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.

MORE: Neymar will play Olympics, not Copa America

Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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