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Tokyo Olympics have 3 months to decide virus impact, senior IOC member says

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TOKYO (AP) — Dick Pound, the longest-serving member of the IOC, estimates there’s a three-month window to decide the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, which are being threatened by the fast-spreading virus from China.

Pound, in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, did not sound alarmist. But he did speak frankly about the risks facing the Olympics, which open July 24.

Pound has been an International Olympic Committee member since 1978, 13 years longer than current President Thomas Bach.

“You could certainly go to two months out if you had to,” Pound said, which would mean putting off a decision until late May and hoping the virus is under control. “A lot of things have to start happening. You’ve got to start ramping up your security, your food, the Olympic Village, the hotels, The media folks will be in there building their studios.”

And if it got to the point of not going ahead, Pound speculated “you’re probably looking at a cancellation.”

“This is the new war and you have to face it. In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo, or not?’”

China on Tuesday reported 508 new cases and another 71 deaths, 68 of them in the central city of Wuhan, where the epidemic was first detected in December.

The updates bring mainland China’s totals to 77,658 cases and 2,663 deaths. South Korea now has the second-most cases in the world with 977, including 10 deaths.

Clusters of the illness are now appearing in the Middle East and Europe. This could signal a new stage in the spread of the virus with four deaths reported in Japan.

Pound encouraged athletes to keep training. About 11,000 are expected for the Olympics, and another 4,400 for the Paralympics, which open on Aug. 25.

“As far as we all know you’re going to be in Tokyo,” Pound said. “All indications are at this stage that it will be business as usual. So keep focused on your sport and be sure that the IOC is not going to send you into a pandemic situation.”

The modern Olympics dating from 1896 have only been cancelled during wartime, and faced boycotts in 1976 in Montreal, in 1980 in Moscow and 1984 in Los Angeles — all in Pound’s memory.

The Olympics in 1940 were to be in Tokyo, but were called off because of Japan’s war with China and World War II.

Pound called uncertainty a major problem and repeated the IOC’s stance — that it’s depending on consultations with the World Health Organization, a United Nations body, to make any move. So far, the games are on.

“It’s a big, big, big decision and you just can’t take it until you have reliable facts on which to base it,” Pound said.

He said whatever advice the IOC is now getting, “it doesn’t call for cancellation or postponement of the Olympics. You just don’t postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics. There’s so many moving parts, so many countries and different seasons, and competitive seasons, and television seasons. You can’t just say, we’ll do it in October.”

If changes have to be made, Pound said every option faced obstacles.

Pound said moving to another city seemed unlikely.

“To move the place is difficult because there are few places in the world that could think of gearing up facilities in that short time to put something on,” Pound said.

London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has suggested the British capital as an alternative. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike suggested that was an inappropriate offer, using the virus as political campaign fodder.

Pound said he would not favor a dispersal of events over various venues because that wouldn’t “constitute an Olympic Games. You’d end up with a series of world championships.”

He said it would be very difficult to spread around all these sports in a 17-day period with only a few months’ notice.

How about delaying for a year, but staying in Tokyo? Japan is officially spending $12.6 billion to organize the Olympics, although a national audit board says the country is spending twice that much.

“Then you have to ask if you can hold the bubble together for an extra year,” Pound said. “Then of course you have to fit all of this into the entire international sports schedule.”

Pound said the IOC has been building up an “emergency fund” for such circumstances, reported to be about $1 billion. That could fund international sports federations who depend on income from the IOC to operate — and the IOC itself.

“This would be what you normally call a force majeure,” said Pound, a Canadian lawyer by training, using the legal phrase for “unforeseeable circumstances.”

“It’s not an insurable risk and it’s not one that can be attributed to one or the other of the parties. So everybody takes their lumps. There would be a lack of revenue on the Olympic Movement side.”

Pound said the future of the Tokyo Games was largely out of the IOC’s hands, depending on the virus and if it abets.

“If it gets to be something like the Spanish Flu,” Pound said, referring to a deadly pandemic early in the 20th century that killed millions. “At that level of lethality, then everybody’s got to take their medicine.”

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MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Deajah Stevens, Olympic sprinter, suspended through Tokyo Games

Deajah Stevens
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Deajah Stevens, a U.S. Olympic 200m sprinter, was suspended through Aug. 15, 2021, for missing drug tests, ruling her out of the Tokyo Games unless she successfully appeals.

