As Paralympics begin, athletes want progress after London 2012 success

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — At the 2012 London Paralympics, athletes competed in venues full of spectators who cheered from the first event to the last. Lines for tickets extended out the doors.

“Everybody in the crowd was legitimately excited,” said U.S. swimmer Brad Snyder, who won two gold medals in London. “It wasn’t production. It wasn’t any magic.”

London set a new standard for Paralympic attendance and organization. Four years later, concerns over budget problems and slow ticket sales have plagued the Rio Games. The athletes who will march in Wednesday night’s opening ceremony at historic Maracana Stadium said their performances won’t be affected, and they hope the new, higher profile of the Paralympics won’t be either.

“We want progress,” Snyder said. “We want to say that we’ve taken a step forward.”

Rio Paralympics organizers have seen an uptick in ticket sales in recent days, announcing Tuesday that 1.6 million tickets have been sold. Yet concerns about budget and lags in preparation linger. On Tuesday, workers still were paving parts of the plaza around the Olympic Tennis Centre in Rio’s Olympic Park.

“I don’t want the movement to plateau or become stagnant,” said U.S. wheelchair basketball player Desiree Miller, who also competed in London. “I want it to catch fire after Rio so by the time Tokyo comes around there’s not a person in the States or a person in the world that doesn’t know who a Paralympian is.”

Organizers in London, in the country that gave birth to the Paralympics after World War II, sold a record 2.7 million tickets. Miller said that during the 2012 Games, people on the streets of London knew who she was and what sport she played.

The spotlight followed her home to Wisconsin. Customers recognize her at the sporting goods store where she works.

“They’ll use the word Paralympian,” Miller said. “Just for the public to use that word is huge — that people know the difference.”

NBC, which broadcast six hours of coverage from the London Paralympics, is planning more than 70 hours of coverage on NBC, NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

“We see how much work we’re putting into it, but it’s nice for the rest of the world to see,” Irish cyclist Peter Ryan said.

Snyder said that if people tune in to the games and fans haven’t shown up to watch an event live, they might be more likely to change the channel.

London’s ticket sales surpassed the 2008 Beijing Games by almost 1 million.

When it was revealed in mid-August that only 300,000 tickets of the available 2.5 million for the Rio Games had been purchased, Greg Nugent, the brand, marketing and culture director for London 2012, launched an online crowdfunding campaign to raise money to send Brazilian children to the competition.

As of Tuesday, $200,000 has been donated, according to a post on the campaign site. American wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden, Coldplay and Prince Harry have been among the donors.

“For (kids) to see, ‘They’re in wheelchairs and they can do this. Or, they don’t have a leg and they do this, then I guess I can, too,'” said Abby Dunkin, who is on the U.S. wheelchair basketball team in Rio. “It’s more than just playing our game. It’s more about the movement and educating everyone outside.”

Canadian rower Andrew Todd said that while the Paralympics initially focused on participation, the event has shifted to have a stronger competitive spirit.

“The lay person’s perspective of Paralympics is, ‘Oh it’s great that people swim. That’s neat,'” Snyder said. “When you actually see it, you see how intense these athletes are. When you see how much a person with no legs can bench press or squat, it really is quite impressive.

“We’ve known all along the power of the Paralympic movement, but London was the first time it got shown to the community in a really big way, not only from a production standpoint, from a spectator standpoint.”

MORE: Paralympic broadcast schedule

Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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