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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

Iran banned from judo for instructing athlete to withdraw rather than face Israel opponent

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Iran has been banned from international judo for instructing one of its athletes to withdraw from August’s world championships rather than face an Israeli judoka.

The International Judo Federation said Iran authorities instructing Saeid Mollaei to withdraw rather than face Israeli judoka Sagi Muki was “a serious breach and gross violation” of its code of ethics and the Olympic Charter.

IJF spokesman Vlad Marinescu said any ban won’t apply to the Tokyo Olympics. That’s because it’s the Iranian Olympic Committee, not the Iranian Judo Federation, which formally enters the Olympic team.

“We have been informed by IJF that they will launch a proper procedure giving all concerned parties the right to be heard,” an International Olympic Committee spokesperson said. “Should the issue become an Olympic issue we will take the result of this procedure into consideration.”

An IJF disciplinary commission said it “has a strong reason to believe that the Iran Judo Federation will continue or repeatedly engage in misconduct” given its history of similar actions with its athletes potentially facing Israelis.

Mollaei, a 2018 World champion, said he was afraid to return to Iran after disobeying those orders at worlds. He competed anyway but lost one round before a potential final with Muki.

“I want to compete wherever I can,” Mollaei said in a statement from the IJF. “I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.

“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid.”

The IJF said it would help Mollaei prepare for next year’s Olympics, also in Tokyo. If Iran refuses to enter him, one option could be the International Olympic Committee-backed team of refugee athletes.

Iranian sports teams have for several decades had a policy of not competing against Israelis, which the country does not recognize. The IJF has said Iranians have thrown matches and used “questionable injuries” to avoid competing against Israelis.

Mollaei’s case came four months after judo officials hailed a breakthrough in relations with Iran, publishing a letter signed by Salehi Amiri pledging to “fully respect the Olympic charter and its non-discrimination principle.”

Back in August, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar accused the IJF of trying to “create problems” with Mollaei, the IRNA news agency reported. He said Iran will send a protest letter to the IOC.

Iranian team manager Majid Zareian also criticized the IJF, saying “everything was set in advance to put Mollaei against a participant from (Israel).”

“They did not allow me to be present next to my athlete in exercise salon,” Zareian said. “After the competitions they changed hotel of Mollaei without my permission, against the regulations.”

He denied reports Iranian authorities had put pressure on Mollaei.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Israel, judo federation hail letter from Iran; Tehran silent

Jacarra Winchester, after foe bites her, wins first wrestling world title

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Jacarra Winchester missed the Rio Olympic wrestling trials after tearing her knee playing soccer. She missed a medal at the 2018 World Championships after a semifinal-winning takedown was reversed.

There was no denying her on Wednesday.

Winchester, who picked up wrestling a decade ago as a high school junior, became the first American to earn a medal at the worlds in Kazakhstan this week. And it was gold.

She came back to beat Japanese Nanami Irie 5-3 in the final of the 55kg division, a weight class that is not on the Olympic program. Winchester must move to 53kg or 57kg next year.

But for now she can celebrate quite a journey. At 26, she’s one of the older wrestlers to become a first-time world champion. She believed she had what it took last year, when a reversed call kept her from the final and she subsequently lost a bronze-medal match.

Winchester, who has problems sleeping, said she replayed the end of that semifinal in her head ever since.

“There’s no reason why I should have gotten beat,” she said Wednesday. “Clearly I have what I need on the mat. I just need to change my mindset. … Just knowing you’re the best, pushing yourself and not letting anything get to me.”

That helped in Tuesday’s semifinals, where Winchester said her Turkish opponent bit her, pulled her hair and twisted her fingers. Winchester, who grew up in the Oakland, Calif., area, said that when she started wrestling she had no Olympic goals.

“I had a mindset of I’m not a quitter,” she said.

Earlier Wednesday, Adeline Gray reached Thursday’s 76kg final, where she will try to become the first American to earn five world titles.

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