Stevens, who placed seventh in Rio, missed three drug tests in 2019, grounds for a suspension between one and two years.

The exact length depends on an athlete’s degree of fault and, with the timing in this case, determined whether she would be banned through the Olympics.

Full details of her case are here.

The 18-month ban was backdated to Feb. 17, the date that Stevens requested her case be expedited. Her last of three missed tests was Nov. 25.

Stevens’ lawyer requested the suspension be backdated to the third missed test, which would have kept her eligible for the Olympics, or the date of Stevens’ request for an expedited hearing on Feb. 17, which could have kept her Olympic eligible if the ban was closer to one year.

For Stevens’ second missed test, she did not hear door knocks from a back bedroom. The drug tester called her five times but never received an answer. Stevens said her phone was out of battery power.

For her last missed test, the drug tester again tried to call Stevens. But Stevens changed her phone number six weeks earlier, after somebody was harassing her and threatening her fiance’s life. She had not yet notified drug-testing authorities that she changed her number.

“Despite our sympathy for the athlete, we have not been satisfied on a balance of probability that her behavior was not negligent and did not cause or contribute to her failure to be available for testing,” a disciplinary tribunal found. “She already had missed two doping tests in the last six months. She should have been on red alert and conscious that she could not miss the next one.”

Stevens’ initial provisional suspension was announced May 1 ahead of a June 25 disciplinary tribunal hearing.

Stevens, 25, was disqualified from the 2019 U.S. Outdoor Championships 200m semifinals in her only outdoor meet of the year, according to World Athletics.

She ranked No. 3 in the U.S. in the 200m in 2017 (and placed fifth at the world championships), No. 31 in 2018 and No. 59 in 2019.

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Virtual figure skating competition offers glimpse of sport’s possible future

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It was early April. The 2020 World Figure Skating Championships had been canceled by Covid-19, abruptly ending last season. Rinks were closing down for health reasons. Some entire countries were on lockdown.

Anyone who has been around figure skating as long as Gale Tanger could see even then how difficult it would be to have any competitions the rest of 2020 if they required travel by athletes or officials, whether the events were international, national, regional or local.

Tanger, an international judge for 32 years, began looking for an alternative to give elite U.S. skaters left unmoored by the pandemic’s impact at least something that could feel like a competition, something to anchor a goal in the early part of the 2020-21 season.

So the Peggy Fleming Trophy became the first virtual event in the sport’s history.

“It worked!!!!!!!” an excited Tanger said in an email late Tuesday, after the judging of the competition was completed. “What an incredible leap for our sport. Obstacles have been removed, and a new highway has been paved.”

A 90-minute streamed video of the event will be available to the public beginning Friday at 7 p.m. EDT on the U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone video center. The question now is whether this concept can be expanded during the pandemic to make more competitions possible.

“Any time you experiment with something new, you always are paying attention to how it can be applied to other things – and for normal times, as well,” U.S. Figure Skating spokesman Michael Terry said. “The virtual concept has not yet been discussed for any other specific events, including the qualifying season (for the 2021 U.S. Championships).”

Tanger figured the Peggy Fleming Trophy was a good place to experiment. The event, which she and 1968 Olympic champion Fleming had created in 2018, already was an alternative to the usual competition format.

It has just one program, a three-and-a-half-minute freestyle in which there is heavy emphasis on artistry and musicality and significantly reduced weight on jumps. It allows men to compete against women and is easier to judge than an event using the International Judging System and ISU rules.

The third Peggy Fleming Trophy was supposed to take place July 1 at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, its home in 2018 and 2019. When it was clear by late April that doing it live would likely be impossible for public safety reasons, Tanger enlisted the help of U.S. Figure Skating and immediately began working through the logistics of doing it virtually.

After all, Tanger and her husband, Tom, who live in Wauwatosa, Wis., had been using Zoom to help with the virtual schooling of their grandchildren in Sydney, Australia, and she was using Facebook Live to judge off-ice competitions in Latin America. She thought there had to be a way to use such technology for a judged competition in which both athletes and judges could take part from their own rink or, in the case of the judges, their home or office.

Once the various parties were sufficiently convinced it could be done to post an online entry announcement, the 18-person field filled overnight.

Gale Tanger
Gale Tanger at the 2019 Peggy Fleming Trophy at the Broadmoor World Arena. (Courtesy Gale Tanger)

“I thought we may have found the Holy Grail,” Tanger said, referring to the way skaters responded to a solution to save at least this event.

