Nick Zaccardi

OlympicTalk Editor

Tour de France, living up to wide-open billing, saving its best for last

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NIMES, France (AP) — A Tour de France jam-packed with unexpected plot twists is saving its biggest surprise for last.

With six riders within reach of the podium heading into the toughest final stages in the Alps, the race that resumes Tuesday after the final off-day is tantalizingly poised.

Furious racing over the first 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) through Belgium and France and the uncertain outcome ahead of the grand finale in Paris are conspiring to deliver the most engrossing Tour in recent memory.

Like a summer rain, the suspense of still not knowing who will win with just six of the 21 stages remaining is exquisitely refreshing for cycling’s greatest race after years of implacable domination by the uber-rich, super-calculating British Ineos team, formerly Sky.

“Nobody is really controlling the race as such. It’s way more exciting but it’s more like chess in another sense. It’s brilliant fun,” Ineos team boss Dave Brailsford said on Monday’s rest day. “We’ve sat here on the second day of a Grand Tour so many times and people say we’ve closed the race down and it’s not been exciting. That’s not been the case this time. It’s fun to be involved in one of most exciting editions in a long time.”

Either one of Geraint Thomas, Ineos’ struggling defending champion, or Thibaut Pinot, the French climber who rebounded in the Pyrenees from what had seemed a decisive loss of time on the flat before the mountains, could still ride up the Champs-Elysees in the iconic yellow jersey on Sunday.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

A Pinot victory would trigger delirium across France, which has had no homegrown champion to celebrate since Bernard Hinault in 1985 and suffered the indignity of many years when Lance Armstrong and other dopers hijacked the race that is as much part of the French national identity as romance and the baguette.

But Thomas’ Colombian teammate Egan Bernal or dark horses Steven Kruijswijk from the Netherlands and German rider Emanuel Buchmann could put French champagne back on ice.

Making few waves and avoiding the misfortunes, mistakes and big off-color days that sank other riders’ title hopes, they’re very much in the podium picture. But their stealthy consistency could hit its limits in the Alps, where conservative riding might not be enough to win if Pinot and others attack, as expected.

Just 39 seconds — practically nothing in cycling, where riders often lose minutes when they wilt on big climbs — separate Thomas, in second place overall, from Buchmann, in sixth. Kruijswijk is third, Pinot fourth and Bernal fifth.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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Mack Horton applauded in athlete dining hall, warned by FINA for Sun Yang protest

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GWANGJU, South Korea (AP) — Mack Horton walked into the dining room at the athletes’ village and the applause began. It swelled into a standing ovation for the Australian swimmer after his personal protest against China’s Sun Yang at the world championships.

Horton refused to step onto the podium or shake Sun’s hand after losing to Sun in the 400-meter freestyle final on Sunday night.

“Gutsy move, for sure,” U.S. backstroker Matt Grevers said Monday.

Horton is angry that Sun, who served a three-month doping suspension in 2014, is being allowed to compete in Gwangju before he faces a Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing in September that could potentially end his career.

The World Anti-Doping Agency is challenging a decision by FINA, swimming’s world governing body, merely to warn Sun over incidents during a doping control team’s attempts to take blood and urine samples at his home in China last September.

“I don’t feel like it really hurt Sun Yang,” Grevers said of Horton’s protest. “I think it just let him know that, ‘Hey, it’s a weird incident and until it gets uncovered, we don’t fully trust you.’”

Horton is the only swimmer to beat Sun in the 400 free in the last eight years, taking gold in the event at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where the Aussie also refused to shake Sun’s hand. Horton went further at a news conference later, calling Sun a “drug cheat” to his face.

That prompted China’s swimming federation to demand an apology, but none was forthcoming.

FINA said later Monday that it sent a warning letter to Horton and Swimming Australia.

“While FINA respects the principle of freedom of speech, it has to be conducted in the right context,” a press release stated. “Athletes and their entourages are aware of their responsibilities to respect FINA regulations and not use FINA events to make personal statements or gestures.”

SWIM WORLDS: TV Schedule | Results

With such history between the two, American Lilly King said other swimmers were waiting for the awards ceremony Sunday “to see what was going to happen.”

Horton stood behind the podium when given his silver medal. He didn’t join Sun and bronze medalist Gabriele Detti of Italy for the traditional photos on the top spot afterward.

“I don’t think I need to say anything,” Horton said Sunday. “His actions and how it has been handled speaks louder than anything I could say.”

Sun said Sunday he was aware Horton has a problem with him.

“Disrespecting me was OK, but disrespecting China was unfortunate,” Sun said through a translator. “I feel sorry about that.”

King, an outspoken critic of doping, was in the dining hall when Horton arrived back at the village.

