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Doping on everyone’s mind heading into U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials

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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Elizabeth Beisel tilted her head, grimaced a bit and pondered the question: Does she think the Olympic swimming competition will be clean in Rio?

Finally, a blunt reply from the American.

“No,” she said.

Two days ahead of the U.S. trials in Omaha, the topic of doping was on everyone’s minds. A steady stream of revelations – most notably, allegations that the Russians have been running a state-sponsored system of cheating – raises concerns among those who insist they’re doing everything by the book.

“It’s the biggest threat to who should win the medals,” said David Marsh, who will coach the U.S. women’s team in Rio. “It’s the biggest threat to the integrity of the games.”

While much of the scorn has been directed at the Russian track and field program, which in an unprecedented penalty has been banned entirely from the Olympics, swimming has been dealing with its own doping issues.

Two-time gold medalist Sun Yang of China served a three-month ban after testing positive for a banned stimulant in 2014, a relative slap on the wrist that didn’t keep him out of any major competitions.

Then there’s Yulia Efimova, a bronze medalist at the 2012 London Games and one of Russia’s best medal hopes for Rio. She could be allowed to compete even after her second positive doping test.

World governing body FINA lifted her provisional suspension last month, saying it was merely following a recommendation from the World Anti-Doping Agency. WADA is conducting further research of the endurance-boosting drug meldonium, which was added to the list of banned substances at the start of the year. Tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive for the same drug and received a two-year suspension.

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Given all the disturbing reports, it’s not surprising that doping has been a focus of conversation around the pool deck.

“It’s really disappointing,” said world-record freestyler Katie Ledecky, who figures to be one of the biggest swimming stars in Rio. “I think we’re all happy that people are getting caught and they’re being a little tougher on things. Hopefully, that will continue and we can all feel confident going in that we’re competing against clean athletes.”

Beisel isn’t so sure.

Four years ago, she settled for a silver medal in the 400-meter individual medley behind unheralded Chinese teenager Ye Shiwen, who shattered the world record with a performance that immediately raised questions about whether she was doping. Most notably: Ye went faster than Ryan Lochte, winner of the same event for the men, over the final freestyle lap.

Ye never tested positive and denied any wrongdoing. Some complained she was the victim of a racist-tinged smear campaign led by Western media organizations.

But Ye’s struggles since the London Games – it seems unlikely she will even be on the Chinese team that competes in Rio – have done little to lessen the whispers that took the shine off her gold.

Beisel didn’t single out the swimmer who beat her four years ago, but it’s clear she worries if someone in the next lane is getting an extra boost.

“The talk, the rumors, the speculation,” she said. “Just knowing people from around the world in other countries and hearing stuff, it’s always going to be in the back of your mind.”

USA Swimming has been vocal in the anti-doping effort, but its top official knows much more needs to be done. No matter what, there will always be those willing to skirt the rules.

“It’s a monumental effort,” executive director Chuck Wielgus said Friday. “We’ll never win it, because the cheaters are always a step ahead. But I’ve seen more positive things in this go-round – and I’ve been at every Olympic Games since ’92 – than I’ve seen in the past.”

Wielgus pointed to FINA’s increased spending on testing for the top 10-ranked swimmers in each event as a major step toward ensuring a cleaner competition. He would like more money devoted toward investigating claims that don’t necessarily involve a positive test.

“One of the significant shortcomings right now is that when there is information that could lead to finding an athlete or a group of athletes or even a state-sponsored program, we want to be able to share that information and also have others be able to share that information with their domestic anti-doping agency and ultimately with WADA to conduct investigations,” he said.

According to Marsh, it doesn’t take much to dramatically affect the level of competition, especially on the female side.

“With a little bit of extra testosterone, it’s a giant advantage,” he said. “A complete game-changer.”

Hoping to make his fourth Olympic team, Lochte said he’s always been clean, and insisted he doesn’t concern himself with those who might be getting a pharmaceutical edge.

“I rely on the training I’ve done, the work I’ve done,” he said. “Whether they’re doping or not, it’s going to be a battle in order to beat me.”

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Too early to say whether virus threatens Olympics, WHO says

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GENEVA (AP) — Despite a virus outbreak spreading from China, a top World Health Organization official said Tuesday it’s much too soon to say whether the Tokyo Olympics are at risk of being cancelled or moved.

Tokyo organizers and the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly said they have no contingency plans for the July 24-Aug. 9 Summer Games since the WHO declared a global health emergency last month.

The U.N. agency’s emergencies program director, Michael Ryan, said Tuesday the sporting event was “way too far” away to consider giving advice that would affect Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympics.

“We are not there to make a decision for that,” Ryan told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a news conference at WHO headquarters.

Geneva-based WHO has been in regular contact with the IOC in nearby Lausanne since the virus known as COVID-19 emerged in December.

“We don’t give them judgments,” Ryan said. “We assist them with their risk assessment. We will be working closely with them in the coming weeks and months.”

The death toll in mainland China due to the virus rose to almost 1,900 on Tuesday, with more than 72,000 confirmed cases.

The outbreak has caused numerous sports events in China to be canceled, postponed, or moved, including qualifying events for the Tokyo Olympics.

