Tokyo Paralympics: Five storylines with one year to go

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Five Paralympic storylines, one year until the Tokyo Opening Ceremony on Aug. 25, 2020 …

1. Operation Gold in Full Effect
Tokyo marks the first Games since the U.S. made two major shifts toward equality between the Olympic and Paralympic Movements. More recently, the U.S. Olympic Committee changed its name to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in June. The USOPC had managed Olympic and Paralympic sport at the national level since the founding of U.S. Paralympics in 2001, but its name had not reflected it.

In September 2018, the USOPC made its Paralympic medal bonuses equal to those for Olympic medals, increasing Paralympic payouts as much as 400 percent. The move was retroactive for the PyeongChang Winter Games. U.S. Paralympians now receive $37,500 for each gold medal, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze.

2. The Rise of Daniel Romanchuk
Romanchuk had just turned 18 when he made his Paralympic debut in Rio, getting eliminated in the heats of all his events — 100m, 400m, 800m, 1500m and 5000m. He has since come to dominate the marathon, winning the wheelchair division in Boston, Chicago, London and New York City in the last year.

Romanchuk, who was born with spina bifida, is expected to enter a range of distances in Tokyo, given he also broke the 800m and 5000m world records in his classification last year. He could rival the versatility of Tatyana McFadden, who won three golds from 400m to 1500m in 2012 and four from 400m through 1500m in Rio.

“He has everything in his locker and has mastered all of it,” Brit David Weir, who owns Paralympic medals from every distance from 100m through the marathon, said after Romanchuk won the London Marathon on April 28.

3. Crossover Athletes
Some of the U.S.’ biggest recent Paralympic stars pulled double duty, earning medals at the Summer and Winter Games (Oksana Masters, McFadden). A few more recent Winter Paralympic champions are trying summer sports.

Josh Sweeney, a hockey player, competed in the Paralympic triathlon test event in Tokyo on Sunday. Jack Wallace, another hockey player, is competing this week at the world sprint kayak championships in Hungary.

Then there’s Kendall Gretsch, a 2018 gold medalist in biathlon and cross-country skiing who does triathlons. Gretsch is actually a three-time world champion triathlete, but her classification was not added to the Paralympic program until after the sport’s debut in Rio.

4. The Return of Russia
Russia was reinstated by the International Paralympic Committee in March following a two-and-a-half year ban for its doping problems. The IPC was adamant then that Russia’s status could be revoked again with any more slip-ups, but so far that has not happened.

“The Russian Paralympic Committee continues to fully cooperate with the IPC regarding the implementation of the post-reinstatement criteria,” IPC spokesperson Craig Spence said in an email Tuesday. “The RPC is in good standing with the IPC.”

Russia was barred from the Rio Games, four years after placing third in the total medal standings in London. Some Russians were allowed to compete in PyeongChang as neutral athletes, but, unlike the PyeongChang Olympics, that did not include a hockey team.

5. Eye on the Medal Standings
China has come to dominate the Paralympics, topping the total medal standings in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 by at least 40 medals each time, thanks in large part to its prowess in swimming and track and field, where buckets of medals are awarded.

Russia’s return should shake things up. The Russians increased their medal count at every Paralympics since separating from former Soviet Republics starting in 1996. They made it as high as No. 3 in the total medal standings in 2012 before being barred from Rio.

The U.S., meanwhile, was fourth in total medals in 2012 and 2016 and has not been in the top two since it hosted in Atlanta in 1996. Great Britain, Ukraine and Australia are the other Paralympic powers.

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MORE: Tokyo Olympics: 20 storylines with one year to go

Beach volleyball player’s dog becomes social media sensation

Mathias Berntsen
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Norwegian beach volleyball player Mathias Berntsen‘s dog, Kiara, captivated social media this weekend.

A video of Kiara peppering with Berntsen and a pair across the net on a grass field spread from Berntsen’s Instagram across platforms. Kiara now has 12,000 Instagram followers, more than twice the total of Berntsen.

Berntsen, 24, is one half of Norway’s second-best beach volleyball team.

He and partner Hendrik Mol are ranked 45th in the world and well outside the Tokyo Olympic picture (24 teams go to the Games), but could get in the mix depending on how qualification is amended once sports resume.

Berntsen and his cousin Mol are part of a group called the Beach Volley Vikings. Mol’s younger brother, Anders, and family friend Christian Sorum are the world’s top-ranked team (profiled here).

MORE: Beach volleyball players fly to Australia, learn event is canceled

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FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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