Weak Brazilian ties get some athletes into Rio Games

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SAO PAULO (AP) — Rugby player Isadora Cerullo never lived in Brazil. Fencer Ghislain Perrier speaks very little Portuguese. Golfer Miriam Nagl played abroad most of her life.

They’ll still be parading under the host nation’s flag at the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Games come Aug. 5.

Cerullo, Perrier and Nagl are among several athletes who will be fulfilling their Olympic dream because of Brazil’s shortage of athletes in sports it automatically qualified for as host. Without an Olympic tradition to fall back on, the country was left to rapidly recruit an international band of athletes for events such as field hockey, golf, rowing, wrestling and rugby.

Their ties, in many cases, are weak. Some have lived away for most of their lives but were born in Brazil. Some were born abroad but have Brazilian parents or grandparents. Some had almost no links to the country but were hired by local federations and became naturalized.

“I would have very slim chances of participating in the Olympics if I hadn’t made the switch to play for Brazil,” said Nagl, a Brazilian-born golfer who left the country when she was 8 years old and had always played for Germany. “When this idea came up and I realized that I had a chance to make it to Rio, I started dreaming about being at the Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremony.”

The 35-year-old Nagl, who plays in the Ladies European Tour and is No. 445 in the women’s world rankings, said she hadn’t given much thought about representing her native country until being contacted by golf officials after Rio was awarded the games.

“By making the switch, I gave myself a chance to be in the Olympics, but I also thought about how this could be good for Brazil, about how I could become a good ambassador and help the game develop,” she said.

Brazil had only two foreign athletes in its delegation at the 2012 London Games – American basketball player Larry Taylor and Chinese table-tennis player Gui Lin. Now about 20 “international” athletes will be taking advantage of the many extra spots available for the home nation in Rio.

Rugby is one of the sports in which Brazil lacks tradition but will compete anyway. Hoping to put on a good show in front of the home fans, the local federation launched a worldwide campaign – entitled “Brazilian Rugby Players Wanted” – to attract athletes playing abroad.

A few who responded to the campaign will be in Rio, including American-born Cerullo, who has Brazilian parents but had never visited the country until after contacting Brazilian rugby officials. Two Brazilian brothers who lived in France also made it to the team, as well a Brazilian-born athlete who lived and played in Argentina. England-born Juliano Fiori and France-born Laurent Bourda-Couhet, who has a Brazilian mother, will also play.

Brazil’s fencing team earned eight additional spots as hosts and included three international players for the games. Among them are Perrier, who was born in Brazil but left the country as a baby after being adopted by a French family, and Italian-born Nathalie Moellhausen, who competed for Italy at the 2012 London Games but chose to be with the hosts in Rio to fulfill the wish of her Brazilian grandmother.

“I don’t have many connections to Brazil,” admitted Perrier, who has lived and trained in France most of his life. “I spent vacation in Brazil a few times, but I know only a few people there.”

The fencing team will also have Marta Baeza, who was born in Brazil but had been competing for Spain, and reserve team member Katherine Miller, who was born in the United States.

Another foreigner, Hungary’s Emese Takacs, tried to make the team but she was dropped after her citizenship was contested in court by a Brazilian athlete who had been left out of the squad. Takacs was accused of faking her marriage in Brazil to become naturalized.

“She had the legal documents but we always suspected it was a fraud,” the Brazilian who had lost her spot, Amanda Simeao, told local media. “She was married to a Brazilian but had a boyfriend in Hungary.”

Takacs denied wrongdoing but lost her battles in court.

Another controversial case was water polo goalkeeper Slobodan Soro, a Serbian whose naturalization process was approved just before the games. He and center Josip Vrlic of Croatia were hired to play for Brazil despite not having direct connections to the country. They were among five foreign-born players picked to play for the Brazilian team by Croat coach Ratko Rudic, the gold medalist with Croatia at the London Games.

The others were Spain’s Adria Delgado, who has a Brazilian father; Italian-born Paulo Salemi, son of a Brazilian mother; and Cuban Ives Gonzalez, who is married to a Brazilian. The team also has Brazilian-born Felipe Perrone, who used to play for the Spanish national team before joining the hosts for the Rio Games.

“They have been playing for Brazilian clubs for some time, this is not something that just happened,” said Ricardo Cabral, who is in charge of Brazil’s water polo team. “We created an Olympic project to help the sport develop and make Brazil more competitive. Because of the Olympics in Rio, there is more investment available and we want to take advantage of that to give the sport more visibility.”

MORE: Rio Olympics schedule highlights, daily events to watch

Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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