IOC opens door for Russia track and field at Olympics

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — Some Russian track and field athletes could be competing under their own flag at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics after all.

Leaders of the International Olympic Committee and track’s world governing body appeared split Tuesday over the terms of participation of any Russian athletes cleared to compete at the Aug. 5-21 Games.

While upholding last week’s IAAF decision to ban Russia’s track team for systematic doping, Olympic leaders did not accept the federation’s position on a key issue: that a neutral flag would represent the few athletes given dispensation to apply to compete if they live outside Russia and have undergone rigorous testing.

IOC President Thomas Bach said if any Russians are deemed eligible by the IAAF, they would compete under the Russian flag.

“If there are athletes qualified, then they will compete as members of the team of the Russian Olympic Committee because only a national Olympic committee can enter athletes to the Olympic Games,” Bach said. “There are no teams of international federations there. And the Russian Olympic Committee is not suspended.”

The IAAF appeared caught off guard by Bach’s comments, insisting its position had been accepted by Olympic leaders and saying it will work with the IOC to make sure it is “respected and implemented in full.”

The sharp differences between the IOC and the IAAF emerged after a summit of Olympic leaders called by Bach to follow up on the IAAF’s decision to ban Russia and to take further steps to ensure a “level playing field” for athletes in all sports at the Rio Games.

The leaders called for drug testing of individual Russian and Kenyan athletes across all sports, warning that evidence of inadequate doping controls in those countries could lead to more teams being barred from the Rio de Janeiro Games.

The leaders also called on authorities to pursue sanctions not only against athletes, but against doctors, coaches, officials and other personnel implicated in doping. Bach also lamented “deficiencies” in global drug-testing and urged the World Anti-Doping Agency to hold a special conference next year to address the problems.

“It has to be more transparent,” Bach said. “Everybody has to understand better who is doing what and who is responsible for what and this needs a full review.”

The meeting came four days after the IAAF upheld its ban — first imposed in November — on Russian athletes for a “systematic and deeply-rooted culture of doping.”

The IOC executive board said Saturday it supported and respected the IAAF ruling. On Tuesday, the Olympic leaders agreed “to fully respect” the decision, which Russian officials condemned as unfair to “innocent athletes.” The Russians confirmed they will appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“We consider it unfair on the vast majority of our athletes who have never doped and have not violated any criteria,” Russian Olympic Committee chief Alexander Zhukov told the meeting. “They will be punished for the sins of others.”

Zhukov said in comments carried by the Tass news agency that Russia “will not boycott the Olympics, although its national Olympic committee will consider suing the IAAF.

The IAAF last week opened the door to a small group of Russian athletes who live and undergo reliable drug-testing outside the country to apply to compete as “neutral” athletes in Rio — not under the Russian flag. The IAAF said only a handful of athletes fell into that category.

But Bach ruled out the neutral flag, saying it was not for the IAAF to decide.

“We have discussed this decision with the IAAF,” he said. “This decision applies to IAAF competitions (not the Olympics).

“The Russian national federation is suspended. Therefore, the IAAF has chosen this option in order to allow competing in their competition. When it comes to Olympic Games, all athletes then are part of the team of the Russian Olympic Committee,” he said when asked by reporters for clarification.

The IAAF responded that its ruling on the flag was approved and did apply to the Olympics.

The federation said it passed a rule change “to allow Russian athletes to apply for eligibility, on an exceptional basis and subject to meeting strict criteria in international competitions, including the Olympic Games, in an individual capacity as neutral athletes, not under any country’s flag.”

“This decision has been unequivocally supported across sport and the IOC summit today unanimously agreed to fully respect the IAAF decision,” the track federation said. “The IAAF will now work with the IOC to ensure the decision is respected and implemented in full.”

In the end, the final word on the participation of Russians could come from CAS, the highest court in sports.

“This is the good right of everybody,” Bach said. “So we are expecting the results of these potential court cases.”

In a strongly worded speech to the meeting, Zhukov said Russians were turning to CAS to protect athletes with no doping record.

“Banning clean athletes from the Rio Olympic Games contradicts the values of the Olympic movement and violates the principles of the Olympic Charter,” he said. “It is also legally indefensible and devalues their competitors’ success.”

“We hope that CAS will make an objective, fair and lawful decision, in spite of the already publicly announced position of its president,” he added.

That was a shot at CAS President John Coates, who is also an IOC vice president and has spoken in favor of the IAAF ruling.

Still looming over the Russians is a WADA investigation into allegations made by Moscow’s former drug lab chief, Grigory Rodchenkov, that he was involved in a state-backed conspiracy to dope Russian athletes ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and swap tainted samples for clean ones during the Games.

WADA’s final report is due by July 15. If it uncovers further widespread, state-backed cheating in Russia, it could push for further action against Russia.

The summit expanded the scope of the doping investigations to deal with all sports in Russia and Kenya, two countries deemed noncompliant with WADA’s rules. The summit, which also cited “substantial allegations” against those countries, put the onus on each international sports federation to make sure their athletes are clean ahead of the Rio Games.

Kenya — home to many of the world’s top distance runners — has been hit by dozens of positive drug cases in recent years and has struggled to set up a credible anti-doping system. IAAF officials, however, have said Kenya should not be in danger of missing the Games, because its athletes have been subjected to extensive international testing.

MORE: Five Russian track and field stars who may miss Rio

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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