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WHO increasingly worried about Zika, but Olympics OK to go on

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GENEVA (AP) — The World Health Organization’s chief says the agency is increasingly concerned about the Zika virus, even though it does not recommend canceling or postponing the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics in hard-hit Brazil.

“The more we learn about Zika, the more worried we get about it,” Dr. Margaret Chan said in a briefing Tuesday in Geneva, saying she herself would be going to the Rio Games.

Chan noted that although Zika has been around for decades, it is only recently that the virus has been proven to cause severe birth defects and neurological problems — including in newborn children.

She reiterated the U.N. health agency’s advice that pregnant women should not travel to Brazil, which has by far the biggest number of Zika cases.

She said the agency was recommending that both Olympic athletes and travelers to Rio take measures to prevent being bitten by the mosquitoes that spread Zika. Still, she didn’t see a reason why the games — which are expected to draw about 500,000 people to Brazil — should be moved.

“You don’t want to bring a standstill to the world’s movement of people,” Chan said. “This is all about risk assessment and risk management.”

Asked if she agreed with WHO’s Zika response chief Bruce Aylward, who declared earlier this year that Rio will host a “fantastic” Olympic games, Chan said it will be.

“I’m going,” she said.

But Chan did not address the Rio Olympics’ other big health risk — the filthy, virus-laden waters that sailors, rowers and some swimmers will have to navigate.

In February, WHO declared the explosive outbreak of Zika to be a global health emergency and the virus has now spread to nearly 60 countries.

The agency is constantly monitoring its evolution, and could change its advice to travelers depending on how Zika progresses, WHO officials say.

Some experts have called for this year’s Olympics, which run from Aug. 5-21, to be moved or delayed to prevent the avoidable birth of brain-damaged babies. They also warn that the Rio Olympics could spark new Zika outbreaks in other countries and speed up the virus’ international spread.

Chan said Olympic athletes were getting advice from their national medical advisers, singling out Australia as one country that has issued “very positive” guidelines to its Olympic team. Other countries are taking measures such as providing protective clothing, window screens and air conditioning “to minimize the risk,” she said.

Australia’s medical director for the Olympic team said last week that the risk of Zika to athletes was “minimal” and that the last people he had spoken to who had been to Rio recently hadn’t even seen a mosquito. The statement made no mention of the fact that Zika can cause the birth of permanently brain-damaged babies.

Chan was speaking ahead of next week’s World Health Assembly, a crucial WHO annual event that draws more than 3,500 delegates and address six dozen topics — including resistance to antimicrobial drugs, a global shortage of medicines and vaccines and maternal health.

Despite Chan’s concern about the Zika outbreak, not a single session at next week’s meeting is focused on the virus, even though Zika is expected to come up in a number of discussions at the assembly.

MORE: Australian Olympians to receive condoms fighting Zika in Rio

Cyclist in induced coma after Tour of Poland crash

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Dutch cyclist Fabio Jakobsen was put into an induced coma Wednesday after suffering injuries in a crash on the final stretch of the Tour of Poland, organizers said.

A massive crash at the finish of the first stage resulted in Dylan Groenewegen‘s disqualification from the race.

Leading a bunch sprint, Groenewegen veered toward the right barrier, pinching countryman Jakobsen, who barreled into the barrier meters from the finish line.

Jakobsen went head over heels, his bike went airborne and the barriers exploded onto the road, causing more cyclists to crash.

Jakobsen was airlifted to a hospital in serious condition and was put into an induced coma, the Tour de Pologne press office said.

Doctor Pawel Gruenpeter of the hospital in Sosnowiec said Jakobsen suffered injuries to the head and chest but that his condition was stable at the intensive care unit. Jakobsen will need surgery to his face and skull, Gruenpeter told state broadcaster TVP Sport.

Groenewegen crossed the finish line first but was disqualified, giving Jakobsen the stage win, according to the stage race website.

Groenewegen, a 27-year-old Jumbo-Visma rider, owns four Tour de France stage wins among the last three years.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) “strongly condemned” Groenewegen’s “dangerous” and “unacceptable” behavior. It referred Groenewegen’s actions to a disciplinary commission for possible sanctions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Figure skating Grand Prix Series will be held as ‘domestic’ competitions

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go ahead as scheduled this fall, with modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Skating Union decided Monday.

Each of the series’ six tops around the globe will be “a domestic run event,” limited to skaters of the event’s host country, who regularly train in the host country and from a respective geographical area. The number of disciplines and skaters at each event are to be worked out.

The Grand Prix Series, held annually since 1995, is a six-event fall season, qualifying the top six skaters and teams per discipline to December’s Grand Prix Final. The annual stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan, leading up to the Final, which is held at a different site each year.

The Final is the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships, which are typically in late March. The Final is still scheduled for Beijing, though whether or when it can be held will be discussed.

The series begins in late October with Skate America, which debuted in 1979 and has been held every year since 1988 as the biggest annual international competition in the U.S. Skate America’s site is Las Vegas, just as it was in 2019.

Skaters typically compete twice on the Grand Prix Series (three times if they qualify for the Final). ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start in the six-event series before the Final, according to a Russian media quote confirmed by Phil Hersh.

The ISU has not confirmed or denied Lakernik’s assertion.

Most, if not all, top-level U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada. That makes the first two Grand Prix stops — Skate America and Skate Canada — likely destinations. Grand Prix assignments have not been published.

“I appreciate the ISU is open to adapting competitive formats and is working to give athletes opportunities to compete,” Evan Bates, a U.S. ice dance champion with Madison Chock who trains in Montreal, wrote in a text message to Hersh. “This announcement gives reassurance that the ISU is doing their best to ensure a season will still take place. Of course, it’s hard to predict what will happen, and we’re not sure about what country we would compete in. It would probably depend on what the quarantine rules are at that time.”

The January 2021 U.S. Championships are scheduled for San Jose, Calif. The March 2021 World Championships are set for Stockholm.

In July, the ISU canceled the Junior Grand Prix Series for skaters mostly ages 13 to 18, including two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who cannot enter the senior Grand Prix until 2021.

Other early season senior international competitions scheduled for September were also canceled or postponed.

U.S. Figure Skating said in a statement that it will have more details on the Grand Prix Series in the coming weeks after collaborating with an ISU-appointed group.

“This is a great example of the figure skating community coming together to ensure that the world’s premier figure skating series will continue during these challenging times,” the statement read. “Figure skaters want to compete and figure skating fans from all around the world want to see their favorite athletes skate, and this format will ensure just that.”

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