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Russia Olympic track and field ban upheld, ‘tiny crack’ left open for athletes

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VIENNA — Russia’s track and field athletes will be banned from competing for their country at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics after a landmark decision Friday that punished the sports powerhouse for a systematic doping system that operated “from the top down” and tainted the entire team.

In an unprecedented ruling loaded with geopolitical ramifications, the IAAF upheld its ban on Russia’s track and field federation, saying the country had made some progress in cleaning up but failed to meet the requirements for reinstatement and would be barred from sending its athletes to the Rio Games that begin in 50 days.

“Russian athletes could not credibly return to international competition without undermining the confidence of their competitors and the public,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said.

Russia immediately condemned the decision, saying it was “deeply disappointed” and that the Rio Games will be “diminished” by the absence of its athletes. The Russian track federation said it was considering an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport — the sports world’s highest court.

The IAAF, track’s world governing body, left open a “tiny crack” that would allow any individual Russian athletes who have been untainted by doping and have been subjected to effective testing outside Russia to apply to compete in the games.

However, the IAAF said those athletes would be few and would be eligible to compete only as “individuals” — and not under the Russian flag.

“The crack in the door is quite narrow and there won’t be many who manage to get through that crack in the door,” said Rune Andersen, the Norwegian anti-doping expert who headed the IAAF task force that determined that Russia’s reforms were not enough.

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The IAAF said it was necessary to ban the entire track and field team because there was no way to verify which athletes could be considered clean.

“The system in Russia has been tainted by doping from the top level down,” Andersen said. “We cannot trust that what people might call clean athletes are really clean. If you have one or two or five with negative tests, it does not mean the athletes are clean. History has shown that is not the case.”

Coe dismissed suggestions that there were any political motivations behind the decision.

“There were members from all four corners of the world and the decision was unanimous,” he said. “Politics did not play a part today.”

The ruling came four days before a sports summit called by the IOC to address “the difficult decision between collective responsibility and individual justice.”

The IOC said it had “taken note” of the IAAF ruling and that its executive board will meet by teleconference Saturday to “discuss the appropriate next steps.”

There has been speculation the IOC could overrule the IAAF or impose a compromise that would allow “clean” Russian athletes to compete. However, Coe made clear that the IAAF runs the sport and determines which athletes are eligible to participate, not the IOC.

“I don’t have a message for the IOC,” said Coe, who will attend Tuesday’s meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. “Eligibility is a matter for the IAAF.”

The suspension of the Russian federation, known as RusAF, was imposed in November following a report by a World Anti-Doping Agency commission that alleged state-sponsored cheating, corruption and cover-ups. On Wednesday, WADA issue a new report citing continuing obstruction and violations of drug-testing in Russia.

“The deep-seated culture of tolerance, or worse, for doping that led RusAF being suspended in the first appears not to have changed materially to date,” the IAAF said.

Coe said the unanimous decision by the 25 members of the IAAF council to maintain the ban sends “a very clear signal to athletes and the public about our intention to reform our sport.”

The decision was hailed by many sports officials and athletes’ groups outside Russia who have been pushing the IAAF to take a hard line to restore some credibility to the much-maligned global anti-doping system.

“It gives a measure of hope to clean athletes that there are consequences not only for athletes who dope, but for countries which do not engage seriously in the fight against doping,” U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said. “That is a much-needed message.”

Added U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief executive Travis Tygart: “Obviously, banning Russian track and field from the Olympics is the right outcome. The world’s clean athletes came together and demanded that their voices were heard.”

In expressing its disappointment, Russia’s Sports Ministry appealed to IOC members to “consider the impact that our athletes’ exclusion will have on the dreams and the people of Russia.”

“Clean athletes’ dreams are being destroyed because of the reprehensible behavior of other athletes and officials,” the ministry said. “They have sacrificed years of their lives striving to compete at the Olympics and now that sacrifice looks likely to be wasted.”

It added that the Olympics “are supposed to be a source of unity, and we hope that they remain as a way of bringing people together.”

