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Video games in the Olympics? Here’s how it might work

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ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) The future of the Olympics may just be in a basement in Turkmenistan.

With leading Olympic figures considering a possible role for competitive computer games – known as esports – at the 2024 Games in Paris, a pan-Asian competition in the ex-Soviet state offers a possible vision of the future.

Including esports could give the Olympics a younger audience and a huge revenue boost from a rapidly growing market, but would be deeply controversial.

The Olympic Council of Asia included esports as an official demonstration event at its Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games this week, with teams from China and nine other nations battling in four games ranging from space combat in “StarCraft II” to card-game strategy in “Hearthstone.”

Supporters of esports in the Olympics say their event is a real sporting contest, one which prizes strategy and lightning reactions over physical agility.

“It needs different skillsets from different people,” competitor Jess Joaustine Tamboboy from the Philippines told The Associated Press. “It doesn’t really have a physical requirement because you can see around us the players are short and tall, maybe a little bit thin, maybe a little bit fat. But all they have in order to qualify to play for these types of titles are just their cognitive or mind skills.”

Esports aren’t a natural fit for Turkmenistan, one of the poorer ex-Soviet nations, though one where internet access is growing rapidly.

The rules weren’t explained in the local language, but that didn’t turn off the crowd of up to 200 in the windowless basement of a sports arena from cheering and whooping at a particularly spectacular kill or skillful strategy.

Still, the attendance was tiny compared to big pro esports events, which can pack thousands into traditional sports arenas, and it didn’t make much of a splash online. Fewer than 50 viewers at a time watched some opening-round matches Monday on Twitch, a leading game streaming service that regularly attracts tens of thousands of concurrent viewers to its more popular streams.

If esports make it to the Paris Olympics, it would redefine what Olympic sport is meant to be.

The International Olympic Committee has previously resisted calls to add “mind sports” like chess that don’t involve physical exertion, or events where machines are key, like auto racing.

Deciding which games to pick is fraught, too. The IOC has a sponsorship deal with Chinese company Alibaba, which has major esports interests, but rival firms have their own popular brands.

The IOC also fears violent games would hurt the Olympics’ image.

IOC president Thomas Bach told the South China Morning Post, an Alibaba-owned newspaper, earlier this month that he’d prefer sports simulations.

“We want to promote non-discrimination, non-violence, and peace among people. This doesn’t match with video games, which are about violence, explosions and killing. And there we have to draw a clear line,” he said.

All four of the games on the program this week in Turkmenistan featured some form of combat, though in fantasy settings with cartoon-style animation techniques. There weren’t any realistic military-themed shooting games on the program.

Bach also said esports needs a firmer structure. The IOC is used to dealing with a single governing body for each sport, like FIFA for soccer or the International Gymnastics Federation. Esports has its own international federation, but with limited influence over a web of private interests including games publishers, competition organizers and players’ teams.

The event in Turkmenistan showed how that system doesn’t yet fit smoothly with the Olympic movement.

IOC sponsor Alibaba’s Alisports division was in charge of the event, and used an open online qualifying system. That prompted federations from Australia and South Korea to boycott, saying athletes should have been picked by their national Olympic committees in the manner of a traditional sport.

If esports make it to the Olympics, other potential problems for the IOC include criticism it’s moving away from promoting a healthy lifestyle, and that it’s ignoring poorer countries where fast computers and brand-new games are unaffordable.

Esports would also mean the IOC allowing private companies to set the rules of its competitions.

Most traditional sports treat the rules with reverence, only occasionally tinkering around the edges. Not so for games publishers, who routinely mix things up to attract new players and keep things fresh.

Adding just one new character can reshape the whole “meta” – the game’s constantly evolving web of tactics and counter-tactics.

Senior figures in the IOC and the esports world have publicly doubted esports will be ready for an Olympic debut in seven years’ time.

“We are still some way away from our vision and we need to start on the right foot,” Asian Esports Federation president Kenneth Fok said last week. “For esports to develop in a positive banner, we need the full support of each and every NOC, their government, and more importantly the general public to have a positive perception of electronic sports.”

Ellingworth reported from Moscow.

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Chloe Kim, Adam Rippon, Rachael Denhollander among Time 100

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PyeongChang medalists Chloe Kim and Adam Rippon were among four Olympians named to the 2018 Time 100, along with former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse.

