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U.S. swim coach leads calls for backup plan for Olympic open-water venue

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TOKYO (AP) — The IOC moved the Tokyo Olympic marathons and race walks out of the Japanese capital to avoid the stifling heat and humidity.

Now some swimmers and an 11,000-member coaching body are asking that something similar should be done with the open-water swimming venue in Tokyo Bay.

Known as the “Odaiba Marine Park,” the water temperatures there were near danger levels in test events this summer for open-water swimming and triathlon. E. coli levels also plague the urban venue, and athletes have complained about the odors coming from the small inlet.

“Here’s the reality,” Catherine Kase, who coaches open water for the United States Olympic team, said in an email to the Associated Press. “If a marathoner faints or passes out, they may get a few bumps and bruises. If the same thing happens to an open-water swimmer, the result could be lethal.”

Tokyo’s heat again is the main problem.

Water temperatures in the venue this summer were very warm, climbing one day to 86.9 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s barely under the limit of 87.8 set by swimming’s world governing body FINA. The temperatures were consistently in the 84-86 range.

FINA rules specify that the race will be shortened or canceled if temperatures go over the limit.

FINA rules read: “All open-water swims’ alternative plans should be made in case environmental factors make the swim unsafe forcing it to be canceled or curtailed.”

Kase added. “We would like to push for a viable back-up plan. The straightforward answer is that we are not comfortable with the Odaiba venue.”

Kase noted that U.S. swimmers are advised against participating if temperatures exceed 85. She also said U.S. swimmers can still choose to swim “and will likely feel pressure to do so” at big events like the Olympics.

“Our athletes shouldn’t have to worry about health concerns as they’re preparing to compete in the race of their lives,” Kase wrote.

The venue also has water quality issues including E. coli bacteria and problems with water transparency. Tokyo organizers say bacteria levels fall within “agreed limits,” on most days, though rainfall exacerbates the problem.

John Leonard, the executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, was even more emphatic about a move and placed much of the blame on FINA.

“We support a change in venue,” he said in an email to AP. “The ASCA position is always to err on the side of safety for the athletes. FINA talks about safety and then does the opposite and puts athletes in harm’s way.”

FINA and local organizers say there is no “B Plan.”

The IOC promised last month there would be no more venue changes. It made this pledge after angering Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who strongly opposed moving the marathons out of Tokyo to the norther city of Sapporo.

The IOC said the decision was made, primarily to consider athletes who must run in the heat. But Koike’s allies characterized it as “an IOC-first decision, not an athletes-first decision.”

Cornel Marculescu, the executive director of FINA, spoke cautiously in an interview with AP.

Asked about the water temperatures at the venue, Marculescu replied: “I don’t want to comment,” he said, and suggested that elaborating could cause “problems.”

“This is what it is,” he added. “We check the quality of the water, we check the temperature all the time.”

Marculescu and local organizers say race times could to be moved up to very early in the morning, hoping to beat the heat. That was also an early strategy for the marathons and race walks before they were moved.

Athletes in outdoor water events at the Rio Olympics faced severe pollution in venues for rowing, sailing, canoeing, open-water swimming, and triathlon. But heat was not an issue.

“We are following up with a company there (in Japan),” Marculescu said, “like we have done in Rio — the same story — with an official government company. We are looking at water temperatures, the quality of the water and all these kinds of things.”

Water temperature was linked to the death of American swimmer Fran Crippen in 2010 at a distance swim in the United Arab Emirates. The autopsy concluded his death was from drowning and heat exhaustion and included the possibility of a heart abnormality.

It was the first competitive death in FINA’s history, and much of the blame was aimed at the swim body.

The United States and Canada both withdrew their swimmers from an open-water race in October in Doha, Qatar. The race took place in the same body of water where Crippen died. Temperatures were again reported right at the FINA limit, and some reports said they were slightly above the limit.

In an email, the Canadian Olympic Committee did not address the water issue specifically but said, “we remain confident that the organizing committee and the IOC will take every precaution to ensure that the games are held safely and successfully.”

Fernando Possenti, the open-water coach for the Brazilian Olympic team, said athletes need to deal with the environment and not waste time complaining about it.

“Program yourself, adapt your athletes to this kind of condition,” Possenti said in an email to AP. “This particular sport contemplates direct contact with nature and its variables. Heat and humidity are two of them.”

