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Ancient Olympia set for Olympic flame lighting ceremony, torch relay start (photos)

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ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (AP) — Fire spurted from a concave mirror Wednesday as a priestess, kneeling in her long, pleated dress before a ruined Greek temple, focused the blazing sun’s rays on her metal torch.

Come rain or shine on Thursday’s official lighting ceremony, Rio de Janeiro has now secured its Olympic flame, which will burn in the Brazilian host city throughout the Aug. 5-21 Games.

About 2,500 people attended Wednesday’s dress rehearsal for the meticulously-choreographed ceremony in Ancient Olympia, southern Greece, where the Olympics of antiquity were held for more than 1,000 years.

The flame lit before the Temple of Hera will be kept as a backup, in case cloudy skies derail Thursday’s ceremony, which will be attended by top International Olympic Committee officials and Rio organizers.

The buildup to the Olympics has been clouded by a series of non-games linked setbacks in Brazil, which is facing a major political corruption crisis, a sharp economic recession and the Zika virus outbreak.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is facing an impeachment process, canceled a scheduled appearance at Thursday’s ceremony.

But IOC officials and Rio organizers maintain that preparations remain on track and the games will be a success.

The modern revival of the ancient games, which were the most important of their kind in antiquity and lasted from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D., started in Athens in 1896. But the flame-lighting ceremony, a key part of the pageantry, dates to one of the more awkward moments of the modern games, the 1936 Berlin Olympics conducted by Nazi Germany.

Wednesday’s ceremony started with three beats of a drum held by an actress playing the part of an ancient priestess. Greek actress Katerina Lehou, in the role of a high priestess, lit the torch after offering a mock prayer to Apollo, the old Greek god of light and music, and the ceremony continued in the ancient stadium — which was used at the 2004 Athens Games as the shot put venue.

On Thursday, Lehou will deliver the flame to Greek world gymnastics champion Eleftherios Petrounias, the first runner in a torch relay that will culminate at the opening ceremony in Rio’s Maracana Stadium on Aug. 5.

Over the next six days, hundreds of runners — including a Syrian refugee who has claimed asylum in Greece — will carry the torch for 1,388 miles (2,234 kms) through Greece. Stops will include a refugee camp in Athens and the ancient Acropolis, and it will be handed over to Brazilian officials in the venue for the 1896 Games, a rebuilt ancient marble stadium.

The flame will be handed over to Rio officials on April 27. Carried in a lantern, the flame will then travel to Switzerland for ceremonies at the United Nations office in Geneva and Olympic Museum in Lausanne on April 29.

The flame will then be flow to the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, where the relay across the country kicks off on May 3. The Brazilian relay will include 12,000 torchbearers and visit 329 cities and towns, reaching 90 percent of Brazil’s 200 million people.

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Images via AP and Getty:

Spectators watch the dress rehearsal for the lighting of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics flame, in Ancient Olympia, southern Greece, on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. The meticulously choreographed ceremony will be repeated Thursday in the ruined birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece, in the presence of top International Olympic Committee and Rio organizing officials. That will touch off a relay that will conclude with the Rio Games opening ceremony in August. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

A priestess releases a white dove during the dress rehearsal for the lighting of the Rio Rio de Janeiro Olympics flame, in Ancient Olympia, southern Greece, on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. The meticulously choreographed ceremony will be repeated on Thursday in the ruined birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece, in the presence of top International Olympic Committee and Rio organizing officials. That will touch off a relay that will conclude with the Rio Games opening ceremony in August. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

OLYMPIA, GREECE - APRIL 20: High pristesses perform at the Ancient Stadium during the Rehearsal for the Lighting Ceremony of the Olympic Flame at Ancient Olympia on April 20, 2016 in Olympia, Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

OLYMPIA, GREECE - APRIL 20: High pristesses perform at the Ancient Stadium during the Rehearsal for the Lighting Ceremony of the Olympic Flame at Ancient Olympia on April 20, 2016 in Olympia, Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

OLYMPIA, GREECE - APRIL 20: Actress Katerina Lechou (C) acting the high pristess holds the Archaic Pot at the Ancient Stadium during the Rehearsal for the Lighting Ceremony of the Olympic Flame at Ancient Olympia on April 20, 2016 in Olympia, Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

OLYMPIA, GREECE - APRIL 20: Actress Katerina Lechou acting the high pristess holds the Archaic Pot at the Ancient Stadium during the Rehearsal for the Lighting Ceremony of the Olympic Flame at Ancient Olympia on April 20, 2016 in Olympia, Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, GREECE - 20 APRIL:Katerina Lehou, who plays the role of high priestess lights the olympic torch at the Ancient Olympia site during a rehearsal for the Lighting Ceremony of the Olympic Flame for the Rio 2o16 Olympic Games Olympic Games on April 2o in Olympia, Greece. The torch was lit using the rays of the sun in the ancient sanctuary where the Olympic Games were started in 776 BC, near the temple of Hera. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images) *** Local Caption***

OLYMPIA, GREECE - APRIL 20: Actress Katerina Lechou (R) acting the high pristess passes the flame from the Olympic Torch at the Ancient Stadium during the Rehearsal for the Lighting Ceremony of the Olympic Flame at Ancient Olympia on April 20, 2016 in Olympia, Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

OLYMPIA, GREECE - APRIL 20: The Olympic flame is lit at the Ancient Stadium during the Rehearsal for the Lighting Ceremony of the Olympic Flame at Ancient Olympia on April 20, 2016 in Olympia, Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

A lit torch of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic games during a dress rehearsal for the lighting of the Rio Olympics flame, in Ancient Olympia, southern Greece, on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. The meticulously choreographed ceremony will be repeated Thursday in the ruined birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece, in the presence of top International Olympic Committee and Rio organizing officials. That will touch off a relay that will conclude with the Rio Games opening ceremony in August. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

Gabriel Jesus
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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”