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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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FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”