AP

Hein Verbruggen, cycling chief during Lance Armstrong era, dies

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Hein Verbruggen, the former president of the International Cycling Union who oversaw the worldwide spread of a sport often tainted by doping, has died. He was 75.

The UCI and the International Olympic Committee both reacted to the news on Wednesday, underscoring the Dutchman’s clout within both organizations.

The IOC flew its flag at half staff and Dutch King Willem-Alexander, a former IOC member, called him “a man with a big heart for the Olympic movement, for cycling and those close to him.”

Dutch cycling association spokesman Kevin Leenheers confirmed the death, saying Verbruggen died on Tuesday night.

Critics said Verbruggen was too close to those involved in doping. He was often confronted for his relationship with Lance Armstrong, the American rider who was the face of cycling with his seven Tour de France victories before he came to embody the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs.

Time and again Verbruggen faced accusers saying he was colluding with dopers instead of countering them. Just as often, he fought back to save his tarnished reputation. He proclaimed his innocence until his death.

Verbruggen was a consummate businessman all his life, yet he was never able to shake the doping scandals during his reign.

The reason for his opposition to doping was simple, he said.

“I want to get rid of doping because it prevents me from selling the sport,” Verbruggen said three decades ago, as he was making his way up the ladder in the cycling world.

As a sales manager at Mars food, he got into cycling and found a sport which was totally antiquated when others like tennis were developing with the times and becoming successful professional enterprises.

When cycling still centered mainly on France, Belgium and Italy for major races, Verbruggen was already dreaming about the world at large, driven by such ideas as World Cup rankings to get a more global appeal.

“Protect in Europe what we have, and then afterwards comes America,” he said.

And no one was bigger in America than Armstrong. With his fightback from cancer to become the dominant rider of his age, the storybook saga was cut out for Verbruggen to push the internationalization of the sport.

The two thrived together until the rumors of doping became overpowering. The strongest claims were that the UCI helped cover up an Armstrong positive test at the 1999 Tour de France, the Texan’s first victory, and at another race two years later. Verbruggen denied it.

Verbruggen served as UCI president for 14 years and stepped down after Armstrong’s seventh straight Tour win. Afterward, those years came to be defined as the doping era.

Two years ago, a year-long investigation found no proof that a payment Armstrong made to the UCI was to cover up a positive test even though it said the Verbruggen era was marked by “inadequate” policies on doping.

Beyond cycling, Verbruggen was also a major presence in the Olympic movement and was instrumental in the preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“For this, he will be always remembered,” IOC President Thomas Bach said.

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World championships rematches in Birmingham; Diamond League preview

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Several newly crowned world champions headline a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain, on Sunday, live on NBC Sports Gold and The Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

Coverage begins on NBC Sports Gold at 8:20 a.m. ET and on the Olympic Channel at 10 a.m.

Many stars made the 125-mile trek northwest from London, where worlds concluded last Sunday, to Birmingham for the last Diamond League meet before the finals in Zurich (Aug. 24) and Brussels (Sept. 1).

They include Allyson FelixMo FarahElaine Thompson and Shaunae Miller-Uibo, plus surprise world champs Emma CoburnPhyllis Francis and Ramil Guliyev.

Here are the Birmingham entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

8:22 a.m. — Women’s Pole Vault
8:31 a.m. — Men’s Long Jump
8:41 a.m. — Women’s 800m
9:30 a.m. — Men’s Mile
9:39 a.m. — Men’s High Jump
9:47 a.m. — Women’s Discus
10:03 a.m. — Women’s 400m Hurdles
10:14 a.m. — Men’s 800m
10:23 a.m. — Men’s 100m
10:28 a.m. — Women’s Triple Jump
10:32 a.m. — Men’s 400m
10:40 a.m. — Women’s 3000m
10:53 a.m. — Men’s Shot Put
10:57 a.m. — Men’s 110m Hurdles
11:08 a.m. — Women’s 100m
11:17 a.m. — Men’s 200m
11:26 a.m. — Women’s 1500m
11:36 a.m. — Women’s 400m
11:45 a.m. — Men’s 3000m

Here are five events to watch:

Women’s 3000m — 10:40 a.m.
Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs, the surprise one-two finishers in the world championships 3000m steeplechase, race without the barriers and water jumps here. The two fastest American steeplers of all time face the two fastest Americans in the 5000m all time — Shannon Rowbury and Molly Huddle.

But the favorite has to be Kenyan Hellen Obiri, who is the fastest woman since 1993 in this non-Olympic event. Obiri dusted 10,000m world-record holder Almaz Ayana with her kick to win the world 5000m crown on Sunday.

Men’s Shot Put — 10:53 a.m.
Ten of the top 11 finishers from worlds are here, including the medalists — Tomas Walsh (NZL), Joe Kovacs (USA) and Stipe Žunić (CRO).

Nobody has been more impressive this season than Olympic champion Ryan Crouser, who will look to make up for his shocking sixth-place finish from London. Crouser owns five of the world’s top six throws in 2017, including a 22.65-meter heave at the USATF Outdoor Championships. That’s two feet farther than Walsh’s world title-winning throw.

Women’s 100m — 11:08 a.m.
An interesting field will race in two heats to qualify for this final. It does not include Tori Bowie, who in London became the first American woman to take a global 100m crown since 2005.

But it does include Olympic 100m champion Elaine Thompson, who earned zero medals at worlds while reportedly slowed by a stomach illness and an Achilles problem. World 100m silver and bronze medalists Marie-Josée Ta Lou and Dafne Schippers are also in the field.

Two Olympic champions making their Diamond League 100m debuts are Sally Pearson, the 2012 Olympic 100m hurdles gold medalist, and Rio 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo.

Men’s 200m — 11:17 a.m.
Who would have thought six months ago that a Diamond League 200m without Usain BoltAndre De GrasseWayde van Niekerk or Justin Gatlin would be one of the headline events?

After the surprise at worlds, this one is intriguing. Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev is entered after winning an out-of-nowhere gold medal in London. He’ll face a man with reason to carry a chip on his shoulder — Botswana’s Isaac Makwala. Makwala has the fastest 200m time in the world this year but finished sixth at worlds, likely in part due to his medical controversy and having to run an extra 200m heat alone the night before the final.

Women’s 400m — 11:36 a.m.
The three world medalists return here, hopefully to race in better weather conditions. American Phyllis Francis surpassed Allyson Felix and a stumbling Miller-Uibo to claim gold on a wet, chilly night in London last week in the slowest world championships-winning time ever. Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser clipped Felix for silver, with Miller-Uibo falling to fourth.

Felix still owns the fastest time in the world this year and, with Miller-Uibo choosing to race the 100m in Birmingham, is a quarter of a second faster than anyone in this field in 2017.

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U.S., Great Britain to hold track and field dual meet

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The U.S. and Great Britain go head-to-head in a track and field meet on July 21 at the London Olympic Stadium.

“The Meet” will include nine running, jumping, hurdles and relay events and last two hours. Specific events and athletes will be announced early next year.

The U.S. topped the overall medal standings at every Olympics and world outdoor championships since 2004.

Great Britain is one of three countries to earn at least five medals at every Olympics and worlds since 2007, joining the U.S. and Kenya.

British athletes made six podiums at the just-completed worlds at the London Olympic Stadium, including in all four relays. The other two medals came from Mo Farah, who is moving to road racing and marathons after this season.

“The Meet” is similar to swimming’s “Duel in the Pool,” a biennial head-to-head competition between the U.S. and rival Australia from 2003 through 2007 and between the U.S. and Europe between 2009 and 2015.

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