The IAAF rejected a last-minute plea by Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who claimed the country had cleaned up its anti-doping system and met all the requirements for readmission.

“We firmly believe that clean athletes should not be punished for the actions of others,” he said in an open letter to Coe.

Before the ruling was announced, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he rejected the idea of “collective responsibility” in doping cases and said the Russian state had never supported doping by any athletes.

Two-time Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva was among the Russian athletes hoping to compete in Rio. She has threatened to go to court on human rights grounds if she is excluded from the Games. Other cases could end up in CAS, the Swiss-based appeals court.

The IAAF did change its rules to make way for “any individual athletes who can clearly and convincingly show that they are not tainted” by doping and who have been outside Russia and subject to effective drug-testing systems.

Those individuals can apply to a special IAAF committee for permission to compete as a “neutral athlete,” not for Russia.

The IAAF also recommended that Russian whistleblower Yulia Stepanova be allowed to compete at the Olympics as an independent athlete. The 800m runner who served a doping ban gave information along with her husband that led to a broad investigation of doping inside Russia.

The IAAF task force recommended she be allowed to because of the “extraordinary contribution” she made to the anti-doping effort.

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Diamond League slate ends in Doha with record holders; TV, stream info

Mondo Duplantis
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The Diamond League season ends on Friday in the place where it was supposed to start — Doha.

Like many sports, track and field’s calendar was put in disarray by the coronavirus pandemic. The Doha meet, originally scheduled for April 17 to open an Olympic season, was postponed five months while other stops were canceled altogether.

Now, Doha caps an unlikely season that still produced stirring performances. NBCSN coverage starts at 12 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Gold also streams live for subscribers.

The headliner is Swedish pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis, a leading contender for Male Athlete of the Year. Duplantis, who twice bettered the world record in February at indoor meets, last week produced the highest outdoor clearance in history, too, breaking a 26-year-old Sergey Bubka record.

Duplantis can mimic Bubka on Friday by attempting to raise his world record another centimeter — to 6.19 meters, or more than 20 feet, 3 inches.

The deepest track event in Doha is the finale, the women’s 3000m, featuring 3000m steeplechase world-record holder Beatrice Chepkoech, 5000m world champion Hellen Obiri and rising 1500m runner Gudaf Tsegay.

Here are the Doha entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

11:18 a.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
11:33 — Men’s 200m
12:03 p.m. — Men’s 400m
12:08 — Women’s Long Jump
12:12 — Women’s 100m Hurdles
12:21 — Men’s 1500m
12:34 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
12:43 — Women’s 800m
12:56 — Women’s 100m
1:07 — Men’s 800m
1:18 — Women’s 3000m

Here are three events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 11:18 a.m.
Duplantis looks to complete a perfect 2020 against his two primary rivals — reigning world champion and American Sam Kendricks (who went undefeated in 2017) and 2012 Olympic champion and former world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France. Kendricks was the last man to beat Duplantis, at those 2019 World Championships, and is the only man to clear a height within nine inches of Duplantis’ best this outdoor season.

Women’s 100m — 12:56 p.m.
Olympic champion Elaine Thompson-Herah looks poised to finish the year as the world’s fastest woman after clocking 10.85 seconds in Rome last week, her fastest time outside of Jamaica in more than three years. That’s one hundredth faster than countrywoman Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce‘s best time of 2020. Thompson-Herah was fifth and fourth at the last two world championships after sweeping the Rio Olympic sprints. Like in Rome, her primary challengers in Doha are Ivorian Marie-Josée Ta Lou and 2018 U.S. champion Aleia Hobbs.

Women’s 3000m — 1:18 p.m.
A meeting of titans in a non-Olympic event. Chepkoech is the fastest steeplechaser in history by eight seconds. Obiri is the fastest Kenyan in history in the 3000m and the 5000m. Tsegay, just 23, chopped 3.26 seconds off her 1500m personal best in 2019, taking bronze at the world championships to become the second-fastest Ethiopian in history in that event. In all, the field includes five medalists from the 2019 Worlds across four different events.

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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

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