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‘Worst situation ever in Paralympic movement,’ IPC president says before Rio Games

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The Paralympics leadership hoped Rio de Janeiro would build on the success of London. Instead, it’s about limiting any damage.

When the curtain comes up for 4,300 athletes at Wednesday’s opening ceremony, almost everything will be scaled back: venues, seating, and staffing. Paralympic officials say that no sports or nations have been cut out, but the “athlete experience” could suffer.

Only a last-minute Brazilian government bailout has helped save the event from a shortfall in the local, privately funded operating budget.

“This is the worst situation that we’ve ever found ourselves in at Paralympic movement,” Philip Craven, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, told The Associated Press. “We were aware of difficulties, but we weren’t aware it was as critical as this.”

Rio organizers limped through the troubled Olympics, buffeted by empty seats, green water in swimming pools, and the absence of an Olympic “feel.” Behind the scenes there were no-show volunteers, street crime and traffic chaos.

Craven said he’s been assured there are “sufficient resources to put on a very good games.”

Here’s a look at the Sept. 7-18 Paralympics featuring athletes from 161 nations, and an added refugee team:

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FINANCING

The Rio Olympic organizing committee promised to use only private money in its 7.4 billion real ($2.3 billion) operating budget. But Craven said local organizers didn’t tell him until about 5 1/2 weeks ago that there was no money left to run the Paralympics.

They blamed it on slow ticket and sponsorship sales, and the rising cost to run the Olympics.

“That’s been a problem with the organizing committee — not knowing information,” Craven said.

To salvage the event, the Rio city government came up with 150 million reals ($46.3 million) in financing, and the federal government has guaranteed another 100 million reals ($30.7 million). This comes in the form of “sponsorships” from three state-run entities including the scandal-plagued oil company Petrobras.

A local prosecutor argued unsuccessfully that the privately-run organizing committee needed to open its books to justify the government bailout.

The influx of public money is still less than half of the $170 million that Rio organizers promised for Paralympic funding in their 2009 bid to the International Olympic Committee.

The bailout comes as Rio hospitals are understaffed, and some school classes have been suspended because teachers are staying away to protest delayed payments.

The Brazilian newspaper Estadao reported last month that the top eight executives of the Rio organizing committee were each paid an average of $25,000 per month in 2015.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach flatly denied public money was being used to patch up the local budget.

“There is no public money in the organization of these Olympic Games,” Bach said the day before the Olympics closed — and a day after the city hall financing was announced. “The budget of the organizing committee is privately financed. There is no public funding for this.”

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NO SPORTS CUT

Paralympic organizers say there have been no cuts to the sports, all will be contested as planned, and no delegations were forced to drop out.

“All the teams will be here,” Craven said.

All of Russia’s disabled athletes have been banned from the Paralympics for alleged involvement in Russia’s doping scandal. The ruling was upheld by the Swiss-basedCourt of Arbitration for Sport.

Paralympic organizers originally planned for 4,350 athletes. Paralympic spokesman Craig Spence said all of the 267 slots allotted to Russian athletes could not be filled, dropping the athlete total to 4,300.

He said athletes were “ring-fenced” from the cuts, but acknowledged they’ll still feel them.

“The service levels will be the same, but probably the athlete experience compared to previous games will suffer a little bit,” Spence said.

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TICKETS

Organizers hope to sell just over 2 million of the 2.5 million tickets available. Tickets are priced at 10 reals ($3), with some fans buying tickets as a cheap way to see the Olympic Park with no guarantee they will actually attend a sports events.

Organizers say sales have soared in the last two weeks with sales best for track and field, swimming, wheelchair basketball, five-a-side football, and seated volleyball.

Most of the events will be held in the Olympic Park in suburban Barra da Tijuca. The second Olympic cluster in Deodoro has been scaled back and will host only three sports — shooting, seven-player football and equestrian events. Wheelchair fencing has been moved from Deodoro to the Olympic Park.

Paralympic officials say if 1.8 million are sold it would be the second-best selling Paralympics after London four years ago. Beijing eight years ago drew 3.3 million, but only 1.7 million tickets were sold.

“There are not going to be empty stadiums,” Craven said. “Don’t worry about it.”

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SOME STARS

Here are some to watch .

Two visually impaired athletes — Jason Smyth of Ireland and Omara Durand of Cuba — are likely to be the fastest man and woman over 100 meters. American Tatyana McFadden is hoping to become the first track and field athlete to win seven golds at one Paralympic Games. 74-year-old Libby Kosmala of Australia is competing in her 12th Paralympics; Jonas Jacobsson, 51, of Sweden in his 10th — both in shooting. Siamand Rahman of Iran will try to become the first Paralympian to lift 300 kilos in powerlifting. Zahra Nemati, who was the flagbearer for Iran in the Rio Olympics, is the first Iranian woman to win gold in either the Olympics or Paralympics — she won gold in archery in London’s Paralympics. Brazilian swimmer Daniel Dias, who is seen as the Michael Phelps of the Paralympics, won four gold medals in Beijing and six in London, where he also set four world records. American Matt Stutzman is an armless archer who holds a world record for long-distance accuracy.

Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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