Pelé on Rio Olympics, lighting the cauldron

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NEW YORK — Pelé often quips when the Olympics arise in conversation.

I never played in the Olympics, but maybe I can come back for the Rio Games.

The Brazilian soccer legend, now 75 years old, is expected to have a role in the Rio Olympics in August. Just not as an active competitor. What it will entail, Pelé says he doesn’t even know.

He is considered the favorite to be chosen to light the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony on Aug. 5, at the storied Maracanã stadium.

Pelé already carried the Olympic flame in 2004, ate Subway sandwiches with Michael Phelps in 2013 and marveled at watches with Usain Bolt in Manhattan this week.

And he helped Rio’s bid to host the Olympics, traveling to Copenhagen in 2009 for the host city vote, where the Brazilian effort beat groups including a Chicago delegation that boasted Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

Pelé was in New York this week for the Tribeca Film Festival debut of his biopic, “Pelé: Birth of a Legend,” which opens in theaters May 6.

He sat down with OlympicTalk in a Park Avenue hotel on Thursday. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

OlympicTalk: What did you know about the Olympics growing up?

Pelé: We had two or three athletes who did the Olympics competition very good. I saw the athletes, I saw the jumpers, but I don’t remember their names. But we had two or three good athletes for the Olympics. But I never played in the Olympics, and Brazil never won the Olympics in football.

Editor’s Note: Adhemar da Silva won Olympic triple jump titles in 1952 and 1956 and is one of two Brazilians to win multiple individual gold medals. Pelé signed professionally at age 15 in 1956, and back then professionals didn’t play Olympic soccer.

OlympicTalk: You were reportedly crying in Copenhagen after Rio won the Olympic vote in 2009. Why were you in tears?

Pelé: One of the reasons was because I had never participated in the Olympics. Second, because in sport I am very emotional. When you have some meeting or tournament, I have to be very strong and prepare myself because I am very emotional. I cry easy.

OlympicTalk: When was the last time you cried about something sports related?

Pelé: The last time was a very short time [ago]. It was when Brazil lost the World Cup [in 2014].

OlympicTalk: What would it mean if you could light the cauldron?

Pelé: I am very, very happy if it happens. … It’s a gift from God if I have the health to be there. I wish I’d bring luck for Brazil.

OlympicTalk: Have they asked you to light the cauldron?

Pelé: I don’t have any information yet.

OlympicTalk: How do the Olympics compare to winning the World Cup?

Pelé: Oh no, it’s different, because World Cup is just one kind of sport. Olympics you have a lot of involvement, a lot of sports. It’s different. I think the pressure for the football, the pressure is much more strong than the Olympics.

OlympicTalk: If Brazil wins an Olympic soccer title for the first time, would that make up for the World Cup?

Pelé: I think it would make up a lot, but first of all I think the most important thing, unfortunately, the political situation is not too good now [President Dilma Rousseff is on the brink of impeachment]. It’s a very short time before the Olympics. I think the most important is to make it as good administration, make it a good Olympics. This is the most important at the moment.

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Chock, Bates charge to second U.S. title; Hubbell, Donohue charge the wrong way

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue
AP
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Evan Bates, who had just won his second U.S. ice dance title with partner Madison Chock, put it best.

“Ice dance is a strange sport in some ways,” he said.

Chock and Bates have had their share of unusual mishaps in their near 10-year career, but on Saturday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, everything was smooth sailing.

The couple’s exotic “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance went off without a hitch, gaining the highest possible levels for nearly all of its elements and impressing judges with its intricacy, synchronization and striking lifts. It earned 134.23 points, giving the Montreal-based team the win with 221.86.

“It was (our coach Marie-France Dubreuil’s) idea for me to be a snake, and Evan a traveler who finds me,” Chock said of the routine. “It was just such a fun process, cool new characters for us to dive into, and we’ve really been enjoying it. It shows when we skate.”

Greensboro has been lucky for the skaters, who teamed up in 2011; they won their first U.S. title here in 2015. The five-year title gap is the longest in history for U.S. ice dance champions.

“It feels longer than five years,” Chock said with a breezy laugh. “It feels so much has changed, and in us as people as well (as dancers). We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going.”

If Chock’s humor was lighthearted, Madison Hubbell’s can only be described grim.

Hubbell and her partner, Zach Donohue, trailed their long-time rivals and Montreal training partners by about 1.3 points following Friday’s rhythm dance. A stellar outing of their Star is Born free dance might have won a third consecutive U.S. title; instead, it became a living nightmare.

“Out of the first element, the dance spin, we got turned around somehow and came out the wrong direction,” Hubbell said. “The next four elements, which are pretty valuable elements, all were facing the wrong direction.”

(Video available here for NBC Sports Gold subscribers; Hubbell and Donohue skate at the 1:06:50 mark.)

Not until their fifth element, a step sequence, did the skaters get back on track. In between, there was a world of hurt, likely unnoticed by many members of the audience but readily apparent to the judges, who had seen the free dance in  practice.

“Our twizzle sequence, it’s a high-scoring element, is supposed to charge right at the judges, and today it charged away from them,” Hubbell said. “In the rotational life, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”

The score was far from disastrous; Hubbell and Donohue’s 130.88 points for their “wrong-way” free dance gave them 217.19 overall. But it was a missed opportunity to show judges, and fans, the improvements they had made to A Star Is Born since the Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was probably one of the hardest performances, and not the most enjoyable,” Hubbell said. “It was a really thoughtful focus on the elements, and somehow putting one portion of the brain aside to fix things as best we could.”

The silver medal was Hubbell and Donohue’s first. They also won bronze medals in 2012, and 2015-17.

Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, whose rhythm dance to Saturday Night Fever stole the show on Friday, felt their Flamenco-style free dance didn’t pack the same punch.

“Yesterday was such a high for us, in terms of (audience) reaction and performance, that tonight didn’t have the same euphoria when we finished,” Hawayek said. “Both Jean-Luc and I see the potential for it being much higher than what we were able to put out today.”

Despite the disappointment, the third team in the Montreal troika earned 118.57 points and won a second consecutive bronze medal with 201.16.

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As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Coco Gauff eliminated from Australian Open by Sofia Kenin

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Coco Gauff‘s run at the Australian Open ended in the round of 16, foiled by fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday.

Kenin ousted the 15-year-old phenom 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Gauff, too, was bidding for her first major quarterfinal after a sterling seven months ignited by her march to the Wimbledon fourth round.

Gauff, ranked No. 684 this time last year, will near the top 50 after the Australian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and took out defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round on Friday.

Gauff’s play catapulted her to fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying, but she has half the points as fourth-place Madison Keys, and a country can’t qualify more than four players in singles. The Olympic field will be determined by the WTA rankings after the French Open in June.

The 14th seed Kenin, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 French Open third round, ranks second behind Williams in U.S. Olympic qualifying. She will face No. 27 Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.

Kenin and Alison Riske are the two remaining U.S. women in the draw.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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