‘The Last Gold’ to air on NBCSN on Monday

The Last Gold
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Inspired by the recent rush of acclaimed sports documentaries, USA Swimming officials batted around ideas to join the movement a year and a half ago.

Executive director Chuck Wielgus, assistant executive director Mike Unger and chief marketing official Matt Farrell had put their heads together.

“We pretty quickly settled on this particular story,” Wielgus said in a phone interview. “It has such immense impact, especially with the old-timers in the swimming community. It hung over everybody like a cloud. It seemed like the right opportunity to do it.”

The result, “The Last Gold,” airs on NBCSN on Monday at 8:30 p.m. ET, four nights before the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“The Last Gold” spotlights the 1976 U.S. Olympic women’s swimming team and the East German doping scandal.

At the Montreal Games, the U.S. men’s swimmers absolutely dominated, taking 12 of 13 gold medals with world records in 11 of those events.

But the U.S. women ran into a dubious and overpowering opponent.

The East Germans had yet to earn an Olympic women’s swimming gold medal in two previous Games. But the team had become a juggernaut by Montreal, the product of a state-sponsored doping program that wouldn’t be more fully exposed until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Following defeat after defeat in individual races, four U.S. women rallied for one last showdown with East Germany in the 4x100m free relay.

“The Last Gold” focuses on that American quartet — Shirley BabashoffWendy BoglioliKim Peyton (passed away in 1986) and Jill Sterkel.

“The 40th anniversary coming up, the fact that only three of the athletes were still alive, and getting older, we wanted to tell the story when they could still help to tell it,” Wielgus said. “It’s almost serendipitous with what’s going on with the whole Russian situation right now. [In 2015] We saw this educational opportunity to share with current and future generations of athletes and pull back the layers and expose some of the evils of doping.”

East Germany has not been stripped of its 1976 Olympic swimming medals.

In 1998, USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee appealed to the International Olympic Committee.

“To ask for recognition of those athletes who we could prove had been cheated out of medals,” Wielgus said. “There were trials going on in Germany, and people were being found guilty. We made this appeal with the USOC, to the IOC, and the appeal was shot down. It was shot down unequivocally. Our position today is that we are not bringing that up again. We made that effort, and we might not like it, but we accept the response we got from the IOC. There’s been no indication they would change their position on it.”

Casey Barrett, a 1996 Canadian Olympic swimmer, served as a writer for “The Last Gold.” Brian T. Brown, a 15-time Emmy Award winner, directed. Emmy-winning actress Julianna Margulies narrated.

“The Last Gold” was screened for the current U.S. swim team at both the Olympic Trials and at a pre-Olympic camp in Atlanta this week.

It premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 6 as one of 12 documentaries chosen from over 4,000 submissions.

MORE: Rio Olympic day-by-day schedule highlights

IOC looks for ways for Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ to 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 older veterans — 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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