Ibtihaj Muhammad
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Ibtihaj Muhammad made history, even if she didn’t medal

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RIO DE JANEIRO – When Ibtihaj Muhammad emerged about an hour after her elimination, composed and ready to talk, she returned to a media mixed zone and found more than a dozen American journalists who waited for her.

“At the normal fencing competitions, we don’t have to deal with this many press,” Muhammad said. “Actually, we don’t have press.”

Muhammad, who won her first-round bout and then lost in the round of 16, made history by becoming the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.

That alone merited coverage, even a lengthy wait for grumbling media.

She found a short cut out of the media area after her loss, so print reporters had no idea of her emotional state.

When she returned, she was composed, analytical and well spoken. No signs of the usual grief accompanying Olympic defeat.

She was disappointed of course but recognized her achievement.

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“In this moment, you’re thinking about what just happened. I’m thinking about every single point, I’m running through my head what I could have done differently,” she said. “I realize that this moment is bigger than me.”

Also developing is what journalists call a trend story for women’s sabre as a whole.

Women’s sabre has garnered a share of attention in the U.S. at four straight Games, among a crowded Olympic program that’s at 34 sports and growing larger for Tokyo 2020.

Mariel Zagunis made most of those headlines in 2004, winning the first U.S. Olympic fencing title in 100 years, and in 2008, leading an individual sabre sweep on the first day of the Games.

You may remember the Beijing medal-winning trio – Zagunis, Sada Jacobson and Becca Ward — did a sitdown interview with Bob Costas that aired during primetime six years ago.

In 2012, Zagunis was selected as the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony. Again, more spotlight for the sport.

Muhammad took it to another level after qualifying for her first Olympic team in February.

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She appeared on Ellen, fenced with the First Lady in Times Square (foam swords) and reportedly was runner-up to Michael Phelps to carry the flag into the Opening Ceremony.

“It’s a small sport, and it’s hard for us to elbow our way to the front when it comes to getting media attention,” said Zagunis, who was upset in the round of 16 on Monday. “Especially during the Olympic Games, it’s our time to shine, but of course you have all the other bigger, more popular sports. … I think sabre fencing is the best it’s ever been right now.”

Muhammad, Zagunis and Dagmara Wozniak were all eliminated before the quarterfinals Monday. Better results were expected, as Zagunis is ranked No. 3 in the world and Muhammad is No. 8.

The trio has been on the national team together for several years.

Zagunis valued a hug she received from Wozniak in an athletes-only area after their defeats. Wozniak is known to wear three bracelets – one given to her by her sister, another from her fencing club and a third from Zagunis.

“We just said that we’re going to be ready to bring it for the team event,” on Saturday, Zagunis said.

The U.S. trio is a medal contender – the AP and Sports Illustrated both predicted silver before the Games.

There will be a decent size media contingent, perhaps more if Zagunis, Muhammad and Wozniak reach the semifinals or final.

And then it will be over.

If Zagunis and Muhammad continue fencing, they will go back to non-Olympic competitions and little American press.

Fencing is one five sports that has been contested at every Olympics since the first modern Games in 1896.

The others – cycling, gymnastics, swimming and track and field – have much stronger followings (outside of the Olympics for cycling, but certainly during the Games for the other three).

And of the six events in fencing, it’s quite remarkable that women’s sabre has been the one at the heart of the quadrennial attention.

Women’s sabre was the last event to be added to the Olympic fencing program – debuting in Athens 2004.

Men have fenced in the Olympics since 1896, women’s foil was added in 1924 and women’s épée in 1996.

Muhammad could have some non-fencing opportunities waiting for her after these Games. Maybe she takes them.

Zagunis said she’s not yet thinking about whether she will pursue a fifth Olympics in 2020, when she will be 35 years old. She will take a few months off after Rio, though.

Even if neither is around in four years, women’s sabre could again see an uptick in attention at the next Olympics.

There’s already a notable name on the horizon – Muhammad’s younger sister, Faizah, who is ranked seventh in the U.S. in the sabre.

“I always tell people that she’s way more talented than I am; I just work harder than her,” Muhammad said, eliciting laughs. “I’m hoping that you guys see her in 2020.”

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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