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World Health Organization asks experts to consider Zika risk at Olympics

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LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization’s chief says she has convened an expert committee to consider whether the Rio de Janeiro Olympics should proceed as planned, following recent concerns raised about the threat of the Zika virus.

In a request last month, U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen asked WHO’s Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan to evaluate whether the Rio games should be delayed or postponed. Chan said in a letter released by Shaheen Friday that WHO has sent senior scientists to Brazil four times to assess the risk of Zika to the approximately 500,000 athletes and visitors expected to attend the Aug. 5-21 Olympics.

“Given the current level of international concern, I have decided to ask members of the Zika Emergency Committee to examine the risks of holding the Olympic Summer Games as currently scheduled,” Chan wrote.

Chan said she “deeply appreciate(d)” the concerns raised by Shaheen in her original letter to WHO last month, which cited a commentary by Canadian professor Amir Attaran. He argued that holding the Olympics as planned would result in the avoidable birth of brain-damaged babies.

Last month, Attaran and more than 200 other experts signed an open letter asking WHO to convene an independent group to consider if the games should be delayed or moved “in the name of public health.” WHO rejected such calls and said “cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics (would) not significantly alter the international spread of Zika.”

Most people infected by Zika suffer only minor symptoms including fever, a rash and muscle or joint pain. The virus can also cause severe birth defects, including babies born with abnormally small heads.

WHO declared the Zika epidemic to be a global emergency in February and in its latest assessment this week, said it “does not see an overall decline in the outbreak.”

WHO has already advised pregnant women not to go to Rio and says other travelers should avoid poor and overcrowded parts of the city. The U.N. agency also predicted the Zika risk in August would drop since it will be the south American winter and there should be fewer mosquitoes to transmit the virus.

Critics have charged that WHO has an overly close relationship with the International Olympic Committee that renders the U.N. health agency unable to provide objective health advice. In recent years, WHO established a group to help cities not only with health advice, but to potentially help them bid for major events like the Olympics.

IOC president Thomas Bach refuted claims the organization had pressured WHO to shirk its public health responsibilities.

“There is no pressure whatsoever,” Bach said Friday in Lausanne. “We are grateful for the cooperation with the WHO which is giving us the information, which is helping us with data, which is helping everybody by giving advice on travel.”

MORE: U.S. cyclist says no Olympics because of Zika

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.”

MORE: World’s top skater leaves famed coach

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