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Questions and answers ahead of IAAF ruling on Russian ban

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LONDON (AP) — The credibility of the fight against doping in sports will be at stake Friday when track and field’s world governing body decides whether to uphold or lift its ban on Russian athletes ahead of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Sports geopolitics – and the key issue of individual justice vs. collective punishment – frame the debate heading into the meeting of IAAF leaders in Vienna.

Even if the IAAF decides against a full reinstatement of the Russians, there could be pressure to find a way for individual athletes who have not been implicated in doping to be allowed to compete in Rio in August.

Friday’s ruling may not be the end of the story either.

The IOC has called a summit of sports leaders next Tuesday to consider the IAAF ruling, and a blanket ban on Russians athletes for Rio will likely lead to appeals and court challenges.

Some questions and answers ahead of Friday’s decision:

Why were the Russians suspended in the first place?
The IAAF imposed the indefinite suspension in November after a report by an independent World Anti-Doping Agency commission detailed widespread doping, corruption and cover-ups in Russian track and field. Subsequently, Russia’s anti-doping agency and drug-testing lab were also suspended by WADA. The IAAF gave Russia a long list of criteria to fulfill in order to be let back in. The IAAF ruled in March that the Russians had not done enough and gave them until June 17 to comply in time for Rio.

What’s the likely outcome? Will the ban stay or go?
All options are open, but signs are the IAAF is unlikely to cancel the ban, at least outright – especially after the release of a devastating WADA report Wednesday that laid out how Russian athletes and government agencies have continued to obstruct and deceive drug-testers. Among other things, the report said FSB security service personnel had intimidated testers, customs services had tampered with doping sample packages, and athletes evaded doping controls – including one who tried to give a fake urine sample using a “container inserted inside her body.”

Haven’t there been other allegations?
A slew of other developments have not helped Russia’s cause. Russians athletes provided 22 of the 55 positive doping samples detected in IOC retests from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping lab, alleged that he was involved in doping Russian athletes – including 15 medalists – ahead of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, and helped swap tainted urine samples for clean ones through a concealed hole in a wall at the Sochi lab. Violence by Russian soccer hooligans at the European Championship in France has further tarnished Russia’s overall public image.

What do the Russians say?
Russian officials insist that, since the ban was imposed in November, they have cleaned house, sanctioned guilty athletes and officials, and met all the IAAF verification criteria for reinstatement. In addition, Russian Olympic officials say they have taken extra steps by deciding not to take any athletes to Rio who have had prior doping offenses. “If the Russian team goes to the games in Rio, it will be a crystal clear team without the slightest shadow of any suspicion,” said Gennady Alyoshin, the Russian Olympic Committee’s point man on reforming the track and field federation.

Could there be a compromise?
Olympic and Russian officials have argued it would be unjust to ban the entire track and field team because it would punish those athletes who have not done anything wrong. Athletes, including two-time pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva, could mount legal challenges if they are kept out. A potential compromise – favored among top IOC leaders – would give Russian athletes with a proven clean doping record and who have passed a certain number or recent tests the chance to compete. Critics, however, say evidence of a corrupt, state-sponsored doping system is enough to exclude the whole team in order to protect the rest of the world’s clean athletes. Both viewpoints are likely to be aired Friday.

How will the decision be made?
An IAAF task force, headed by Norwegian anti-doping expert Rune Andersen, will present a report to the IAAF Council and recommend whether to keep or lift the ban. The council, headed by IAAF President Sebastian Coe, will then debate the issues. The delegates could hold a vote or make a decision unanimously. The council usually has 27 members, but the Russian and Kenyan delegates are suspended from the decision, so a maximum of 25 members will decide.

Could the IOC overrule the IAAF decision?
That seems unlikely. The IAAF controls the sport and the competition, including eligibility of athletes. If the IOC decided to alter the decision, it would undermine the system and Coe. “The IOC will have to decide whether the IAAF runs track and field or whether the IOC does,” longtime Canadian IOC member and former WADA president Dick Pound said. “If the IOC stepped in, it would be fraught with difficulty.”

What about banning the entire Russian Olympic team?
The IAAF is ruling only on the eligibility of track and field athletes. While some critics have called for Russia’s entire Olympic team to be excluded, there is no indication of that happening. However, if further allegations of state-backed doping across other Russian sports are proven, the issue will arise. No country has ever been thrown out of the Olympics for doping.

Could Russia boycott the games?
That would be the nuclear option. Conceivably, Russia could decide to pull out its entire Olympic team if its track athletes are banned. However, no Russian officials have publicly made that threat, and staging a boycott would jeopardize Russia’s status for all future Olympics.

Any other issues on the table Friday?
Yes. The council will rule on a petition by whistleblower Yulia Stepanova, a Russian middle-distance runner who herself was banned for doping in 2013. Now living in the United States, she wants to compete in the games, though not for Russia. The IAAF will also rule on whether Paralympic long jump champion Markus Rehm can compete in the Olympics. There has been no conclusive scientific findings on whether the German’s carbon-fiber prosthesis gives him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes.

MORE: Russia to learn Friday if track team can go to Rio Games

Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

MORE: Meet Arnie the Terminator, Katie Ledecky’s top rival

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

MORE: Simone Manuel’s experiences shape her voice for change today

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