“It was pretty great to see the athletes united on his stance and supporting him as well,” she said. “I don’t think anyone at FINA is going to stand up for the athletes, so the athletes have to stand up for themselves.”

Horton’s teammate, Mitch Larkin, voiced a familiar concern among swimmers about a clean playing field.

“You can never be confident,” he said. “You’ve got to trust the authorities, but with what’s going on in sport these days it’s hard to be 100% sure.”

Horton didn’t alert the Australian coaching staff of his podium plans in advance, according to head coach Jacco Verhaeren.

“I understand him very much,” the coach said. “You can only respect him for what he does.”

Detti told Italian media that Horton approached him before the medals ceremony and asked if he would be willing to stand behind rather than on the podium while receiving his award.

Detti declined, explaining that he worked hard to earn a medal and wanted to enjoy it.

None of the anti-Sun sentiment goes over well in China, where he is viewed as a star and his fans demand respect for him via social media. A large contingent of Chinese fans cheered and shouted as Sun made his victory parade around the pool. Banners featuring his face hung from the stands.

Larkin estimated that 99% percent of swimmers at the meet back Horton.

“He’s not really standing alone,” Larkin said. “What he did was certainly brave and gutsy, and I have a lot of respect for him for doing that.”

Not everyone agreed with Horton, however.

“That’s his opinion, not mine,” said British swimmer James Guy, who described himself as a close friend of Horton’s.

Guy was the leading qualifier going into the 200 free semifinals Monday night; Sun was second-fastest.

American backstroker Ryan Murphy said he didn’t consider Horton’s protest to be directed at Sun “but more so standing against FINA and WADA for their response to these things.

Men’s 400m Freestyle
Gold: Sun Yang (CHN) — 3:42.44
Silver: Mack Horton (AUS) — 3:43.17
Bronze: Gabriele Detti (ITA) — 3:43.23
4. Danas Rapsys (LTU) — 3:43.50
5. Marco De Tullio (ITA) — 3:44.86
6. Jack McLoughlin (AUS) — 3:45.19
7. Ji Xinjie (CHN) — 3:45.64
8. Zane Grothe (USA) — 3:45.78

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MORE: Katie Ledecky faces toughest tests yet at swim worlds

Kelly Slater has an Olympic decision to make

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Surfing icon Kelly Slater is in great position to qualify for his sport’s Olympic debut in 2020, but he’s undecided about making a required event appearance this summer to stay eligible.

The top two U.S. male surfers in this season’s World Surf League final standings are in line to qualify for the Olympics.

Slater, a 47-year-old, 11-time world champion, is ranked third among Americans through six of 11 events, but the No. 2, two-time world champion John John Florence, is likely out for the rest of the season after an ACL tear.

If Slater keeps up his current pace of results, he will pass Florence’s point total by the end of the season in December.

“It appears as though I have to make a decision [on the Olympics] sooner than that,” Slater said after being eliminated from South Africa’s J-Bay Open in ninth place on Wednesday. “I’ve really got to figure out all the factors around that and make a decision in the next few weeks.”

Slater’s concern is the ISA World Surfing Games in Miyazaki, Japan, in September, an event that top Olympic hopefuls on the WSL tour are required to attend, barring illness or injury.

“I think I have to surf that event, and if I don’t, it may disqualify me,” he said (the International Surfing Association, the sport’s governing body, later confirmed it would disqualify him). “But I’m not sure if I want to go to Japan and compete right now.”

The ISA Games take place in the week between the next two WSL events, the latter hosted by Slater’s Surf Ranch wave pool in California.

“I’m not exactly sure how I feel about the Olympics right now, anyways,” said Slater, who last year said he was “50-50” on the Olympics when noting his differing thoughts on the qualification process and venue. “The point is, I’m not really focusing on it at this point. I’m trying to get myself back in the flow of the tour.”

Slater missed 13 tour stops between the 2017 and 2018 seasons after breaking a foot and having multiple surgeries.

He finished fifth, third, ninth, ninth and ninth in his five most recent events to get into Olympic qualifying position. He expected more after placing third in the two contests he entered healthy last season. Slater said he competed at J-Bay after straining his back “really bad” on Sunday, keeping him from surfing the three days before the contest.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, at 48, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, via the OlyMADMen.

“Right now in my head the focus is more on this tour than it is on the Olympics, but we’ll see,” he said. “I was starting this year with a lot of pressure on myself to try and make the Olympic team and think, maybe I’ll retire there next year and that will be the end for me. It put so much pressure on the start of the year for me that I didn’t feel like I could freely compete. It was putting too many things in my head. I needed to let that take a backseat and not worry about it. I’m just not really thinking about it a lot.”

MORE: Top U.S. surfer has links to Egg McMuffin, Guinness World Record holder

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