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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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MORE: North Korea qualifies for PyeongChang Winter Olympics

USA Gymnastics closes Karolyi Ranch

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USA Gymnastics said it will no longer use the Karolyi Ranch in Texas as its training center, where athletes said Larry Nassar sexually abused gymnasts.

“USA Gymnastics has terminated its agreement with the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas,” USA Gymnastics CEO and president Kerry Perry said in a press release Thursday. “It will no longer serve as the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center.

“It has been my intent to terminate this agreement since I began as president and CEO in December. Our most important priority is our athletes, and their training environment must reflect this. We are committed to a culture that empowers and supports our athletes.

“We have cancelled next week’s training camp for the U.S. Women’s National Team. We are exploring alternative sites to host training activities and camps until a permanent location is determined. We thank all those in the gymnastics community assisting in these efforts.”

MORE: Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

World champions Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols said that Nassar sexually abused gymnasts at the ranch.

“When I was 15 I started to have back problems while at a National Team Camp at the Karolyi Ranch,” Nichols wrote in a victim impact statement read at one of Nassar’s sentencing hearings on Wednesday and published last week. “This is when the changes in his medical treatments occurred.

“I trusted what he was doing at first, but then he started touching me in places I really didn’t think he should. He didn’t have gloves on and he didn’t tell me what he was doing. There was no one else in the room and I accepted what he was doing because I was told by adults that he was the best doctor and he could help relieve my pain.

“He did this ‘treatment’ on me, on numerous occasions.”

Raisman, a three-time Olympic champion, urged USA Gymnastics to close the ranch in a Tuesday interview on ESPN.

“I hope USA Gymnastics listens because they haven’t listened to us so far,” she said. “I hope they listen, and I hope they don’t make any of the girls go back to the ranch. No one should have to go back there after, you know, so many of us were abused there.”

Simone Biles did not specifically name the Karolyi Ranch in her Monday statement, but Raisman said Tuesday that Biles was referring to that site.

“It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences and it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing at Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused,” was posted on Biles’ social media.

Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympian, said Nassar was alone with her in her bed at the ranch.

“There was no one else sent with him,” she said on CBS last year. “The treatment was in the bed, in my bed that I slept on at the ranch.”

USA Gymnastics said in July 2016 that it reached an agreement with former national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi to purchase the training facility the couple owned.

The national governing body backed out of the purchase in May “for a variety of reasons” but continued under its current lease agreement while exploring alternative locations for camps. It held national team camps there in September and November.

The Karolyis established the ranch in 1983 after defecting from Romania. It had been a national team training center since 2001.

Larry Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A statement from McKayla Maroney read Thursday repeated that sexual assault by Larry Nassar “left scars” in her mind that may never fade as a judge heard a third day of testimony from victims.

Nassar could be sentenced Friday in Lansing. Since Tuesday, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has been listening to dozens of young women who were molested after seeking his help for injuries.

Aquilina started the hearing Thursday by saying Nassar had written a letter fearing that his mental health wasn’t strong enough to sit and listen to a parade of victims. He called the hearing “a media circus.”

The judge dismissed it as “mumbo jumbo.”

“Spending four or five days listening to them is minor, considering the hours of pleasure you’ve had at their expense, ruining their lives,” Aquilina said.

Nassar, 54, faces a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years in prison for molesting girls as a doctor for Michigan State University and at his home.

He also was a team doctor at USA Gymnastics for nearly two decades. He’s already been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for child pornography crimes.

“Dr. Nassar was not a doctor,” Maroney said in a statement read by a prosecutor (Maroney’s statement was previously posted in the fall). “He left scars on my psyche that may never go away.”

USA Gymnastics in 2016 reached a financial settlement with Maroney that barred her from making disparaging remarks. But the organization this week said it would not seek any money for her “brave statements.”

A 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher, looked at Nassar and said, “How dare you ask any of us for forgiveness.”

“Your days of manipulation are over,” she said. “We have a voice. We have the power now.”

Nassar wasn’t the only target. Victims also criticized Michigan State and USA Gymnastics.

Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon attended part of the session Wednesday. The school is being sued by dozens of women, who say campus officials wrote off complaints about the popular doctor.

“Guess what? You’re a coward, too,” current student and former gymnast Lindsey Lemke said Thursday, referring to Simon.

The judge has been praising each speaker and criticizing Nassar.

It’s “about their control over other human beings and feeling like God and they can do anything,” Aquilina said of sex offenders.

On Jan. 31, Nassar will get another sentence for sexual assaults at a Lansing-area gymnastics club in a different county.