The Odaiba venue was picked partly because it offers picturesque 180-degree views of the skyscrapers that hug Tokyo Bay and the bridges that cross it.

In Tokyo, to counter E. coli levels, organizers have installed underwater screens that work as a filter. E. coli was within agreed limits on all but one day in test events this summer.

But the screens also appeared to drive up water temperatures, and organizers plan to install triple screens for the Olympics.

In a statement, Tokyo spokesman Masa Takaya said, “we will consider operating methods that can help suppress water temperatures, such as allowing the underwater screens to float, and opening them when the weather is good.”

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Penny Oleksiak edges Simone Manuel, Regan Smith sizzles again in Knoxville

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Penny Oleksiak and Simone Manuel nearly duplicated their Olympic gold-medal tie. The Canadian Oleksiak edged Manuel by .03 in the 100m freestyle at a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday night.

Oleksiak clocked 53.41 seconds, coming back from .37 behind Manuel at the 50-meter mark. The two tied for the Rio Olympic title in an Olympic record 52.70 seconds four years ago. Oleksiak was the surprise, a 16-year-old who came into the Games ranked eighth in the world for the year.

Since, Manuel swept the 2017 and 2019 World titles. Oleksiak was sixth at 2017 Worlds and withdrew before the 100m free at 2019 Worlds. She ranked 21st in the world last year. Oleksiak’s time Sunday was her fastest since 2017.

Full Knoxville meet results are here. The Pro Series’ next stop is Des Moines from March 4-7.

In other events Sunday, world-record holder Regan Smith won the 200m backstroke in 2:05.94, the fastest time ever outside of a national championships or major international meet. Smith, 17, achieved the same feat on Saturday in the 100m back, where she also broke the world record at last summer’s worlds.

Madisyn Cox won a matchup of the three fastest U.S. women in the 200m individual medley in 2019. She clocked 2:09.88, beating Alex Walsh by a half-second and Melanie Margalis by .54.

It was Cox’s fastest time since she took bronze at the 2017 World Championships. She missed the 2019 Worlds after failing a 2018 drug test over what she said was a contaminated multivitamin.

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Mikaela Shiffrin among favorites eliminated early in parallel giant slalom

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Mikaela Shiffrin was upset in the round of 16 of the first World Cup parallel giant slalom by unheralded Frenchwoman Clara Direz, who went on to earn her first win on Sunday.

Shiffrin had the fastest qualifying time but was bounced in the second round of head-to-head racing in Sestriere by Direz. Direz, 24, came into the day with a best career finish of seventh.

Direz was 16th-fastest in qualifying, 1.02 seconds behind Shiffrin combining times from two runs. Direz edged Shiffrin by .13 in their head-to-head run. Shiffrin appeared to be at a disadvantage being put on the red course, which produced just three winners among 20 one-run matchups.

“It is fun; I think I like the parallel GS actually more than the parallel slalom, but it’s a little bit difficult,” Shiffrin said. “I think there’s still a lot of work we have to do, and FIS [the International Ski Federation] has to do to really make the race as even as it can be because for sure you can see, there’s always a faster course. But today it’s like they’re not even the same course at all. Especially in the last four, five gates on the blue course, you can even see just looking up the hill that it’s straighter than the red course.

“Today I would say it’s a day where the luck [of which course you draw randomly] really plays a role.”

Direz eventually beat Austrian Elisa Moerzinger in the final. Direz was on the blue course for three of her four one-run rounds. Full results are here.

Higher-ranked racers used to be have their choice of courses in the parallel format.

“Maybe that wasn’t fair, either, but I think there must be a way to make it something that is more even, but at the same time, yeah, I don’t really have the answers on how to do that, either,” Shiffrin said. “It’s still in its infancy, this event.”

Shiffrin has a track record of success in parallel slaloms and similar city events, winning five of her last six starts. But the parallel GS proved problematic for the world’s best in slalom.

Swiss Wendy Holdener and Slovakian Petra Vlhova were also eliminated before the quarterfinals after being second- and third-fastest in qualifying. Holdener was also on the red course. Vlhova lost in the round of 32, when skiers were taking runs on both the blue and red courses.

Sestriere marked the last weekend of technical races (slaloms/giant slaloms) until mid-February. The next three weekends feature downhills and super-Gs. Shiffrin is expected to travel to Bansko, Bulgaria, for the first set on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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