearing continued Monday, raising the number of girls and women who have spoken to nearly 100 since last week.

“I want to you know that your face and the face of all of the sister survivor warriors — the whole army of you — I’ve heard your words,” Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said after a woman spoke in her Michigan courtroom. “Your sister survivors and you are going through incomprehensible lengths, emotions and soul-searching to put your words together, to publicly stop (the) defendant, to publicly stop predators, to make people listen.”

Nassar, 54, has admitted molesting athletes during medical treatment when he was employed by Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics. He has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison for child pornography crimes.

Under a plea deal, he faces a minimum prison sentence of 25 to 40 years in the molestation case. The maximum term could be much higher.

“Larry, how many of us are there? Do you even know?” asked Clasina Syrboby, as she fought back tears while speaking for more than 20 minutes Monday. “You preyed on me, on us. You saw a way to take advantage of your position — the almighty and trusted gymnastics doctor. Shame on you Larry. Shame on you.

She and other victims also continued their criticism of Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee for not doing enough to stop Nassar when initial complaints were made.

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MORE: Watch, read Aly Raisman’s full testimony