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Sunny Olympic host Sochi turns into World Cup playground

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Warm weather, beaches, amusement parks.

It’s not exactly what Australian fan Adam McKinley expected to find when he decided to make the trip to Russia for the World Cup.

But that’s exactly what he got in Sochi, the city introduced to the world as a winter destination during the Olympics four years ago, with its coastal location on the Black Sea and its majestic snow-capped peaks a short distance away.

“Whenever I think of Russia, I picture something like cold Siberia. I picture, like, real cold stuff,” McKinley said. “I’ve been blown away by this. We even went for a swim and it was lovely. It was just nice and warm. We’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

Sochi wasn’t so cold during the Olympics, either, with temperatures frequently climbing into the mid-50s in the Olympic Park. The chillier mountains are roughly an hour’s drive away.

But in the summer, the snow is replaced by sun, lots of it, as Russia’s seaside playground explodes into a scene more akin to Southern California or Miami Beach than Siberia.

“The moment we saw Peru was going to play in Sochi, we wanted to come here,” said Peru supporter Luis Medina, one of the thousands of World Cup fans who have come to the city. “We knew this was going to be the place to be.”

Even the teams based in Sochi were taking full advantage of the region’s attractions. Brazil was feeling right at home, enjoying the warm temperatures and a private beach at the team’s hotel in possibly the closest setting to what it had back home before traveling to Russia.

“We are having lunch and breakfast with a view of the sea. That’s a plus for us,” goalkeeper Alisson said shortly after Brazil arrived.

The Brazilians fought hard to secure Sochi as their base. The Austrian federation initially picked the five-star hotel where Brazil is staying, but luckily for the Brazilians, Austria did not end up qualifying for the World Cup.

Germany stayed in Sochi during the Confederations Cup last year, but this time it chose a different location in part because it said it couldn’t secure a proper private training field. After the opening loss to Mexico, some local media questioned whether the decision not to return to Sochi played a part in the team’s disappointing performance.

Poland also is based in Sochi. On a day off, the team visited the city’s dolphin park, one of the most famous in the region.

The micro-district of Adler, where the Olympic Park sits and the World Cup matches are played, is a hub of activities catering to tourists of all ages and tastes.

Many gather at the rock-covered beach by Fisht Stadium, which is hosting six World Cup matches, including one in the round of 16 and another in the quarterfinals.

But if sunbathing isn’t high on the agenda, there is plenty more to do.

Sochi Park, known as the Russian Disneyland, is walking distance from the stadium. Based on local fairy tales, it’s the country’s first modern theme park — and one of the biggest.

It was mostly empty during the Olympics, but four years later it has been popular among World Cup fans. Officials estimate the tournament has added about 2,000 people a day to the park, which annually receives 1 million visitors.

“It’s a shame we can’t stay longer and enjoy more of the park because we have to go to the game,” Panama supporter Nathalie Nielsen Atencio said.

The park includes a “roller-coaster” restaurant, with orders sliding down to customers on metal tracks. It’s believed to be the only restaurant of its type in Russia, and one of nine in the world.

Also near the park is the Sochi Autodrom, which hosts Formula One races but is open to people wanting guided tours and even a chance — for a price — to drive the circuit.

“There are so many things to do in Sochi,” said Alexey Titov, who is in charge of the company that organizes the Russian Grand Prix and operates the track. “It has developed greatly in the past four years since the Olympics have gone. You can see it has changed massively. This place went from a swamp in 2008 to a thriving park with restaurants, food, activities, things to do.”

By the track there’s also a go-karting circuit, and the remaining Olympic venues offer indoor sports like tennis, skating and hockey.

Sochi’s downtown is some 20 miles from the Olympic park, but activities there also revolve around the waterfront, including a lengthy promenade of storefronts, souvenir stands and water-related activities connecting the heart of the city with the seaport where the Fan Fest is taking place.

Beach clubs playing a mix of pop hits from Europe and the United States are mixed with more family-oriented places to enjoy the sun, like waterparks with slides and splash-pads on the shore of the Black Sea.

The train line connecting Adler and Sochi runs mostly along the shore and is filled with small pockets of land teeming with beachgoers.

All those waterfront activities don’t include the resorts of the Krasnaya Polyana mountain cluster 30 miles inland, where the Alpine events of the Winter Olympics were held. They offer a summer attraction for those not as interested in the beach.

Martin Fasth was visiting from Sweden for the World Cup and was impressed with all the options.

“We kind of expected something better than Sweden,” he said, “but not something this nice.”

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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

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