The other Olympians were Kevin Durant and Roger Federer on the most influential people list. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt also made it.

Kim made the list as a pioneer. Award-winning chef David Chang, a second-generation Korean American and special correspondent for NBC at the PyeongChang Olympics, wrote an essay about watching the snowboarder take halfpipe gold.

“I felt two things simultaneously: incredibly happy for her — I made her a celebratory churro ice cream sandwich, which I think she called “bomb” — but also sad, because the whole world was about to descend on this now 17-year-old girl,” he wrote. “Asian-­American fans further piled on their hopes that she would shatter Asian stereotypes on her way to the podium. And to top it all off, she was competing in her parents’ birth country, one that is notoriously judgmental of its diaspora.

“And you know what? She crushed it. Blew us all out of the water. Now the best thing Chloe Kim can do is be Chloe Kim. That’s not being selfish—that’s letting people know they don’t have to be anything that anyone says they should be.”

Cher wrote the Time essay for Rippon, the first openly gay figure skater to compete for a U.S. Olympic team.

“Adam is a skater who happens to be gay, and that represents something wonderful to young people,” she wrote. “When I was young, I had no role models—everyone looked like Sandra Dee and Doris Day. There was nobody who made me think, Oh, I could be like them. They represent me. Adam shows people that if you put blood, sweat and tears into what you’re doing, you can achieve something that’s special. You can be special. And I think that’s very brave.”

Like Rippon, the gymnast Denhollander made the Time 100 in the icon category. Olympic champion gymnast Aly Raisman, also a Nassar survivor, penned an essay.

“Rachael was there for each court session of that sentencing, each impact statement and each fellow survivor,” Raisman wrote. “This show of courage and conviction inspired many people to feel less like victims and more like survivors. We still have a long way to go before we achieve all the change that is so desperately needed, and I am grateful to be fighting alongside Rachael, my sister survivor!”

Here are Olympians and Paralympians on past Time 100 lists, counting only athletes who had competed in the Games before being listed:

2017 — Simone Biles, LeBron James, Neymar
2016 — Usain BoltCaitlyn JennerKatie LedeckySania MirzaRonda Rousey
2015 — Abby Wambach
2014 — Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams
2013 — LeBron James, Li Na, Lindsey Vonn
2012 — Novak DjokovicLionel MessiOscar Pistorius
2011 — Lionel Messi
2010 — Yuna KimSerena Williams
2009 — Rafael Nadal
2008 — Andre Agassi, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius
2007 — Roger FedererChien Ming-Wang
2006 — Joey Cheek, Steve Nash
2005 — LeBron James
2004 — Lance Armstrong, Paula Radcliffe, Yao Ming
2000 (20th Century) — Muhammad Ali

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McKayla Maroney: I would have starved at Olympics without Larry Nassar

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McKayla Maroney said she thought she “would have starved at the Olympics” in 2012 if Larry Nassar didn’t bring her food.

“Your coaches are just always watching you and wanting to keep you skinny,” Maroney said in an interview with Savannah Guthrie that will air in full on an hourlong “Dateline” special Sunday at 7 p.m. ET. “There’s just other things about the culture that are also messed up that he used against us.”

Past U.S. national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi also gave interviews for the Dateline special “Silent No More.”

Maroney laughed when she said Nassar bought her a loaf of bread.

Her comments were shown on TODAY on Thursday, less than a day after her 2012 Olympic champion teammate Jordyn Wieber testified at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing to discuss the roles of national governing bodies — like USA Gymnastics — in protecting athletes following the Nassar case.

“We couldn’t smile or laugh in training,” Wieber said at the hearing. “We were even afraid to eat too much in front of our coaches, who were pressured to keep us thin.”

Maroney, Wieber and other U.S. national team gymnasts had personal coaches and convened multiple times per year at the Karolyi ranch in Texas for national team camps. Wieber’s personal coach, John Geddert, was the 2012 Olympic team coach.

Geddert was suspended by USA Gymnastics in January and is facing a criminal investigation after Nassar, who molested girls at Geddert’s gym in Michigan, was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison on Jan. 24. Geddert said he had “zero knowledge” of Nassar’s crimes.

“Our athletes, like McKayla, are the heart and soul of USA Gymnastics, and every effort has been made to support our athletes’ development and provide the opportunities for them to achieve their dreams.” USA Gymnastics said in a statement to NBC News.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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