Chinese athletes and teams have also been unable to travel for some competitions. China sent a team of more than 400 athletes to the Rio Olympics. It won 70 medals, including 26 gold, to place second in total medal standings.

Around 11,000 athletes and many more team coaches and officials from more than 200 national teams are expected in Japan for the Olympics.

Japan has experienced the most significant outbreak of the virus outside of China, on the cruise ship Diamond Princess docked in quarantine at Yokohama in Tokyo Bay.

During a 14-day isolation that ends Wednesday, 542 cases have been identified among more than 3,700 passengers and crew.

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For Mike Eruzione, Al Michaels, it’s no miracle that 1980 Olympics endure

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Mike Eruzione has been reminded on a daily basis about the Miracle on Ice for nearly four decades. While playing celebrity golf tournaments. At speaking engagements. Or that time he auctioned his jersey and stick from the Soviet game to a 9-year-old boy named Seven.

Eruzione, now 65, likes to open conversations with one anecdote about meeting strangers, which he repeated in a call with reporters last week.

“The stories I hear, 40 years later, it’s depending on their age — I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, I remember where I was on 9/11. I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up. And I remember where I was when we won,” Eruzione said. “And I always say, ‘We? I didn’t know you were on the team.’

“But people felt a part of it. … It’s nice to know that people remember and share some great stories about what we did so long ago.”

The captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team owns a last name that means “eruption” in Italian. Eruzione scored the decisive goal in the U.S.’ 4-3 win over the Soviet Union en route to a shock gold medal during the Cold War in Lake Placid, N.Y.

NBCSN airs a 30-minute special marking the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice on Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET. It will feature a conversation between Olympic primetime host Mike Tirico and Al Michaels, the play-by-play voice of the game dubbed by Sports Illustrated the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

Eruzione has grandchildren now. Three of them skate at the Mike Eruzione Center in his hometown of Winthrop, Mass.

“They don’t even know who Mike Eruzione is,” Eruzione said of the 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, “but they know about the Miracle.”

All credit to the U.S. Olympic team of 20 players between ages 19 and 25, back when the NHL did not participate in the Olympics. The Soviets were essentially a team of professionals. The nation won the previous four Olympics and throttled the U.S. 10-3 in a pre-Olympic exhibition at Madison Square Garden.

Enter Michaels, calling hockey at the Lake Placid Winter Games alongside Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden. Michaels, then 35, said he was assigned the sport because he had the most hockey experience on the ABC Olympic talent roster — one game. He called the 1972 Olympic hockey final by himself.

Feb. 22, 1980: As the U.S. led the Soviet Union 4-3 and the final seconds ticked down, one word came to mind: miraculous.

“It got morphed into a question and quick answer, and away we went,” Michaels said.

Eruzione said he didn’t learn of Michaels’ call — “Do you believe in Miracles? Yes!” — until two weeks after the Olympics. He didn’t watch the game broadcast until years later.

“I never thought it was a miracle, but it was a catchy phrase and it sounded right,” Eruzione said, noting he preferred Michaels’ call in the final comeback win over Finland to clinch the gold: “This impossible dream comes true.”

Team members since gathered often — to light the 2002 Olympic cauldron in Salt Lake City, for fantasy camps in Lake Placid and for coach Herb Brooks‘ 2003 funeral. Eighteen of the 20 players are scheduled to reunite this weekend in Las Vegas.

Absent will be Mark Pavelich, who was jailed last year on assault charges and ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. And Bob Suter, who died in 2014 of a heart attack at age 57.

It was Suter’s death that motivated Eruzione and others to commemorate the 35th anniversary together in Lake Placid. It was believed to be the first time all living players were together in Lake Placid since the 1980 Winter Games.

Eruzione said that the 2004 film “Miracle” introduced the team to a new generation. Now at many of his speeches, the majority of Eruzione’s audience was born after 1980.

“I’ll say, how many people watched the movie ‘Miracle,’ and almost everybody raises their hand,” he said. “So I think what the movie did for us as a team was kind of rejuvenated our team as far as people knowing who we were and what we are and what we were about.”

NFL coaches set up “Miracle” viewings for their teams before games. Michael Phelps watched it for motivation at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Phelps told relay teammates, “This is our time,” before they beat rival Australia. An ode to Brooks’ pregame speech before the Soviet game.

Michaels, whose 13-year-old grandson won an October hockey tournament in Lake Placid, said he watched “Miracle” last week for the first time in about a decade. He helped do voiceovers in production more than 15 years ago, though the original Lake Placid audio was used for his signature call.

“The great thing is, in a way, when you watch it back or you watch highlights back, you almost become like in the third person, like somebody else is doing this and announcing this game,” Michaels said. “I exult the way I think most of the country did and do when they see highlights of it. So it’s kind of an out-of-body experience in a way, but it’s a beautiful thing.”

After Eruzione shared his tale of strangers’ memories, Michaels added one of his own.

“One of my favorite stories is Mike Eruzione calling me maybe eight to 10 years ago and saying, ‘The greatest thing about this is every time I come home and maybe I’m a little down, I need a little pick-me-up, I’ll put the tape in,'” Michaels said. “‘Every time I shoot, the puck goes in. It will forever.'”

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