“It’s so great that everyone associated with the event is trying to test the waters and see what is possible,” said 2018 Olympian Karen Chen, third in last year’s Peggy Fleming Trophy and a virtual contestant in the 2020 event.

This was the basic premise: each skater would perform a program at his or her convenience between July 8 and 10. He or she would submit video of the program, to be shot from a high center-ice position. Multiple attempts were permitted, but the video chosen had to be of a single complete attempt, with no editing.

The seven judges and technical specialist David Santee, all qualified to work international events, watched the videos from eight different places via Zoom at the same time Tuesday, as if they were in an arena. They scored on iPads, using the IJS software they have at live events, and they have taken a vow of secrecy about the results until the event is streamed.

Could it be more than a one-off? Probably not for more significant events like the Grand Prix series. The International Skating Union council will again discuss its fate for 2020 in early August. A decision is supposed to be made by Aug. 1 on Skate America, the series opener, scheduled Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

To the question of whether the ISU is looking at a virtual format as a possibility for some events this season, ISU vice-president Alexander Lakernik said in an email: “No… At least at the moment.”

Added Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee: “I didn’t know about the idea of having it (the Peggy Fleming Trophy) online this year, and I think it is a wonderful possibility to do it in this way in such a difficult moment. As to the possibility of using this format for other events this season, I have no answer. The matter has never been discussed so far.”

Chen, who has been training at the World Arena since late May, chose an expanded version of a short program to Katy Perry’s version of “Rise” that Drew Meekins had choreographed for her to use this season. She did three “takes,” with about 30 minutes between each, for an iPhone recording done by her boyfriend, Camden Pulkinen, the 2018 U.S. junior champion, who also competed. Another competitor, Andrew Torgashev, shot iPhone video of Chen as a backup.

(Defending champion Jason Brown heads the field, which includes 12 athletes who train at the World Arena. For a complete list of the competitors, now 10 women and seven men after Amber Glenn withdrew, click here.)

“I was quite happy with my first attempt, but I got nit-picky and ran two more,” Chen said. “I finally decided to use the third because it didn’t make sense to go with the first after all that effort.”

The limitations of iPhone video, where close-ups can lead to a blur from pixelization, meant about half the rink was visible on nearly all of Chen’s video. That obviously reduced the size of her image.

“For the most part, all the skaters’ videos were clear,” Tanger said.

Pulkinen, who competed in the first two editions of the Peggy Fleming Trophy (finishing second in 2018), also did three takes, using the third, as videographed by Torgashev. His performance, to “In This Shirt” by The Irrepressibles, enlarged on the new short program choreographed for him by Josh Farris.

“I tried to treat it as if each run-through was my only shot, the way it would be in a normal competition, instead of falling back on the mindset that if one was bad, I have multiple attempts,” Pulkinen said. “I felt the same sense of relief one would typically feel at the end of a competition.”

Pulkinen did not think it was impossible for a variation on this format to be used for more important events, perhaps with each competitor using a live feed and taking the ice one after another for a single attempt. It might require choreographic changes for skaters knowing they are not being judged on the view from several sets of eyes but on the view from a single camera angle.

“I’m keeping an open mind and taking this as, ‘Okay, this is a trial run for how video competitions may be, and maybe I learn how to choreograph something differently to appeal more to that specific camera more,’” Pulkinen said.

Such “virtually live” competitions would eventually depend on the ability of the ISU or USFS to ensure a high-quality, very reliable stream created with professional video equipment by a professional camera operator at the many rinks where skaters would perform. Given the money saved if there are no live Grand Prix or Junior Grand Prix events, arranging for such equipment might be money well spent to preserve some of the season.

“I think it would be very mentally challenging to do live feed competitions,” Chen said. “Part of competition is its whole environment: being with other skaters, feeling the pressure, having the adrenaline kick in when you get on the ice with people cheering.

“Letting go of that side of competition and embracing this new side will be quite challenging for people. I think it could work, but there will need to be a lot of experimentation.”

Over the weekend, Tanger judged a “live” off-line competition run by Argentina that had skaters from four countries. The marks were simple, on a scale of 1-to-10, but so was the execution of a concept that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago.

Now the Peggy Fleming Trophy has paved a few miles of a way for figure skating to travel the information highway.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

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